by Thomas Wailgum

Cloud Computing’s Messiah: Marc Benioff’s Cult of Personality

Nov 23, 2009
Enterprise Applications

Are you a believer in the Cloud Gospel of's CEO? His followers -- and ego -- grow larger each day.

To a rapt and packed-house last week, CEO Marc Benioff preached to the assembled masses—the 19,000 devotees attending the Dreamforce event in San Francisco, the 10,000 congregates on the edge of their seats during his keynote, the 3,000 faithful in the overflow room across the street, and the untold numbers listening in via the Internet. (It’s all true, because Marc pointed all that out.)

“It is a sign that something here is happening in the software industry,” Benioff declared.

Marc Benioff Dreamforce 2009

At the outset of his sermon, which was laden with self-congratulation, hype and hyperbole, he tried to turn the spotlight on the fervent passion of all of those who worship at the altar. “This company was created because of you,” Benioff intoned from his pulpit, the choir nodding in approval. “This company was created because of the fundamental belief and inspiration you had in this model and this company. And we recognize that each and every day…. The reality is, it’s about you.”

But last week, Benioff’s seemingly crowd-affirming sentiment couldn’t have been more wrong and disingenuous. Dreamforce was not about the customers. Dreamforce was partly about and its new offerings, but much more noticeably, it was about Benioff posturing himself as a latter-day cloud computing evangelist: The Savior with SaaS Software. The Cleric of the Cloud. The Evangelist of the End of Software.

Benioff promised a “90-minute or so” keynote. But 76 hours later, the showman was still going, and going, and going. Did anyone care? Didn’t seem like it. Benioff’s devotees in the Dreamforce audience, who dutifully lapped up his every exaltation, pronouncement and rewrite of software-industry history (to suit his own scripture), made Steve Job’s Moscone Center audience seem like the crowd at a Michael Richards’ standup comedy performance.

The Dreamforce Twitter feed (#df09) overflowed with more praise than heretical questions—though there was a handful of those and a few snide comments. Someone called him “IT’s P.T. Barnum.”

Part of me kept expecting a CIO who was “afflicted” by his company’s use of Siebel CRM to be carried up to the stage, and then The Minister of Software Maladies would exorcise the demons from the CIOs’ convulsing body: “You are saved, my brother!!” Benioff would proclaim, as he slapped his palm to the CIO’s forehead, pushing him back into a group of employees.

Benioff, of course, hales from the House of Larry Ellison (who’s either the Antichrist or Second Coming in this whole scenario, depending on your license terms with Oracle), spawned from the depths of Oracle’s Redwood Shores. So he learned from the master of enterprise software chicanery and self-aggrandizing presentations.

Now Benioff appears poised to take his place on the throne: Dreamforce attendees sought his autograph. Benioff has now got security goons and hoards of “handlers.” He’s got “The Good Book of Marc”—his tome Behind the Cloud recently published, complete with plenty of self-laudatory observations.

So what’s the appeal? “Benioff has done a great job in simplifying complex products and concepts for the business user,” says Ray Wang, partner in enterprise strategy at Altimeter Group, via e-mail. “This flies in the face of the complexity often marketed by his competitors. It’s like the Mac vs. PC debate. The hype is more real than not, though many customers find disappointment when they realize that their processes may require a bit more complexity than they expect.”

But what about Benioff, the man, the myth, the legend? “Marc exudes passion, excitement and energy,” Wang says. “He’s in the same class of Scott McNealy, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs and Steve Ballmer in not only inspiring a vision, but also being responsible for delivering on a promise. Marc’s been evangelizing a way of life, a new movement, and now that movement has proven to be mainstream. Just see the SaaS versus on-premise growth numbers.”

I saw Benioff speak at Oracle OpenWorld. As he was working the masses with ease, I could just as easily picture him preaching to impressionable young folk out in a desert compound in the middle of the Utah Salt Flats. The man can sell a vision. He’s got talent.

He’ll need every bit of it as he tries to convert potential customers to use Chatter,’s latest product. Bruce Richardson, chief research officer of AMR Research, describes Chatter this way: “Think meets Facebook and Twitter in a secure, private social network.” And while there was the to-be-expected level of enthusiasm for Chatter at Dreamforce, Richardson knows there will be a tougher sell to come.

“Despite my enthusiasm, faces two serious hurdles: crusty managers and a plethora of competition,” he writes in his blog. “While I can see the increased productivity opportunities, I know one CFO who would see Chatter as the ultimate time-wasting tool. And I’m sure Dr. No is not alone.”

I’m all for new products that shake up the staid enterprise software industry, but all this self-centered Benioff zeal is getting to be a little too much for me. As for those 19,000 who were in Benioff’s presence last week? I’m guessing most are true believers.

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