How Salesforce got its developer conference right, while Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and Google lost their way

Salesforce made developers and admins the stars at TrailheaDX 2019. Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook failed to do the same at their developer conferences.
Written by Bill Detwiler, Contributor

In the past few weeks, four tech heavyweights have held their 2019 developer conferences: Facebook F8, Google I/O, Microsoft Build, and Apple WWDC. Companies have historically used these events to celebrate their existing developers, bring new coders into the fold, and outline their platform roadmap for the coming year. Recently however, these events have more to do with product announcements and corporate vision statements than coding.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's efforts to address Facebook's privacy problems during the opening F8 keynote overshadowed any of the Messenger, PyTorch 1.1, or Oculus for Business announcements made during the conference.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai opened I/O by outlining the company's AI and ML strategy. Only during the second, after-lunch "developer keynote" did Thomas Kurian, Google Cloud CEO, talk about the expansion of Android Jetpack and what the company is doing to encourage the use of the Kotlin programming language.


Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at Build 2019

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella used the Build keynote to outline the company's strategy for cloud and Microsoft Azure, AI and Cognitive Services, and Office 365. During the conference, Mary Jo Foley was able to get some information about Microsoft's plans for Windows apps, but as Larry Dignan wrote in his analysis of Build 2019, "Windows is downplayed, but many Microsoft developers deal with creating applications for it every day."

Apple CEO Tim Cook and company spent most of the two-and-a-half-hour WWDC 2019 keynote announcing new features for its five operating systems, showing slick product promo videos, and launching a redesigned and massively-overpriced Mac Pro. The Swift, RealityKit, and ARKit 3 announcements went by so quickly, they seemed like an afterthought. And if you're thinking, "Wait a minute Bill, OS feature announcements are aimed at developers," I encourage you to read Adrian Kingsley-Hughes' take on the WWDC iOS announcements. As he wrote, "Every iOS release seems to signal the end of the line for a number of really good iOS apps. Sure, it's nice for those features to be baked directly into the OS, but it's also a big shame for the developers who have put their heart and soul into a project."


Apple CEO Tim Cook at WWDC 2019

Given all the evidence that the real audience for these developer conference keynotes are analysts, consumers, and the tech press, it's not surprising that Larry Dignan and Mary Jo Foley recently asked the question, "Have developer conferences jumped the shark and forgotten about developers?"

I think the answer is a resounding yes...for all but one of the recent developer events ZDNet and TechRepublic have covered, Salesforce's TrailheaDX.

Developers and admins are the real stars at Salesforce TrailheaDX

While attending TrailheaDX 2019 in May, I had a chance to watch the opening keynote, interview company executives, and even talk with developers and admins attending the show. The consistent theme running through the keynote, panel discussions, and my conversations, was the unique relationship between Salesforce and the people who deploy, support, and develop on their platforms.


Salesforce co-Founder and CTO Parker Harris at TrailheaDX 2019


Within the first minute of the opening keynote, Salesforce co-founder and CTO Parker Harris called out one of the company's Trailblazers by name. For the next hour and a half, amidst the announcements about Salesforce Blockchain, new tools to help people built responsible AI, and the open sourcing of Lightning Web Components, there was a common thread of appreciation for the developers, admins, integrators, and end-users in the room and beyond.

Like the keynotes from those other conferences, there were slick promo videos and live demonstrations. But, the stars of all the mini-movies weren't products. They were the people building, supporting, and using Salesforce's platforms. And the live demos didn't just show new products in action, but also the clicks and code developers and admins would use to build and support those products.

Perhaps most telling for me was the presence of Marc Benioff, Salesforce co-CEO and founder, at the keynote. Benioff could have used the TrailheaDX keynote to outline the company's 2020 strategic plan. He could have talked about the recent Mulesoft acquisition or announced a new one--Salesforce would announce its plan to acquire Tableau just a few weeks later. He didn't do any of those things. In fact, he didn't speak at all. Instead, the often outspoken Benioff saved those kind of announcements for the company's other annual conference Dreamforce and let the TrailheaDX keynote focus on the show's core audience--developers and admins.

This is what a developer conference keynote should be like. And it's one reason I believe Salesforce has such an avid following among the people who build apps for and support the company's products.

How Salesforce builds a loyal following of developers and admins


Sarah Franklin, Salesforce EVP and GM of Trailhead and Developer Relations, at TrailheaDX 2019

TechRepublic/Bill Detwiler

And after the keynote, I had a chance to talk with Sarah Franklin, EVP and GM of Trailhead and Developer Relations, about how the company has built such a loyal following. The video of my interview with Franklin is embedded at the top of this article and a transcript is below.

Bill Detwiler: How would you describe a Salesforce developer and what makes Salesforce's relationship with its developers and admins unique?

Sarah Franklin: We're living in an incredible world today, where there's a lot of technology, there's a lot of innovation, and that's why Salesforce developers are very unique. Because they are the people that can marry all of this together. They take a beginner's mind. They look at problems, and they think, "Okay, you know, how can I solve this? What can I do?" And so that real problem solving mentality, that person that's like, "I think we can do this better," that is what's very unique. On our platform, yes, you can build with clicks. You can build with code. It has this whole spectrum, so you can all work together.

It's really magical, what happens when you give people ... You know, our Salesforce developers, we call them our trailblazers, because they really are. They're pioneers. They're innovators. They're people that are thinking differently about how they can solve the problems that we have today, whether it's as big as thinking about global warming or with how we do reusable energy or how we do process automation, mobile app development, all of that.

What makes Salesforce so unique in our relationship with the community is that we don't put people into boxes. You're not a developer that doesn't talk to an administrator that doesn't talk to an executive. We're here together, and everybody is here together. We work best when we learn from each other.

A developer may want to build something with clicks or build something with code. An administrator may need to knock on the door of the developer and be like, "Hey. Can you build this component for me?" We build this ecosystem where everybody is able to work together on the platform. It's not siloed. That's very unique and that's very differentiating about our platform.

Watch also: Developer conferences: Have they jumped the shark and forgotten about developers?

Bill Detwiler: One of the ways Salesforce works to attract developers and admins, is through the it's online training platform called Trailhead. What makes your platform stand out and how does the gamification built into it help the learning process?

Sarah Franklin: The secret sauce of Trailhead, with being fun, is that it's all about empowerment. It's not just gamified to be gamified. We have gamification for your own personal pursuit of career awesomeness or learning or whatever. It's just that level of encouragement and friendly competition, just as if you wanted to run your first 10K or lose 10 pounds or travel to a destination, like say you want to go to Europe. You tell people, like, "Hey. I want to accomplish this thing." It's a very positive way to think about what you're doing.

Then, somebody else might want to say, "Oh, I want to do that, too," and so you're just incentivized along the way. It's positive incentives with fun support and a little bit of confetti and flair with the badges and points. It really does make it fun. It's gamification in a way that it's very positive. I think it's because it's all about empowering people and it has a very strong outcome. It's outcome-based, you know? That's why I think that it really has worked.


Bill Detwiler: In 2017, Salesfoce went a step further with worker training and launched myTrailhead, a platform on which companies could build their own internal training programs. Salesforce rolled it out globally this past March. What insights has Salesforce learned from how customers have been using myTrailhead since its launch?

Sarah Franklin: MyTrailhead has been an incredible innovation, where we have taken the Trailhead platform and made it easy for our customers to create their own content, their own custom branding and content for their learning.

What I've learned and what we've seen from ... We have customers from every industry using myTrailhead platform. What's been incredible is that they're building communities with it. They're building this culture of learning, whether it's within their employees or within their partners. It's companies of every size — big companies, small companies. It's very interesting to see how the impact has been on things that really matter to us, like people being more happy, people being less stressed. Those are very real things that we care about, and then that indirectly makes companies more productive, better work product, all those things. But it's that level of caring, which is so incredible, that companies that are implementing myTrailhead, they're able to do that with the platform.

See: How to become a developer: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

Bill Detwiler: Beyond just a culture of learning, Sarah emphasized the importance of creating an overall positive corporate culture for attracting top tech talent.

Sarah Franklin: In today's world, it is absolutely imperative that companies care about their employees and that they build culture, because employees expect, they demand that their leadership have strong values. At Salesforce, our number one value is trust and being true to that value and know that we will stand up, whether it's standing up for a community and whether it's standing up for human rights or equal pay or the environment. It's absolutely something that everyone of us that, as a person now, we show up to work and there's a blurred line between your personal life and your professional life. And so when you come, it's something we really have. We call our ohana, like our family, which is our employees and all of our customers and partners and everybody.

It's really that personal connection that you need to cultivate at work. You need to have culture. Culture has never been more important, especially in today's world where technology's advancing, AI is advancing. We need to really look and make sure that we're doing things in ethical, humane ways that your employees, you know, relate to. It's never been more important than it is today.

Bill Detwiler: Another issue that Salesforce and other tech companies are grappling with is closing the inequality gap in tech hiring. I asked Sarah what Saleforce is doing to increase diversity in hiring and what else needs to happen both at the corporate level and within our education systems.

Sarah Franklin: It's a great question on how we can really solve this equality gap that we have in technology. There's a lot that we can do, whether you're employers or just as an individual person. Employers, there's a lot that you can do to simply give people from alternative backgrounds a chance. There's different hiring requirements that we can look at and say, you know, maybe somebody doesn't always need a four-year degree to be qualified for a skilled labor position. You can also invest in programs, like invest in learning, investing skilling up and those type of things.

Another thing that we can do is really, really check, take a good gut check of yourself on if you have any unconscious bias in anything that you do, because people ultimately don't believe they can be something unless they can see it. Whether it's the way you describe the jobs, whether it's the way the photos that you put up around your company, or just simply the way that you go out there and be a role model. As a woman in technology and the mother of two daughters, I want to be a role model for the future. We can look at our media as well. I mean, you look at shows that make certain careers, like being a lawyer or a doctor, seem very appealing. All of our shows around developers and technologies are, you know, guys in hoodies that stay up late at night and play video games. You know?

We can do a lot by simply helping women, especially women and underrepresented minorities. Showcase incredible people that come from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds. Show them doing incredible things in technology. That's what we're doing here. At Salesforce, in Trailhead, that's what we're doing. You see women, African-Americans, Hispanics, veterans, mothers, people at different levels of abilities, people from all walks of life being celebrated for their accomplishments.

By doing that, then somebody that you don't even know can be what they can see. I have the best job in the world, because people come and they say, "Sarah, I was just at your event six months ago. I had no idea what this thing was, and now I have an incredible career all because you told me that I could do it. I didn't know I could."

To summarize, a lot of it is, you know, checking ourselves, making sure we have great practices. Then, also just looking around and being like, "Hey, you. You can do this, too." That's a very simple thing that each and every one of us can do.


The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.


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