Tracking Salesforce’s push toward developers

Salesforce's recent investments suggest it's building a developer-centric suite of tools for the cloud.

SalesforceHave you ever seen Salesforce’s “no software” graphic? It’s the word “software” surrounded by a circle with a red line through it. Here’s a picture of the related (and dancing) “no software” mascot.

Now, if you consider yourself a developer, this is a bit threatening, no? Imagine sitting at a Salesforce event in 2008 in Chicago while Salesforce.com’s CEO, Marc Benioff, swiftly works an entire room of business users into an anti-software frenzy. I was there to learn about Force.com, and I’ll summarize the message I understood four years ago as “Not only can companies benefit from Salesforce.com, they also don’t have to hire developers.”

The message resonated with the audience. Salesforce had been using this approach for a decade: Don’t buy software you have to support, maintain, and hire developers to customize. Use our software-as-a-service (SaaS) instead.  The reality behind Salesforce’s trajectory at the time was that it too needed to provide a platform for custom development.

Salesforce’s dilemma: They needed developers

This “no software” message was enough for the vast majority of the small-to-medium-sized business (SMB) market, but to engage with companies at the largest scale, you need APIs and you need to be able to work with developers. At the time, in 2008, Salesforce was making moves toward the developer community. First there was Apex, then there was Force.com.

In 2008, I evaluated Force.com, and while capable, it didn’t strike me as something that would appeal to most developers outside of existing Salesforce customers.  Salesforce was aiming at the corporate developers building software atop competing stacks like Oracle.  While there were several attempts to sell it as such, it wasn’t a stand-alone product or framework.  In my opinion, no developer would assess Force.com and opt to use it as the next development platform.

This 2008 TechCrunch article announcing the arrival of Salesforce’s Developer-as-a-Service (DaaS) platform serves as a reminder of what Salesforce had in mind. They were still moving forward with an anti-software message for the business while continuing to make moves into the developer space. Salesforce built a capable platform. Looking back at Force.com, it felt more like an even more constrained version of Google App Engine. In other words, capable and scalable, but at the time a bit constraining for the general developer population. Don’t get me wrong: Force.com wasn’t a business failure by any measure; they have an impressive client list even today, but what they didn’t achieve was traction and awareness among the developer community.

2010: Who bought Heroku? Really?

When Salesforce.com purchased Heroku, I was initially surprised. I didn’t see it coming, but it made perfect sense after the fact. Heroku is very much an analog to Salesforce for developers, and Heroku brought something to Salesforce that Force.com couldn’t achieve: developer authenticity and community.

Heroku, like Salesforce, is the opposite of shrink-wrapped software. There’s no investment in on-premise infrastructure, and once you move to Heroku — or any other capable platform-as-a-service (PaaS), like Joyent — you question why you would ever bother doing without such a service.  As a developer, once you’ve made the transition to never again having to worry about running “yum update” on a CentOS machine or worry about kernel patches in a production deployment, it is difficult to go back to a world where you have to worry about system administration.

Yes, there are arguments to be made for procuring your own servers and taking on the responsibility for system administration: backups, worrying about disks, and the 100 other things that come along with owning infrastructure. But those arguments really only start to make sense once you achieve the scale of a large multi-national corporation (or after a freak derecho in Reston, Va).

Jokes about derecho-prone data centers aside, this market is growing up, and with it we’re seeing an unbeatable trend of obsoleting yesterday’s system administrator.  With capable options like Joyent and Heroku, there’s very little reason (other than accounting) for any SMB to own hardware infrastructure. It’s a large capital expense when compared to the relatively small operational expense you’ll throw down to run a scalable architecture on a Heroku or a Joyent.

Replace several full-time operations employees with software-as-a-service; shift the cost to developers who create real value; insist on a proper service-level agreement (SLA); and if you’re really serious about risk mitigation, use several platforms at once.  Heroku is exactly the same play Salesforce made for customer relationship management (CRM) over the last decade, except this time they are selling PostgreSQL and a platform to run applications.

Heroku is closer to what Salesforce was aiming for with Force.com.  Here are two things to note about this Heroku acquisition almost two years after the fact:

  1. Force.com was focused on developers — a certain kind of developer in the “enterprise.” While it was clear that Salesforce had designs on using Force.com to expand the market, the existing marketing and product management function at Salesforce ended up creating something that was way too connected to the existing Salesforce brand, along with its anti-developer message.
  2. Salesforce.com’s developer-focused acquisitions are isolated from the Salesforce.com brand (on purpose?) — When Benioff discussed Heroku at Dreamforce, he made it clear that Heroku would remain “separate.”  While it is tough to know how “separate” Heroku remains, the brand has changed very little, and I think this is the important thing to note two years after the fact. Salesforce understands that they need to attract independent developers and they understand that the Salesforce brand is something of a “scarecrow” for this audience. They invested an entire decade in telling businesses that software isn’t necessary, and senior management is too smart to confuse developers with that message.

Investments point toward greater developer outreach: Sauce Labs

This brings me to Sauce Labs — a company that recently raised $3 million from “Triage Ventures as well as [a] new investor Salesforce.com,” according to Jolie O’Dell at VentureBeat.

Sauce Labs provides a hosted web testing platform.  I’ve used it for some one-off testing jobs, and it is impressive.  You can spin up a testing machine in about two minutes from an array of operating systems, mobile devices, and browsers, and then run a test script either in Selenium or WebDriver. The platform can be used for acceptance testing, and Jason Huggins and John Dunham’s emphasis of late has been mobile testing.  Huggins supported the testing grid at Google, and he started Selenium while at ThoughtWorks in 2004. By every measure, Sauce Labs is a developer’s company as much as Heroku.

Sauce Labs, like Heroku before it, also satisfies the Salesforce.com analogy perfectly. Say I have a company that develops a web site. Well, if I’m deploying this application to a platform like Joyent or Heroku continuously, I also need to be able to support some sort of continuous automated testing system. If I need to test on an array of browsers and devices, would I procure the necessary hardware infrastructure to set up my own testing infrastructure, or … you can see where I’m going.

I also think I can see where Salesforce is going. They didn’t acquire Sauce Labs, but this investment is another data point and another view into what Salesforce.com is paying attention to. I think it has taken them 4-5 years, but they are continuing a push toward developers. Heroku stood out from the list of Salesforce acquisitions: It wasn’t CRM, sales, or marketing focused; it was a pure technology play. Salesforce’s recent investments, from Sauce Labs to Appirio to Urban Airship, suggest that Salesforce is become more relevant to the individual developer who is uninterested in Salesforce’s other product offerings.

Some random concluding conjecture

Although I think it would be too expensive, I wonder what would happen if Salesforce acquired GitHub. GitHub just received an unreal investment ($100M), so I just don’t see it happening. But if you were to combine GitHub, Heroku, and Sauce Labs into a single company, you’d have a one-stop shop for the majority of development and production infrastructure that people are paying attention to.  Add an Atlassian to the mix, and it would be tough to avoid that company.

This is nothing more than conjecture, but I do get the sense that there has been an interesting shift happening at Salesforce ever since 2008. I think the next few years are going to see even more activity.

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  • Luancx

    I am a software developer and studied some how salesforce work. I agree with you. It’s growth potential is overexaggerated due to this reason.