Salesforce founder Parker Harris on how companies innovate

The co-founder of the pioneering SaaS company explains how it handles new ideas and stays ahead of technology trends

Parker Harris delivers the keynote at Salesforce World Tour Toronto in May 2016 (Photo: Salesforce Canada)

Parker Harris delivers the keynote at Salesforce World Tour Toronto in May 2016 (Salesforce Canada)

In his first software job, Parker Harris had to field a lot of calls from angry accountants—in French. “It was at Honeybee Software in Old Montreal, a massive company of around 10 people,” he recalls. “We were doing customized accounting software for the Mac.” Harris wrote code and handled customer support.  “If the debits didn’t equal the credits and they had to close the books and the CFO was yelling at them, they’d yell at me, and then I’d have to go find out why there was a bug in our software.”

Tracking down an error is easier these days, because all Harris’ code is in the cloud. Harris is the co-founder of Salesforce, the massive enterprise technology company that was the first successful example of software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivered via the Internet.

Pre-SaaS, enterprise programs came on CDs. Companies would install it, then modify it according to their needs and to integrate it into their workflow. When there was a problem, the customer service agent you called first had to figure out what system and configuration you were running, then try to diagnose the problem over the phone. “With cloud computing, I’m running it for you,” says Harris. When there’s a problem, Salesforce can switch a team or high-level person onto solving it on short notice because it has direct access to the back-end. “Every software program can have a bug. But we can track that down and solve things for you much, much faster.”

Salesforce assigns its executives responsibility for top cities rather than regions, and Harris—who’s married to a Montrealer—chose Toronto and Washington D.C. While in town earlier this month to deliver a keynote at the Toronto stop on the Salesforce World Tour, Harris spoke with Canadian Business about cloud computing, innovation and what he’s learned about leadership since starting the company in 1999.

Here are some highlights from our exclusive interview.

Cloud computing isn’t a new concept any more, but it seems that not everybody has accepted it yet. Why?

Some people worry about what I call “trust,” which has always been our number one value. Instead of asking and understanding it, they say, “Well, I’m not going to use cloud because it’s not secure or it’s not available.” It’s kind of a loss of control more than anything that engenders that fear.

Take security. Some people will say, “Cloud would be less secure.” I would argue cloud is more secure. Let’s say I sell to Air Canada or Merrill Lynch in the United States or Sompo Japan. They come and look at us—they’re testing and auditing us. So I think about my compliance and audits and security teams as an amalgamation of all of our top customers’ teams. So imagine if you had the best people in the world helping you be secure, helping you be compliant—you’re going to be much better. If you’re doing it on your own you don’t have all those resources.

Let’s say I find something that I can enhance to become more reliable, secure, and trusted, I can change that. Instead of saying, “Did you upgrade to that version of Salesforce to get that enhancement to make you more secure and more trusted?” you don’t worry about that, because everyone’s always on the same versions, everyone’s always getting the same updates.

You’ve acquired and launched different technologies over the years, like an enterprise wearables platform. When you see one of these new tech movements coming over the hill, how do you decide if it’s something Salesforce needs to be in?

I see myself as part of a team of people that are watching where the world is going. We see it from events like [the Salesforce World Tour], where we get out and talk to customers. We see it in companies that we invest in. And we also try to get as many really smart people in our company that are challenging us. Add to that a real culture of transparency and openness, where anyone can speak up, challenge ideas, and talk about where we’re going—almost to a fault. It can be chaotic at times.

We have a planning process that Marc [Benioff, Salesforce’s CEO] invented at Oracle Corp. It’s called the V2MOM process, for Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, Metrics: We take all of those ideas, everything that we need to do, and then we prioritize it in a document. For the next year, what is our vision? What are we going to do? What are our values—three words that are very important? Trust, growth and innovation, are the ones for this year. And then what are our methods, in priority order? What’s the first thing we’re going to do, the second thing, the third? What are our obstacles? That’s the “o”—what’s going to stop us from being trusted? We can talk about nation-states and employees who click on malware. Those are all obstacles to being trusted. And then metrics: How do we know we got there?

Do you have a theory of innovation? 

Geoffrey Moore has a new book coming out, based upon work he’s done with us and with Microsoft. You watch where the world’s going, but then how do you actually get innovation out the door?

You can cultivate a lot of different things, but in incubation they’re all small, and you haven’t really bet on any one of them—you’re letting a thousand flowers bloom. The problem in companies is when they expect a bottom-up approach to innovation to result in actually getting a lot of things done. That doesn’t work. You have to actually pick one, or maybe two. What are you really going to bet on? It’s not just building the innovation, it’s selling it, servicing it, supporting it, legal. You have to choose one and then communicate to the company that it’s important for everyone, and that everyone needs to get behind it.

So for us, for example, analytics is very, very important as a new business, and the whole company is behind that. If you’re not careful and you don’t have a process like that, then everything that runs your current business and drives all the revenue gets all of the dollars and investment, and you end up killing any possibility of new things coming along. It’s the new things that bolster your longevity as a company.

So that’s in contrast to innovation for innovation’s sake or ideation for ideation’s sake?

We have no shortage of ideas, of people who want to build things, or have directions we could go. It’s almost endless. Most companies have all kind of innovation happening inside their companies, they just can’t figure out how to do anything with any of it.