How Salesforce plans to make virtual TrailheaDX 2020 a better, more meaningful tech conference

For Salesforce, taking TrailheaDX digital is about more than just keeping the event going, the company wants to make TDX a better, more inclusive, and more meaningful tech event.
Written by Bill Detwiler, Contributor

Salesforce's annual TrailheaDX developer event usually draws thousands of coders, admins, and architects to San Francisco. But this year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, TDX (as the conference is also called) is joining other major tech events, such as Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Microsoft's Build, HPE Discover, and SAP SAPPHIRE NOW, by going completely virtual.

Delivering event content online is by no means new to the tech industry. Keynotes are often live streamed or recorded for on-demand viewing. Slide presentations are provided for download on event websites. Product announcements are pushed out through press releases. Attendees are encouraged to share their show experiences on social media. And, then there's the flurry of press coverage provided by people like yours truly.

But, turning a predominantly in-person event into a completely virtual one, presents unique challenges. There are technical hurdles, like the ones that kept many people from watching the first part of SAP CEO Christian Klein's SAPPHIRE NOW 2020 keynote. Then there are the more esoteric questions. Will people tune-in? What form should the event take? How do you keep "attendees" engaged? Can online events provide the same meaningful interactions that occur in the hallways, at dinner meetings and on the expo floors of in-person events?

In March, I wrote about how the coronavirus will end tech conferences and events as we know them, and after speaking about TDX with Sarah Franklin, EVP & GM for platform, Trailhead, and developers at Salesforce, I believe that more now, than ever. 

TrailheaDX 2020 will be Thursday, June 25 from 9:00am - 2:30pm PT.  The event is free and will feature a mix of live and recorded presentations, product announcements, demos, Q&A sessions, networking opportunities, and a "luminary speaker."

During our conversation, Franklin shared that taking the conference digital is about more than just keeping the event going. Salesforce wants to make TrailheaDX better, more inclusive, and more meaningful.

TrailheaDX 2020: Building a better tech conference

The following is a transcript of my conversation with Franklin about TrailheaDX 2020. The video is embedded above and you can listed to the interview on TechRepublic's Dynamic Developer podcast.

Bill Detwiler: Sarah, thanks for joining me virtually.

Sarah Franklin Salesforce

Sarah Franklin, EVP & GM Platform, Trailhead & Developers at Salesforce

Credit: Salesforce

Sarah Franklin: Thank you for having me, Bill. Thank you. Hello to everybody tuning in.

Bill Detwiler: Sarah, before we talk about the how, let's really talk about the what and the when. So when is TDX 2020, and what can attendees, we'll call them that, expect from this "one-of-a-kind virtual experience," as Salesforce is calling it?

Sarah Franklin: Yeah. TrailheaDX or TDX, #TDX20 is June 25th, next Thursday. Starts at 9:00 AM Pacific Time, and goes for the whole day. We have four channels for all of our devs, and admins, and architects and entrepreneurs. It's going to be an incredible, incredible day.

We still call them attendees. But what's incredible is that the attendees are going to be all joining virtually with us to tune into a main event, different channels, and all kinds of interactive, engaging content to help them learn, and connect, and have fun, and give back.

Bill Detwiler: This is going to be a mix of prerecorded content, videos that folks can watch, or live events, and interactions that they can have with other admins and developers and people who are attending the show?

Sarah Franklin: Yeah, so there's a lot of live content. We really want to engage in real time with everybody. And then we do have some prerecorded content. Content that's been contributed from our community and from our employees that you showcase our technology, and really try to condense it down into snackable, bite-sized chunks of just really jam-packed sessions for everybody so that it keeps them engaged and going through the content like that. Because you take two days and squish it down. You've got to get through it.

Using a "beginner's mind" to build TrailheaDX from the virtual ground up

Bill Detwiler: Well, let's talk about that. Let's talk about the how. How did you take a multi-day, in-person conference and condense it down into this one day, all digital experience?

Sarah Franklin: It's a great question, how we did it. We did it by bringing a beginner's mind, because you don't just take what you do in person and put it online, right? You've got to think, "How are people going to engage? How do you maintain that engagement? And how do you do it in a virtual world where it's very different than when you can be in the same room with people?"

So we've created virtual expos, virtual sessions, and that real interactive feeling. And then we've really taken everything, something that used to be like an hour session, condense it down to just 20 minutes of the most important pieces, so that you come away knowing exactly what you need to learn.

We've also add little interstitials in the way. So you think about when you watch television or you tune into like Netflix or Hulu, you have little bits and bytes here and there. Commercials, for example. So we've taken those concepts and we're using different words. Instead of sessions, we're using episodes. Instead of keynote, we're talking about a main event. And we have a luminary speaker, we're having relevant conversations. So we did it by taking a beginner's mind and really putting all of our Trailblazers at the center and saying, "How can we build something for them that connects all of them?"

TrailheadDX 2020

Bill Detwiler: Is that a concern? When people are at an event, especially an onsite multi-day event that a lot of people travel to, they're able to put aside some of the distractions that they might have in the day-to-day routine of their regular jobs. So this time, you have to figure out ways to keep people engaged when they might be focused on other things.

So you mentioned a few of those ways. What else went into sort of that thinking around, "Okay, these people are going to be at home, they're going to have jobs. They're going to be getting IMs. They're going to be getting Slack messages. They're going to be having to write code. They're going to be having to fill out forms." How do you pull people away from that and say, "Look, spend a half an hour, spend 25 minutes, jump into this chat room."?

Sarah Franklin: What we do to keep people engaged, there's a few things. One, we reserve the time in the calendar, right? We say, "Reserve the day." And it's not a two-day commitment. It's less time. So that's one thing, having less time, having our episodes be bite-sized and shorter time. That then is like less headspace you have to reserve for smaller amounts of time.

The other piece is we've really vetted the content. Meaning we've asked them, we've asked our Trailblazers, "What do you want us to talk about?" So our agenda is curated by input from the community and input from our Trailblazers of what they want to hear. We divided it into relevant tracks. So if you're an admin, you have a track that's designed specifically for you. And we have a great interactive agenda builder, so you can build in the times that you want.

Also what I think is very important is that the event is also going to have very relevant conversations to the world today. So it's not just technology, but it's also conversations about our social crisis that's going on right now. And conversations about equality and conversations about how we can all give back and help build a better world together. These are very topical items for people right now.

Then also within the event itself, there is built-in collaborations. So people can share, and comment, and give feedback to that. That sense of being part of something is a really big part of having people feel engaged and keeping them from their Slacks and their other Zooms.

Salesforce Trailblazers played a key role in determining both the structure and content of TrailheaDX 2020

Bill Detwiler: You mentioned something I think that's really important that you went to the Trailblazers, you went to the people who attend your conferences, and you ask them what they really find value in, especially in the presentations. Because we've all been to a thousand conferences and watched a thousand keynotes.

I still remember the keynote that I went to. One of the most memorable keynotes I ever went to, and because of a bad thing, was when Michael Bay walked off stage during a Samsung keynote at CES. I mean, you watch an entire hour-long keynote for that nugget of information or for the few points that you want to pull out of them.

I know as an attendee, sometimes you feel like, "I could have listened to that." Sometimes they're really riveting, right? Parker's keynote last year at TDX was really good. I wrote about it and I thought he did an excellent job. You've been involved in keynotes. Mark's keynote and the conversations they had with people like Barack Obama, which I watched last year. Those are ones that you sit for and like, "I want to see this whole thing." But a lot of the times you go to a session and you're kind of like, "I don't know." So beyond that, what was some of the feedback that your Trailblazers gave you that helped you condense the content?

TrailheaDX 2020 Schedule

Sarah Franklin: The feedback they give us is make it relevant, make it valuable for me in my job, give me stuff that I can learn today and put into action tomorrow or even the same day. By doing that, it really gets your focus on the things that are very important. Some of them might not be as huge of an announcement, but they're very impactful to people's productivity and their daily lives.

Also, I must stress the keynote, or as we're calling it, a main event, this year is going to be jam-packed with new information, and new announcements, and incredible innovations. In this new world that we're living in, it has forced all of us to not just have a digital transformation initiative. Now we all have this imperative. We're like, "Okay, what do I need to do with technology to help me work from anywhere or to help me collaborate from anywhere, to help me do all of the things I need to do from anywhere with my team together?"

So we at Salesforce, we've changed a bunch of things we're working on, because we need to help our community. We need to help the world and we want to help the world. So part of it is them telling us what they need, and then the other part is us also pivoting our technology. We've made some incredible innovations that we're excited to share. So it's going to be very engaging.

And then on the other thing that they want to hear, you mentioned everybody loves some great entertainment. We're going to have some great entertainment. We're going to have an incredible luminary to help us with the social justice conversations. That's because business is the greatest platform for change, and so we want to have not just conversations about technology, but our Trailblazers want to hear conversations about how Salesforce as a company is going to help do good in this world together with our Trailblazers, and what we're doing to give back. So we'll be making some announcements along those lines as well.

The feedback we've gotten was help us with the technology that we can do our job, but also help us learn what we can do together and how we can build this world, make it better together.

Bill Detwiler: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that you've always done at TDX and at Dreamforce is highlight the community of developers, of admins, of customers and their stories. So whether it is when I've spoken to people at Merivis and working with veterans who've become developers, whether it's doing interviews with people who started their career doing one language and moved into Salesforce and have a great story to tell, whether it's women in technology, or whether it's people of color in technology.

That's one of the things that I think your event is very unique for is lifting up those stories and highlighting those stories. Not as an afterthought or not in a side event, not in a side panel that you would go to, but as an actual part of those keynotes. So it's really encouraging to hear that we'll have those same experiences this year, just virtually.

Sarah Franklin: Yes, absolutely. It just could never be more important at TrailheaDX and within our platform, and app exchange, and Trailhead teams, and everybody in Salesforce. But specifically within Trailhead, we have a mission which we want to change the ratios in tech. Part of that is gender. Part of that is race. It's for all underrepresented minorities. And it's something that we believe that with our platform and with Trailhead, it really is an equalizer.

To your point on elevating these stories and giving power to these voices, it's so lovely to see Trailblazers like... One of the Trailblazers we celebrate a lot is Aaron McGriff. He is somebody that everybody in the black community could look to and say, "I can be what I can see," and we can provide this socioeconomic opportunity to everyone. That really is an equalizer and it's something that we want to not just provide the opportunity, we want to elevate people that are successful, share their voices, give power to their voices, and make it something where people say, "Okay, I can do that too," and the whole community rallies behind them. Because it has never been more important than it is right now to help in that way.

Keeping a sense of community in an online TrailheaDX

Bill Detwiler: When you and I spoke at TDX last year, we talked about how Salesforce builds a sense of community among developers, admins, customers. Events like TDX and Dreamforce are a big part of that. So how are you going to continue the sense of community through this virtual event?

Sarah Franklin: You are absolutely right, Bill. The community is so special. I have the best job in the world, because I get to interact with them every day. Just today, Cheryl Feldman on Twitter, an incredible woman, a leader in our community, she was tweeting about another Trailblazer and just you see this interaction happening of people celebrating each other.

This year at TDX, I think it's actually going to amplify. I think that going virtual is going to make the community stronger. Because we used to have an event that was exclusive to people that could travel. It was exclusive to people that could come to San Francisco. Yeah, we did broadcast it online, but it's very different to watch from afar some far back video shot of what's happening, than to the camera be your only aperture, your only lens into the event.

So now we have people from Morocco, people from Paris, people from Sydney, Australia. There's time zones to think through. But now we have people from around the world. Our registration has been through the roof, because also it's free. It used to be a paid event. Now this learning is free. It is completely available to everyone around the world globally. I just think that community is going to be even stronger because they're going to grow more interactions. They're not limited to the people that are there with them in person. So we are fostering that community more than ever. I am just very excited for what this means for us.


Bill Detwiler: Well, maybe we'll see more virtual TDXs in the future?

Sarah Franklin: I am sure of it, because people ask, they say, "Sarah, what's the future going to be like? Is it going to be an all digital? Is it going to be hybrid?" I think we're living in the future. We're experiencing this. This is not going away. This has made it so it's so much easier to communicate with each other, to get on the phone with each other.

We were just chatting. We don't have to go in planes, and sit in airports, get delays, eat bad food. But we're learning and we have to learn together.

I've done game night with friends that I actually have never done game night with before, because it was always too hard to schedule. It was like, "I'm out of town that day. I've got a meeting." Now it's just, "I'm at home."

Bill Detwiler: I'm available. Sure. That sounds great.

Sarah Franklin: I'm available. That eight hours I was going to spend on the plane, I can learn something new, I can connect with a friend, I can help out a member of the community, I can give back. There's much other ways we can spend our time. It does mean it's important for us to prioritize some me time and some downtime, which is another thing that we talk about. So I'm just very, very excited. There will be more digital in the future. I can guarantee you that.

Virtual tech conferences can be more inclusive and accessible

Bill Detwiler: I want to ask, I've got one last question, which is just sort of building on that. Now, something you mentioned earlier, which is because it's virtual, it's giving more people an opportunity to participate. Because you think it's even more important now. Not that anything has structurally changed. But as we look at social inequalities that exist, not just in the US but across the world, that the luxury of being able to travel or have your company pay you to travel, to pay your own way, or just having the ability or the job that allows you the free time to travel or take... It can be a burden.

Yes, it's a great thing. But do you think that it's more important now, as we're all... Or at least a light is being shined on some of these kind of social justice issues, that virtual events give more people access to knowledge, to communities, to experiences that they just didn't have before?

Sarah Franklin: Absolutely. Yes. You are 100% on the money, that this gives so many people access that they did not have before. It is beautiful to watch. I just want more people to know about it. We've got to get this interview broadcasted to millions of people, so they know to tune in.

Because in times of record unemployment, in times of social inequalities and injustice, in very serious matters where there was barrier after barrier from cost, to proximity, to location, to access, to even just thinking, "Well, I don't know. That seems too hard for me," or, "I don't think I'm cut out for that," or maybe, "I'm not allowed." We are just getting rid of these barriers, because it is that they are no longer there. Because all you need... I mean, you need to be able to access the internet. If you can access the internet from anywhere, from a phone even, you have access now.

We make our technology free to learn. We give you free access to our technology to learn it as well. There are people hiring, because digital... The silver lining is that digital means that you need technology, which means you need people to turn on, and configure, and make the technology work how you want it to work. So there's a lot of opportunity there, and that is a growth area.

So I see this as an incredible opportunity for everyone of every age, of every location, of every socioeconomic status, of every race, of every gender, of every level of ability. Our technology is accessible. Meaning you can listen to it instead of see it, and you can interact with it. There are incredible opportunities that await everyone. That is something that I'm personally passionate about.

As a mother of two daughters, I also want my children and our children, our children's children to all grow up in a world where they don't face these inequalities. They don't look at these injustices. They don't see that. We have an opportunity right now to change that. It's something myself, and my team, and everybody at Salesforce, we're all very passionate about.


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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