Dominic Stow

It’s about the time of year that Salesforce customers and partners start discussing whether to send any of their team to Dreamforce to drink the Kool-Aid and come back armed with the Salesforce vision for the future. So, for those “newbies” who haven’t been before, I thought that I would share my experience of my first trip to Dreamforce last year.

My journey to Dreamforce started with the obligatory tipple of choice in the Air NZ Koru lounge followed by a series of “how you doing?” chance meetings at the airport – or were they chance? That’s right, companies and Salesforce Partners alike were making the same pilgrimage to Dreamforce which saw over 173,000 people descend on San Francisco last November for 4 days. Its scale is truly impressive, but in the back of my slightly cynical British – now proud to be Kiwi – mind, was it worth the 12 hour flight crammed in seat 56D next to a guy wearing a T Shirt saying “No Software”? Was I going to be bombarded with overly zealous presenters reprogramming my brain to everything Salesforce?

So, for those who aren’t good at reading more than 150 words, the answer is yes – Dreamforce is definitely worth attending, just be organised. For those who want to get a bit more of a feel through my personal and hopefully enjoyable insights, please read on.

After what seemed like quite a short flight and with my new “No Software” buddy who explained to me that soon AI will make us all redundant, we disembarked and joined the huge queue for immigration. Tip No. 1 – go to the toilet before joining the queue. As you can imagine, with so many attendees arriving from around the world, it takes a long while to get “Processed”. After three hours of shuffling and explaining to the poor immigration officer (who had no doubt heard this 10s of thousands of times) that I was on a pilgrimage to the seat of Salesforce, I was released state side. After meeting up with Paul (another member of the Adept team) and a quick trip on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) we arrived downtown. This wasn’t my first trip to San Francisco but it felt different. Gone were the usual hippies and tech start up geeks crammed in the cafes with their Apple computers sporting a Linux sticker. Instead a more cosmopolitan breed of individual had invaded these cafes with the conversational hum being in what seemed like tens of different languages, supporting the case that this truly is an international conference.

Ready for a shower and a freshen up, I was keen to get to our hotel which we had booked 8 months in advance. Tip No. 2 – Getting good accommodation is hard and expensive, so get in early. Luckily Mike, one of our veterans of Dreamforce, managed to source us a ‘boutique’ hotel just on the outskirts of the CBD, but walkable to the main conference area which was my next destination to pick up my ID badge and my coveted Salesforce branded bag with reusable drinks bottle (nice touch).

The walk was 25 minutes to Dreamforce central in about 24 degrees of heat, which is insane for November in San Fran, but I heard that global warming was “Fake News” so decided the team at Salesforce just turned it on for us. Tip No. 3 – Do a reconnaissance mission the day before things kick off to understand where all the hotels are located that host the sessions. I say this, as the scale of Dreamforce is unprecedented and I soon realised that my bookmarking of sessions via the handy Dreamforce App required me, in some cases, to teleport from one session to another as they were blocks apart in different hotels. The good news is that if you are following a stream like Commerce Cloud, a lot of sessions are in the same hotel, but look out for that sneaky one that sees you trying to run through thousands of people all going the opposite way to you. On a separate note, why was that and what did I miss?

With registration complete and bag in hand, our most excellent Salesforce team from NZ had arranged a visit to Salesforce HQ with one of our most loved clients – Gilmours (Foodstuffs). For those who haven’t been to San Francisco, the Salesforce Tower is the tallest building in the city, with the cool screens at the top that display clouds at night. Always a great reference point when you have had a few beers (which you will) – good planning Salesforce! After an ear popping ride to the 61st floor, otherwise known as the Ohana Floor, my pilgrimage was complete. As I walked around the beautifully fitted out reception area eating perfect canapes, absorbing the breath taking 360 degrees views of San Francisco as the sun set over the Pacific Ocean (you get the picture), I thought to myself ‘these guys must be doing something right’. That thought was reinforced every single day for the remainder of my trip which was very comforting, as we have backed our business on providing solutions around Salesforce.

Day 1 was finally here; I opened my curtains to reveal my awesome view of a brick wall three feet away from my window (remember, it’s a ‘Boutique Hotel’) and opened my trusty Dreamforce App to see what I was up to for the day. ‘That’s right’ I remembered, its Keynote day when I get to see the man himself – Mark Benioff, the founder of Salesforce. This was important to me as I wanted to look at him eye to eye to validate that we were doing the right thing backing Salesforce solutions for our clients. In his case however, it was eye to 25,000 eyes in the conference hall, but you get the idea. Excited by the day ahead, the Adept team gathered in the Hotel foyer at the agreed 8am roll call. Mike, our veteran of Dreamforce, announced that we were probably too late to get into the actual keynote and should head to one of the many conference areas that broadcast the keynote live. “Seriously?”, I thought, “he’s exaggerating”. “The room sits 10’s of thousands and isn’t until 11am – we have 3 hours!”. My naivety was once again on full show as we approached the main conference building and the queue went around the block into the distance. Joining the queue seemed insane but a quick bit of maths and the hum of excitement drew us to it. Sure enough, it’s amazing how many people can fit into a room and for most of those who persisted, there was a seat. Tip No. 4 if you want to attend a keynote session, of which there are many, get there early and persevere. In some cases, you can get a fast track by booking with the App. I will however put a caveat around this tip. If in the case of Barrack Obama, forget it – unless you start queuing 5 hours before or are a veteran like our Mike who managed to get into the VIP section by announcing to security at the VIP entrance “to some people I’m a VIP”. Don’t you just love Kiwi’s.

The opening keynote was slick, inspiring and focused on diversity and social responsibility as well as the expected affirmation of where Salesforce was going. This level of presentation wasn’t only restricted to key notes, it was on the whole, true for all the sessions I attended. To be honest I did find it slightly distracting for all the wrong reasons. I would quite often spend the first 5 to 10 minutes wondering how these presenters got so good, why were their teeth were so perfect (originally being British, the bar is usually pretty low) and did they get a clothing allowance for this presentation? Its distracting, but I found that I soon settled into the content of the sessions, which as a whole exceeded my expectations.

With the opening keynote done, it was time for me to run between hotels, battling the maddening crowds, to attend my next sessions – topping up my reusable water bottle whenever the opportunity arose. I lost all track of the whereabouts of the other members of the Adept team; they could have been in the pub for all I knew. as I was absorbed into the information broadcasting machine. By late afternoon of the first day I was mentally exhausted and decided now would be the time to try out one of those lounges reserved for partners. Yes, I did say lounges, there was a General Partner Lounge which was great for SWAG (we will come back to that later) and the APAC lounge where us Kiwi’s and Aussies could chill and enjoy a proper coffee rather than a bucket of filter coffee. My favourite was the APAC lounge which was relaxed and great for networking even if there was 20 Aussies for every Kiwi. Be warned, if you do have access to a lounge it can be too easy to not go to that next session. Be strong!

As the first day drew to an end, my jet lag and over enthusiasm to attend every session that seemed so easy to bookmark on the App left me feeling drained. Tip No. 5 Pace yourself and be strategic on which sessions you attend. The formal sessions may have ended but the day was far from over, now the social and prize giving events kicked in.

One of the reasons for attending Dreamforce was to collect the Global Partner Innovation Award for B2B Commerce. We were being awarded it for the large B2B Commerce project delivered for our client Gilmours. When we were informed of this a month or two prior to Dreamforce, I was delighted for our client and the Adept team, but now that I was at the heart of this truly global conference, the scale of what we had achieved hit home. Just standing at the prize giving reception seeing the list of Salesforce Partner winners across a range of categories made me incredibly proud. In fact, it was slightly surreal seeing the Adept logo alongside large multinational consultancies like Accenture, Deloitte, Cognizant and PWC to name a few. As with the rest of Dreamforce, the awards ceremony was efficient and ran like clockwork culminating in a photoshoot usually reserved for celebrities, but hey we were celebrities in the eyes of the Salesforce Ohana! The night was still young so a celebratory dinner with the Gilmours team saw day one draw to a very late end!

Day 2 started way too early and I didn’t know if it was jet lag or just too much of the bubbles the night before but my enthusiasm was slightly dulled from the previous day. Nothing that a good brekkie couldn’t fix, so after eating over 6000 calories I was ready to take on the day. Armed with my trusty Dreamforce App, I headed across town to the first sessions of the day and, by accident, discovered the Bluestone Lane coffee shop near Union Square that sold real coffee. My go to place for the next three days! Cup in hand, I reached my first session which was different to many of the others in that it was a presentation by Forrester on delivering the benefits of B2B Commerce. “Hold on a minute”, I thought afterwards, “have I just sat through a full 40 minutes and Salesforce wasn’t mentioned”. Absolutely, Dreamforce wasn’t only about drinking the Kool-Aid, but had experts presenting research across many areas.

At around lunchtime, I decided to visit the “Campground” that sits under the main convention area. This is a huge Expo area where you can attend small seminars on the various clouds, wander around the hundreds of booths representing companies that have products on the App exchange or deliver Salesforce solutions. You also get to meet life size versions of Einstein, Codey and Astro and get that obligatory selfie! For those who are reading and have no idea what I’m talking about you will by the time you have been to Dreamforce. It’s also the area where you pick up your free lunch, which was pretty good but probably not required after my 6000-calorie breakfast, but hey while in the USA! Armed with my Gluten Free Vegan meal (not an intentional choice) I decided to attend one of the many small seminars and enjoy my lunch. Now at most convention centres this would be a relatively easy thing to do, but I’ll be honest, with the size of the place I just couldn’t find the session I wanted to attend so settled for a random one! Note to self, use a map.

With lunch finished, and under the instruction of Mike, it was time to do the SWAG run around the Campground. Armed with a reusable bag, the goal is to hit as many booths as possible and grab as much free “useful” merchandise as possible. For example, a 16GB Zip Drive is useful, a packet of orange sweets is marginal and a brochure is just dead weight. Now this objective sounds easy, but the real skill is in getting the SWAG without having to engage with the custodian of the SWAG – the sponsor of the booth and these guys know this game! One slight bit of eye contact or overly zealous movement could result in 15 minutes of sales pitch. Sure enough, I blew it on my first attempt and should I ever need a solution to encrypt data in the cloud, I know where to go! However, on a couple of occasions these brief sales pitches were really useful and have actually resulted in partnerships with Adept over the proceeding months. So, it’s not only about the SWAG, there are some great complimentary products on the market and this is your opportunity to learn about them. Back to the SWAG, I was useless unlike a few other members of our team who filled a suitcase to take back to NZ to distribute to the team. Tip No. 6 Come with a spare suitcase as there is a lot of SWAG!

The afternoon saw me do the customary sprint between sessions culminating in the Commerce Cloud key note, which reinforced the fact that Salesforce was a serious contender in the B2B and B2C Commerce space. Just the kind of affirmation I was looking for as Adept continues to invest in our Commerce team. With the formal sessions done, it was time to attend one of the many social events organised by our local Salesforce and the wider APAC team. For those who know the Kiwi’s and Aussies, you can all but imagine they were fun, slightly messy and culminated in the duelling piano’s in the basement of some bar that I would never find again. After singing “Sweet Caroline – bah bah bahhhhhh” for the tenth time it was time to retire to my boutique hotel.  Tip No. 7 – get an Uber if its late, as its quite easy to stumble into a street that doesn’t feel quite as safe as the one a block away.

Bizarrely, I woke up on day 3 full of energy and ready to go. Maybe it was that bucket of coffee I had at 1am or the 6000-calorie breakfast from the day before still doing its job. Today was Obama day. His interview with Mark Benioff was mid-morning and sadly, I had to elect to miss it as there were two sessions that I really wanted to attend. I’m sure I will regret that one day, but I wanted to suck as much information out of this conference as possible. In particular, one of the sessions was around investments and growing a sustainable practice. On arrival, it came very apparent that I wasn’t going to be alone, even with Obama only a block away. The room was packed with CEO’s, entrepreneurs and CFO’s from around the world all trying to understand how they can scale at speed to meet the demand being created by the Salesforce machine. The panel that assembled to discuss investment did their best to answer the diverse range of investment questions but one message kept coming across. “You should be growing by 30-40% year on year to be considered a successful partner.” Now to any other business that sounds crazy, but in truth we were experiencing that, so great to hear that from the panel.

Pumped with excitement from the wealth of opportunity that lay ahead, I had 10 minutes to get across the main site to my next session. Normally this would have been enough time, but I hadn’t taken into account the numerous marines and armoured cars set up around the site as part of Obama’s security detail. Just a reminder of who was in town. The rest of the day I spent in sessions and networking in the Campground, grabbing a tactical coffee from the APAC lounge. Tip No. 8 If you are going to Dreamforce to network its hard to make meaningful contacts unless you focus in on specific sessions or regional events – have a plan.

By the end of day three, I reached the point of “Dreamforce meltdown”. I coined this phrase to describe the moment that you sit in a session, listen to the speaker and leave remembering absolutely nothing. The lights were on but no one was home! Thankfully, the Dreamforce organisers already knew this was going to happen and laid on some evening entertainment to unwind. As with everything at Dreamforce, this wasn’t your usual busker in the park. Instead they had hired out the waterfront baseball stadium located in the South Beach neighbourhood and home to the San Francisco Giants (I did have a small chuckle that the stadium is called Oracle Park – “Awkward” I could hear my teenage daughter saying). In order to do the venue justice, we (up to 40,000 of us) were given a private show headlining Beck and Fleetwood Mac! The icing on the cake was that all drinks and food were free. You just rocked up and voila; a chilli dog and Bud. When in America!

Day 4 started off on a much more subdued note with a few buckets of coffee and a pancake stack at the local diner. Another 6000 calories! The Adept team were exhausted, but we still had a morning of sessions to go to. The draw of just spending the day at Fisherman’s Wharf instead, doing touristy things had raised its ugly head in my mind, but a little voice in me saying “be strong” eventually quelled this thought. “This wasn’t a holiday; it was a pilgrimage”, I reminded myself and we owe it to our dedicated crew in NZ to learn as much as possible. So, with renewed vigour we went to the last sessions and by 2pm Dreamforce was done. To be honest, I felt a little underwhelmed on how it all finished, more of a fizzle than a big bang! I had got so used to everything being on such scale I expected a 60-minute firework display or for Richard Branson to descend from the sky in one of his balloons. Instead, all 173,000 attendees just slowly evaporated off to the airport leaving the rest of us to shop! Tip No. 9 Show your ID badge in most shops and you will get a great discount.

I’ve now reached that point in my blog where I know our Marketing guy, Jono (who is proof reading this) is having small heart palpitations as he explicitly told me a good blog should be no more than 300 to 600 words. Sorry Jono! For those of you have stuck with my verbose narrative, I really hope that you have gained a feel for this fantastic conference. It achieved all of the objectives I hoped for and more. I even had the opportunity to buy a “No Software” tee shirt like my row buddy on the flight over but to coin a Kiwi phrase – “Yeah Nah”, I’m not quite ready for that. Will I return, absolutely! But next time I’ll wear that tee shirt!