Looking forward to, and dreading, DreamForce

Sometimes ego is the entirely wrong motivator. Is DreamForce becoming an example of that?


Next week sees me heading to San Francisco for DreamForce, Salesforce's annual customer, partner and industry bash. (Disclosure: As in past years, and along with several hundred of my best friends in the press and analyst ranks, Salesforce is covering my travel and expenses to attend the event.) I've been going to DreamForce for eight years or so and have seen it grow from a modest (OK, DreamForce was never truly modest) event of a few tens of thousands of attendees up to what we expect this year, which is well north of 100,000 attendees. Add in the official vendors and all the people touting their wares outside trying to grab hold of Salesforce's coattails and you have what some people colloquial call a cluster %#$@.

Think about that 100,000+ number, and consider the ramifications. Every hotel, hostel and vacant location in the city, and far down the Valley as well, is totally booked out. Howard Street closes for the week. Every function venue is brimming to the max and companies spend ridiculous amounts of money trying to leverage all those bodies for greatest effect. Indeed, I am led to believe that one Salesfroce partner, a mid-sized but still early-in-its-life software vendor, has spent in excess of $3 million on sponsorship and related events!

I've also just started wrangling my schedule for the conference and have been looking at the agenda. Unlike most vendor events, which see one or two main keynotes where the majority of the news is announced, I have counted 14 individual keynotes in the agenda I've seen. Every one a stand-alone event full of attendant product and market news. Varied locations, crossover in terms of the people that want to be there and often in conflict with other event keynotes. The complexity is insane.

Which has got me thinking: Is it really useful anymore to have a single DreamForce event? Or, if not, what are the drivers behind doing so?

It strikes me that DreamForce is very much about an ego battle between two titans of the industry. On the one hand, we have Larry Ellison, former CEO (and, to be frank, still the kingpin) of Oracle. On the other side, we have Ellison's one-time protégé, on-again/off-again punching bag and (if you believe the rumors) heir-apparent, Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce. Now let's be clear here. These are two very smart individuals who have both done more than most to change the industry. They're also supportive of broader causes. Benioff is the lead sponsor behind the UCSF children's hospital and Ellison.... Well, apparently Ellison likes animals and supports a wildlife refuge or something.

But the reality here is that this is about ego — Oracle's OpenWorld event was, until a few years ago, the biggest IT vendor trade show in the world. It has since been eclipsed by — DreamForce. Both men are waging a war to be the king of the castle. It strikes me that in their individual attempts to one-up each other, these two have created a monster that is unhelpful for all those around it.

On so many levels, DreamForce is an absolute pain. Salesforce employees literally dread the workload that goes into getting product announcements ready, trying to justify agenda time, and trying to get in front of analysts and press (not to mention customers) to get some of the attention that is in very short supply at the event. And while it sounds ungrateful, considering that Salesforce is putting on this bash and bringing me out for it, I'm dreading what the event will be like. While trade shows are always busy, the norm at DreamForce is to have half a dozen conflicting sessions, meetings, briefings or parties at any one time. We're all literally having to juggle a dozen or so balls while sprinting down Howard Street and avoiding all the small vendors touting their wares on the sidewalk.

I've been saying it for a few years now, but this approach toward DreamForce simply can't go on. There is a point where not only does the company run into the law of diminishing returns, but indeed the madness of the event is completely counterproductive. Perhaps the planned upgrades to the Moscone Center, and the resultant need to relocate DreamForce, will be the impetus to rethink Salesforce's approach to DreamForce. I certainly hope so. I enjoy covering Salesforce and have been privileged to have a front seat view of its journey to cloud dominance. But there is a point at which it becomes too big, too busy and too crazy. Mr. Benioff, I think you've just about reached that point.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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