Dreamforce 2014

Hey, folks. If you’re in the tech industry, you’ve probably heard of the annual Dreamforce expo. For that week, San Francisco’s Financial District is flooded with business owners and enthusiasts seeking the latest advancements in technology. I’m neither of those; when the expo happened last year, I noticed everyone wearing little blue lanyards and merely wanted to get one for myself. I followed the trail back to the Moscone Center, politely asked about the event, and managed to get inside despite knowing absolutely nothing going in. It was an eye-opening experience. I got a look at some of the more technical aspects of businesses, and managed to make myself look like I actually belonged there.

This year, I signed up well in advance. The regular passes for the keynote speeches cost over a thousand dollars, but anyone could sign up for a free pass to the showroom floor. I couldn’t go on Monday due to weekly errands and scheduling. Nor could I go on Tuesday, as that was reserved for paying attendees. I finally made it on Wednesday, though getting the pass was a bit of a hassle. According to the sign-in schedule, attendees had to go all the way to the Hilton near Union Square. It was hardly a problem – I regularly hike around the city – but it was more time consuming than expected. I later learned that I could’ve gone straight to the desks at the Moscone Center. It’s okay, I got to see the inside of a famous hotel and had a little extra morning exercise. Checking in was no trouble at all; Salesforce made it as easy as typing in an email address and showing proper ID. The people running those desks were…tired. I’ve had my tours in the trenches of retail services, so I know how that goes all too well. Dealing with thousands of people will drag anyone down quickly. Still, a smile and a little courtesy would’ve been nice. The gentleman who gave me the lanyard didn’t even bother including the extra slip of paper that had event information. When I asked for one of the fancy Dreamforce backpacks I saw everyone carrying, I was coldly informed they were for paying attendees only.

Well then. My trusty North Face pack is better anyway.

As I made my way back down to Moscone, I was struck by how crowded the streets were. I mean, that part of San Francisco is always crowded. But this? It was like every square inch of sidewalk was covered with bodies, so much that actually staying on the sidewalk wasn’t always an option.  I’m always surprised by how many people are willing to jaywalk through oncoming traffic just to get a few extra seconds ahead. Never mind the self-endangerment and all potential the accidents. A little common sense goes a long way. A lot of credit should be given to the folks handling the mess of pedestrian and vehicle traffic on those 4th Street intersections. At Moscone Center proper, security was even more on the ball. Take more than a few steps onsite without a pass, and they’d be on you in a heartbeat. I saw at least two or three people being escorted out of the green concert area, as well as a confused pedestrian getting into an argument with an officer. Considering the high-profile guests at these events – including Hillary Clinton as a speaker – it wasn’t surprising. Come to think of it, I wonder what their procedure was for dealing with contraband; everyone was wearing backpacks carrying who-knows-what, so something being snuck in would’ve been a possibility. I happened to be hauling my three-foot umbrella, but only one attendee called me out on its resemblance to a sword.

Shortly after getting inside the building, I found a table serving free salad containers and lemon-flavored soft drinks. I was struck as how they were just handing these out. If you’ve ever been to the Financial District, you’d know its homeless population is huge. Poverty is one of San Francisco’s most prominent issues. It’s almost bizarre to see the two opposite ends of the wealth spectrum shoved into such close proximity. I recently saw a man wearing nothing but a blanket standing amongst a small crowd of businessmen. Most corners, subway entrances, and major storefronts have at least one person with a sign and cup. The security detail must have swept through the surrounding blocks and kicked all the beggars out of the area. Yet at the event, you could get a nice lunch for free, so long as you showed up with a pass. As I guiltily ate my lettuce and beef strips, I decided to give my next free meal in the city to a homeless person. I actually did so the other day, but that’s another story entirely.

After crossing the concert area – someone onstage was belting out Michael Jackson covers – I ducked into Moscone West.The booths hadn’t changed much since last year. Seemingly endless rows of desks and tables, each boasting a different business brand, piles of cheap pamphlets, free swag, and representatives practically shouting their sales pitches over the roar of the crowd and music. If you’ve read about my shyness and introversion, you’d know that this crazy, chaotic setting is the exact opposite of what I enjoy. For a couple of seconds, I actually considered bailing. After some deep breaths, I slowly, methodically checked out each booth for anything interesting. Most of the representatives were far too busy to notice me at first, so I took the opportunity to read pamphlets and nab free goodies while waiting. When they finally got to me, I put on my most confident, yes-I-really-do-belong-here attitude and let them do the talking. The entire time, I felt like an imposter sneaking into a high-security fortress. I’m not a techie by any means, but I’ve got more than enough experience with operations and procedures to understand what was being sold. Most involved client communication and data management, though there were some interesting things being done with robotics and gyroscopes. I politely nodded along with their sales pitches, asked a few questions, and gave them my contact info. Rinse and repeat a few dozen times, and I toured the whole building in one day.

Some high (and low)-lights include:

-Tracking down Vidyard. Every time I tweeted something about the expo, these guys would immediately message me back. So, I made a point of actually finding them:

-The Coca Cola booth had special bottles made for the convention, but they weren’t for sale:

-The new Tesla car model on display. I couldn’t get a good picture due to the huge crowd around it, but the interior is sleek, and the dashboard interface looked amazing.

-Free books. Just like last year, attendees could get their hands on Salesforce’s manuals for the programming and development of their products. It took over half an hour to get through the line, but getting this kind of information is valuable. Who knows, maybe I’ll start developing an app…

The Oculus Rift. Yes, they had a demo of the virtual reality system ready for use. It was…unimpressive. Wearing those huge, clunky goggles was uncomfortable, especially since I had to take off my glasses to use it. It was supposed to simulate the interior of a car, but the textures were far from realistic, and the touch-based interactivity was inconsistent at best. Opening the virtual car door involved not a smooth, natural motion, but lots awkward flailing. Hopefully the next build will be better.

-T-shirts. One section of the second floor was devoted to a series of t-shirt printing stations. People could sign in, choose what color and design they wanted, have the artist press the design by hand, and send it through a drying machine. I think I impressed the gentleman handling my shirt; rather than making him do all the work, I handled the pressing myself. I ended up choosing a purple shirt, which was the least of three evils. It was either that or a garish light blue or bright orange. I’ll get a picture posted on here once I’ve ironed out the wrinkles.

-The lei. The third floor had a distinct Hawaiian theme to it. Not sure why it was chosen, but it worked decently. Lots of bright colors, a photo stand with fake waves, and decorated surfboards. They were also offering a chance to win a free trip to Hawaii. I went to Maui earlier this year, so of course I couldn’t turn it down. Entering the contest involved using Salesforce’s new info displays to run a mock Hawaiian-themed business. It was ridiculously easy to figure out (seriously, how hard is it to read a bar graph or pie chart?), and I finished the challenge in seconds. What caught my eye, however, were the leis decorating the stand. I put on my sweetest and most polite face and asked a representative for one, and was turned down…so I waited until another rep passed by and asked again.

Let me tell you, wearing a Hawaiian lei on BART is one heck of a conversation starter. Most guys wouldn’t be caught dead wearing something like that, but I worked it with style. I strode confidently out of Dreamforce 2014 with a beautiful wreath of flowers around my neck, several new potential business contacts, a backpack full of books…and a killer backache from hauling around so much stuff. But it was worth it. Here’s hoping next year will be even better.

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