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HomeBlogSalesforce’s behind-the-scenes co-founder is tackling Slack as software company turns 25

Salesforce’s behind-the-scenes co-founder is tackling Slack as software company turns 25

Salesforce changes its V2MOM annually, a planning document that outlines vision, values, methodologies, barriers, and measures. CEO Marc Benioff claims it has “been used to guide every decision at Salesforce” since the software company’s inception 25 years ago this week.  

However, in early 2023, there was an issue. ChatGPT was going viral, and Salesforce’s strategy failed to account for it. 

Parker Harris, who co-founded the firm with Benioff, told CNBC in an interview that the V2MOM has nothing to do with generative artificial intelligence.  

Salesforce had never been so taken off guard by an emergent technology trend. If Salesforce is to become a leader in generative artificial intelligence, it must quickly revise its guiding document to refocus the company — and its 73,000 employees — on the technology that is sweeping Silicon Valley and making its way into every industry, from manufacturing to medicine. 

Salesforce faces competition from tech heavyweights like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, as well as well-funded startups. However, after a series of large acquisitions and a run-in with activist investors that forced Salesforce to abolish its M&A committee, a splashy merger was most certainly out of the question.  

Salesforce would need to construct. And that’s when Benioff turns to Harris, his old sidekick. 

Harris, who is well-known in the software business but relatively unknown outside of it, has always been an integral part of Salesforce’s foundation. In the last six years, Benioff has promoted two other senior lieutenants to the position of co-CEO, but none has lasted more than 18 months. Harris, a Salesforce board member who is currently the technology leader of Slack, which Salesforce acquired in 2021, stated that he prefers to shun the spotlight.  

“I don’t like being front and center,” Harris remarked during an interview commemorating the company’s 25th anniversary, which was officially March 8. “I don’t like it when articles are written about me. “I enjoy being behind the scenes.  

Internally, Harris is in the thick of things. After generative AI was introduced into the redesigned V2MOM last year, Harris oversaw its rapid integration into the company’s sales, customer support, marketing, and commerce systems. He investigated novel strategies such as retrieval-augmented generation, which includes feeding information from outside an AI model’s training set to produce a better result. 

Questions arose over whether Salesforce should invest billions of dollars to build its own general-purpose huge language model capable of spitting out text in response to a few words of human input, Harris said. However, the business began to see clients using several LLMs.  

Salesforce reduced its spending in some areas while increasing the size of its research team, which was developing its own AI models. At the same time, it began relying on models from AI firm Anthropic, as well as GPT-4, the model that powers OpenAI’s ChatGPT. In September, Benioff invited OpenAI CEO Sam Altman to speak onstage at Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference, which takes up a portion of downtown San Francisco. 

Harris has previously appeared in superhero costumes at Dreamforce performances, attracting tens of thousands of attendees. But 2023 was not the time for jokes. Harris was busy repositioning the company. He dressed professionally, wearing a checkered blue suit and glasses with thin blue frames.  

Harris discussed the Data Cloud, a product that was previously known as Genie and provides real-time information, during his presentation. In about 2016, he chose to move much of Salesforce’s IT infrastructure to the public cloud, allowing for better integration of various assets the firm had acquired over time. This enabled Salesforce to launch the Data Cloud.  

Harris told CNBC that without the Data Cloud, “I think we would have been in a much worse place.” It is such an important aspect of the business that Benioff highlighted it 58 times during the company’s earnings call in February. 

A Robin for Batman.  

Despite being the most recognized technical leader of one of the world’s largest software businesses, Harris majored in English. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College in Vermont.  

However, his interest in computers began at a young age. In 2015, he told Business Insider that he started programming on an Apple II while growing up in North Carolina. 

In the early 1990s, he relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area and began working as a software engineer for Metropolis Software, where he met developers Frank Dominguez and Dave Moellenhoff. The trio created Left Coast Software, a Java consulting firm.  

They were contracting with Saba Software, an online learning startup founded by former Oracle executive Bobby Yazdani. Benioff, who was still working at Oracle under Larry Ellison at the time, told Yazdani about his concept to develop web-based sales tools. Yazdani informed Benioff that he needed to meet Harris, Dominguez, and Moellenhoff. 

“He was a very abstract thinker,” Yazdani told CNBC. “He had clarity around capability of what’s possible.”  

In the fall of 1998, Benioff and Harris had lunch at Kincaid’s, a seafood and steak restaurant in Burlingame with a view of the San Francisco Bay. It was an unequal match. Benioff stands 6 feet, 5 inches tall. He’s boisterous and enjoys talking.  

Harris is smaller and quieter. He stated he dislikes conflict. Brett Queener, a former Salesforce executive and venture entrepreneur, says he defuses the drama. 

“Every Batman needs a Robin,” Queener explained.  

Following the lunch meeting, Benioff invited Harris, Dominguez, and Moellenhoff to his house in San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill neighborhood. They were all in.  

Salesforce.com was established on March 8, 1999. Harris was 32. His parents, wife, and small daughter visited corporate headquarters – a one-bedroom apartment next to Benioff’s home — to mark the moment, which Harris later shared on YouTube.  

“We are going to probably work here for six months to a year, and we’re going to just really enjoy it,” he informed his father, who was behind the camera. Salesforce aired the video for employees this week at a celebration

While Harris and Benioff were co-founders, his partner owned substantially more equity after contributing $6 million of his own money in the company’s early years. That is why Benioff is now worth over $11 billion, with a current share in Salesforce exceeding $7 billion, and Harris’ interests are worth nearly $600 million.  

Harris, despite his soft-spoken demeanor, indulges in certain things. He’s purchased red wine from France and Italy, works of art by Ruth Asawa and Josef Albers, a property on Nantucket, and a refurbishment of the family home in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights

“We really shifted it to a focus on sunlight,” Harris explained.  

In his office at the top of the house, he enjoys putting on headphones and blasting music. He listens to the Avett Brothers, Radiohead, and Miles Davis. He enjoys golf and surfing. A coworker described Harris as a “enthusiastic” dancer. He is on Middlebury’s board of trustees.  

Harris led the development of Salesforce’s platform, which allows firms to build on top of its software, as well as a drive to make Salesforce more mobile-friendly. There was also a rush to develop the next-generation Salesforce Lightning and Chatter, a business social network. 

He first mentioned AI at Dreamforce 2009, implying that the technology could one day assist Chatter in identifying in-house specialists on various areas. He admitted his shortcomings.  

“I don’t understand that area,” Harris told a gathering of journalists about artificial intelligence. “I understand we need to solve it. I’ve employed several folks in that area who understand it.” 

Tough times in social  

At the time, the popular term was “social”. Facebook was still private but growing rapidly.  

Yammer, a startup, was regarded as the workplace’s Facebook. A few Salesforce employees began talking about how knowledge could spread quickly among salespeople and customer service personnel. Benioff was fascinated. He stressed that it be the primary priority. 

After Harris assigned eight engineers to the new project, Benioff asked that he go bigger. Harris contacted engineering leaders and got a headcount of 75.  

That was not enough. Benioff was displeased during a briefing on the current status, according to a meeting attendee who asked not to be named in order to speak freely about the topic. Harris was silent. His face turned pallid. According to the individual, he informed Benioff that he would rework the strategy. 

Harris eventually convinced 80% of Salesforce’s engineers to begin working on Chatter. However, the product never took off.  

“We didn’t take it far enough,” Harris remarked. Microsoft was also eager to enter the market, purchasing Yammer in 2012 for $1.2 billion, a hefty premium for a business with a limited revenue base.  

Salesforce eventually purchased the top prize in the space, Slack, for $27.1 billion in 2021, making it the company’s most expensive acquisition to date. 

The shift to the public cloud, however, may have been Harris’ most significant accomplishment during his decades at Salesforce. It was not an easy decision.  

“Half the engineers, the brightest people, were like, ‘We’re going to ruin the company if we do this,'” Harris said. “The great fear was that we would ruin our cost model because the cost would be much more expensive on public cloud, and then we would be able to hire less salespeople or less engineers or whatever.”  

According to Harris, the other half of the technical department was concerned that if Salesforce did not shift to the cloud, others would “innovate faster than us.”  

Benioff didn’t have anything to offer for change. 

“Marc was like, ‘This is crazy, that these are some of the smartest people I know, and you guys can’t agree,'” Harris told me.  

Harris saw the benefit that startups obtained from outsourcing data center needs to Amazon Web Services. He also understood Salesforce had failed to create a viable platform for quickly developing apps while collaborating with VMware. Harris determined that failing to migrate Salesforce to public cloud services such as AWS would pose an existential threat.  

“That was a very lonely decision,” he told reporters. However, once it was integrated into the V2MOM, it had a far-reaching impact. 

Salesforce saved money by leaving Equinix colocation facilities, but transitioning to the cloud has been costly. Salesforce negotiated longer-term cloud commitments last year in response to activist investors’ demands for increased profitability. It agreed to spend at least $16.8 billion on infrastructure service providers by January, up from $6.5 billion in January 2023, according to regulatory filings.  

The most significant benefactor of that spending is AWS, which is led by former Salesforce CEO Adam Selipsky. According to Harris, Salesforce is seeking for additional partners.  

Oracle has done a great job around their platform, so technically, it’s actually quite good,” he went on to say. 

‘Try to make something extraordinary!’  

Harris just resigned as Salesforce’s CTO after seven years in the position. The corporation has not yet named a successor.  

Now he’s using Slack.  

Stewart Butterfield, who created Slack in 2009, left the firm in 2022. He was succeeded by Lidiane Jones. She left a year later to lead Bumble, a dating app developer. Cal Henderson, Slack’s co-founder and CTO, announced his departure in January of this year. 

“I thought, ‘I can have an impact there,'” Harris explained. ‘But I can also—I would love to do that job; I would love to go back and oversee some technical teams and really attempt to develop something spectacular.'”  

Harris visited Benioff’s home in San Francisco’s Sea Cliff district, and the two co-founders agreed that it was the appropriate decision.  

“I’m excited for this next chapter with Parker as Slack’s CTO, continuing his legacy as one of our industry’s greats,” Benioff wrote in a follow-up email. 

Harris headed to New York to meet with Noah Weiss, Slack’s product head. Harris has relocated his workstation to the Slack floor of San Francisco’s Salesforce Tower, near new unit CEO Denise Dresser. He works two to four days a week and attends Monday meetings to review Slack metrics.  

“People, probably fairly, had a lot of apprehension,” Weiss told the audience.  

Some Slack employees feared Harris would try to extend Salesforce’s methodology to Slack. Instead, Harris wanted to know how Slack had been so successful. 

Weiss stated that at Salesforce’s new fiscal year opening in Las Vegas last month, Harris spoke at an executive meeting about one of Slack’s product concepts, prototype the way. Harris has also started drafting docs on Slack’s collaborative Canvas feature.  

“He’s been showing up extremely well, definitely winning hearts and minds, for sure, including mine,” Weiss went on to say.  

Employees occasionally add spice to Slack talks with a Parker Harris emoji, he said. 

When it comes to keeping up with Benioff, who spends a lot of time at his magnificent residence in Hawaii, Harris employs other services.  

“Marc is all mobile, text, and FaceTime,” Harris explained.  

The men speak once every few weeks. They’ll be communicating more regularly, Harris said, because they’re going to begin weekly meetings on Slack and Salesforce connectors.  

Harris expects that his presence will persuade Slack staff to stay following the executive departure.  

“I don’t want to talk too much about myself, but I think it is helping,” she added. 

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