Salesforce’s Leyla Seka: ‘Equal pay is the future of the tech industry’

29 Sep 2017

Leyla Seka, executive vice-president, Salesforce AppExchange. Image: Jakub Mosur

AppExchange head Leyla Seka discusses the $389bn Salesforce economy and how equal pay for men and women needs to be addressed.

Leyla Seka is an executive vice-president who leads the Salesforce AppExchange, the world’s largest and longest-running business apps marketplace.

In this role, she is responsible for driving recruitment, product, go-to-market and other key programmes supporting start-ups and ISVs in the Salesforce ecosystem. This includes AppExchange, AppExchange Marketing Program (AMP), Salesforce for Startups and more. Launched in 2006, the AppExchange features more than 3,000 apps, downloaded more than 4m times and used by 90pc of the Fortune 500.

Prior to leading the AppExchange, Seka was the general manager of, Salesforce’s all-in-one customer service app for fast-growing companies. Under her leadership, landed well-known customer-oriented brands – such as Yelp, Snapchat, Fitbit, Bonobos and Disqus – and became known as the savvy customer support app that connects agents with email, phone calls and social channels.

Seka also worked in product management and marketing organisations at Primavera Systems (acquired by Oracle), Evolve Software, Vivant and Eutron SpA. She spent two years in West Africa as a Peace Corps officer in Mali.

In her 10 years at Salesforce, Seka has held a variety of positions across product management, product marketing and business operations. She is active in issues regarding women in technology and equal pay, and was named a ‘Next-Gen Innovator’ by Forbes, among other honours.

‘When technology starts affecting your personal life, you know it’s going to have a massive impact on business’

What attracted you to the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model?

I’m still mesmerised by the model. I worked in client server software for many years where it took a full year to release, to go gold on the CD, and by the time they get it out, it’s almost obsolete. This was such a frustrating paradigm as a product manager, so I was really interested in Salesforce and how it was upending that model.

AppExchange really became the thing that sealed the deal for me. Originally, we were a single-product company but once AppExchange started, there were all these cottage businesses growing up around the exchange. That was the moment we realised that Salesforce by itself was not an application; that this was actually a platform with enough functionality built into it that people could build on top of our stuff and help our customers. In time, these applications became really sophisticated.

The model you created pre-empted the Apple App Store, even though Apple takes credit for changing software distribution. What was it like to start a revolution?

Well, it was our CEO Marc Benioff who did it. It was something that just began happening as the product grew in popularity.

There were these partners and developers – and there were tons of them in Europe as well, not just in the US – that just started building stuff around our stuff and selling it to our customers, even giving it to our customers initially.

Sysadmins inside of a customer [company] would have built some interesting WSYWG and then put it up on the AppExchange and would say, ‘Hey, I fixed this problem this way’, much as you would on GitHub today. And it grew from there.

It sort of organically began growing and that’s really when I joined because I like start-ups. When I came to Salesforce, it was 1,000 people. Now, we are nearing 30,000 people. And last year, more than 150,000 people attended Dreamforce, and we are sure it is going to be 170,000 this year.

Not only has the AppExchange grown, but we’ve seen partners become public companies or be acquired for gigantic sums of money. One example is Fairsail, which is led by Adam Hale and was acquired by Sage, and business is booming.

How big is the Salesforce economy?

By 2020, based on analysis, GDP creation would be north of $389bn out of our ecosystem, and job creation alone would be more than 1.9m in the US.

There are lots of examples of people who have changed their entire lives through software and through learning how to use it. One lady I know of was a hairdresser in New York who started studying the Salesforce platform and now she’s a VP at a major financial services giant, in charge of their Salesforce implementation programme. There are two guys who built an app to manage large animals in veterinary hospitals and they are now making $300,000 a year each.

And there is a company such as Veeva, a pharmaceutical CRM, which was built by former Salesforce workers and is now a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange with a significant share of the CRM market.

I see technologies like AI coming up that are now going to let us go faster.

Is your role around managing the platform or helping customers to use the platform better?

I’m more on the latter side; I am on the platform team for sure, but I spend a lot of time with start-ups, mid-sized companies and big companies. I like the start-ups, they are always doing exciting stuff, but we work well with mid-sized and large companies. It’s very hard not to want to partner with us.

We have become a very big company but we still keep a start-up mentality and our own unique culture, and I credit Marc with a lot of it.

A lot of the credit for the success of Salesforce goes to Marc Benioff, who envisioned the SaaS world. How would you describe his leadership qualities and his role in the evolving platform?

He’s thoughtful. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever been around. It’s like watching lightning strike someone. I think that’s why the company has managed to keep so interesting because there’s a spark in everyone; we all want to do it better. I’ve never seen a company of people trying harder to do a better job than us.

What’s next for the AppExchange?

I think the AppExchange remains this unique component like no other software company. There are more than 3,000 apps. The inventory of the exchange is shifting, too. We have components going up – bots, datasets. We are actually redesigning the entire platform.

The key is to meet customer needs as quickly as possible and become an extension of your IT manager or CIO in the cloud.

Technology will evolve to a more assistant-based situation, where it will push the technology you need as you need it. It will tell you what is going to happen.

When technology starts affecting your personal life, you know it’s going to have a massive impact on business.

You are a leading advocate in Silicon Valley on equal pay issues. How big an issue is this in the tech industry?

Well, before Salesforce and throughout my entire career, I was a product manager and was dealing with engineers and they were men, and that was the way it was. I noticed it. People say they didn’t notice it, but I did. I’m outspoken and would say things like, ‘Hello gentlemen, and Sarah’. I just did it at SaaStock in Dublin because there were very few women in the room. It just reminds people. I don’t think there is malice but sometimes people just forget.

Marc himself noticed that the majority of executive meetings were filled with 40-year-old white men and he didn’t like it. And he took it very much to heart and he started a programme called Women Surge, and he took the vice-president level and started inviting more women to the leadership meetings. Through this, I ended up learning about a job I ended up getting that was so much fun. It gave me more control, my own P&L.

That programme shifted everything and, all of a sudden, a real dialogue began in Salesforce about gender issues. I had tried to initiate dialogue, but to watch it being initiated by my CEO really shifted the paradigm. But we all wanted to do more. There was an appetite for doing more.

Equal pay had been on my mind for a long time. It wasn’t to do with Salesforce but it was something that happened throughout my entire career whereby I felt my male colleagues made more money than me. It came down to this moment where I had this business meeting and had two female VPs and two male VPs and I was distributing their annual bonuses. They had all done such a good job and doubled the business. So I just made it an even cut.

When I told the women, they said ‘Thank you’ but when I told the men, they said ‘I want more’.

And it made me think about every time I said ‘thank you’ and it was really about how I was raised, nothing to do with Silicon Valley – it was just a slap in the face. I spoke to the head of HR and she had a one-on-one with Marc and they did find a problem and it was a $3m problem that was across men and women.

There was a discrepancy and I was shocked there were men in it, too. And they fixed it. Then they did it again a year later; they analysed it and they kept on fixing it. And that’s where Salesforce really stands out, and Marc as a leader.

This is not a one-time thing, this is the future of the company but also the entire industry, and I am very proud that Salesforce has held to that.

As he always says, the business of business is to make the world a better place.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years