People

Bret Taylor is the future of Salesforce

After the sudden departure of Salesforce co-CEO Keith Block, veteran Silicon Valley product guru Bret Taylor seems poised to lead when Marc Benioff says "aloha."

Bret Taylor of Salesforce

Bret Taylor, seen onstage at the Dreamforce conference in 2019, is now Marc Benioff's presumed heir apparent.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bret Taylor had already enjoyed a pretty remarkable career in Silicon Valley before he was named president and chief operating officer of Salesforce late last year. A new phase of that career began this week.

The surprising departure on Tuesday of co-CEO Keith Block, who by all outside appearances was designated as the successor to Marc Benioff the day he assumed the co-leadership role in August 2018, establishes Taylor as the clear second-in-command at Salesforce. When Benioff eventually decides to stop running the cloud-computing pioneer and instead split his time between political work and walking the beaches of his beloved Hawaiian islands, it now seems likely he'll turn the company over to the veteran product executive.

Back in December, when Taylor was elevated to the chief operating officer role, cloud watchers viewed him as second in line to the Salesforce leadership chair behind Block. Block's departure appears to accelerate that timeline. "It's been feeling like [Taylor's] being groomed for the big chair somewhere down the line," said Brent Leary, founder of CRM Essentials, in December when Block still seemed like the immediate heir apparent.

Taylor's resumé speaks for itself: Benioff cited his "tremendous lineage" on a conference call Tuesday with financial analysts who posed several questions about Block's departure. Taylor is now responsible for "Salesforce's global product vision, engineering, security, marketing and communications," the company said in December.

A recent ex-employee of Salesforce told Protocol that many inside the company were caught off guard by the timing of Block's departure. But people inside and outside the company are not surprised that the move positions Taylor to be next in line. As Danny Elman, an analyst with Nucleus Research, put it to The Street: "Given … Taylor's rise in the company over the last few years, it seems he may be a likely candidate for CEO in the future."

After joining Google out of Stanford in 2003, he "co-created" Google Maps, according to his LinkedIn profile, and also helped organize the first Google I/O, now an annual stop on many a software developer's conference circuit. After leaving Google, he founded Friendfeed, which became arguably one of the most important acquisitions in Facebook history a few years later.

Taylor joined Salesforce in 2016 after it acquired Quip, an office-productivity software startup he co-founded and led as CEO that attempted to raise the bar for a generation of workers accustomed to Microsoft Office or Google's G Suite. Benioff named him president and chief product officer in 2017, and elevated him to the operations role last December.

"He's one of the absolute rising stars in our industry," Benioff said in 2016 after Salesforce acquired Quip for $750 million. Salesforce declined to make Taylor available for an interview and pointed to its December announcement when asked about the evolution of his role at the company.

Taylor rode two separate waves to reach this point in his career. Friendfeed was the catalyst for several extremely important social-media product features: The company was the first to introduce the concept of a "like" button to social media feeds.

That insight made Friendfeed one of the first companies — a list that includes social media rivals Instagram and WhatsApp, later acquired by Facebook — to expose some gaps in Facebook's product-development strategy. After Facebook acquired Friendfeed for $50 million in 2009, Taylor became chief technology officer at Facebook. He oversaw technology development during a period in which Facebook cemented its grasp of social media and went public.

Shortly after Facebook's IPO in 2012, Taylor left the company to start Quip, which came up with a new take on word processing, spreadsheets and slide presentations. Quip did not have quite the same impact on office productivity software that Friendfeed had on social media, but it won converts for its design and functionality, as well as a deep admirer in Benioff.

"It's been my dream to work more closely with Bret Taylor," Benioff said back in 2016.

Taylor is a well-known influence in design thinking within tech product circles, so his ascension also lines up nicely with the introduction of design thinking in enterprise software. Back when Salesforce was just getting started, enterprise software was designed by engineers for engineers, and foisted on a company's various business departments by a centralized IT department.

Cloud computing changed that forever, allowing the finance department to choose tools designed around their needs without having to get formal permission to install that software on a company-managed server. Once that train had left the station, a realization started to dawn on enterprise software product managers and investors: What if people actually enjoyed using the software needed to get their jobs done?

Salesforce already understood this, but once Taylor joined the team, he became the design-thinking evangelist inside the company. By putting him in charge of the whole global product vision, Salesforce is tasking Taylor with keeping the $158 billion company on track as both larger and smaller companies take aim at the enterprise software market.

When Salesforce began its ascent, Benioff's salesmanship was needed to convince skeptical enterprise software buyers that cloud software could be just as good as self-managed software, if not better. Over the next decade, product expertise is likely to play an even more important role, as Salesforce looks for external growth engines and nurtures internal projects.

"It would actually be cool to have someone with serious product chops running a really big software platform for the corporations," said Om Malik, partner at True Ventures, a longtime admirer of Taylor's.

Revenue is a lagging indicator of Salesforce's performance: Almost 93% of Salesforce's revenue is deferred over the length of a multiyear agreement, Benioff said Tuesday, which means the impact of product and strategy decisions the company made several years ago takes time to show up in its financial results. Since Taylor joined Salesforce, revenue has doubled, from $8.4 billion during its 2017 fiscal year to $17.1 billion during its 2020 fiscal year, which ended in January. The company reiterated its strong revenue forecast this week. Now it will be up to Taylor to make it happen.

At some point over the next few years, he's likely to assume full control of one of cloud computing's most iconic companies. "[Taylor is] a generation behind the current leadership, but his experiences at startups and creating iconic technologies at iconic companies uniquely positioned him for a move like this at a company like Salesforce," Leary said in December.

Following Block's departure, Taylor is poised to have an even greater impact on the future of Salesforce. "Bret has a very clear opportunity to help Salesforce evolve from what it is — a quasi cloud company with a bunch of loosely connected SaaS apps — into a data-centric ecosystem that helps companies do things," Malik said.

Policy

The Supreme Court’s EPA ruling is bad news for tech regulation, too

The justices just gave themselves a lot of discretion to smack down agency rules.

The ruling could also endanger work on competition issues by the FTC and net neutrality by the FCC.

Photo: Geoff Livingston/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision last week gutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions didn’t just signal the conservative justices’ dislike of the Clean Air Act at a moment of climate crisis. It also served as a warning for anyone that would like to see more regulation of Big Tech.

At the heart of Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision in West Virginia v. EPA was a codification of the “major questions doctrine,” which, he wrote, requires “clear congressional authorization” when agencies want to regulate on areas of great “economic and political significance.”

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Some of the most astounding tech-enabled advances of the next decade, from cutting-edge medical research to urban traffic control and factory floor optimization, will be enabled by a device often smaller than a thumbnail: the memory chip.

While vast amounts of data are created, stored and processed every moment — by some estimates, 2.5 quintillion bytes daily — the insights in that code are unlocked by the memory chips that hold it and transfer it. “Memory will propel the next 10 years into the most transformative years in human history,” said Sanjay Mehrotra, president and CEO of Micron Technology.

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Enterprise

Microsoft and Google are still using emotion AI, but with limits

Microsoft said accessibility goals overrode problems with emotion recognition and Google offers off-the-shelf emotion recognition technology amid growing concern over the controversial AI.

Emotion recognition is a well established field of computer vision research; however, AI-based technologies used in an attempt to assess people’s emotional states have moved beyond the research phase.

Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft said last month it would no longer provide general use of an AI-based cloud software feature used to infer people’s emotions. However, despite its own admission that emotion recognition technology creates “risks,” it turns out the company will retain its emotion recognition capability in an app used by people with vision loss.

In fact, amid growing concerns over development and use of controversial emotion recognition in everyday software, both Microsoft and Google continue to incorporate the AI-based features in their products.

“The Seeing AI person channel enables you to recognize people and to get a description of them, including an estimate of their age and also their emotion,” said Saqib Shaikh, a software engineering manager and project lead for Seeing AI at Microsoft who helped build the app, in a tutorial about the product in a 2017 Microsoft video.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Climate

How I decided to shape Microsoft’s climate agenda

Lucas Joppa went from studying ecology to shaping one of the tech industry’s most robust climate plans. Here’s why — and why CEOs should consider hiring more people like him.

Lucas Joppa, chief environmental officer of Microsoft, told Protocol about the company's plans.

Photo: David Ryder/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Click banner image for more How I decided series

Microsoft has set a number of lofty climate and environmental goals. Forget net zero: It wants to be carbon negative by 2030. Ditto for water.

Keep Reading Show less
Brian Kahn

Brian ( @blkahn) is Protocol's climate editor. Previously, he was the managing editor and founding senior writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate site, where he covered everything from the weather to Big Oil's influence on politics. He also reported for Climate Central and the Wall Street Journal. In the even more distant past, he led sleigh rides to visit a herd of 7,000 elk and boat tours on the deepest lake in the U.S.

Fintech

There’s a secret hub for fintech talent: Look south

Far from Silicon Valley and Wall Street, Atlanta has long been a hub for payments technology.

Atlanta hasn’t gotten its share of the fintech buzz, perhaps because its founders are less prone to tweetstorming.

Illustration: iStock/Getty Images Plus; Protocol

San Francisco has Square, Stripe and Plaid. But Atlanta has CoreCard, Kabbage and CheckFree. It also lays claim to pioneering charge cards, electronic payments and ATMs. Many of the everyday innovations in fintech we’ve come to rely on have the Atlanta metropolitan area to thank.

Yet Atlanta hasn’t gotten its share of the fintech buzz, perhaps because its founders are less prone to tweetstorming and its products don’t have developers rhapsodizing about APIs. Atlanta’s fintech scene has developed around a stabler, more cautious ethos: less move fast and break things, more stay safe and build things. At a time when fintech valuations have fallen sharply from their lofty peaks and regulators are circling, that may make Atlanta a more favorable place to place fintech bets, whether that means founding a company, investing or hiring local talent.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

Latest Stories
Bulletins