Bold. Provocative. Assertive.

These are but a few of the ways you could describe Tiffani Bova, the former Gartner distinguished analyst and research fellow who recently joined Salesforce.com.

If you study the channel, you no doubt know Bova. She’s followed by more than 20,000 people on Twitter and has delivered nearly 250 keynote addresses to approximately 300,000 people the world over in the past decade. If she wasn’t the first to call for the channel to transform its business models as cloud computing gained global momentum, she certainly was the most vocal advocate for change. She was among the first to suggest that partners develop their own intellectual property (IP), transition to recurring revenue-based business models, and replace (actually fire) salespeople who could not adjust to new market realities.

Time and again at conference after conference, she told business partners directly and unapologetically that they must transform their businesses if they wanted to survive the technological and business challenges posed by digital innovation. When she did, she often sent waves through her audiences.

Though not everyone agreed with her, they couldn’t help but listen.

As she settles into her new role as Salesforce’s Global, Customer Growth and Innovation Evangelist, Bova took time recently to reflect back on her work as a thought leader and change agent within the channel, and outline what exactly she’ll be doing at Salesforce, which created the new job just for her.

At times strong-minded and at others humble in the interview, Bova concedes that she didn’t always predict the future accurately. But she insists that she felt compelled to speak her mind on its vulnerabilities and opportunities because she felt an affinity for partners from the very first. One of her earliest channel gigs: vice president of indirect sales and programs at, fittingly enough, Affinity, an up-and-coming web hosting provider of the day.

What Made Her Realize the Channel Had to Change and Where Is It in Its Transition?

Believe it or not, Bova says she didn’t set out to be a change agent. In fact, she says only realized some disconnects after “stumbling” across the cloud in 1999. “I realized that there will always be a role for that traditional partner. But I knew that technology was going to shift in a way that was transformation to the way that organizations would conduct their business,” she says. Instead of merely supporting and securing a business with infrastructure, applications and data, technology would soon enable new abilities and drive new outcomes within every industry imaginable.

“I remember speaking at partner events in the early 2000s and telling partners ‘I know you all want to have lunch with your servers, but there is a better way with recurring revenue.’ I tried to make the case that there was a better business model to embrace by wrapping services around the server. But partners were always worried that some other partner or brand would come behind them and while they were not looking replace the work that they had done,” she says.

“Almost 16 years later, I think the channel has made huge strides in managed services, in getting higher-end consulting services, being more solutions driven, etc. But the problem is that the amount of change that has to happen in the business model itself keeps partners so reliant on traditional vendor programs, be they MDF, co-op dollar or lead generation programs and more. It gets very difficult for partners to unwind themselves from that business model and to make the investment in areas that they need to going forward,” she says.

This is why “born-in-the-cloud” channel companies, which typically do not depend on vendor incentives or leads, have been so successful in recent years.

What Will Become of Channel Companies That Cannot Transition? Should Others Struggling with Transition Have a “Cortés Moment” and “Burn Their Ships” on Traditional Business Models?

The best bet for those struggling, she says, is to align themselves with an agile cloud provider that can help them transition their customers to the cloud without stealing their business. But burning the ships on traditional transaction-oriented sales?

Not to mix metaphors, but she says “a student body right” move isn’t the wisest for most companies. Small partners with less than $10 million in annual revenue simply do not have the capital to finance such a move or create a new business division. A better move? Take several employees and align them with a company like Salesforce that can help jump-start a new revenue stream around a platform. In the case of Salesforce, this may entail aligning with AppExchange or Force.com. The problem arises when results don’t start pouring in. The effort might simply be too small to gain any market momentum, which is why Bova says peer-to-peer partner may be a better way to go.

Making Predictions: What She Got Right, What She Got Wrong

Over the years, Bova made a lot of pronouncements.

Right or wrong, she adds, “I’ve always been impressed with the resiliency of the channel. From reseller to value-added reseller to solution provider to managed services provider to cloud service provider, partners have been through five or six naming conventions and business iterations. And through it all, the channel has just persevered. For all intents and purposes, it still drives a tremendous amount of sales of technology for all the major manufacturers around the globe,” she says.

Even Dell, she notes, relies on the channel for as much as 30 percent of its commercial sales.

“I always put the flag way out. I had no expectations that when I put the flag out that everyone would run to the flag. If it was ‘you need to start to develop your own IP, you need to become more of an ISV, you need to think about telco solutions, you need to find your way through the cloud, whether it means reselling it, implementing it, integrating it, etc.’ I always knew I was planting the flag way out there. All I wanted the channel to do was feel a little bit uncomfortable and say ‘wow, maybe I am not thinking about this totally holistically.’ They didn’t always agree with me and that’s fine; those were great conversations when they didn’t. But if I could get them to lean just a little bit my way, then I felt I did my job. I think it was always important for me to really push that envelope whether it was cloud services brokerage, whether it was born in the cloud guys, whether it was talking about hybrid partners, etc.,” she says.

One thing she did that she didn’t get a lot of credit for was the advocacy role she played behind the scenes inside vendor businesses. On behalf of partners, she always advocated for more money, flexibility and exposure to other members of a vendor executive management team.

The Future of the Channel

There is always going to be a need for the channel, she says—and for traditional business partners. Even end customers that move everything to the cloud will need support when it comes to desktop machines, mobile devices, printers and more. There’s always something that has to be transacted and then integrated and fixed when broken, she says.

If there are a million partners worldwide today (a number she plucked from midair) she thinks there will be a million partners five years from now. They simply will be in different roles. There will be more born-in-the-cloud partners, more with hybrid business models and more developing their own software.

The reason that the “1 million” remains constant, she adds, is that customers need help, now and forever. And not just small ones. You’d be surprised how many Fortune 50 companies use very small partners to help them achieve their technology goals, she says.

Favorite Memory from Working within the Channel

Bova recalled a time when there were several trailblazers working in the channel that she looked up to. They included Allison Watson and Margo Day from Microsoft, and Allyson Seelinger from Symantec. “I wanted to be like them,” she says, which is a way of saying she wanted to be more capable, influential and successful.

When she reflects on her career, she points to a single slide in a presentation that she delivered a year and a half ago entitled “Flexing Your Confidence Muscles.” The slide includes a photo from a past channel event featuring Bova. Then, she stood among a group of fellow channel executives. Only in the photo, the normally confident, outwardly bold Bova stood with her shoulders slumped, her gaze downward. She recalls feeling like she didn’t belong. After she builds the slide, another photo of Bova from 15 years later appears. This photo reveals the confident Bova we have all come to know, striding across a stage at the Verizon Center in Washington in front of 15,000 people.

“My shoulders are back, my head is high because I felt I belonged there,” she says. “I worked awfully hard over those years and it’s been an amazing journey and [there were many people] who opened the door for me… I’m humbled by the support I’ve gotten and excited about what lies ahead.”

Why Salesforce, Why Now?

Bova spent 10 years at Gartner and pretty much accomplished what she set out to, she says. She takes pride for planting the flag that helped partners and channel vendor executives guide their businesses in times of uncertainty and transition. At Salesforce, she hopes again to work as an agent of change, albeit focused on end users. Ostensibly, her new assignment is to help Salesforce customers achieve better results with their technology investments. This includes Salesforce’s customers’ customers.

“When you talk about the trends in the market, whether it’s social, mobile, or cloud or big data or IoT or digitization, the unintended consequence of each of those has been an impact on the way in which companies have to sell. This includes the way they engage with customers on their journey, the content they give them, the tools they use, the skills they need from salespeople, the partners they need to work with, etc.,” she says. Technology, she adds, is the shiny thing in the corner. But if you cannot sell what it is you’re selling, it almost has no bearing on the business.

How Are Customer Outcomes and Experiences Evolving? What is the New Benchmark?

Bova was drawn to Salesforce, she says, by “it’s complete focus on the customer’s success.” But what defines that is evolving, she says. The distinction between a consumer and a business customer? That’s gone. Businesspeople are consumers in the office and consumers are professionals at home. And they both want business technology to operate as flawlessly and as easily as their mobile devices and social media services. What is more, they want their personal and professional data, and all of the apps and services associated with these, readily available anywhere, anytime with world-class security and ease-of-use baked in.

Her Role with Partners and Alliances Going Forward

After working in it and then studying it for more than a decade, Bova has a deep passion for the channel. And she plans on following it in her new role. The channel, she says, is the tip of the spear for innovation and development for manufacturers and has been for a long time. While she won’t have any direct influence or responsibility from a management perspective over the Salesforce channel, she will nonetheless be an internal resource and provide guidance and insight when called upon. From a personal perspective, she plans to stay close to her contacts and touch points in the community, and follow their work closely.

As for her assessment of the Salesforce channel? She says its very good—one of the best, in fact. The company has mature programs for engaging ISVs, consultants and born-in-the-cloud delivery partners, especially, and is constantly improving its tools, platforms and systems.

In her now role as an evangelist, Bova will be tasked to go forth and tell the story of where and how trends will impact the way customers sell their own products and services to the marketplace.