I’ve been attending Salesforce’s user conference now for a few years and one thing that’s always been a little awkward is the fact that Salesforce has always tried to make the event meaningful for developers but has generally created a kind of Frankenstein beast where suited business types get highbrow in the main conference whilst a few token developer types are left hanging in the developer zones. Salesforce has never had the sort of developer vibe that other tech conferences have, likely a throwback to its early days as a company unashamedly selling to sales departments where Porsche driving high rollers do deals and have little respect for the “back room boys” who develop the solutions that help them sell.

This year however I stood amazed during the developer keynote as Salesforce’s new developer evangelist, Adam Seligman, spoke to a room that was more packed than almost all the other keynotes I attended – it got to the point where ushers sealed the doors because there were so many people standing in the aisles it was becoming a fire-hazard. As Seligman and his colleagues showed some live demos of coding using the new functions contained in the Salesforce Platform such as Touch, Canvas and AppExchange Checkout the woops and cheers from the audience were something akin to an Open Source event, not an enclave of the usually staid enterprise IT folks.

James Governor, the colorful analyst with RedMonk, introduced the world to the notion that developers are the new kingmakers. In Governor’s opinion, this is so because of the:

increasing influence they wield on business innovation, from the bottom up. Of course some are quite skeptical of the idea that developers are influential, often because they see the IT world through the lens of the product purchaser

This concept is accepted, and proven, in the consumer world. Marc Andreesen, the idolized former entrepreneur and now VC with the Midas investor touch famously opined that software is eating the world and that, by extension, those who spend their days hunched over keyboards creating that software are the real wielders of influence in the world. But while this is accepted in the consumer space (witness the meteoric rise to prominence of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram), it’s not been the case, or at least the expectation, from within the enterprise.

During DreamForce I sat in on a developer session run by my friends Abhinav Keswani and Bry Ashman from Trineo, a small development shop in New Zealand. Their presentation was a case study about SpotU, a product that delivers highly personalized and contextualized additional offers on the emailed itineraries sent to customers who book air travel. In order to deliver these offers, the application that Trineo created needs to process 12 or so million different data requests every week. It then needs to deliver the specific ad in to the itinerary delivered in PDF and HTML form. It sounds like a pretty simple concept, but underlying it is a complex and time critical application – Trineo leveraged the Salesforce Heroku platform to allow them to focus on application functionality and leave the plumbing of application delivery to others.

This SpotU case study is simply the story of one of the millions of applications built on the force.com and Heroku platforms. By extension it’s also a story that shows the value of the other democratizing development platforms out there from other vendors – but it is in the context of the suit and tie traditional audience of Salesforce that this so strongly stands out. Seligman is rightly proud of the fact that the broader Salesforce community numbers some 800000 developers with numbers growing rapidly. These numbers are growing while the total number of professional developers worldwide remains largely static – so what’s happening here? Well, more accessible, easier to use, and tightly integrated application platforms are proving incredibly democratizing to the development process – like never before employees of organizations with little or no development experience are able to create applications to scratch a particular functional itch they have. It was these ‘citizen developers” who made up a significant proportion of the thousands of people sitting in the developer keynote at DreamForce.

It is telling that, in contrast to last year where there was a fair degree of smack talk between Oracle and Salesforce, this year saw Benioff mention his competitors a few times, and articulate that, in his view, they provide a good “back office solution”. This is as good an example of damning by faint praise as I’ve ever heard, with the rise of developers, of customization, and of interplay between the organization and the outside world, back office solutions are not only losing the tiny bit of sex appeal they once had, they also rapidly becoming simply the boring pipes that underpins what really matter – the front office systems that speak to, and listen to, the real world.

Many enterprise vendors are realizing both the business need for custom applications and the inherent value of providing a platform that lets developers create applications – it’s the age old “letting a thousand flowers bloom” theme. But at the same time I’m often struck by how many legacy enterprise vendors mistake just how important a vibrant ecosystem, and the developers who fuel that, really are. The fact of the matter is that the balance of power is shifting in enterprise IT and it really is no exaggeration to say that it will be grass roots developers who are pivotal in deciding which enterprise vendors will be sitting at the “top table” over the next decades.

While arguably DreamForce 2012 was somewhat lacking in big attention grabbing product announcements, the cheers from the developer keynotes told me more about the prospects for the company than anything else. Developers are indeed the new kingmakers and Salesforce has shown itself adept at courting these critical influencers.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

  • I am a professional developer, with a variety of tools on my belt, such as javascript, html, css, .NET/C#, ruby, python, SQL, web apis / REST, windows dev ….

    I developed a simple app in salesforce a few years ago, and my thoughts at the time were :
    a) incredibly boring
    b) a fast way to build a crm with some custom data / screens with ultimately very little flexibility
    c) a good choice for a small business
    d) a proprietary locked-in platform. more so than the classic locked in vendors like Microsoft.

    I want to be open minded about it. What has changed, or what am I missing that would result in me being courted by Salesforce?

    • Ross – you looked at Heroku? You seen the sort of partner applications for sale on the AppExchange? You heard of those one million plus applications built on Heroku – not so boring to me….

      • Yes, I have a heroku account, and have deployed ruby apps there. It is quite nice. However I wasn’t really thinking of that as Salesforce, even if they happen to own it.

        Where I said boring, I was referring to developing software using the force platform. As someone with 20 years experience developing software, I found it boring. A rich man’s Microsoft Access with a few bells and whistles.

        I’m not saying building ruby apps is boring, I find that quite interesting and rewarding. However, that has nothing to do with the platform hosting it. Efficient staging and deployment is nice, but is really only a very small part of a serious application.

        • This is sounding like a setup of some kind. Even if real, I don’t see how someone can say they used a product “a few years ago”, which also happens to be one of fastest growing tech firms, and comment from that experience. Couple minutes seeing YouTube customer testimonials would have to remove any possible comparison to MS Access.

          • No. Not a setup. I created a simple app using force a few years ago to explore the platform, thought it was ok and certainly something I would use if I was a small business owner, as I wouldn’t want to waste money on infrastructure and/or expensive bespoke solutions for a CRM.

            However, I am not a small business owner, I am a software developer, so I was wondering what appeal there is for me. Which was the premise of this article.

            I invested ~10 hours looking at force back then and found it to be fairly restrictive point and click, drag and drop style software development. Maybe Access wasn’t the best analogy.

            I was genuinely interested in what the buzz was about (from a software developers point of view). I gave my background experience as a reference point, so that whomever could enlighten me didn’t have to explain the crux of force to me. But it seems the buzz has nothing to do with force, it is heroku and app exchange.

  • Very different dynamics... |

    The consumer market is very different from corporate. Developers are free to survey the market and target what they think are gaps or opportunities, while in the corporate environment, developers are perceived as bottom-feeding doers. Nobody respects or listens to the doers. Most of those developers will have been sent to the conference because the company suits above them who make the decisions have already drunk the kool-aid

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