andrew burke





San Francisco Dream(force)ing

Posted on: 2023-09-15

I try to time visits to my California family with when they'll be in San Francisco. This year we have inadvertently managed to be in The City at the same time as the huge Dreamforce convention. Dreamforce is the annual "gathering of the clans" for those involved with the Salesforce platform, so the streets are filled with even more tech / business / sales bros than usual - which is saying a lot.

What is Salesforce? Well, it's cloud-based enterprise customer relationship management software. All clear about it now? Okay, what it really does is kind of vague, but it's used by lots of large companies and has many ways to integrate other software and services, and most importantly consultants and contractors who know how to work with it can bill vast amounts of expensive hours to big wealthy organizations. Being at Dreamforce is a great way to make connections and land new contracts. It's also a huge expense-able junket for the whole team. This means that thousands upon thousands of tech / business / sales types are attending, not just for the business but also for the parties.

I've been caught up in Dreamforce once before, in late 2019 (in one of my last trips before lockdown) and I remembered the street scene south of Market was pretty interesting. It was the evening of the 11th, the night before the main events would be starting. I'd been mostly sitting in a car for the last few days again, so I decided to go for a nice long walk (very different from the one I took at the start of this trip).

I happened to have my new unstructured charcoal jacket that I had picked up at a Muji shop in Rome back in May. so I was able to disguise myself as a bit of a tech / business / sales bro myself (it's not exactly a stretch, to be honest):

Andrew Burke in disguise as a tech / business / sales bro

As soon as I stepped out into the street, I saw my first pack of Dreamforce attendees, filling a crosswalk like a dorkier version of the Abbey Road cover. This group shot has nearly all the standard types and fashion choices of Dreamforce attendees:

A dozen Dreamforce attendees crossing a street in San Francisco

There's the business-up-top, jeans-and-sneakers-below older guy, some hoodies, a padded coat, a few fleeces, and lots of casual footwear. No ties, but some lanyards. Mostly White and Asian. Variations of this kind of crew were everywhere downtown on my walk. Anyhow, we were all already being judged by a very disappointed Greta Thunberg:

A mural of Greta Thunberg glares at downtown San Francisco

I decided the best place to check first would be the Salesforce Tower itself. Not only did it have the name of the company on it, but it's the tallest building in the city and already loomed above the other buildings nearby.

To get there I passed through the high-end shopping area east of Union Square, where I kept seeing a very San Francisco mixture of top tier fashion boutiques and deep tech advertising, like this corner featuring Fendi and Hermes stores behind an ad for GitLab's "DevSecOps". For what it's worth, I use GitLab on some of my projects but don't have anything Hermes or Fendi.

A Gitlab advertisment outside Fendi and Hermes boutiques at the corner of Museum street and Maiden Lane, San Francisco

You may have noticed the ad was announcing "AI-Powered DevSecOps". Unsurprisingly, everything at and around Dreamforce this year was jumping on the AI bandwagon. Vonage was advertising "Conversational AI Personal Customer Engagement" (just scan this QR code and join our "Camp Mini Hack"!). Dreamforce was describing itself as "the AI event of the year" and was featuring OpenAI's Sam Altman and Anthropic's Dario Amodei as keynote speakers. This AI hype definitely has more behind it than the crypto/NFT hype of previous years, but I'm getting really tired of it and I'm ready for everyone to get back to basics again.

Speaking of AI, I finally had my essential San Francisco 2023 experience: I saw a fully self-driving car. In fact, not only did this Waymo vehicle inching through slow traffic south of Market not have a driver - it didn't have anybody in it at all! Zoom in to see for yourself. I'm guessing it was on its way to pick someone up.

A completely empty Waymo self-driving car in San Francisco traffic

I'm curious about the big dent on the door though. Maybe it was some other car's door? Or maybe someone hit it on purpose? I gather some locals are especially incensed at these robot cars. They do feel a bit uncanny. I'm still trying to decide how I feel about a completely empty vehicle taking up traffic space. I guess it's more efficient than if it had a frustrated driver in it? Well, if you're going to have to face messy questions about technology and society, San Francisco is where you're likely to face them first.

I made it to the base of the giant 61-storey, 1071-foot tall Salesforce tower. It was heartening to see that it seemed to have offices on most levels. Downtown real estate, especially in San Francisco, has had a lot of trouble recovering from Covid-19's work-from-home revolution. I gather the recent AI hype has helped fill a lot of these otherwise empty offices.

Salesforce Tower from the ground

From the base of the tower, I saw a vast raised walkway soaring overhead, heading west towards the Moscone Center, glowing like a starship. Underneath were shops and bars with names like "Per Diem" and "Nothing To See Here".

Glowing futuristic overpass near the Salesforce Tower

Glowing futuristic overpass shrinking in the distance, with a bar/restaurant called 'Per Diem' underneath

I wasn't sure what this was, but I guessed it might be a shortcut for people to get from the Salesforce Tower to the Convention Center complex a few blocks away without ever having to descend to street level. I was getting ready to write a fierce hot take comparing this to the raised corridor I saw in Rome, connecting the Vatican to the Castle Sant'Angelo, and the Vasari Corridor in Florence, both of which kept aristocrats safely hidden above the dangerous chaos of the city streets. It would be a great comment on the current class stratification in downtown San Francisco, a more intense version of what's happening everywhere these days.

But that comparison proved too delicious. This is in fact the new transit hub. It may eventually get trains coming through but so far after decades of work it's limited to buses. I remember going by the original bus station on this site back in the 1990s and it was run down and sketchy, even by south-of-Market standards. This is definitely an improvement, though it may be many more decades before trains get here, if ever. Still it's good to see such spectacular and expensive architecture being used for a public good - even if it has "Salesforce" branding all over it.

Glowing signage at the end of the Salesforce Transit Center

(Can we just take a moment to reflect on how good current phone cameras are at challenging low-light situations like this one? I made a small exposure adjustment before taking the shot and heightened the contrast a bit before publishing it - but otherwise this is direct out of my iPhone13Pro's camera. Newer phones do this even better.)

I continued past the end of the station and through hip back alleys, many of which had lights and tents set up for Dreamforce parties. I quickly realized that although I looked the part I was missing the all-important green lanyard. If I was better at hustle I'd probably be able to get into one of these, but I'm too honest - and I don't even like crowded bars all that much anyhow.

I could tell I was getting close to the heart of the action. Staff were directing the increasingly large and excited crowds towards the main building of the Moscone Center.

Dreamforce attendees heading towards the Moscone Center, San Francisco

This was probably for the opening keynote and possibly the Foo Fighters show, so staff were actually checking lanyards and badges. I turned and headed back, passing the main square for Dreamforce, decorated in their usual jolly national parks theme, but what I thought were battery chargers by the entrance turned out to be advanced weapons detectors.

Moscone Center courtyard set up for Dreamforce, with a giant bear sculpture and metal detectors

There were lots of signs pointing attendees to vendor popup locations, all mentioning "AI" in some way or other. I also passed a window looking into a large room that was, for some reason, full of children's bicycles:

Stacked packages with Woom bikes at the Moscone Center

There was excited hustle happening all around me. Unfortunately I didn't end up seeing my favourite statue at the Moscone Center, which I love because it is so very on the nose for this complex, and especially Salesforce (here's a shot from 2019):

Statue of salesman with multiple shaking hands at the Moscone Center, San Francisco

I headed back to the north side of Market and towards my hotel. I had seen enough of the new San Francisco for now and was missing some of the older San Francisco.

In the tech biz, a "unicorn" is a start-up company that's worth a billion dollars. No doubt there would be lots of talk at Dreamforce about these kinds of unicorns. But I found a much better unicorn on my way home: a big gay inflatable glowing pink one:

Big gay inflatable glowing pink unicorn in a fire escape in San Francisco

Now that's San Francisco!

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