Cognitive computing. Artificial intelligence. APIs for rapid software development.

If you’re keeping score of who is pursuing the hottest trends in technology, don’t overlook Salesforce. As part of Salesforce’s Spring ’17 celebration this week, the company announced the general availability of Einstein, which is Salesforce’s core AI engine. It’s something the company has been talking about for many months.

Salesforce also introduced Einstein Vision, a set of new APIs that helps developers of all sizes “build AI-powered apps fast.” This includes apps that leverage vast troves of images including photos and graphics.

Writing for Talkin’ Cloud, my colleague Nicole Henderson says Einstein will “bring a data scientist into every customer and partner organization.” What Salesforce is trying to do, she adds, is democratize AI for all. Today, Salesforce counts powerhouse corporate giants including Air France-KLM, Seagate and US Bank among those leveraging Einstein. Tomorrow? The list could include companies like yours.

Amid this backdrop, I want to share some insights on the Salesforce channel ecosystem, courtesy of Neeracha Taychakhoonavudh, senior vice president of partner programs and enablement at Salesforce. Taychakhoonavudh and I sat down recently for 1:1 interview in San Jose.

Here’s some of what she had to share.

The Business Model: Everyone is doubling down on the cloud
Even naysayers have given up their opposition to the cloud, Taychakhoonavudh says. The reason? The benefits of cloud computing are undeniable. “There is no C-suite anywhere around the world that is not trying to incorporate cloud into their strategy,” Taychakhoonavudh says. As for the future, cloud will only continue to grow as young entrepreneurs, who grew up sharing data in the cloud, build their businesses and make their mark on existing employers. Cloud does one other thing, she adds: it unites partners, vendors and customers in a unique way. “All have to work together to achieve success in a cloud model,” she says. “And that’s a powerful driver of growth.”

 

 

Neeracha Taychakhoonavudh, senior vice president of partner programs and enablement, Salesforce

 

The Technology Model: What Salesforce Stands For
Salesforce believes in public clouds. And multi-tenancy. It also is a big believer in democratic paradigms. “You can be a small chain of florist shops and run on the same infrastructure as GE or Bank of America,” she says. “That egalitarianism is a big part of how Salesforce sees the world.” Case in point: more than 250 Salesforce partners have signed up to participate in the “Pledge 1%” initiative that asks companies to donate 1 percent of their time, product or money to charitable causes. “You don’t need to be super techie to achieve success in the Salesforce ecosystem; we’re a world of citizen developers, which links back to some of our core social philosophies,” Taychakhoonavudh says. “If you’re not in synch with this model, you will eventually struggle [in our ecosystem.]”

The Partner Ecosystem: What Makes Salesforce Different
When Taychakhoonavudh joined the company seven years ago from Oracle, partnering was in its nascent stages. But even before then, the company was focused on other companies. In 2006, for example, Salesforce unveiled its enterprise app store known as App Exchange. There are more than 3,000 apps on it today. Since its debut, it has helped drive more than 4 million installs. Each one of these touches anywhere between a dozen to a few thousand users. From an expertise perspective, Salesforce has awarded more than 80,000 partner certifications in 15 different disciplines spread among more than 37,000 individuals. Then there’s the resale difference. Salesforce, Taychakhoonavudh notes, has very few resale partners. The company has some ISVs who OEM its technologies. And it has a handful of cloud resellers, most of whom operate in emerging markets such as South Africa. But Salesforce depends on partners just the same. Just three years ago, partners helped drive 42 percent of the company’s business. Today that number is 52 percent and growing. Taychakhoonavudh says help by doing everything from co-selling to influencing to OEMing to cloud reselling. What makes that figure all the more impressive is that Salesforce is growing by nearly 30 percent annually. Lastly, she adds, Dreamforce, the company’s annual tech conference that literally overruns San Francisco, is “basically fueled by our partners.” In 2003, for example, the event attracted fewer than 50 sponsors. Now it boasts more than 400.

The Shift from Back Office to Front Office Automation
When she started her career, Taychakhoonavudh sent email from a command line. She’s an industry veteran, in other words. For most of her career, tech companies, including many of her former employers, focused their energies on back office automation. But today the action has moved to front office automation, which is being driven by the twin trends of SaaS innovation and line of business buying. Salesforce was one of the first tech companies to look beyond IT procurement specialists to business buyers. And it hasn’t looked back since. “The customer is at the center of everything,” Taychakhoonavudh says. “The industry isn’t about deploying ERP and saving money on the amount of time it takes to open a purchase rec and then pay your vendor. It’s about adding value to things that add to customers’ top lines.”

The Rise of AI: It’s All Anyone Can Talk About
Every day, Taychakhoonavudh hears from partners who want answers to questions including “how are we going to embed AI [into systems] to rebuild business processes to leverage machine learning and algorithms?” The arrival of AI, in other words, has put pressure on partners big and small to operate with more agility and efficiency. This is where Einstein comes it. It offers AI that is automatically built into the Salesforce platform. If you’re an ISV and write to the Salesforce API, for example, you can call on the machine learning algorithms that are already provided for you. What this means for partners is this: you may not have to hire a data scientist, assuming you can find one for less than $120,000 to help jumpstart your AI business; instead, you can leverage the power of Einstein.

The Future of the Channel Ecosystem
At Salesforce, everything comes together in a platform. This is where shared services, mobility and applications come together, no to mention where customers and partners congregate. “I tell customers they have one of three basic options: you can buy one of Salesforce’s apps; you can write your own using the modern development environment we have created; or you can buy from a third party,” says Taychakhoonavudh. So what is the definition of a partner? “It keeps changing every day,” she says. Regardless of semantics, partners, she adds, are growing in importance to Salesforce. Today, the “influence factor” that partners have on the global Salesforce economy is significant. In 2015, for example, IDC calculated that Salesforce partners generated approximately $2.90 for every $1 dollar of business that Salesforce did on its own. Today that number is more like $3.40 and expected to grow to $4.10 by 2020. What does this translate into raw dollars and jobs? How about tens of billions of dollars in global commerce and more than 2 million positions worldwide.

To stand out in this environment, Taychakhoonavudh recommends that partners specialize by industry, segment, function, geography or product innovation. This includes traditional channel companies searching for “the next big thing.” Taychakhoonavudh, for one, holds out that one or more will surprise the industry with a disruptive approach to technology sales and integration.

“To be successful today, you really have to sure of your role in the middle [between customers and vendors,]” says Taychakhoonavudh. “Some people can get that and other cannot.”