IVP’s Future Of Work Podcast: Slack Chief Product Officer Tamar Yehoshua On Remote Work And Innovation In Product Development

Welcome to a special edition of IVP’s Future of Work Podcast. In this series, IVP investors talk with experts from the fastest-growing companies and discuss the ins-and-outs of the future of work in the ever-changing environment.

In our first episode of a three-part series, IVP Partner, Cack Wilhelm, talks with Slack Chief Product Officer, Tamar Yehoshua about the future of work at a time when we are all working remotely. Tamar oversees product strategy and development, design, and research at Slack. Before Slack, Tamar was a Vice President at Google holding product and engineering leadership roles on Google’s most important products, including Search, Identity, and Privacy. Previously, she was the Vice President of Advertising Technologies at Amazon’s A9.

IVP invested in Slack’s Series E in 2015, when the product was used daily by just over 750,000 people. When they listed publicly in 2019, their influence in business messaging was undeniable, with over 10 million daily active users who turn to Slack as the place to communicate, collaborate, and get work done.

Some key takeaways from our discussion with Tamar:

THE FUTURE OF WORK IS TRANSFORMING BUSINESSES

“The idea of sharing information with purpose and aligned with a project in a very open way makes people feel more empowered.“

Communication tools are fundamental to the future of work, and Tamar has a front-row seat into how people are trying to change how they work. With the explosion of SaaS apps, there is a new requirement for tools to manage the workflow. The teams that communicate effectively are much more successful and much more productive.

THE TOOLS FOR THIS NEW NORMAL OF WORKING REMOTELY

“I think with everybody working from home, some people love it, some people hate it, but it’s changing how they communicate and I see it at Slack within Slack.”

From large customers and knowledge workers to new customers and non-knowledge workers, everybody is looking for ways to work more effectively from home. To support them, Slack provides guidance from written guidebooks to offering free consultations to help people better work from home. We are all forced to learn how to work remotely and communicate via new channels, and we will never go back to exactly how it was before.

DISRUPTING PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT

“We really rely heavily on user testing and user input.”

Product management has always used lots of data.  Bringing customers to the product development process sooner is possible today because there are new tools that allow us to do that in a way that we have not seen before. This process helps shorten the time to market and improve customer delight.

COVID-19 HELP

Slack is helping team’s Covid-19 efforts and supporting all nonprofits and other organizations carrying out critical relief efforts during this time with free access to a Slack paid plan for three months. Learn more at https://slack.com/resources/using-slack/covid-help

More from the full conversation in the transcript is below.

To hear more, listen on iTunes or SoundCloud.

TRANSCRIPT

Narrator: Welcome to IVP’s Future of Work Podcast. In this series, we talk with experts from the fastest-growing companies and discuss the ins-and-outs of the future of work in the ever-changing environment. If you like what you hear, consider following us on SoundCloud or subscribing to our podcast on iTunes. Thanks, and enjoy the show.

Cack Wilhelm: Welcome to a special edition podcast on the future of work. I’m very excited to talk with three notable experts and share their experiences with all of you. The future of work is especially relevant right now, as everyone transitions to a new shelter-in-place environment as a result of this difficult COVID-19 situation. Those putting their own health at risk on the front lines are doing the true hard work, for which we are all grateful.

Tamar, I’ll cover your background quickly, so you graduated with degrees in mathematics and computer science and that led you first to engineering leadership positions before moving then to product management. In product management, you had tenure at three companies that, my guess is, our audience has heard of: Amazon, Intel, and Google. If a full-time job wasn’t enough, you’ve added public boards to your load, including IVP portfolio company Yext and ServiceNow. Now, today, you find yourself as chief product officer at Slack. And from here, I’d like to hear you explain Slack and the product you provide in your words.

Tamar Yehoshua: Yes, so Slack is a channel based messaging platform, moving people from email, which are used for collaboration, into a warm channel based platform for their messaging so that you can focus your messaging around specific projects as opposed to making it much harder to find what’s going on, and also to include the right people who you need for whatever you need it for, and it’s much more flexible and agile. And on top of that, it’s a platform that can integrate all of the other SaaS apps into it.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah, super cool. I mean, I think that relates very closely to this whole idea of future of work, which, you know, my definition, I guess is really all of those companies just transforming business. So Slack is a channel based messaging layer within organizations. It seems like that’s very fundamental to the future of work. So what are the changes you’ve witnessed first hand given your position? And within that, I would say you specifically have talked about how successful organizations need this like clarity and alignment. How does Slack play into that?

Tamar Yehoshua: Yeah, we definitely have a front-row seat into how people are trying to change how they work. You hear the term digital transformation a lot and we’ve heard it for many years now, but it keeps changing what it means as the tools that are in the marketplace change. So I think the biggest trend that we see is the proliferation of vertically specific SaaS apps. So most large organizations use over a thousand different apps now, which was not the case before and before people had bundles from large companies and most of the applications that they used. We’re seeing a lot more specificity. You’ve got engineers, things like Atlassian and PagerDuty that are much more specialized and you have things like Trello and Ally for project management, etc. down the line. Until we see that and we see that, on the one hand, it’s been great because anybody can download a tool and use it, but on the other hand, it’s become much more difficult to manage. That’s one of the things we look at at the value of this platform is making it easier to take advantage of all of these SaaS apps because I don’t think that’s going away. I don’t think we’re going to go back to a bundled world. I think people really like the aspect that they can use for their job, the tool that’s much more specific to them. So I think that’s one of the biggest trends that we’re seeing. On your second question about the organization, organizational image, and clarity.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah.

Tamar Yehoshua: It’s a really interesting one. Over my career, the one thing that’s been constant is managing large technical teams and different domains, different sizes. But the one thing that I’ve really noticed is that the teams that communicate effectively are much more successful and much more productive. I don’t know if you’re familiar with General McChrystal’s book Team of Teams.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah.

Tamar Yehoshua: I love that book. And, you know, they talk about having daily stand-ups with 7000 people. So that’s a little excessive, and hopefully, most companies don’t need that. But the idea of sharing information with purpose and aligned with a project in a very open way, makes people feel more empowered. And that’s a lot of what we try and do with the Slack product is how do you share information very quickly, rapidly and in agile teams that you can spin up a channel really easily with the people you need. You can archive it, when you’re done, spin up a new one. Like what’s going on today, right now, with all of the remote workers and COVID-19 it’s fascinating about how we are using Slack and how other people are using it.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah, we could go in so many directions. I was going to wait on COVID, but I’ll humor you and we should talk about it now just because Slack is so well positioned. So I mean, it is the elephant in the room, like so much market dislocation. You know, with market dislocation, I think you have many losers, but some winners. So how is Slack adjusting internally? What is Slack doing with customers to help respond to COVID and work from home and sort of this new normal?

Tamar Yehoshua: It’s been such an interesting time. So first of all, we want the safety of our employees first and making sure that we’re responding to what our employees need until we are fully working from home like most companies. And at first, it was hey, work from home if you want, and then it was please, we strongly encourage you to work from home. And what’s happened is, within the company, we have a very customer-first mentality and we’re spinning up so many things to try and help our customers. But their customers are like banging on the door saying “please, we don’t know how to work remotely. Can you help us?” And so we’ve got like large customers saying, hey, you ready to handle it? On that front, we’re assuring them, yes, we can handle it. You don’t have to worry. Even though we’re all working from home, we can still support you. And then we’ve had just new customers saying, “Hey, is this going to help us?” And so what we’ve done is a lot of things. We’ve put out a lot more written material on our website for pointers and how you can work from home, how you can use Slack for remote work, and the most impactful thing we’ve done, is we’re offering free consultations for people on how to work from home. And we sent out a call within the company for anybody who wants to do a consultation. And within like minutes, we got 200 people signed up with Slack employees who are willing to do consults with external customers.

Cack Wilhelm: That’s super cool.

Tamar Yehoshua: It is! It’s like people are rallying because they want to help people through this crisis. I got a message this morning from a product manager on my team who did her first consult. And she’s like, it was so much fun. And she talked to somebody who runs an accelerator in Toronto and is trying to figure out how they can shift all of their in-person consultations and upcoming events to be fully virtual. So she walked them through it. She helps explain what we’re doing internally at Slack. We moved our sales offsite, that was supposed to be in Phoenix. We moved it to fully digital, leveraging Slack for a lot of the communication. And in what Slack does is, it mirrors, like we had a Zoom webinar and then we had a channel where people were like the human side of people interacting, posting pictures of what their home office looked like, asking questions about the presentation in real-time, threading all those questions for each presentation. And so, you got the social interaction by the combination of using the webinar and Slack.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah, that’s great. I mean, I think this discussion around future of work really centers around this like a shared acknowledgment that the future isn’t going to look like the present or we’ll not be talking about the future of work. And with that, we’re going to experience a ton of change, you know as it relates to COVID a little bit, but maybe more broadly. People are resistant to change, so what do you think is the people element required around introducing some of these new digital tools, for example, Slack into a large organization?

Tamar Yehoshua: So, change is hard. And we definitely acknowledge that. And I would say there is a change within the COVID response and then change outside of that. So first, just in general, one of the things that I think is most important in our organization is we have a customer success organization that helps large companies through the change management. So we realized that to really leverage Slack, you have to bring people along. You can’t just give them the tool and see what they do with it. For large customers, we have a dedicated, or a set of customers will have a dedicated customer success manager who sets them up with what channels they should be using, how they should be using their channels, training their employees, what apps they should be using, what integrations they should be building. And we found this incredibly helpful. We had a panel of customers at our last product offsite and one of the customers is just like I use Slack as my example for all SaaS companies of how they should build their customer success. So I was very proud, and I sent that clip to our customer success, for the VP of the customer success team. But I really do think it’s very defining for our company. And then what we’re doing is we’re trying to take the materials that they’ve built and the approach they have and put that into our Slack one on one, which is online, and into our help center so we can use that same approach for the people who are coming in through the self-service funnel. We’re not there yet. We’re still adding a lot, there’s still a lot of room for improvement, but we’re trying to improve a lot more on how to help themselves. And then to the, like what’s going on right now, I think we are a real catalyst. I think with everybody working from home, some people love it, some people hate it, but it’s changing how they communicate and I see it at Slack within Slack. People who are kind of hesitant to jump into channel discussions, now they’re like gone in full force because that’s their way of communicating. So –

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah.

Tamar Yehoshua: That communication and our Slack usage has kind of skyrocketed in a very positive and healthy way, but now everybody is communicating. And I think that when we go back to going into the office, one, I think we’re going to see a lot more requests for people to work remotely because they will have figured it out. And I think we’re gonna see the way people communicate will never go back to 100 percent how it was before.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah, now a lot of, you know, Slack was originally, I think to my knowledge, geared for knowledge worker settings. And I think a lot of what we’re talking about here is knowledge worker settings. But I do think the future of work relates universally to all workers, whether it’s salaried, contingent, hourly. And I’ve heard you talk about sort of this very small subset, the foreign five-person ice cream shop. So how has Slack expanded the product or the go-to-market to addressing this non-knowledge worker segment?

Tamar Yehoshua: So we feel like Slack is a product that can work for anyone, and it can work for a small company or for a large company, it can work for a place like a single thread, which is a restaurant. It’s fascinating how they’re using Slack to just organize their menus and what they pick from the garden. And so we feel like the platform is generic and can meet anyone’s needs, so we’re not tailoring it to any one set of people because I think anybody needs more transparency, then information, any kind of business. Any kind of business needs more agility. With the type of apps, you can build your own custom app, you can use some of our third-party integrations. So we really don’t differentiate, and that’s the beauty of the self-serve funnel, is that we see all kinds of people coming in through this funnel that you wouldn’t expect, from governments that we’ve just announced that the V.A. signed up with Slack for their hospitals. We have a large defense contractor on and then we have the Jackson Hole Wildlife Safari that their nature guides and wildlife photographers are using Slack to communicate and to like identify in real-time, like the movement and hyphenation of like migrating elk and buffaloes and deer. I never would have thought of that as the use case. And it’s so cool to see it happening.

Cack Wilhelm: That’s awesome. I’m sure it’s fun to see those examples because you see plenty of tech companies and enterprises, but those are probably more fun.

Tamar Yehoshua: We have a channel on Slack that’s called new users and it’s a feed of people who were signing up and the names of companies signing up in the funnel. And it’s like mesmerizing. You sit there and you watch one after another coming in from just like places you would never imagine. A lot of universities, a lot of students creating projects, and this is could be anything. A friend of mine bought an apartment and said their HOA was on Slack. Like really? It’s quite fascinating.

Cack Wilhelm: That’s awesome. So as it relates to your functional work, less so Slack but product development, is there an opportunity for innovation there? Because one of the other panelists we had was from Humu. So working on people analytics, loosely within HR. The way we talk about HR is becoming really data-driven, just as marketing has transformed into data-driven, like what do you think the big shift we should expect in product management to be over the next five, 10 years.

Tamar Yehoshua: So I’m seeing a big shift at Slack of how we do product management. So product management has always used lots of data, you know, from the data from Amazon to Google, we used a lot of experimentation and data. And I think what’s the shift for us is getting closer to our customers. So we’re working on a pretty big new feature that’s going to be launched soon that we did for our development is we’re moving much more towards rapid prototyping and showing things to customers early. So we actually use a shared channel with some of our champions and admins and gave them early previews of the feature of what we were working on and the developers and the product managers were in the channel with our customers getting the feedback in real-time and making changes to the product, in real-time, as they were testing it. And it was so cool to see that we had in the channel a whole system. You use a green circle of positive feedback, a white circle if it’s neutral and a red circle like this isn’t working for me. And so what we did is we made a lot of changes to our development based on customer feedback. And we also, this is a way of bringing them along. And instead of saying, hey, here is something new, surprise, we actually said, here’s a sneak peek at something we’re doing and we want your feedback. So we really rely heavily on user testing and user input. And I think that the tools we have now can allow us to do that in a way that I hadn’t seen before.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah, interesting. So you’re just bringing them into the process a lot sooner. So nothing’s a big, huge surprise.

Tamar Yehoshua: Yeah, and taking their feedback before we’ve actually launched a product in the development cycle.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah, it makes sense. So, I mean, you spend your days in a productivity tool called Slack, focused on product management, and then you also do all of your product management product direction for a tool called Slack, which is, you know, sort of meta when it comes to it. So what are the joys or maybe the nuisances on having that overlap every day?

Tamar Yehoshua: That’s really, really fun to be able to work on a product that you use every day so that you feel like you can actually control your destiny in some way to that, that is the outcome. And you know the product inside and out and you have a customer mindset. The downside is course, everybody has an opinion in the company and everybody has their pet like feature that they want to see. You have to manage that. At one point we had launched a feature internally of something that not launched externally. And there were reasons why we couldn’t launch it externally because it was built on a shaky architecture, and etc, etc… And everyone loved it and everybody was using the feature, but we actually turned it off internally because we said our customers are not using this and we can’t be using something and relying on something that our customers aren’t using. And people were really upset, but they kind of intellectually understood. And we have built the future, it’s going to be released soon. But it was like six months of go away and so the energy in that is interesting. But I think the biggest challenge is that we use Slack in a very extreme way. Like there is literally not an email that is sent internally at Slack.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah.

Tamar Yehoshua: And we have to be careful about not prioritizing features that we want, but prioritizing features that our customers want. So that’s an interesting balance of what we try and do, is make sure that the product and engineering organization has enough exposure to customers outside of Slack employees that they’re getting feedback from a set of people and not just internally. So I have to balance that when we’re looking at the roadmap and say, no, I’m not going to give engineers all the features that you want. Well, those aren’t all the ones that we develop, but we have to think about a new user, brand new, fresh into Slack and who doesn’t know anything about it. How do we help them?

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah, I’m sure it’s a tough balance. So last question. This is probably more controversial, but I love to hear your perspective, which is the balance of what are we gaining by interacting with digital software and digital assistants, intelligence assistance on a daily basis, but then the mesh here, will this future of productivity and being augmented by intelligence software, will that come at a cost for people, for companies?

Tamar Yehoshua: There’s so much to be gained by machine learning and using data to improve our algorithms. I think the key is two things, being transparent with how you’re using data and putting the customer in control. Customers should be always in control, whether it’s a consumer app or an enterprise app in how their data is being used so they can decide. I think if you give them most controls in plain English and they are clear, and you also are transparent with what you’re doing, then you can use it for really improving productivity. For example, how we use machine-learning per auto-complete. Like if you’re in Slack and you use it all the time and you are about to send a direct message for somebody, we put the float to the top, the people who you most often talk to. A very simple thing that’s using machine learning, it’s using an understanding of how you communicate and who you communicate to, and it’s really effective and really helpful. And you’re aware of it, and I don’t think that there are any downsides to that. Then for Slack or an enterprise company, so the trade-offs are a little bit different because all of the information is that we’re using it within your enterprise. And the other thing is we have a lot of attention to like retention policies. So enterprises can set their retention policies. Encryption, so we can, we have something called enterprise key management, so enterprises can own their own key, have their own key to the encryption. So all of this is so that an enterprise is in control and can see how we’re using the data and what we’re using it for. And they can decide what’s right for them. And I think that’s really the key.

Cack Wilhelm: That makes a ton of sense. Well, Tamar. Thank you for being our guest. We really appreciate it. This is really insightful, and it’s always nice to hear, you know, a big successful company like Slack, how you guys are doing things internally.

Tamar Yehoshua: Oh, my pleasure. It was great chatting with you. Thank you for having me on the podcast.

Cack Wilhelm: Thank you to everyone today for listening. And I thoroughly hope you enjoyed our discussions.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to IVP’s Future of Work Podcast. You can learn more about us on IVP.com or join the conversation on Twitter by tweeting @IVP.