Slack: the game changer

Interviews, Technology | Tue 7 Mar | Author – Business & Finance Slack Ali Rayl
Stewart Butterfield and Ali Rayl, Slack

Slack has changed communication in the workplace. Deanna O’Connor speaks to Ali Rayl, director of Customer Experience, about their three years of phenomenal success.

If you aren’t already using Slack, stop reading this right now, download it on your phone, your tablet, your computer; invite your colleagues or employees to use it too, then when you’ve seen how simple, intuitive and useful it is, how it can increase communication, transparency and speed up decision making, then come back and read this.

Because then you’ll really be interested to hear from one of the people who has been there from the start, building one of the fastest ever growing productivity tools. Ali Rayl, Director of Customer Experience at Slack has been the company since they were a team of eight.

Slack famously grew from a chat messaging tool the founders were using to communicate with each other as they worked on building a computer game. That project never came to fruition, but what happened was the Slack founders realised the tool they were using themselves was something that could benefit lots of other groups of colleagues and businesses.

So from the ashes of ‘the computer game history has forgotten’ grew the amazing phoenix that is Slack. After a trial period, its official launch saw staggering growth, the stuff startup dreams are made of. By the first anniversary of their launch, they had 500,000 daily active users; by the second, on February 12th 2016, they had 2.3m, and over $64m annual recurring revenue. There are now over 4 million daily users.

THE CULT OF SLACK

iPhone MenuI have to put my hand up and confess bias here. I’m a long time user of the app, and a huge fan. As a journalist and editor my email inbox is clogged with unsolicited press releases, some relevant, some interesting, many not.

We are here to work and if you want to play any game, play a game somewhere else

Even my personal email account currently has somewhere in the region of 6,000+ unread emails taunting me from the homescreen of my iPhone. I hate email. I hate all the junk. I hate that it demands my time to clear out things I never asked for in the first place. And used to hate that during stressful production weeks in work, when an art director sitting in another office, was sending me important emails, I would miss them.

And then Slack came along, and I was overjoyed. It was a game-changer for me because when I needed to hear from my team, and only my team, to get a publication out the door to the printers, I could focus on the important messages.

Clearly, I am not alone in my evangelising. Companies including PayPal, IBM and Capital One are also using it, prompting Slack to release a new product this month, Slack Enterprise Grid, for companies with 500-5,000 employees. Slack is the fastest growing business application in history.

From their launch in February 2014, with a team of 8, they now employ over 700 people worldwide with offices in San Francisco, Dublin, Melbourne, New York, London, Vancouver and Toronto.

WORK HARD, GO HOME

Ali Rayl, director of Customer Experience and QA, was one of the original team of eight, signing on as their first quality assurance engineer. She spoke with Business & Finance on a recent visit to Dublin, for the official opening of their beautifully designed offices in Dublin 2 – all pale wood, tasteful neutrals, lots of plants. But wait… no slide? No table tennis? What kind of start-up is this?

Rayl says, “This is one of our mottos, work hard and go home. While you’re at the office you’re doing work, and then you’re going to go home and have a life. We don’t have things here like ping pong tables or foosball tables – we don’t do a lot of the fun start-uppy stuff, because we are here to work and if you want to play any game, play a game somewhere else, where you’re not stuck in your office.” (As someone who is deeply suspicious of ‘fun’ workplaces, as a lure to keep employees at their desks long past home-time, I’m in agreement with their commitment to work-life balance.)

The work Rayl is mainly concerned with is leading the team who support new users, and with the unbelievably rapid growth of user numbers, the growth of that team has been a priority to support the growth of the company. “We have customers all over the world and things are different in different time zones,” explains Rayl.

“You get a lot of data and you have numbers…and you have to interpolate all that into information about how your business is growing, where people are getting stuck, and then that has to translate into staffing.”

She explains further, “All the things about how we run our team is constantly shifting just a little bit as we grow in different parts of the world and as we make inroads into different types of markets. Very early on it was really easy, you have early adopters and they want to get in the software, click on all the things, figure out all the neat tricks and as we go upmarket and as we expand into different markets we are getting out of the early adopter and we are in the mainstream now and we have a lot of people who just need help using software, which is fine, but it’s changing the dynamic of the work that we do.”

WORDS OF WISDOM

The transition from small team to global company in a couple of short years has also changed the dynamic for Rayl. She admits the luxury of an executive coach has been helpful to her in dealing with the change in scale.

Asked for her words of wisdom to offer other start-up executives, she says: “I think anybody being a manager should learn how to be a manager, right away! I think executive coaches are definitely a luxury item so not every start up could really stretch to that but there are so many different avenues for support and the piece of advice that I give around that is you are not alone; find your tribe and get some help.”

It also helps to have a thick skin, especially as a woman in tech. Rayl recalls, “I had a mentor in college, her name was Evi Nemeth. She was the only woman who worked on the UNIX operating system. She wrote the handbook on UNIX administration.” [Nemeth was tragically lost at sea off the coast of New Zealand in 2013, along with the six other crew onboard vintage yacht Nina.]

“She was really, really tough on women and apparently I’m the only one who actually lasted with her for longer than three months. It sucks, but the reality is that if you are going to be a woman and you want to make it then you have to have a really tough skin because you are going to be doubted. That was hugely important and it taught me a lot about finding that inner strength to dig in and you have to let stuff roll off your back a little bit.”

SCALE AT SPEED

iPhone MessagesWhen it comes to scaling the company, Slack seem to have got it right.

“It’s interesting. You never really predict this kind of success,” Rayl admits, “especially not this quickly. It’s just not something that happens. It has been a constant exercise in being surprised but prepared. We know things are going to change, we’re not sure exactly how. Let’s be as nimble as we can and we’ll adapt to whatever it is.”

It sucks, but the reality is that if you are going to be a woman and you want to make it then you have to have a really tough skin because you are going to be doubted

Apart from letting the ability to support the product lead the speed of growth at times, the way Rayl describes it, they seem to have navigated their way around moving from the original gang of eight to vast teams, without losing their ability to make quick decisions: “Things that two people could have decided to do when we were eight, now require a team. There’s a product manager who really thinks about it, and there’s a designer who designs it and there’s a team of engineers who write it and there’s a person doing quality assurance and there’s somebody on my team attached to it figuring out how to support it. There’s a whole prism of activity that was once fed through just a couple of people. It’s not bad at all, it’s just very very different.”

For her personally, the ability to delegate and move on to higher priority work has worked well. “That’s one really interesting thing about being at this company from the very beginning,” she reveals, “is that my typical day has changed so many times and the unifying factor for me is that I figure out what I’m doing that someone else could do, and then I find the person that could do that and I tie it up in a bow and I give it to them, and then I find the next big important thing to do.”

Right now the next big important thing is focusing on international growth for 2017. Her goal for the coming year is straightforward: “To be frank with you, it’s to not screw anything up. I realise every day that I’m in a very fortunate position, and that we are working as fast as we can and there are people who are dependent on me for making good decisions on their behalf and steering us in the right direction.” 

WHAT IS SLACK?

Slack is a team messaging communication tools — available as a desktop or mobile app, or through their website — which is essentially a series of chat rooms (called channels) set up by the user teams on topics relevant to them.

Companies or teams can set up private, invitation-only channels or conduct private, one-to-one or group messaging sessions as well as conducting voice or video calls.

Slack also allows users upload and store files, and integration with other applications such as Google Drive, Skype, Trello, and hundreds more. With an open API, developers can build and integrate their own bots or apps to best serve their institutional needs.   

SLACK USERS INNOVATE

A small, relatively new UK estate agents, Deighton Mckenzie, recently won Gold for Best Innovation at The Sunday Times Estate Agent of the Year awards for their use of Slack. They invite clients to use Slack with them, giving each property its own named channel, eg #35groveroad. This way, the agents and clients (i.e. both members of a couple) can all see conversation regarding the property, upload necessary documents, and make decisions faster.

The Alt MBA intensive four-week programme uses Slack to coordinate students working from all over the world. Taking advantage of the open API, they have set up a bot that answers any question a student has about what they are supposed to be doing next – all the student has to do is put the crystal ball emoji in the channel; the bot understands each student personally in terms of their map through the programme and it tells them what they need to do.

“Surprising and amazing things happen when you open an API and I think we are just scratching the surface of what that’s going to lead to,” says Rayl.

Slack IDA

Pictured (L-R): Mary Buckley (IDA), Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Stewart Butterfield and Ali Rayl, James Sherrett (Slack)