Slack’s Michael Lopp: ‘We are reimagining work’

27 Apr 2018

Slack vice-president of engineering, Michael Lopp. Image: Slack

Slack engineering chief Michael Lopp explains how the company is revolutionising the enterprise world by flattening the organisational chart so everyone can participate.

Michael Lopp is vice-president of engineering at Slack, the communications platform that is transforming the enterprise software world and thousands of workplaces globally.

Lopp has a strong pedigree in technology and joined the company in 2016.

‘I think digital transformation is a loaded term. I understand what it means but every company is going to have their own version of what that means to them’

Prior to joining Slack, Lopp was head of engineering at Pinterest, which he joined in 2014 after being a director at Palantir. Prior to Palantir, Lopp was a senior engineering manager at Apple.

He is a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Slack, which was founded by Stewart Butterfield, Cal Henderson and Eric Costello amid the embers of a failed video games company called Glitch, has more than 9m weekly active users and 6m daily active users. Out of these, there are more than 2m paid users and 50,000-plus paid teams. Revenues from subscriptions are reportedly at around $200m.

The company has grown to more than 1,000 employees in four years, including 80 people at its EMEA HQ in Dublin in the areas of customer success, sales, customer experience, business operations and engineering.

The company recently reached the milestone of 150 Enterprise Grid customers, including thousands of employees at companies such as 21st Century Fox, Moody’s and Capital One, to name a few. It has also forged strategic partnerships with enterprise giants that include SAP, Oracle and Workday.

Having worked at Apple, Palantir, Pinterest and now Slack, what leadership skills, from an engineering perspective, do you bring to the table?

I was working at a start-up in 2001 when the dot-com world collapsed, and I was out with my then CEO at this Mexican restaurant and I got a call from a recruiter friend of mine who asked me, “Do you want to work at Apple?” I was like, “Of course!”

I really liked being at a start-up and I liked building teams. But Apple, which was really big but still hurting at the time as it was going through its own transformation, interested me and I went there just because it was Apple. And I ended up there for eight-and-a-half years working with the iPod through to the iPhone, and it was an amazing experience.

What do I bring to the table? The last few gigs that I’ve had have been around the company being 200 people and figuring out how to grow the team up to around 1,000 or 2,000.

It’s the team-building aspect that is my secret power. You’ve met our CTO Cal Henderson. He built the machine that is Slack – both the team and the product – and my job is to run the machine. Are the humans happy? Are they productive? Are they getting paid what they want? We are just two peas in a pod in terms of of CTO and VP of engineering.

I focus on the people, process and product, and he designs how the machine works.

The reason I came to Slack was, I read a couple of books on leadership and the product itself: it’s about empowering people and getting processes out of the way, and just getting easy access to humans to get things done.

The product itself and my leadership values are complementary. So, I loved Slack before I even came here. But it was the first time I had a job where the product that we are building and the values that I have as a leader are completely aligned.

You see this with our initial customers, the users. It came from the builders. It came from the folks that wanted to be efficient. Whether they work in marketing, engineering or sales, they just want a way to do their jobs faster, and they flock to Slack and they can sense that it is a more efficient way of working and they feel empowered when getting stuff done.

The company is constantly scaling; it has built its own app store and has grown a considerable Enterprise Grid community. What is the scale of the engineering challenge?

I’d love to tell you there is a secret magic there but it’s just a lot of little things, a set of practices. It is four years old and our biggest Slack instance of last year was around 9,000 users and, as of January this year, we have one customer with 100,000 users.

We are growing tenfold in terms of scale, while also maintaining the service. This requires a constant process of not reinventing, but scaling up the parts of the service to allow that delightful user experience.

It is becoming the central nervous system for a lot of folks and companies. It is not a ‘nice to have’. It is this thing that has become the central nervous system that has changed the collaboration hub for businesses.

So, we have to be up 100pc of the time. We have this entire service engineering team whose job is monitoring and making sure that if something is about to go strange, we get a heads-up before you even see anything could be amiss.

There are a lot of different practices to make sure that scale is there because we know that you are dependent on Slack.

Do you think tools such as Slack could replace our dependency on email?

Email has been around a long time. The interesting thing about email is how much it hasn’t evolved in the time of the smartphone, which has evolved a lot in the last 10 years alone. That befuddles me because everything around us, from phones to cars and light switches, have changed in that time but email has not.

One of the reasons I joined Slack is, it represents this opportunity to do something totally different. When I do executive briefings, one of the major value-adds of Slack is reimagining the way teams communicate.

What one company is going to need is different than other companies. We just adapt nicely to that, and they need to reimagine how they are actually going to do that communication, which they haven’t done in years.

We’re giving folks an opportunity to reimagine how they communicate, and it is going to take time.

The users are often the best salespeople for the product. What impact is this having on the traditional enterprise IT world?

A bunch of things are happening. Think about where Slack came from, the Glitch game – it’s obviously not a game any more, but it brings a certain amount of playfulness to communication that you can genuinely say is more of a consumer mindset.

There’s a lot of influence from the game there and Stewart, who co-founded Flickr, was always influenced by the consumer mindset.

But what is also happening is that the CIOs of the world are starting to embrace the cloud, SaaS – and so, it is more acceptable to them.

And, just like the iPhone and the consumerisation of IT, the CIO is wondering what is this thing and why don’t we have any control over this?

And that’s why we are seeing more folks moving over to Enterprise Grid, but it is still a lovely blend of consumer and enterprise, and I think that’s where a lot of the love comes from. A lot of folks are sitting down with mandated software and they haven’t really chosen it and it doesn’t really speak to them. We are a nice blend of both of those things: choice and opportunity.

What would you say to CIOs who may be a little threatened by this?

The narrative with me – I go to a lot of executive briefings and engage in a lot of discussion – is that I walk them through my day-in-the-life demo, where I sit down and literally walk through my process of getting up to speed at the start of each day.

They see how much faster it is to do things, to scrub – and that’s two to three minutes that was unheard of back in my email life where I had 112 unread messages and I was losing my mind and my hair stressing out about this volume of messages.

Just giving them that practical example gets their thinking stimulated, and then I walk them through some of the practices we have at Slack engineering; how we are communicating announcements, how work is getting done inside channels. I just give them examples and, once they see it with their eyes, they start to get really interested.

The thing that has changed in the last six months is, the buzz is strong enough that I am having conversations with companies that, even if they don’t have an existing Slack usage, the CIOs are talking to each other and they know that, in terms of digital transformation, this is one way that they can actually do that.

Showing it to them and getting them thinking about it is a really compelling case.

Do you see yourselves as agents of digital transformation?

I think digital transformation is a loaded term. I understand what it means but you hit the nail on the head: every company is going to have their own version of what that means to them.

What one company needs is different from what another company needs, and the fundamentals of Slack are so basic and so powerful because what happens is, things that took minutes or hours are now happening in seconds.

Multiply it by every single interaction in the company happening five or 10 times faster – it is simple but it is transformational, the fact that anyone can be agile, find things quicker. It is one of the reasons we are doing so well.

Does GDPR represent a challenge?

Our model is different than an advertising company. We are not selling the data. Our job is to sell you a service and, if you love it, you pay us money. It is simple: your data is your data.

We are fully supporting GDPR but it is not as controversial for us because you have a company, it is your data, it is yours. We want nothing to do with your data except that it is up, it is there and it is usable.

It is not a huge shift for us because we are not doing anything with the data except making sure it is at your fingertips.

How do you see the future of work?

We are reimagining work. The future of work is about everything being more efficient, a lot faster, easier, finding things and being able to do more work without it being laborious and bureaucratic.

We announced a feature last year called Shared Channels. Wouldn’t it be great to have a channel with a vendor or a partner – a network of Slacks? It’s in beta right now but the idea of reimagining work and bringing all those people together in real time is something compelling.

Slack makes life and work a lot better because things are less hard and there is less friction. It flattens the org chart so everyone can participate.

Another feature to watch is Enterprise Grids, which adds the ability to have multiple workspaces. For example, if you are in a larger organisation, you can have different slices of the organisation, visually. Slice and dice. You can still communicate with everyone but it gives you a way to compartmentalise as well as get all the features for enterprise-class software.

You can follow the org chart but again, Enterprise Grids is about scaling up Slack from the small team to the 500,000-person organisation.

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