Tech leader profile: Juan Perez, CIO of Salesforce

Juan Perez, chief information officer at Salesforce, spoke to Information Age during Dreamforce about his role at the organisation, and how AI is going continue disrupting the CRM space

Juan Perez joined AI-powered CRM provider Salesforce in April 2022, and has overseen the gradual automation of internal processes, aiding staff in maximising productivity. Prior to taking on the role of Salesforce CIO, Perez served for six years in chief information, and chief information and engineering officer positions at shipping and logistics firm UPS. Much change has been seen for this key tech leadership role, in line with evolving business challenges.

During the recent Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, Perez spoke with Information Age about the keys to success in this role; how the operations of subsidiaries MuleSoft and Slack have been integrated into Salesforce’s systems; and how AI-powered CRM innovation is set to play out over the next few years.

Salesforce launches Einstein Copilot and Copilot StudioDuring Dreamforce, Salesforce announced new copilot tools for its AI model Einstein, helping bolster productivity.

You’ve served in the role of chief information officer for several years now, spanning UPS and Salesforce – how, in your view, has the CIO position evolved in that time frame?

I love this question, because I recently had a breakout session with about 25 CIOs on the same topic, and we were all talking about how the role has changed. It depends on the timeframe — if you go back 10 years to now, the role has changed quite a bit, in that it has become much more strategic. It has also become much more of an advisory role to the organisation, around how you can use technology to solve really complex problems in the company. You go back many years back, the CIO was more of a back office support role. Now, it’s one of strategic importance to the company, and you’ll see this in many ways.

One aspect is you see more and more companies with CIOs that report to the CEO. You also have a lot more CIOs who are becoming CEOs. And what you’re also seeing out there are CIOs who are taking board director positions in different companies. And that’s because the organisations are seeing the value that the role brings to the table; someone who can speak about technology, and who understands where technology is going. But also their role is one of not only communicating how the technology works — many executives are not even interested in that — but it’s also about how technology is going to improve our business processes, and customer interactions and service, as well as employee experiences. Those are all strategic questions that companies are asking today.

Would you agree that the CIO position is serving that needed bridge between business and tech, with those having been so separate previously?

That is absolutely the case. This reminds me of a term that I often use in my own groups, and it’s this whole notion of business intimacy in IT. You go back many years, and it used to work kind of like an island with isolated silos.

Often, it’s this idea of being an order taker. The business wants something; and the CIO will say “Here’s the order”, and then you would work on the project. Then, after you do all that, the project is completed, and no one is happy. Why? Because there was no business intimacy; there was huge separation between the two. Now, my goodness! Talk about change, right? I cannot imagine an IT organisation that works independently of the business, or a business organisation that works independently of IT. I think that they are now connected, and they need to support each other in solving business problems.

What has been your biggest challenge over the past year or so, regarding tech leadership?

I think it’s a challenge that’s been around for quite some time, and that is the the challenge of modernising technology. Because you have to keep modernising your technology, you have to keep modernising your solutions, at the same time that you bring in new innovations into the organisation.

At the same time, you need to support what you’ve got, and then add one more layer of complexity to the role. And you have to manage it within budgets, because there are no infinite budgets out there, yet. You have three main constraints: innovation, growth, and cost. So you have to balance all of this simultaneously. I think that continues to be a challenge, and I don’t see it going away, quite frankly.

But I think CIOs are getting savvier. They’re getting smarter about being able to balance all these different things, to ultimately manage risk, and simultaneously, support growth and innovation. Ultimately, it’s a good challenge to have.

In the past, the challenge was mostly around keeping systems running. If you go back 15-plus years, IT organisations were so focused on just keeping the lights on. The systems were not as reliable. There was no cloud, and there were a lot of security concerns. Today, with the evolution of technology, a lot of that has gone away. Not to the extent that you don’t need to pay attention to it, but a lot of that has gone away. So now, the focus can be on some of these other bigger, more strategic things that companies need to maintain.

The CIO’s role is changing. Here’s whyWhat can the new-look CIO do to construct a successful IT function that goes hand-in-hand with the rest of the business?

MuleSoft has been aiding management of legacy technology – could you please expand on how this has been driving value during the automation journey?

It has been quite the journey. We are, if not the largest, one of the largest MuleSoft customers. Even before we bought the company, we were using MuleSoft for integration. We recently completed our Workday for HR implementation, and the integration technology we use to integrate all these other systems to the Workday application was MuleSoft. So that’s just a basic application example.

But we also use MuleSoft extensively for automation. Our robotic process automation (RPA) solution is MuleSoft as well. We have a very active program right now, to bring more RPA solutions to our finance organisation, using MuleSoft as the underlying platform to support our RPA.

And then just at the most basic levels, of course, we use MuleSoft for API management. We have a lot of APIs that we manage internally, and MuleSoft is our solution for that.

You also helped with the transition process involved when Salesforce acquired Slack towards the end of 2020 – could you talk a bit about what aligning values Slack has been demonstrating, that stood out to you and the leadership team?

I wasn’t there when the decision was made to buy Slack, and I don’t know what the rationale of the company was at the moment and how they went about making the final decision. But what I can tell you is how I view Slack now that I’ve been using it as as an employee, and as a driver of the use of Slack across the entire enterprise.

First of all, I view Slack as an incredibly powerful general management platform. You can use Slack to communicate with your employees; better manage projects; and manage regular business processes like approvals, which require someone to see and react to it. And you can do this all that on the same platform.

Some of the new innovations that we announced for Slack, during this conference, are going to open up the possibility of better organisation of information, and better ways of communicating with our people when something is not right, and needs to be corrected — at least for my group. When we want to communicate how the company is performing certain things, it really becomes a powerful tool to manage the group.

When I think about why I see it as a valuable tool, it’s because when you think about Sales Cloud and Service Cloud, for example, these are great solutions. During the keynote, we said that our goal is to integrate all of these technologies together as part of our one core platform, and that’s going to be phenomenal. But then you take all that, and integrate Slack into that vision, then all this work that happens in Sales Cloud and Service Cloud can be presented and managed more effectively in this collaboration tool that has many more powerful features than anything we had built into our products before.

So, I think that Slack ultimately is another enabler for the technologies that we make available to our customers. And that’s why I think it was a smart acquisition. It makes sense.

Slack chief executive cites chip costs as key AI barrierSlack CEO Lidiane Jones says that surging costs for chips to power AI could prove a key challenge towards long-term innovation.

How do you see AI-powered CRM continuing to evolve over the next three years or so?

I could name two or three technologies where I’d said “Right, this is really good, let’s go ahead and make some big investments in it”. But then after a lot of experimentation and trials, we ultimately reached the conclusion that the particular technology was not really going to create significant value for us. I don’t think that’s the case with AI; I actually think that AI is here to stay.

I view AI as a great assistant, and as a builder of capability. Above and beyond the capabilities we have today, as humans doing work, I see AI as something that’s going to take over a lot of tasks and work that doesn’t really create significant value. But this technology is going to be integrated into those areas because it still needs to get done. So I see AI helping us as humans get smarter at what we do, acting as a business enabler, just like I mentioned Slack as an enabler for all of our cloud technologies.

We at Salesforce are really bullish on AI — you’ve seen that here — and I am taking those AI capabilities that the organisation is building on our products, and my team is implementing them across the entire Salesforce ecosystem. It’s serving multiple purposes, allowing us to learn from those implementations. But it’s also going to help us become more productive.

I think AI is also going also help us improve customer service. When you have generative AI, with trusted data and trusted models providing better and more accurate responses to cases, issues and problems, I think that the responses to customers who are in distress or who are facing a problem will be significantly better in the future — therefore, improving overall customer satisfaction. I would go as far as even saying that in time, AI will have a positive impact on net promoter scores (NPS) and customer satisfaction scores. It will take a little bit of time to get there, but I think AI will eventually have that type of impact.

At the end of the day, the best AI will be the that which is naturally integrated into your processes, and your technology. As long as AI is embedded into your technologies and into your processes, I do believe that it’s going to bring significant value to companies.

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.