E2M with Slack CPO Tamar Yehoshua

October 28, 2020
min read

“A lot of what I think about when developing software is how do you understand the emotional state of your user, and being able to speak to that. We like to say at Slack: Don’t make your users feel stupid.”

There were few platforms that were as poised as Slack was to step up when in early 2020, companies moved wholesale to work from home. Millions of people became part of distributed workforces overnight, which translated to many new users joining the Slack platform. Even messages sent by current users increased by 20% to 30% virtually overnight. A good problem to have, right?

Tamar Yehoshua, Slack’s chief product officer, walks us through what that unprecedented uptick in new users meant for the company and the product. While engineering focused on reliability, the rest of the company jumped in to help onboard teams new to the platform. The “Covid crunch” exposed pain points that had been on the product team’s “list to improve,” but suddenly, it was more urgent to take action.

Listen in as Tamar talks about how the “all hands on deck” response to this year’s crises increased empathy for the Slack user, how the company itself is adjusting to our new way of working, and what the future of work might look like. Or, check out the excerpt below from her conversation with Steve Herrod and Quentin Clark.

Tamar Yehoshua | Equivalent to Magic
Quentin Clark: In this episode, we interview Tamar Yehoshua, the chief product officer at Slack. We talked about designing products for the future of work but in today’s environment. The pandemic injected a lot of urgency at Slack, which saw user growth explode after millions of people suddenly started working from home. We’re still sorting through how this mass remote work culture is going to impact workplace collaboration. And Tamar’s team is in the thick of it, thinking deeply about how to better serve in this new world.

Steve Herrod: Tamar’s been the CPO of Slack since early 2019. And before that, she was a VP at Google working on search and privacy. She’s also a VP at Amazon search engine ad company A9. And when she came to Slack, she was not a user of the company’s product.

Tamar Yehoshua: And imagine coming on a job as a chief product officer at a company where everyone knows the product so much better than you do, and coming on board and just being used to using email for decades. So at first, it definitely was a transition.

Quentin Clark: A little over a year after Tamar took on her role as CPO, COVID shut everything down. And virtually overnight, Slack saw a huge surge, millions of simultaneous users, many of them new users.

Tamar Yehoshua: It’s been really interesting to see the impact of shelter and place on Slack usage. And we could see it even by locale. As certain locales went into shelter-in-place, first in Europe, then in Asia, and then the U.S., you saw the number of new users coming absolutely reflecting what was happening in those societies as more people were turning to Slack as an option for helping them move to remote work.

“We saw an increase in messages… and you could feel it in how we were using the product. And you can feel it in just the usage of Slack and channels as kind of a replacement for the physical office.”

Quentin Clark: There’s a lot of this generation of employee productivity tools bleeding across personal use and work use. And it’s kind of a testament to the technical agility you’ve had to put in place. What do you think is important for people designing these products to think about in terms of that agility to build and embrace things like that?

Tamar Yehoshua: So I think there are two parts to it. One is that the core product has to be a product that people love. And when you think about the enterprise from a decade ago, there was no focus on the user experience. So because there’s an expectation that people are coming into the workforce now, tools in the workplace should be as pleasant and easy to use as your consumer tools. So now, enterprise tools have to focus on that. So the enterprise tools have gotten so much better and easier to use. And they’re so easy to use that people can use them outside of work. So I think that’s one reason why you see that bleed over.

And then to your question about well, but there’s a whole set of things you need for enterprises. And I think people, some people who are new to the enterprise space don’t realize. We have a huge focus on security, compliance, and reliability. How do you do things like skim provisioning? How do you make sure that you deal with encryption and enterprise key management? How do you deal with all the compliance needs of large banks? So we have a very large focus on enterprise needs and making sure that we meet the needs of enterprises and scale. And if you think about it, a lot of it is also controlled, giving the administrators in an enterprise control so that they understand what’s happening with their data. They understand what channels are being created and how they keep their data loss prevention; there’s a whole host of those things. All of that is irrelevant to consumers. The consumer part is more I can use this, I can communicate, and I can upload files and share them with my community. So you have to be able to view both of those.

Steve Herrod: What is the hardest thing for you about software development?

Tamar Yehoshua: Developing software is really hard. I think the biggest things that are really hard in software is one, really getting in the mindset of your customer. You think you can do it, but you can’t, and you don’t. And we’re all too, especially when you’re designing a product that you use every day, you have a false sense of understanding what people have. So I’m maniacally focused on getting the product organization in front of customers.

I think that’s one reason people don’t really have empathy. And the other is you can’t use metrics for everything. So there is a subjective nature. Metrics should inform, but they can’t make decisions for you.

And people over-rely on metrics, and then they optimize for metrics. And then they say, “Well, if I don’t have the metric, how do I know it’s right?” And there’s a subjective nature to building software. There just is.

Quentin Clark: We’ve also seen instances where the metrics have been used as a way to protect organizations that actually ended up kind of doing the wrong thing. It’s like, well, this is the metric we’re after. And the reality is that the subjective work you’re talking about is actually the hard part, right? And what we want people to be more focused on.

Tamar Yehoshua: You have to measure it, and you have to know the impact, but I’ve done many large redesigns or small product improvements that have had negative metrics associated with it. Because well, we have to get to some point and we have to understand where we’re going. And you just have to have a sense of, you have to have a gut, and you have to believe, and you have to have product managers who have a gut sense of what they’re doing and don’t only rely on a metric. And it’s a very hard thing to teach an organization.

Equivalent to Magic
Steve Herrod: So we call this podcast Equivalent to Magic, partly to recognize and celebrate those magic moments that all of us in technology have had. I’m curious – what’s a moment in your career when this magic of technology really surfaced and became clear to you?

Tamar Yehoshua: I’m going to give one from Google and one from Slack. One of the roles that I had at Google was responsible for international search. And we did a big event on Google for India. And when I went there, Google does it every year now, but this was the first time we did it. And we had a whole group of executives, went to India, and did an immersion there of how Google is being used and the impact. And I had to go onstage and say, “Here’s what Google means for India.”

And going onstage and talking about what Google did for India was really eye-opening for me because I’m like wow. The impact the information has made is so vast. Having to collect that and talk about it was like this has made a difference for the world. And it was really meaningful for me.

And then at Slack, one of the things that we’ve learned in our user studies is users say about using Slack over using other products, is it’s a more human way of communicating. And I think that’s overlooked how important it is. We want to communicate with people at work in a more human way. And it was really brought home to me recently during everything that was going on between COVID and Black Lives Matter and dealing with sick relatives, all this stress.

One of our data analysts, the leads, put together an analysis of emoji usage at Slack the company and looked at how we used emojis over this time. And the emoji that spiked and shot up in usage during this time was the heart emoji. And she sent that out to the whole company and said, I can’t remember what the “x” was, but it was a huge spike in usage. And I really think it said something. It said something about Slack the product, Slack the company. And it just hit home to me that we had built a way of using technology in a more human way for connecting with other people.