The face of Salesforce, the $US35 billion cloud software company, is its larger-than-life CEO Marc Benioff.
What many often fail to recognise is that he didn’t launch Salesforce by himself. There were three other cofounders: Parker Harris, Dave Moellenhoff, and Frank Dominguez.
While Moellenhoff and Dominguez are no longer at the company, Harris still remains very involved with all product and engineering decisions. Harris is the quiet #2 man behind Benioff.
But that doesn’t mean he’s shy or introverted by any means. He has proven to be an eloquent public speaker and has shown a sense of humour that plays well off of Benioff’s more flamboyant style.
We found Harris to be funny, genial, and down to earth. But he was also very sharp and competitive in nature, at one point saying, “I want to keep beating a lot of people, frankly.”
Still, it was clear Harris didn’t have the greed and ego that has come to define many Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs. He’s fine with Benioff taking most of the recognition. He just wants to be remembered for the company and products he’s helped build.
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:
Business Insider: Tell us more about your first meeting with Marc Benioff.
Parker Harris: It was 1998, so I was 33, I wasn’t that old. I was much younger than I am now. I had a small company that myself and actually two other cofounders of Salesforce were running. We were doing consulting at Saba Software, which was down in Burlingame right near Kinkaid’s, and the CEO Bobby Yazdani agreed to introduce me to Marc, really as a favour because he wanted to hire us and get our help building Saba, but we told him we really wanted to do something on our own.
And so he introduced me, we had lunch, I remember Bobby and Marc drinking tea, it was kind of my one memory, sitting around the table, and we were just talking about this idea. There was some talk, Marc was also an investor in Saba, so there was some talk of Saba’s business, and that kind of reminds me even to today of Marc’s ability to be involved with so many things, he’s quite the maven in ideas and just being aware of what’s out there. So on one hand, he was talking about Saba’s business and on the other we were talking about this idea of Salesforce. And after the meeting, Marc and I took a walk to the parking lot, and he said, “Is this something you’d be interested in doing?”
And it was…I didn’t really know who Marc was, but I just had this feeling that great things could happen whether it was that first idea or the next one, that was kind of, from that point on that was the feeling I got in being with him.
BI: What did he tell first you? Did he kind of just give you a 2 page business plan?
PH: At first, obviously he did not hand the business plan to me at the lunch, but he said, “Look, I want to start this company, a software service,” and we’ve been doing some early software service work, some for Saba and some for other startups, and it was around sales force automation, which we knew very well from our previous employment at Metropolis Software. And so, that combination and the ability to go and start something and get some funding to start something in the space that we had experience in was just super exciting. And then reading the business plan, it was short, it was like 3 pages, but it was very cogent, and made total sense.
You have to remember we were 3 guys in an apartment with a small consulting company paying our salaries, so in terms of risk, we had already taken the risk and we were way out there, and so, starting a company with Marc was not a massive risk, it was just an exciting opportunity.
BI: So in Benioff’s book, you told him: “We’re some of the best people you’ll find in the Valley.” Where did that confidence come from? How did Marc respond?
PH: I don’t know where it came from. It was just something I believed in. It was just something that I believed deep down, that I knew I had the talent. Dave Moellenoff, who became the original CTO of the company and my other cofounder, he’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, and I would atttribute to him a lot of the core architecture of the service.
And I think my ability to translate — that English literature degree ironically helped. I have been programming in 8th grade, but I was able to also work the other side of my brain, and that helps me translate, when I’m talking to Marc, who’s also technical by the way, and then when I’m talking to someone deeply technical, like a programmer. It’s not just about being an engineer.
BI:But did you guys kind of not take it too seriously at first? In the book, it says Moellenhoff told Marc, “It’s a crackpot idea.” Was it more about getting access to Marc’s Valley connections, hoping it would lead you to new opportunities?
PH: No, that was just kind of in the back of my mind, like an insurance policy, you know? I just knew…nothing terrible could happen, that was really where that came from. But we took it very, very seriously, and the pace we went at, once we grabbed on the idea, was fast. We had to wind down some of our consulting contracts, we didn’t want to drop the customers right away, and that’s part of the philosophy that we carry to Salesforce, it’s really taking care of our customers. But even before we officially started, we were starting some of the coding.
And then once the official date started in April, we were cranking this thing out, because we just had it inside us. We knew sales force automation, we’ve been doing cloud computing pretty early, and it was just super exciting because we saw the possibilities of what we could do in using cloud computing to provide enterprise software, which we knew we could just provide a better solution. We were thinking about scaling to the world. We were thinking of these big world ideas of building a service and we took it very, very seriously. We were coming into it, saying, “This is great.” We were having fun, we were young, it was awesome.
BI: Can you tell us more about that first lunch with Marc?
PH: Marc really used that opportunity to have more of a private conversation with me. The lunch was more social, it was more kind of getting to know each other, and it was conversations with Bobby and what was going on at Saba. And it was at the parking lot that Marc really pitched me and said, “Is this something you want to do?” And it was definitely something I wanted to do, and that was kind of how we felt. So the next stop was getting Dave Moellenhoff on board. He had an opportunity with a small company, and he was doing some consulting for another company, in a very different space, and it was a debt arbitrage company that was later sold to Moody’s, financial services, so a lot of cash no stock, so it was just a different kind of world.
And part of it was Dave just being a little conservative. Dave was kind of playing devil’s advocate with Marc, just more as an interview process for Marc. I was sold on day on. I just thought this is going to be great. Marc’s awesome, the idea’s solid, we knew sales force automation, we knew we could do it better than most people, given the experience we had, and then I knew I needed Dave as well.
For me, it’s not about the ideas, it’s about the people, and that’s why with Marc it was so important. I was like, “Wow, this is amazing,” but I needed Dave Moellenhoff as that other piece. He really sealed it for me because I really needed his expertise as well.
BI: Looking back, why do you think Marc was so insistent on you guys? You’re an English major with no big company experience – what made you such a great partner for him?
PH: You have to know Marc to understand that. Marc’s a very intuitive person. He definitely will read the data, so he would read a resume, he would really try to understand the person on paper, and their experience. So he could look at my experience and get that. But I’ve seen him time after time when he’s interviewing people, you never know which way the conversation is going to go, and it very much needs to be in-person, face-to-face, looking at people in the eye, and he strives a lot on that intuition to build the company. And I think he and I just really clicked day one. And you know, it’s just a matter of trust.
And he knew a lot of smart people, you have to understand that. But he also knew a lot of smart people that he really wasn’t comfortable taking. There were companies that he was invested in, there were companies like Oracle where later, as you know in the story, he did get permission to bring over a few people, but he couldn’t just peel off part of Oracle and start this. And so, he was looking for the team, and I think he also valued that we were already a team. It’s hard to build a synergy of multiple people and we were already a team ready to go.
But you know, he did his diligence. Later, he invited us down to meet some of his top tech people, and we had lunch near Oracle. It was a Thai restaurant, I can’t remember what it was called, it was on the west of 101, so the other side of Redwood Shores. Jim Cavalieri, who’s still here, was at the lunch and some of the top architects of Oracle were there, and Marc was having them basically interview us. But he didn’t tell us about it. He was just like, “Hey, come have lunch.” And again, it’s an informal setting, food, talking, but that’s kind of how ideas and decisions get made here at Salesforce.
BI: You had a historically small engineering team. How did you manage to do it? Was it always about “Simple, fast, and right the first time”?
PH: I’ll attribute part of that to Marc. We were in the apartment, I don’t know, it was one of the first few weeks, and we said, “Oh, we need to get another developer in here.” And we interviewed a developer, and we thought, “OK, this seems like a good person to add,” and Marc said, “Hey, have you done a coding test? Have you really interviewed this person?”
And we’re like, “Coding test? Huh, no, we didn’t do a coding test. That’s probably a good idea. Why don’t we actually have him write some code, on the whiteboard, I think it was on the whiteboard at the time. So the person came back in and did the coding test, and we decided not to hire that person because, in fact, it would not have been the right person. And that was one of the things that was key to the culture, on day 1: we do need to hire people but we can only hire the best. And we’ll take our time if we can’t find the best. So that was part of it.
And then, yeah, “fast, simple and right the first time,” it was something that was ingrained in, you know, we wrote it on the board. And we said, “[these are] going to be our key values.” Part of it was we had to build something, an internet service that was fast to use. You have to remember, software-as-a-service was not something that was accepted. So people would say, “Oh, I need to run the software myself, because it’s not going to be fast if it’s running on the internet. I have to get all the way over to the internet to get it.” So it was all about speed.
And then, “simple, and right the first time” was about, you know, this was a service — it’s not something that I can ever throw out and start over again. It’s going to be this living thing that’s always going to have care and feeding. So it’s going to have to be simple and easy to understand.
And also the “right the first time” was about, “We’re not going to solve a problem if we don’t know how to solve it in the right way.” And some developers and the architects will say, “Oh I’m going to half around this for now, and I’ll fix it later.” But the problem is you never go back and really fix it later. And it really wasn’t a concept that we put, like, “Oh, we don’t want more than X developers.” We just were very very careful on how we grew and very careful about the code and architecture we wrote, and I think that’s why ultimately the service we built was efficient.
BI: So you grew up in North Carolina? How was your early childhood?
PH: I grew up in North Carolina. My father was a salesperson, he sold textiles. North Carolina was known for its textiles long ago, less so now with all the business going to China. I grew up loving computers and maths actually. I also loved English literature and French, but I became obsessed with computers when the Apple II was coming out.
I remember my school had some of the first Apple IIs in North Carolina. I remember when I first started using them we were using a cassette tape to store programs because we didn’t have floppy disk drives. And so you just recorded on the cassette tape to record, and it sounded like a model, the sound of the data being stored. And my grandfather who started a textile company in North Carolina gave me some money to buy an Apple II. And I bought one and started programming. So that was kind of the early days. And I think I was influenced by video games, simple ones like Pong, and I was fascinated by what makes that work and how do you draw something on the screen, and if you drew something, how does it know that it’s a ball, how do you teach it to do things?
BI: And then you went to Middlebury for college. How did you end up in San Francisco?
PH: I took a detour to France in my senior year in high school. So that’s part of what ended up sending me actually to Middlebury because I went to school with people who were more from the Northeast. And then from Middlebury, I went up to Montreal with my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, and then I started…I was in Montreal and I didn’t have a visa, and so I couldn’t really work at first. And my mother-in-law let me do some work in her house. And then I got actually a visa through the Free Trade Agreement, and started working at a company called Honey Beats Software in Montreal. And we did customised accounting software on the Mac in French, so it was arguably a small market. And I was doing the development, tech support, consulting, it was a ten person company, and we were working for various small companies in Montreal.
I did that for a number of years, and that’s where, and again, someone took a chance on me and I built a lot of software with them. And then the founder of that actually moved out to California, and gave me an opportunity. I was 25, and we said, “Oh, why don’t we go to California, we love San Francisco, let’s move out, it will be really fun.” And also of course, it was, for work, a great place to be. And so that’s really how we ended up out here.
BI: How would you describe your relationship with Benioff? What is it that make you guys such a good team for so many years?
PH: Well, first of all we’re very good friends, so that’s the basis of any good partnership. And I would say Marc is very much the idea guy. And I’d like to say I am as well, but it’s hard to keep up with Marc. And you read about him all the time, and he is out there, and he’s looking at the next idea. And he was like that when we met him, when he was at Oracle, I think that’s probably what Larry Ellison found so amazing about him, as well, that he’s just an idea maven. He’s looking at new companies, new ideas, he’s talking to leaders at all levels.
He’s not looking to talk to the most important people; he’s talking to the most interesting people. If you come to our Dreamforce event you see that. You see everyone from world leaders to Will.I.Am to Hilary Clinton, it’s all over the place. And that’s just an example of Marc’s insatiable appetite for these new ideas, and new trends and where we’re going. And that also translates to technology, technologies that we need to build, and companies that we look to purchase, when we acquire companies.
We also look at companies to influence us, and you know, we go, “Wow, look at what they’re doing. Isn’t that amazing?” And I have to assimilate a lot of that. And so, I kind of think that the balance is, Marc is kind of out there, he’s the idea guy, and my tendency is to want things to be organised, work together, make sense, and sometimes tolerate inconsistencies. But that’s where I try to make the software that we build to really work well together. We really focus on customers, that’s what helps align both of us. If we debate on what we need to do, we just go out and ask customers what they want.
BI: Does Marc wake you up, in a sense, to realise how far you can go?
PH: I don’t know if I’d phrase it that way. I think Marc, for example, there’s articles out right now about data science. And we’re talking a lot right now about what’s happening in data science. And we’re looking at the trends that we have gone through as a company, where we started the company, it’s all about cloud computing, and we’re still cloud computing. And then we went through this space on social, when Facebook came out, that was amazing. And then mobility, we transformed the company, we weren’t born as a mobile company, but every company today is, so we went through this mobile transformation. And we talk a lot now as a company about what’s happening in the world of data science, you know, with massive grids of computers, Internet of Things, devices, and all of this stuff we talk about. And then we market it, so you look at how we talk as a company, and then we market these things out to the world. And then we listen, and we take all of that back in.
And so Marc is showing us a vision, the direction, and I’m right there with him figuring out how are we going to get there. And he and I bounce ideas off of each other to try to make it the right path together.
BI: Marc’s this larger-than-life, former Oracle star executive, but does it ever cross your mind that you should be more out in public? To get more credit for what you’ve built?
PH: You know what, I actually think it’s fabulous and I’m very happy. What drives me, I’m not looking for that recognition, and I think Marc deserves all the recognition that he gets. That’s part, back to Marc being out there and really…he was just in Davos, and he gets a ton of his energy from that kind of interaction, being out there and talking to people, and as a result, of course, turns into PR and articles about Marc and his personality.
What drives me is the innovation and building things, and so you can kind of see me in the products we put out there and the services we put out there, and that’s what I’m behind and that’s what makes me happy. I’m a very simple person, so that’s all I really need.
BI: What do you want your legacy to be?
PH: I think the legacy is really the company that we built. We transformed an industry, and I think that’s fabulous. I think there’s lots of small companies that are out there that are looking at us and seeing what they can do from our influence. And I want to keep beating a lot of people frankly, so there’s a competitive edge.
And then there’s just the industry in terms of what we’ve done with our foundation. We’ve built a company that also gives back. It’s part of our culture, but we’ve influenced a lot of other companies.
And so the thing about legacy, you know, doing a lot of good for the industry but also for the world at large, I think that couldn’t be a better legacy.
BI: Opening up the API and building a platform — whose idea was it and was it a scary idea at the time?
PH: I think in the book it talked about the evolution of the platform, and there was an early customer called Patient Care that wanted to rename our tabs. They were a hospital and didn’t like “contacts” and “accounts,” you know, they wanted “hospitals” and “patients.” And Dave and I said, “Just tell your users that ‘accounts’ are ‘hospitals,’ I guess it’s very easy.” (laughs) But Marc of course was like, “No, of course! We’ll transform and we’ll rename the tabs.” And so, I think Marc pushed us on a few of those fronts on the platform, but then the platform also just evolved from our customers. Our customers needed to integrate with us. We started as sales force automation, not full CRM, and so we were going in and we needed to enter ourselves in companies that already had a customer support system. But now, naturally you’re going to have to integrate that with their API layer. So that opened up the service.
Was it scary? Yeah, it was scary. We didn’t know how many transactions were going to hit us, and could we scale? It was a constant…it’s always scary being a service. And you can ask any service provider out there predicting capacity, predicting demand, making sure you’re keeping up with it, it’s a really hard job. And that’s kind of the depth behind a company like Salesforce: how do we deliver that kind of scale, with security and reliability, and redundancy, it’s a really, really hard job. And so, yeah, it is scary, but you know, you just keep growing, and you keep growing with each new customer and each new deal and each new industry makes us stronger.
BI: It seems like you really try to create a better work environment for your engineers. There’s something called “paid time-on,” sort of like Google’s 20% time, and then there’s an internal jobs fair? How important is it to you?
PH: It’s very important. We had a very “waterfall” process years and years ago, and we brought in “agile,” so that was an important transformation. And you may have read an article about one of our engineering leaders, Chris Fry. He did an awesome job in helping me drive that.
And I’m not going to take credit for all of that, but I think what i’ll take credit for is finding visionary people in the company, or bringing them in, and then empowering them to help me. And so, I really saw Chris and Steve Greene as two people who could really help us, and I got behind them, and I empowered them and I pushed them hard to go fast. They wanted to go slowly and not break things, and I told them, “No, you need to go fast because we have a crisis in terms of needing agile.”
And then, we wanted to make sure that with our culture, we saw some people from time to time saying, “I have a better job outside of the company and I want to go do this new thing.” And we just said to ourselves, “Why do people have to leave the company to go do something else that they want to do. Why can’t we give them that opportunity?”
And it’s not natural for a manager to tell their engineer, “If you want to go work for someone else, I’m happy to help you,” because that manager’s trying to build something and they don’t want to lose their best people. And so we did create this internal job fair called Opportunity Open Market, where people can move around, and again, it was just something that grew from inside the organisation that I embraced and I think that’s…I don’t think great ideas come from one individual. I think one individual could potentially take credit for them, but I think it’s about giving the right culture and the right people, and finding those gems of ideas and helping them flourish.
BI: So this thing called V2MOM is a really important at Salesforce. You framed the original V2MOM and gave it to Marc?
PH: Yeah, so Marc brought the V2MOM process to Salesforce. It was something that he had been doing at Oracle. It’s an amazing planning process, and he walked us through that very, very early on.
And we were in his apartment next to our first office at Coit Tower when he grabbed an American Express envelope from his mail, turned it over, to get to the blank side of it, and started writing on it. And talking with us, and we iterated, and sketched out a very simple first V2MOM. And yeah, I did throw that envelope in the drawer and saved it.
And then on the night of the IPO in New York City, at Tao, the restaurant, we had a private room up at the top of that restaurant, with the big Buddha, a cool restaurant. And on the night of the IPO, I had it framed and wrote a note to him on the back and handed it to him. I’m sure it’s somewhere in his home, but I haven’t seen it since then. I don’t think he cried, but I know he was deeply touched. And something like that, it’s pretty cool to be able to do before an event like that.
BI: So far Salesforce has been very successful, $US4 billion in sales. But how do you get to the size of $US50 billion revenue company?
PH: We get there by listening to our customers. I think if you look at what we’ve been doing, we started out with sales force automation, we built a great business on that. We’ve built a multi billion dollar pipeline with our service cloud, marketing automation is also a massive opportunity. But not just CRM. If you look at Analytics that we just launched, a product we launched at Dreamforce last year, that’s another multi billion dollar opportunity in the future. And then a lot of what we’re doing around industry verticalization is another focus that we have, taking all of CRM and looking at, whether it’s telecommunications, financial services, healthcare, doing a lot more in those areas. And so, we have plans, we’re going to keep growing, we see growth going forward, and again, we’ll just keep iterating.
Marc is the first person to tell you that we have a phrase, “Tactics dictate strategy.” We don’t create the 10-year plan and just go road by road. We use our V2MOM process, do it quarterly, and we adjust, and I think that’s what makes us a great company. We’re willing to make the shifts when we need them. Look at when we came out with Chatter, when we reacted to social. And when we came out with Salesforce1 and really followed that mobility trend. Those were the big shifts.
When we bought ExactTarget, that was a big acquisition for us, biggest that we’ve ever done. And that was a big bold play in marketing automation. And even the Edgespring acquisition,which was small, but turned into our Analytics Cloud has turned out to be another big bet. So we’ll just keep doing that.
And again, back to Marc, when I was talking about being an idea maven and just being out there, trust me, every day we’re talking about new ideas. We don’t do them all, but there’s a lot of talk and we do use that V2MOM process to get that iterative, quarterly cadence to react accordingly.