The Platform Chronicles: 10 Questions with Vala Afshar, Salesforce’s Chief Digital Evangelist on… (2024)

In 36 hours, 120 students from around the world created innovative solutions to societal challenges.

Bruce Richardson



Published in

AppExchange and the Salesforce Ecosystem


8 min read


Mar 30, 2018


The Platform Chronicles: 10 Questions with Vala Afshar, Salesforce’s Chief Digital Evangelist on… (3)

Welcome to a special edition of The Platform Chronicles. A few weeks ago, a group of 10 Salesforce employees from the US and Italy ventured to Rome and Vatican City to serve as mentors and judges at VHacks 2018, the first software hackathon ever hosted and sponsored by the Vatican.

Vala is Salesforce’s first Chief Digital Evangelist, a position he has held for two years. He brings a lot of experience to this position having been a long-time Salesforce customer, a very active blogger for both the Huffington Post and ZDnet, current co-anchor of the weekly DisripTV program with Constellation Research’s Ray Wang, and author of “The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence.” He also delivered the closing keynote at the event.

When you travel with Vala, it’s not unusual to meet people whose first words to him are “You’re Vala? I follow you on Twitter.”

The following is a lightly-edited transcript of our ten questions for Vala.

Vala, how did you and Salesforce get involved with VHacks 2018?

In late December, I got an email from a student at Harvard saying that Harvard and MIT were working with Fr. Eric Salobir to organize the first ever hackathon at the Vatican. He asked me if Salesforce would like to be part of this, and if we would join Google, TIM (Telecom Italia) and Microsoft as sponsors.

(Note: Fr. Eric is a founder of OPTIC Network, a think tank dedicated to research and innovation around the ethics of new and disruptive technologies.)

He then explained the purpose of the event — Pope Francis and others in the Vatican were interested in the development of solutions around three key societal issues: encouraging social inclusion (vs. divisiveness), interfaith dialogue based on open communications, and improving the fate of migrants and refugees. In fact, this was the message that Pope Francis delivered in his TED talk last year, entitled “Why the only future worth building includes everyone.”

It was hard to turn down an opportunity to help change the world.

Can you tell us about the participants?

The hackathon attracted thousands of applicants from undergraduate and graduate programs from around the world. The final roster consisted of 120 students from 57 schools and 30 countries. It was also a multi-faith group, with nine different religions represented.

While one of the requirements was proficiency in English, only a quarter of the students were from the US. The rest were from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and other countries in the Americas.

While there were a handful more men than women, both genders were well-represented.

A handful of schools sent a full team — they were the exception. Most of the groups were comprised of students meeting each other for the first time. It was very cool to watch the organizational dynamics.

Each team comprised multiple majors. The goal was for each to have two engineering students, a design major, a business student, and a fifth from a different discipline.

In addition, each sponsor was asked to invite people to serve as mentors, judges, and panelists. There were 40-45 people in these roles. There were also a lot of people from the Vatican as well as other invited guests. That’s in addition to the Harvard and MIT organizers and the team from Major League Hacking that ran the hackathon.

Could students pick their own theme?

No. The goal was to make sure each theme had equal representation. The students were arranged into 24 teams of five. There were eight teams devoted to one of the three themes.

Where did the hackathon take place?

The actual design and coding took place at the Hotel Columbus. This hotel was built on part of the Palazzo della Rovere which was completed in 1490. If you walked out of the hotel to the avenue in front and looked left, you had a magnificent view of St. Peter’s Basilica as you can see from the photo.

The Platform Chronicles: 10 Questions with Vala Afshar, Salesforce’s Chief Digital Evangelist on… (4)

There were three other sites that were also part of the event. On Friday morning, all of the participants made the one mile trek from the hotel to the Palazzo della Cancelleria for a series of brief welcomes and speeches. This was a Renaissance palace that dates back to its initial construction in 1489. Today, it houses the Papal Chancellery. It was filled with amazing artwork and very detailed woodworking.

On Saturday afternoon, the whole group was invited to the Curia Generalizia dei Gesuiti (the worldwide headquarters of the Jesuits) for the presentations from the finalists and the awards ceremony. More on this in a minute.

The final site was the Palazzo Taverna on Saturday night for the formal dinner that closed the event. This was built in the thirteenth century and is said to have been mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The palazzo was divided into lots of rooms with each featuring an impressive display of artwork. Truly a memorable evening.

Can you describe the flow of the hackathon?

Thursday night was mostly about team building and sharing ideas on what could be created.

Friday was devoted to creating a logo/website for the new company/product you’ve created, and building a demo.

Saturday morning involved finalizing or tweaking the product and working on your five minute pitch to two teams of two judges (four judges total).

When the hackathon was declared over, most of the students went to breakfast and/or to freshen up. When they returned, they organized their table and got ready to meet the judges.

The next step was for all four judges for each theme to get together and select the first, second, and third place teams. The top three teams for each theme would move on to the finals.

Once in the finals, prizes would be awarded to the top two teams — $2,000 for the first place winners for each theme, and $1,000 for the runner-ups.

What did the nine finalists build?

In the Social Inclusion category, the winning team built a local, crowd-funded job board/kiosk where residents could post tasks/jobs that could be done by unemployed or homeless people.

The runner-up included a very cool, Hololens based tool that helps the estimated 700 million people with dyslexia learn to read by viewing words on a screen and parsing them into sounds and dot notations.

The third place team created a clever mobile app that allows people to request a video or a photo of some place in the world by moving a pin to that site. A person near that site could opt to select the pin and take the person on a tour of Vatican City or Fenway Park. The software was built using Heroku.

In the Interfaith Dialogue category, first place went to a team that allowed people to volunteer or recruit for faith-based events. They cleverly used “DUO” as part of their name — Do Unto Others (a/k/a the Golden Rule).

The second place team built an app based on Salesforce’s Community Cloud and virtual reality. It had a ‘hall of religions’ that you could visit to learn more about other faiths. The third place team created a social graph of religion that pulled data from Facebook.

As for the Migrants and Refugees theme, the winning team built a crowd-sourced credit app designed to help newcomers prove their creditworthiness when pursuing housing or verifying their identity when applying for a new job. It included getting faith-based institutions to pool funds to guarantee rent payments. This team actually visited a nearby refugee center to discuss the challenges the new arrivals faced.

The second place team created a mobile app for medical records based on QR codes. This included voice to text translations and support for 25 languages. The third place team created a facial recognition app to help family members finding missing relatives. Of the estimated 60,000 Syrian children in refugee camps, some 10,000 are missing.

How did the judges select the winners?

There were four broad categories with a total of 10 criteria. These included “The Impact” which looked at the problem, solution, and potential impact; “The Viability” which included the business model and future plans; “The Tech” which focused on innovation/complexity, execution, and the quality of the code; and “Presentation” which was all about storytelling.

There were some amazing presenters!

Any surprises?

For me, the biggest surprise were not so much the products built, but the all around creativity that went in to every product and presentation.

During the preliminary judging, we walked around to see what the teams had built. Each team was allotted five minutes to describe the concept and business model, demo the product, and answer any questions. On every table I visited, there would three laptops open to the judges. The first might show the new logo or website created to pitch the product. The second one usually had a Powerpoint deck that explained the need for the product and how it worked. There might also be a slide on planned enhancements. The third screen usually featured a demo. Some teams also had a fourth display — a cell phone to show how the app worked on mobile devices.

What will become of the apps created in Rome?

That was one of the most frequently asked questions from the priests we met — “What are we going to do with these applications?” Many commented that “in order for this event to be successful, we need a way to put these applications into use for the public good.”

I’m hoping that we can do something similar at Dreamforce this year. We invited several people from the Vatican to join us in San Francisco in September to continue the discussion about the intersection of humanity and technology that Pope Francis mentioned in his TED Talk.

Will there be a VHacks 2019?

I certainly hope so. It was an incredibly positive experience for everyone involved. To hear Pope Francis mentioned “the Vatican Hackathon” in his weekly papal blessing was very special.

I know that our team — John, Paolo, Nino, Marco, Stefano, Roberto, Elizabeth, Charlie, Bruce and me — all want to return to the Eternal City.

Next time, though, I’m going to add some extra days to see more of Rome. Long days left little time for sightseeing.

Editor’s Note: The theme of Migrants and Refugees was especially poignant for Vala. His family was forced to flee Iran in 1979 after the Shah was deposed. It would be four years before his father would be able to join Vala, his mother and his sister in the United States.

The Platform Chronicles: 10 Questions with Vala Afshar, Salesforce’s Chief Digital Evangelist on… (5)
The Platform Chronicles: 10 Questions with Vala Afshar, Salesforce’s Chief Digital Evangelist on… (2024)


Who is the chief digital evangelist? ›

Vala Afshar is the Chief Digital Evangelist for Salesforce. Afshar is the author of The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence.

What is the role of a digital evangelist? ›

Digital transformation evangelists serve as visionary leaders in driving and transforming an organization's digital strategy. They implement emerging technology into an organization's digital strategy to improve efficiency in its overall performance.

What does chief evangelist do? ›

A Chief Evangelist (or Brand Evangelist) is, among other things, an ambassador for your product, service or business. They actively—almost fervently—promote a positive message that advocates others to buy or use the product. If Guy Kawasaki didn't invent the term, he most certainly pioneered the concept.

What is a platform evangelist? ›

As such, platform evangelism is responsible for creating the resources that enable developers to progress swiftly through the innovation adoption process ("developer enablement resources"). Each different phase of the platform adoption process requires different developer enablement resources.

What does a chief digital evangelist do? ›

Chief Evangelists connect people and information through story. The Chief Evangelist advocates for a company, product, or problem space, spreading awareness and generating enthusiasm among customers, partners, and the broader community.

What are the 3 roles of the evangelist? ›

He is to faithfully proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ; to make the sinner aware of his sins; to correct with compassion; to encourage with hope and to never lose hope in or belief that man is beyond redemption. This can only be accomplished when one is willing to fulfill his ministry.

What are the 6 types of evangelist? ›

6 Types of Evangelism
  • Direct.
  • Apologetic.
  • Testimonial.
  • Relational.
  • Invitational.
  • Service/Life-based.
Aug 10, 2022

Who is the chief digital officer of the White House? ›

Office of Digital Strategy
White House Digital Strategy Director
Incumbent Christian Tom since June 30, 2023
Executive Office of the President White House Office
Reports toWhite House Chief of Staff
AppointerPresident of the United States
2 more rows

Why is Guy Kawasaki famous? ›

Guy Kawasaki is the Chief Evangelist of Canva and the creator of Guy Kawasaki's Remarkable People podcast. He is an executive fellow of the Haas School of Business (UC Berkeley), and adjunct professor of the University of New South Wales. He was the chief evangelist of Apple and a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Who is an example of a technology evangelist? ›

Just look at a few famous examples: Guy Kawasaki, who evangelized the Apple Macintosh in the 1980s and transformed the term “evangelism” into a household word; Vin Cerf, Chief Evangelist at Google and the "father of Internet"; and Richard Stallman, regarded as the founder of the free software movement of the 1980s.

What is a chief technical evangelist? ›

A technology evangelist is a person who builds a critical mass of support for a given technology, and then establishes it as a technical standard in a market that is subject to network effects.

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