Meet the CIO who keeps the Salesforce platform running

Salesforce EVP and CIO Jo-ann de Pass Olsovsky embraces the pivot to remote work, low-code appdev and the role of alpha tester of upcoming Salesforce products.

Over the past 18 months, Salesforce weathered the COVID-19 pandemic, changed its remote work policies to support more hybrid work on a permanent basis, acquired numerous companies, including Slack, for $27.7 billion and released a bevy of new SaaS products for vertical industries. On top of all that, Salesforce employees are beta-testing features and capabilities that will eventually be available to customers.

Someone has to support all these initiatives from a technology perspective, and that falls to Executive Vice President and CIO Jo-ann de Pass Olsovsky, who literally kept trains running in her previous role as CIO of BNSF Railway. In this Q&A, Olsovsky discusses how she helps keep the Salesforce platform going, despite the tidal wave of change that has swept through all cloud technology companies in the last year and a half.

Salesforce sells a grand vision of cloud software to its customers. How does that make your job different compared to the CIO position elsewhere?

Jo-ann de Pass Olsovsky: My CIO role here is a little bit different than prior lives, and one big differentiator is that I am very close to the product and engineering team. We call it customer zero. My team does not have a responsibility to code the product that our customers use, but we do have the responsibility to work very closely with the product and engineering team to understand what requirements we have as a global worldwide firm. Salesforce rolls out our own products internally before customers ever get them, and then we work back and forth to make sure it's ready to go.

What have you learned from exposure to Salesforce's engineering practices on the product side that you can use to keep the Salesforce platform running?

Jo-ann de Pass OlsovskyJo-ann de Pass Olsovsky

Olsovsky: We continue to learn from each other. They follow Agile best practices for product delivery, DevOps -- methodologies we've grown to love that weren't around 20 years ago as much as they are today. We do daily stand-ups. We have iterative approaches. Even my team -- running internal IT, even on non-Salesforce products -- we do similar things. If I'm doing something to support our employee success HR team, if I'm doing something on Workday or Oracle, it's similar: Agile DevOps, iterative releases -- same as what we do [for Salesforce product development] -- best practices for iterative delivery quality testing implementation to production, change management rigor.

How did the pandemic affect Salesforce's IT operations?

Olsovsky: Yeah, it was pretty crazy. The biggest issue was making sure our humans were affected as little as possible from an IT perspective. There are certainly a lot of demands on our team, especially during COVID, to ensure the engineering team has everything that they need to be able to operate effectively. We run the infrastructure and the architecture, as well as the desktop provisioning and laptop provisioning. We didn't stop any of that throughout last year. We work very closely to make sure that the engineering team has everything that they need as an employee of Salesforce.

If you didn't know what 'digital' was before COVID-19, you do now because we flipped on a dime. From that perspective, we did pretty well. We were set up pretty well, unlike some of my colleagues in the industry that didn't have laptops distributed for their workgroups already.

If you're going to implement stuff for your company, go be the person that's going to use those tools.
Jo-ann de Pass OlsovskyExecutive vice president and CIO, Salesforce

When you join Salesforce, you have a laptop, you have a mobile phone. We stopped issuing desktops years ago. I don't want a PBX [private branch exchange]; I don't issue desk phones; I've got softphones on the devices. So, when we said, 'Shut down the call center, brother!' people went home and they could do everything they needed to do from their devices.

Where we had challenges were with things that were physical in nature, and we had to readjust. …

We also had provisioning issues: We hired 16,000 people last year. I couldn't purchase devices in some cases, so we, luckily, through some advance purchases, had a stockpile; the problem was actually getting it to my end user -- I couldn't get a local transportation provider to deliver the device to the person. Things like that were logistically very complex, and we had to change a lot of remote processes.

The other thing we have to do is support our big events going virtual.

How does Salesforce manage all the low-code stuff your own employees build? How do you track it and make sure people aren't duplicating efforts or working at cross-purposes?

Olsovsky: In both my prior company and at Salesforce, we have an enterprise architecture team. This team is responsible for setting up governance -- kind of, guidelines and guardrails -- because we do want our business partners to have the capability to do some low-code work on their own that isn't a risk on a global scale. We determine what the guidelines are, and then both our own people and business partners can do some low-code work. We also follow DevOps and CI/CD [continuous integration/continuous deployment] processes and standards that we communicate for our integrations. We leverage single source of truth, common data sources, so we do the hygiene upfront.

I tell customers all the time, 'Don't be afraid of low-code; IT does not have to do everything anymore.' The technology is such that when you're configuring in a low-code environment, your business partners can actually self-serve and do a bunch of stuff for themselves. You just have to make sure you have governance set up and the playing rules.

What can CIOs do to improve the employee experience? It's on everyone's mind as we weather the pandemic and transition into more remote work.

Olsovsky: Before Salesforce, I worked for a freight transportation company -- a railroad, basically. I used to go out and ride with the truckers. I used to go out and ride with the locomotive engineers. I think one of the first things CIOs can do is go sit in your users' seats.

I used to sit in call centers and listen to calls coming in and watch the tools. If you're going to implement stuff for your company, go be the person that's going to use those tools. I think that's the first piece of advice I would give everybody: Get out of your office, go ride with your truck drivers, go ride with your end users, sit in the call centers, wear a headset. By the way, get your developers out there to do that, get your product people out there to do that. It's amazing the awakening and the lightbulbs that will go off to say, 'Oh, wow, that is cumbersome, isn't it? Why did we design it like that?'

Employee experience is really huge. In this day and time -- especially post-COVID-19, especially in our field -- people can go pick up and go to work anywhere.

Editor's note: This Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.

Don Fluckinger covers enterprise content management, CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, customer service and enabling technologies for TechTarget.

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