by John Gallant

How plans to stay high in the clouds

Jul 09, 2015
Cloud ComputingData CenterInnovation co-founder Parker Harris discusses key product growth areas for the company, the challenges of innovating, the future of development and flexible infrastructure, and what the cloud market itself will look like years from now.

One of four co-founders, Parker Harris has been a quietly powerful force in the success of, which has grown to nearly $7 billion and earned a top spot in the CRM market since launching in 1999. Harris leads all product development, data centers and technology for the cloud company and has built the underlying platform that supports an increasing array of products and a huge community of customers around the world.

In this interview with IDG U.S. Media Chief Content Officer John Gallant, Harris talks about key product growth areas for, how customer expectations of cloud are changing, and what the cloud market itself will look like in years to come. He also discusses how to run infrastructure at vast scale and how’s approach to software development is changing. Harris also explores the challenges of innovating in a market where nimble cloud startups are always nipping at this early cloud leader’s heels.

One of four co-founders, Parker Harris has been a quietly powerful force in the success of, which has grown to nearly $7 billion and earned a top spot in the CRM market since launching in 1999. Harris leads all product development, data centers and technology for the cloud company and has built the underlying platform that supports an increasing array of products and a huge community of customers around the world.

parker harris 2012

In this interview with IDG U.S. Media Chief Content Officer John Gallant, Harris talks about key product growth areas for, how customer expectations of cloud are changing, and what the cloud market itself will look like in years to come. He also discusses how to run infrastructure at vast scale and how’s approach to software development is changing. Harris also explores the challenges of innovating in a market where nimble cloud startups are always nipping at this early cloud leader’s heels.

Let’s start by exploring your role at

Harris: I’m a co-founder of the company and have been running all of product and technology the entire time. Today, I do that in partnership with Alex Dayon, who is our president of products. He brings a strategic view, which I also have. I [also] bring a very strong technical view. Together we run everything, any product or technology or data centers. All the data centers work for me, so I also run data center strategy.

In terms of technology, the one thing I don’t run is our internal IT group. There’s the focus of serving our customers and that’s what I do, and then there’s the focus of serving our employees, often using our technology, which is our internal IT group. There is a lot of collaboration between the two.

How do you see customer expectations of the company changing? And how do you see the customer set changing, the people who are buying?

Harris: I’ll take the second question first. I don’t really see the customer set changing dramatically. We started the company and it was dot-com and we had lots of high-tech companies [who said] ‘Hey, we’ll take a chance on Salesforce.’ We grew from small tech companies — small companies in lots of different industries — and kept growing. [Our] revenue is still pretty much trifurcated, small companies, mid-market and enterprise. The mix has changed fairly slowly as we moved upmarket and got breadth and we organized our sales groups to work into the process. From a product perspective, we feel like we need to provide one service that, kind of like an onion, all the different groups can use. That’s why we think of our platform-first perspective.

I think what’s changing for us, one of the things I find fascinating, is this. Before Salesforce I worked for a company called Metropolis Software. It was around when Siebel Systems was just beginning. We were doing salesforce automation. That was in 1993 and, now, we’re still doing CRM. But I think what we call CRM is radically different than how people thought about it in ’93, and I think that’s coming from the customer base. Our message and our vision is that we want to change the way our customers connect with their customers.

We are very much a relationship company [focused on] customer success. We are very focused on how to deliver that to customers. Our customers are saying: ‘We want to transform.’ So it’s less about salesforce automation and check the boxes, what features, I’ll buy that. It’s less of a transactional nature. Our customer base has new expectations, they’re mobile and they’re social. They’re expecting more from us. We’ve seen stories of success that Salesforce has enabled with other customers [based more on a] ‘can you please help us?’ [type of situation]. It’s a more consultative relationship with our customer. We do something with a lot of customers we call Ignite.

It’s a small little project where the first thing is we do is embed with the customer. We try to understand not us, but them. What is your business? Where are your problems? Then we take our vision of the future and our technology and we play back a vision to them. We say: ‘Here’s a vision of what your future could look like.’

Marc [Benioff, CEO] would use an example of DuPont, who is a customer, saying farming is going to change in the future and tractors are going to be enabled with devices and sensors. They’re going to till the soil but they’re going to understand what’s in that soil and the farmer is going to have a mobile device and he’s going to see there’s an area of the field that needs attention. It needs different nutrients and, oh, I want to buy those. Now let me connect with a vendor. The vendor is going to send them to me. The vendor says they see the same thing because of drones. Some of it is far out there but the point is, let’s have a vision together but then from that vision it’s about a transformation. Let’s figure out how some of our technology can fit in there with their existing technology because it’s very important to us not to come in and redo everything.

When we started, we were salesforce automation only so we would come in and say: ‘You’ve got Siebel for your call center? Awesome. Siebel is great for a call center. But we’re great in salesforce automation so we’ll integrate with that.’ Now we take the call center, we take marketing but we’re integrated with your back-end ERP, SAP and Oracle, sometimes Microsoft, fine. Don’t replace those. Or, if you want, look at some of our partners on the AppExchange. Those are also valuable.

We take a customer view as opposed to a vendor view. We don’t come in and say that you should use everything we have. Ultimately, we would love that from a revenue perspective, but we want to know what’s going to work, where can you be successful because of that shared relationship. The business model is subscription so we only recognize revenue as we deliver success. The technology model is cloud and multitenant so I run it for you and if it’s not working it’s my problem. So it’s that shared, symbiotic nature of our business model and our tech model that ensures customer success really.

In your last quarterly results, I think you said you were on a $6 billion run rate and the next step is $10 billion. When you look farther out, what does it take for a cloud company to get to be a $50 billion company? When does it get to be the scale of the big enterprise software companies today?

Harris: That’s definitely where we want to go so we go to our customers and ask: ‘Where shall we go?’ Many people have said we just need to add more products. Look at Oracle, look at SAP. Add ERP and inventory or compensation. Add all this stuff. What we realized is we’re the customer company. We’re the front office solution and our customers would be really upset if we just added a whole bunch of stuff and lost focus. First of all, we have to make sure that we stay true to our CRM roots and transforming the customer relationship. Let’s take the Analytics Cloud, for example, which is a new product that we launched at Dreamforce last year.

We could take analytics and think about it as this separate thing, that we’re going to take over all of analytics and look at all the traditional vendors. Maybe eventually we could, but we’re a very iterative company. We’re not saying it’s analytics for everything, we’re saying it’s analytics for understanding your CRM, analytics for understanding your relationships with your customers. That’s where we’re strong, that’s where our customers are.

I can’t tell you exactly the root to $50 billion, but what I can tell you is it will be through leveraging where we’re strong and continuing to grow from that base and having our customers guide us. Since we’ve gotten into analytics, we had a lot of feedback from our customers, like: ‘We want analytics in particular to not be just in the hands of the analysts. We want it to be in the hands of every user. We want it to be mobile.’ I think we have one of the best implementations of a mobile analytics offering. We want it to be social and we want it to be deeply integrated so when you use our analytics you’re authenticating with Salesforce. When you’re looking at the data, it can come straight from CRM.

Where do you see the biggest growth opportunities? You talked about marketing, automation, analytics, SMB with the Sage partnership recently announced and then verticalization was mentioned. Where do you see the biggest opportunities here?

Harris: We’re not done in salesforce automation. We have a lot of market share, but there’s still a lot to do and you can see that with some small startups, some of which we’ve acquired. We acquired a company called RelateIQ, a fabulous little company that’s doing data science to help you understand who you should be contacting, who are the hot leads.

In service, there are two things happening. One is a lot of old technology is basically needing to be turned over and that happens pretty much every decade. It’s time to look at all those old systems and that’s an opportunity.

Also, the reason to do customer service has changed. It’s not that we need to save money, or we need to deflect calls, or support is too expensive. Often, when we’re selling our service offering, it is the head of marketing saying: ‘We need to service our customers better.’ If that customer is not happy, then all of a sudden they are on social media and that affects the brand and the head of marketing cares a lot about that. The head of sales might care about it also. I think that in service there is a lot of space.

Marketing automation is a highly fragmented market right now, as you know. We see huge growth there. I think we’re just beginning. We traditionally have sold a lot to B2B companies, [but] with the ExactTarget acquisition we’re working with a lot of the consumer brands, Coca-Cola being one of the five best customers that we have. We’re expanding out. I think that’s probably our fastest growing product line right now, but also that’s a lot of work for us. We’ve got to be smart and continue to focus on the right areas there and make sure it’s deeply integrated with our CRM because, again, that’s our advantage — not that it’s a stand-alone marketing product, but the fact that you can market and use your CRM data and service data to collaborate with.

Analytics is a new area. We have an incredible trove of data. It’s not our data, it’s our customers’ data. We have really good core analytics, but when you want to do more advanced analytics and you want to make it really mobile and social and you want to do more trend analysis, we’ll get into data science more and more to give you more value in the data you have and augment it with other data that’s really focused on CRM analytics. That’s where we will stay rooted.

Analytics Cloud is the fastest product I’ve seen, from essentially beta pilot, Dreamforce and customers were buying it. Wow, that’s really fast. EMC is using it. Who are some other customers, early pilots? Verizon, I think is using it, GE. These customers can buy any analytics. Why are they buying it? Because it’s deeply integrated with Salesforce and because it has this amazing UI and it’s combined with this new data store, a search index data store, fully, deeply integrated, which makes it able to do amazing things at scale even on your mobile device.

If you think about when we started Salesforce, it was essentially like mainframe computing. You’re in a browser, the browser is its own terminal, you go to the cloud, the cloud is the mainframe, crank everything, give it back. What we have on our phones now in terms of computing power is phenomenal. How can we start to use the computing power on your desktop, on your laptop, on your mobile device along with the cloud to create amazing solutions, especially with analytics? To do that you need a brand new way of thinking about the technology.

Do you see the growth going forward still centered on people within the sales and marketing organization or do you start to branch out to other buyer sets?

Harris: I think where we’re headed is we’re talking more and more to the CEO. It’s not so much going adjacent to the heads of HR and other departments. The CEOs are the ones, and that’s what I meant by the transformation. They’re seeing the success that we’re making, they’re hearing the stories of other customers and they’re seeing their customer base change so they’re coming to us saying ‘help us rethink this.’ It might end up touching other departments, it might not. Our goal is not to sell another packaged software to another department. Rather, [we think in terms of] how do we create an integrated strategy for a corporation to change how they’re connecting with their customers? That’s always been our goal.

We want is to raise the level of discussion. I think that’s also why we hired Keith Block, who joined us, to really change that relationship at a C-suite level. [Ed. note: Block is a former Oracle sales executive who is now vice chairman and president of] I think that’s also frankly where industry verticalization comes in because we need to speak in the customer’s language.

Japan Post Bank was here, one of our big customers. We need to speak in terms of banking to them. We can’t speak in terms of high-tech or generic CRM right now. That’s fine at first but we need to say what does it mean for banking? What does it mean for your bank? What does it mean for Japan? Because we built such a powerful platform, it’s not like we’re creating this separate product off to the side, like there’s a banking product over there. Who are the partners out there that banks are already using? If the integration is happening with each customer, why don’t we just think about pre-integrating with those packages and then when we go into a bank, say here it is, all done. Let’s just put it all together so we can have that conversation up front.

I want to talk about how you see the industry evolving. It goes back to the buyer requirements. We’ve seen — whether it’s in PC software or mainframe software, client server — that it’s tough to be in a single product category over time. Partly, it’s tough because it’s a challenge for companies to keep enhancing the product and keep rolling it forward.

Harris: And it creates bad products. If you’re just doing that one product line all you’re doing is adding features, you’re going to get feature bloat and you’re going to end up being this useless piece of software, really complex.

But I think some of it also comes from customer requirements of not wanting to have to deal with lots of different vendors. There’s an integration challenge for them, there’s a contracting challenge, management challenge, all of that. Do you see this taking place in the cloud industry over time? Are we going to see stitching together the HR, the financial, everything into one cloud package or does it evolve differently?

Harris: I don’t really believe that any one vendor should ever do it all because the minute they do it all, they’re going to get old. What I believe in very strongly — and we try to do this behind the firewall — is having services that integrate together, that work together and then as things evolve, how do you pull things out, add new things? That’s what I’m doing with my service so why can’t corporations do that? I think the reason is it’s really hard, behind the firewall, to do that because you’re just repeating the same thing over and over again. That’s why consultants have so much business and that’s why integration companies have so much business because they’re going in and they’re doing the same thing over and over again.

How do you do that once and provide it for everyone? That’s where I’m a big believer in cloud computing and platforms. We have a platform, AppExchange. I can pre-integrate things. Microsoft is finally a great partner of ours. We can pre-integrate with Microsoft. We’re doing that today in Office 365. I do it once because it’s cloud-to-cloud and you get that benefit. That’s instead of saying: ‘You want to integrate your Exchange with Salesforce? We have consultants and we have a way to do that. Here’s the SOW, let’s come in and do that.’

You’re seeing that also at the low end. Little companies that we look at and we admire. Slack is kind of an interesting company. [Ed. note: Slack is a platform for team communication.] They’re pre-integrating all that stuff and there’s a ton of value in that pre-integration. Pre-integration wouldn’t be possible if those services didn’t have APIs, if they weren’t platforms, if they weren’t on the Internet on cloud.

I don’t think that there will be a massive consolidation. I think some companies may try to do that. If that were our strategy, we would become old, slow, adding tons of products and I really don’t believe one company can do a fantastic job at that breadth, making it fully integrated and everything working perfectly.

Do you think that customers will be willing to continue to use best-of-breed cloud solutions because in the past they seemed perfectly willing to give up best-of in order to get somebody else to handle the integration.

Harris: Because integration was expensive. I do think that from a contract perspective, customers more and more will start to look for one relationship or one contract and I think we need to find ways [to deal with that] from a business relationship perspective. I was just out in Boston with Schneider Electric, a big partner. An amazing innovator.

They’re asking us how to help them think about the partners they use and not just from a contract perspective, but also from a support perspective and so we’re working with them on that. But we’re working with them because we want to solve Schneider’s problem, not solve our view of how to work with these other companies. We’re going to figure out how we can serve them. We’re going to let our customers guide us. I do think that there will be some demands of the really large corporations.

The other part of this, though, is that software companies find it more challenging to grow within a single area. I don’t think any cloud provider is near market saturation but as they get closer, as the growth slows, that’s the other force that pushes companies to broaden their portfolio. What I’d love to understand is five years from now, what does the cloud industry look like?

Harris: Bigger. I think we will see a lot of innovation at the low end, just as we came in and innovated when Siebel was the big player. As a company we have to constantly look for how to disrupt ourselves. We’re investing in these small companies. We’re buying these small companies. We somehow manage to bring in lots of crazy personalities. We had an event yesterday for a lot of our portfolio companies that we’ve invested in, just trying to teach them things that we’ve learned. [We talked to them about our] management model, which we call V2MOM, which is the planning process to align everyone.

It’s important to be aligned but also not overly, super organized, everything’s perfect. We try to create some chaos. We have Service Cloud. Service Cloud is awesome. We looked at Zendesk and Zendesk is doing a great job. It’s a great company.

How can we learn from that? We study them, we talk to them. We ended up buying a company called Assistly and that’s now called, branded a little bit in direct competition against Zendesk. You might ask why we are doing that because we already have Service Cloud and now we have this other thing. We accept that. We like to have a little bit of conflict and disruption, controlled chaos, which helps us continue to innovate. I don’t think I’m answering your question exactly though.

Do you expect there to be fewer cloud suppliers or more?

Harris: I think that there will be more and more at the low end. Some of them will break out. I think that’s been true forever in the industry and I don’t think that will ever stop. That’s why we’re looking at how we continue to learn from those companies. I think that there will be more partnerships at the high end and there certainly will be acquisitions in any activity. We’re always looking at opportunities. That’s also part of that dissonance that we try to create.

We’re always saying take a beginner’s mind and explore if there’s something else we should get into. We look at the whole landscape of IT and the market in general and look at where we play and where our customers want us to play, where our competitors are and what acquisitions we could do.

I still believe heavily that we have to be careful about having this ego and hubris as a successful corporation that we should do it all. Because then I think we start to fail our customers and we’re too focused on taking over the world. That’s not really our focus, world domination. Our focus is, let’s continue doing what we started with, which is CRM and changing the way our customers are connecting with their customers.

The Microsoft example is a great one. When Steve Ballmer was the CEO we didn’t have as good a relationship. He came down and was pitching us and it wasn’t the most collaborative meeting. He was saying: ‘You should write from my new tablet. It’s great.’ But it wasn’t really a two-way street. With Satya Nadella, it’s a much better relationship so we’ll continue to partner with Microsoft. With Workday and other companies that don’t partner with us today, maybe they’ll open up over time. Maybe some of those partnerships move into wanting to do more and build joint products. Maybe we’ll acquire companies. I can’t predict how we’ll consolidate.

I don’t think there’s going to be a complete consolidation because I think the dynamic of any market, especially in cloud, is it’s so easy to build new stuff. I think that disruptive force from the low end will keep coming in and it’s not going to allow some dominant player like us, for example, just to sit there and grab the pieces and say we’re going to solve everyone’s problems. These little companies will have a better way to do it. They’re going to be nimble and that’s why I constantly try to figure out how I keep innovating as we get larger.

Will any of the big packaged software companies that are trying to make the transition to the cloud become dominant players in the cloud?

Harris: I don’t know. It’s a hard cultural change to make. It’s a hard revenue model to change, to move from perpetual licenses to subscription revenue. You need bold leadership that will make those changes. Some companies are making that shift. I still believe it’s very hard to keep your feet in both places and that’s where a lot of these vendors are trapped because of their existing base.

How do they make that shift? I’m frankly amazed that in 16 years we don’t we have a real competitor of scale that’s doing pure-play cloud against us. It’s just not there. Part of it is because the hegemony of the past. This new model of cloud computing has really disrupted, just like we’ve seen in the past. When client-server came in it disrupted a lot of those mainframe companies. Cloud is doing the same thing.

If I’m a CIO or CEO and I’m listening to the Oracles, the SAPS, the IBMs and others talk about their transition and their status as cloud companies, what kinds of questions should they be asking? How do they get at the heart of whether you’re really a cloud company?

Harris: How are you going to make me successful? I think those companies are trying to have a good conversation about technology and you get buried in a conversation of whether it is multitenant or not, is it on premise, is it hybrid cloud? You’re just talking about technology and that’s fine and I love doing that.

But why does it matter? How are you going to give me new upgrades of your technology? We do upgrades three times a year transparently through our customers and yet we honor all of the customizations and configurations and programming that they’ve done. That’s a really hard problem to solve and a huge amount of value that the customers get. The word ‘upgrade’ is a bad word in enterprise computing. You’ve got to do an upgrade. Ooh, you don’t want to do an upgrade. For us it’s actually a good thing and we brand it. If you’ve seen our releases, we let our customers choose the logo. It’s branded by season. Summer is coming.

You don’t install summer. Summer just comes. If I were a customer I’d ask: ‘How do I get ongoing value from you and not have it be frozen in time at the point that I bought from you and implemented you?’ Then it’s this huge expense. At EMC I watched as they converted from Oracle Financials to SAP. This sea of cubicles of consultants and employees, and what are they all doing? They’re moving to SAP. It’s a big project. It was because of years of customization, years of not moving to an update cycle. It was a really hard problem. The customer should be asking: ‘How are you going to make me successful?’ Not: ‘Why is your technology better?’

Shift the conversation from technology to the customer’s success and see what they say. Maybe they have answers for how they solve that with traditional products, on-premise, maybe they’re in the cloud. I used to go with on-premise software. It’s not that any company is bad. I just think there’s no way to solve that in a great way. I don’t know what you do with it, I don’t know how you’re running it. I don’t know where you installed it.

Then when you have a problem or you want to upgrade it, I can’t really help you. I can send consultants but I’m the head tech person. But if I’m running it for you I could put my CTO on it and if you have area that you’re concerned about, let me get that architect to work with you.

I can’t afford in an on-premise world to fly the architect to every customer. They do that for their top, top customers but even then [it’s difficult] for that architect to understand what’s going on here and how to help you. We’re proactively doing that. We have data scientists that are saying: ‘I think they’re going to have a problem. Let me get the architect to go look at that.’ Then I call up Herve [Coureil, CIO] at Schneider and say: ‘You know what? We just fixed something for you. You were headed towards this problem. Let’s talk about how to configure things going forward so you won’t hit that again.’

Talk about how you see the platform market evolving. A lot of this competitive battle in the future centers on who owns the platform and who controls development. How do you see this shaking out? We’re also seeing blending of that where even the Infrastructure-as-a-Service guys are getting some PaaS.

Harris: I’d like to see more openness. It’s kind of funny. I’ve been watching Pivotal as an offering and each vendor who’s adopting it trying to put in their own proprietary stuff so that their version has good stuff, but then you’ll be locked into that. That’s not really focused on the customers. It’s an old-school way of doing it.

I’m a big admirer of Amazon. I think they’ve done a fabulous job. I think Microsoft is catching up. I think Microsoft has a better enterprise view of the world in terms of serving their customer base. It’s also getting commoditized so I don’t think there is any vendor who is going to come in and say they’ve got a better AWS. Maybe I’ll want to choose a different service. You’re seeing things like OpenStack out there that you can run internally. You see Microsoft doing the public/private kind of thing. I think that’s kind of a given now, that you should be running your service on some layer that’s abstracted, virtualized, automated.

People are still holding onto their physical computers and they think that that gives them control and security. It’s a false promise so there’s still vendors and success there, but I think everything eventually will be running on some substrate, probably multiple. I don’t think there’s any one solution out there. The APIs for running on these services are more and more standardized, Amazon being kind of the leader. So we’ll have that layer and then I think there are solutions on top of that. We’re providing a solution for CRM and a platform for CRM and all the things that surround that. That makes us very successful because we’re not trying to build and serve up a generic platform.

I think it’s a tough business to compete in, to try to own. Microsoft succeeded for years because they owned the operating system. Apple is very successful in a way. Look at the breadth of their mobile platform and the walled garden. But even there people are building a lot of cross-platform. We’re building stuff — I never thought I’d say this — in C++ as cross-platform code, especially in our analytics library so that it will run across Android, iOS. Even though there’s a proprietary nature to these platforms, I’m very bullish about open source for the future.

Back to solutions, what are you solving? For us, we’re solving CRM and a platform to support that, even Heroku, which some people are using as a generic platform. Coca-Cola is using it to build consumer-facing apps for their distributors, their retailers, their drivers, all different apps on this platform but connected to our integrated Service Cloud. When the distributor is doing something it’s great to have that app connected to who the customers are. Now the customer has their app. Well, those are the same back-end so that information about the customer can be augmented and you get that 360-degree view.

I talked about three or four months ago with Charles Phillips, CEO of Infor and he described you guys as essentially a Version 1 cloud company because you’re running your own infrastructure and that’s yesterday’s news. What do you say to that? Is there a point at which you don’t need to run your own infrastructure?

Harris: There might be.

Is there any disadvantage to being in that part of the business still?

Harris: I don’t see our competitive advantage as we have to run infrastructure or not run infrastructure. To date, our customers have strongly wanted us to run the service for them. We do a lot of work around security and some of our top customers want to walk through our data centers, for example. On public cloud right now that’s not really possible. You don’t walk into an Amazon data center. You don’t walk into an Azure data center.

We follow our customers. Again, the customer is saying: ‘We want to trust you right now.’ We started the company before Amazon and all those other companies, so I’ll agree with Chuck Phillips a little bit in that we started before these things even existed. We didn’t have a choice. So we built an infrastructure that is amazing. It scales, it works great. But we’re exploring opportunities. We have services running on public cloud. Heroku is on public cloud, RelateIQ is on public cloud, is on public cloud.

We actually have a very hybrid view of the world. The leader running all our data centers and our strategy worldwide came out of Microsoft and Azure. For me, it’s all about automation. Some services will be appropriate for public cloud and we’ll have that flexibility and we’ll see where the industry goes. We’ll see where pricing goes frankly.

Which I think was his point, that there’s going to be such a battle in platform that Infor will benefit from price reductions.

Harris: I think that could be true, but I hear that Dropbox or Box, one of those two, is feeling like costs are skyrocketing. I need to figure out how to get off of public cloud so I can save money. People will argue religiously if it is less expensive or more expensive. I’m agnostic to it. We’ll see.

And we’ll see where our customers want to be because we’re not competing in that layer. I really don’t care. I’ll use whatever our customers want us to use and we’ll solve the higher level problems.

What is the secret of running infrastructure at scale? What are the key things?

Harris: It’s really hard. There are a few things. I do believe that the shift to software-driven data centers is really important. Charlie Bell from Amazon years ago, a good friend of mine, was saying: ‘At Amazon we hired software engineers to essentially run the data centers because someone who is a traditional hardware person who understands how to plug a computer in, they’re going to think differently.’ He’s absolutely right. The magic of running a data center at scale is automation.

Randy Kern, who we hired, built Autopilot for Azure, Microsoft’s automation layer. You need to have that in order to scale, in order to deal with fault tolerance if something fails. Humans are too slow so you need software to catch that and deal with failover. You need software to deal with security, to understand what’s going on.

You can’t just be monitoring with one person or a handful of people looking at it. You need computers, data science and so it’s all about software eating the world, as Marc Andreessen says. Software is eating the data center. I think that’s the secret of running at scale.

We built this amazing multitenant service that actually didn’t require a lot of hardware. That was pretty cool. So it wasn’t a big issue for us. It was great. We have made the most beautiful, multitenant, scalable service but now what we’re doing is we’re expanding out in some areas like analytics where you want to scale out and file storage, billions of files. We want to scale that out.

As you go to more of these scale-out services, you want more and more automation and more data centers and maybe you want public/private cloud. So I think software, in the short answer, is the key to creating data centers to scale.

At this stage of your growth and going forward, what is the biggest pinch point in the data center that you need to solve?

Harris: Efficiency and just the problems that we’re solving. They’ve had to solve different problems to scale. They buy sets of computers and storage containers, massive amounts of prebuilds, prefabricated. That’s where we’re moving, to more of the prefabricated.

When it’s prefabricated, what is the software to take that and build it from bare metal up, from the box to the files to the operating system? We have lots of different software now that we run, whether it’s these small acquisitions, our core, the ExactTarget. How do we bring all those together and run those as heterogeneous services while on a common layer and know that while they’re running they’ll deal with failover, deal with security.

There’s also the demand for international data centers. We launched a data center in the UK. We have one in Tokyo. We’re launching one this year in Germany. We’re building more in France, in Canada, in Australia. We’re building all these data centers worldwide. Automation is really important so that we can go in and create data centers really quickly. Eventually I’d love to have a data center in a box, and just say: ‘Great, you need a data center in this place, we’re just going to put it there.’ Maybe we’ll even use public cloud.

You guys made giant leaps in agile development a few years back.

Harris: We did, yeah. I think it was probably eight or nine years ago. We actually had hit a crisis point where we’re naturally agile as a small group but we released our software every three weeks, four weeks, then it was every two months, once a quarter. But then it slowed down. It was twice a year, once a year. This was early on and we had a lot of infighting. We said we’ve got to solve this.

You actually stopped the ship and made this major change over to agile development methodology.

Harris: I did.

Based on your experience running development here, what do you see as the future of development?

Harris: A big project we’re working on is developer productivity because I want to make sure the developers who come here feel like they have the best tools, the best services. Part of it is, in the lingo that’s being churned out a lot these days, micro services. How do you have a very large service run and yet I can just work on my piece of it and I can compile my piece of it and test my piece of it and release my piece of it and debug in production and have the metrics to know whether people are using my area of service. Why are they not using it?

That’s really hard and I think some companies are arguably ahead of us in this. Some we’re learning from, some are way behind. We’re taking our code base and breaking it down into pieces, creating more services, more APIs, separating out layers, the UI layer separate from our core back-end, changing the UI. I worry a lot less about changing the UI than I do if you change the database, data models, stored procedures — all the stuff in the back-end where bad things could happen. It could corrupt data.

A lot of things in this world now in development are more and more design led, so how do you have a design-led culture? To be design led you need to be able to build great UIs quickly, iterate, build your piece of the service quickly. That’s where we’re going. We have a bigger challenge than a lot of companies, I think, because the value throughout our customers is we have one beautifully integrated, multitenant, metadata-driven service. That means it needs to be integrated, the metadata all needs to be integrated. Now I want to take that at the back-end and pull the pieces apart so that people can work on the different pieces and, yet, when it runs, it all comes back together. That’s hard.