Slack’s Ali Rayl: ‘Designing the future workplace is a big responsibility’

13 Oct 2017

Slack global head of customer experience, Ali Rayl. Image: Slack

With 6m daily active users and counting, Slack is the future of work. And it is Ali Rayl who is tasked with making it work.

Ali Rayl is global head of customer experience at Slack, the fastest-growing enterprise communications platform today. She has been with Slack since it emerged from the ashes of a video game company known as Glitch five years ago.

In fact, Rayl worked at Glitch when Slack was an unnamed internet relay chat (IRC) tool that the company’s developers and artists used to communicate and share files.

‘We always ask ourselves: “Is this as frictionless as it can be?” We are always looking for the rough edges that we can sand’

Slack was founded by Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield, Cal Henderson and Serguei Mourachov after they shuttered Glitch in 2012. Their productivity tool caught the eye of investors, and Slack was born.

Today, Slack is the mainstay communications tool for many fast-growing companies.

The company has expanded its workforce in Dublin and earlier this year appointed Irish woman and Square CFO Sarah Friar to its board.

Slack currently has 9m weekly active users and 6m daily active users. Out of these, there are 2m paid users and 50,000-plus paid teams. Revenues from subscriptions are understood to be around $200m.

The technology is used by giants such as IBM, NBC, Adobe, Autodesk and Capital One. At any one time, there are close to 5m people simultaneously connected to Slack.

What was your earliest experience of working on Slack?

When I joined Glitch, shortly before we shut it down, the entire company was run entirely on IRC so we had our own IRC server and everybody logged into it to do their work. Being a distributed company building a video game, there was a need to share a lot of files. So, we had a guy doing the music in Toronto, the guys doing the game development in Vancouver, engineering was done in San Francisco, and we needed to share sound and code with everybody.

We wrote a little webpage where you just uploaded the file and, as soon as that happened, a link would be pasted into IRC for everyone to access. And, as soon as that happened, Vancouver and San Francisco started to build other tools around the edges of IRC to fill in its deficiencies.

A really important thing we built was the retention of messages because once you logged off IRC they were gone, and there was no way to catch up on what you missed.

Another thing we built was a database to store all of the messages and an interface to read all the messages, and that turned into the need to read them on mobile phones, so we made a mobile app and text boxes for sending messages. So, over the course of building the video game, this ‘IRC Plus’ spawned other web services and turned into this thing we used to run the company.

If you look at the entire three-year history of using Glitch, there were fewer than 50 emails sent throughout the entire company.

When we were building Slack, I went through all of the sounds that we used for building the video game and I picked out 10 of them. All of the sounds came from Glitch. The knock-knock-knock sound you get today on Slack was the sound when a player sent a direct message to an engineer. (But, if you don’t like it, you can change it for another sound.)

I’m picking out sounds that millions of people are going to hear as they go about their work, and that’s really fun.

The enterprise software world was always designed by engineers who didn’t ultimately have to use the technology prescribed to others. How has Slack done it differently?

We’re not your typical tech company. For example, I have a degree in humanities, art history and classics, and studied for most of a computer science degree. I made a decision to either spend three more semesters in college or have a job in the tech industry.

I have an extraordinarily hefty computer-science binder, so it’s always there to remind me.

My first job was developing monitoring and automated testing tools for websites way back in the day and that turned into test automation, which turned into a career in testing and I was actually hired initially at Glitch to be the director of QA, so I was testing the video game.

When we took down Glitch, I spent a month going through everything we had built, packaged it up and put it on GitHub so anybody could do anything with them. Then I turned my attention to testing Slack for the first six to nine months of its existence.

Cal was a co-founder and had so much invested in Glitch’s history. He had a lot of enthusiasm and energy for the future and, as someone who has used IRC extensively in college, I grew up with it. It was how we communicated in computer science lab at college, so for me it was a very fluid and comfortable way of working.

And so, it was exciting to take everything that is good about IRC, get rid of everything that is bad and put it in the hands of a lot of people.

One sort of ironic thing is that I was trying to get out enterprise software because I had done a fair amount of it. And the thing about enterprise software is, usually you have your customers and your users; oftentimes, in traditional enterprise software, they are different because the person you are selling to – usually the CIO – doesn’t necessarily consider the users. They are focused on return on investment, increased efficiency, and whatever the user experience is of that product happens to be low on the priority list.

So, when you are part of the development team for enterprise software, your users get accustomed to whatever you give them and see it as a tool they must use to do their jobs, and they actually resist change and don’t appreciate it when you enforce stuff that changes their workflow and affects their ability to be good at their job. As someone who enjoys making things that are fun to us, that’s not a good place to be.

It is not just about making a tool for people to use; in my mind, it is an enormous opportunity to really look at our users as customers and bring a tool to them that will continue to enhance their job. And, if it helps them and they welcome the change, it is because we give them more tools to get their job done. It is rewarding as a maker and we hope it is rewarding to our users, too.

If I was to suggest you are designing the modern workplace, how do you feel about that?
Slack’s Ali Rayl: ‘Designing the future workplace is a big responsibility’

Slack global head of customer experience, Ali Rayl. Image: Slack

It’s an enormous responsibility. The biggest responsibility is, when you say 6m daily active users and 9m weekly active users, for me that’s 6m people we must be available and reliable and intuitive for.

We’ve had the occasional blip but it has never been the catastrophic one outage, no fail whales. Actually, we have several engineers at Slack now who are the ‘fail whale killers’ on our team in charge of scalability, and some of these are former Twitter scalability engineers now working on Slack scalability.

For me, when I hear those numbers, we must be not only available, we must be intuitive and ready to support everybody because we are the thing that stands between them getting their work done or not.

We are the tool through which people view their work and execute their work, so, if we can’t support them in that, then they fail at their job and then it’s our fault. And so, it is a huge responsibility and I always look at it that way.

The transformation of the workplace, that’s the exciting part. There’s obviously a great deal of responsibility in building a product that facilitates that, but I think we’ve always had some good north stars to help drive us.

We always ask ourselves: ‘Is this as frictionless as it can be?’ We are always looking for the rough edges that we can sand.

What you guys are doing is becoming part of the new enterprise movement. How critical is the App Directory strategy?

We have over 1,000 apps in our App Directory and more coming in every day.

Trello is a perfect example. In Slack, you can see what is going on without bouncing back to Trello to find out. It just becomes part of the @Channel conversation.

And, from a mental overhead perspective, when everything is in the same place and the formatting and interaction is the same, it is actually much easier for your brain to latch on to that information as a continuous flow of work.

What does the future of Slack look like with new competitors such as Microsoft Teams coming on the horizon?

Our upside is enormous; our total addressable audience is unfathomably huge and, even though 6m daily actives is a very big number, there is so much more we can do.

One thing about telling the Slack story is we have to stop and say, ‘OK, this is different’. It is not about going to your inbox and saying this is work. We have to deconstruct the notion of doing work from an inbox and working back up again and saying your work occurs in channels and your channels are in Slack and this is how all of your work happens: you find everybody and collaborate.

And that is the complex hurdle to get through to people. We have to educate people.

The interesting thing is, Slack is not as porous as email from a security perspective. How do you plan to enable Slack users to work and collaborate with other organisations outside their own?

Two-and-a-half years ago, we introduced guest accounts for our paid users and you can have a single channel guest that keeps them in a contained channel relevant to the work you do. Then there are multichannel guests who are people who must be invited to any channel that they want to be in, so they can’t cruise around. Both forms of guest accounts have been super popular, and we at Slack use them to work with vendors, for example.

One thing we figured out: we don’t send email at our company. It is not dogmatic, you won’t get in trouble if you don’t read email – it simply doesn’t happen, there is no reason for it to happen. We have never sent an email to one another about anything since we started building Slack; there is no Slack email.

Our product is great for teams and individuals whose work isn’t entirely internal. To us, an inbox is a vehicle for marketing and password resets.

An inbox doesn’t encompass what an organisation looks like. There are many people who interface with different applications and people outside the organisation, so guest accounts were one way to work around that and bring people in without having to email.

The most important and transformational thing we’ve done to the product since we first built it is to launch Shared Channels. This is the ability that will allow anybody whose work is partially internal and external to pull others into Slack and have the same experience. It is auditable and traceable, and is ideal for organisations and contractors to have a trail of the work they are doing. It is just in open beta but the response to the beta has been extraordinarily positive. It just works the way it should.

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