Several People Are Typing
The Atlantic|November 2021
Slack made it easier to crack jokes and easier to stir up trouble. Employees love it. Bosses don’t.
By Ellen Cushing. Illustrations by Maria Chimishkyan

In 2014, the executives at a brand-new start-up called Andela made a decision whose consequences they would only understand much later. Andela’s model was to recruit and train promising African engineers, then place them at Western tech firms, which meant its employees and clients were scattered across time zones; it desperately needed a way for its distributed workforce to share information and make decisions easily and asynchronously, ideally without subjecting anyone to a deluge of emails. So the company started using Slack.

The maker of the chat software had recently become one of San Francisco’s trendiest new companies, based on a promise to make work communication more transparent and fluid. And at Andela, it did. As the company grew, Slack became its central nervous system, the place where business was conducted and where the company’s culture was formed.

Over time, it also became the site of a workplace revolt, as the company’s fellows—engineers in training—began to agree that they were being mistreated. The complaints started in private messaging groups, where they’d discuss priorities before big meetings, in order to act as a sort of bloc in front of senior leadership. But when the fellows stopped being invited to those meetings, they created a private Slack channel where they’d air their grievances, especially about pay.

In the summer of 2019, a glowing BBC article misrepresented how much the fellows were paid, saying they made a third of what clients paid Andela, when in fact the amount varied and was sometimes lower. First, the #general Slack channel lit up with complaints, mostly from employees who had been talking among themselves about the issue for months. “I would like to know, did Andela at any point in time tell any news source we get 1/3?” wrote one. “This info has been flying around for a long time and it does not seem to bother Andela.” In a private employee-only Slack, they took to calling Andela “The Plantation.” Eventually, the fellows circulated a petition asking for higher pay—an effort organized over Slack. But by late 2019, the issue was moot: The company—citing “market demands for more senior engineering talent”—had laid off 400 people and shut down its fellowship program.

What became clear was that Slack was never just another piece of software at Andela. Instead, it was a whole new way for workers to talk to one another, and to demand answers from their bosses.

Thanks in large part to the coronavirus pandemic, Slack has now seeped out of start-up land and into all corners of corporate America, with more than 169,000 organizations— including 65 of the Fortune 100—paying for its services. Lyft, Airbnb, Venmo, Tumblr, and a raft of companies with names like Splunk and Deliveroo all use Slack—but so do Target, The New York Times, 1-800-Flowers, Harvard, AstraZeneca, and The Atlantic. So do Liberty Mutual, IBM, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and countless local businesses and nonprofits. Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang, Cory Booker, and Pete Buttigieg all paid for Slack during their 2020 presidential campaigns. The Taylor Creek Church, in rural Washington State, uses it to coordinate prayer requests. Arizona State University has more than 140,000 individual Slack accounts in its system; the IT department considers it a tool that students should become acquainted within school, like Excel or PowerPoint, because they will likely be using it for their entire professional lives.

It’s a safe bet: Last year, it was announced that Salesforce would acquire Slack for nearly $28 billion, in an ostensible bid to edge out Microsoft as the working world’s digital center of gravity. For millions of people, Slack is a verb, a utility, and a way of life. It has spawned competitors from Facebook, Microsoft, and Google; all told, chat is now the second-most-common computer activity, after email, according to RescueTime, productivity software that tracks users’ screen time.

But even if you don’t use Slack, or something like it, you live and work in the world Slack helped create. It’s a world where openness and transparency are prized; where work is something we are always kind of doing; where who we are at the office and who we are outside it are closer than ever before; where all of these dynamics mean that sometimes things go very wrong, especially for people in power.

SLACK IS PROBABLY the first enterprise software in history to convince people that it’s cool. Its founder, Stewart Butterfield, became famous in Silicon Valley after starting the beloved photo-sharing site Flickr, which he and his partners sold to Yahoo for more than $22 million in 2004. He vaped and swore and majored in philosophy and had been born on a commune in British Columbia. He was funny, but the way he talked about software was almost tender. The tech press absolutely loved him.

In 2012, Butterfield and some friends were working on a video game, Glitch, that never really took off. But the team had become so enamored of the chat platform they’d built in the process that they decided to spin it off into the company that would become Slack. In an industry that fetishizes constructive failure so much that it repurposed a word for it, this was a spectacular pivot.

“We were like, ‘Well, we like working this way,’ ” Ali Rayl, a Glitch alum who is now Slack’s vice president of product, told me. “ ‘And maybe other people would like working in this way too.’ That was it: ‘Let’s try to make something that makes money so we can keep doing this thing that we like together.’ ”

Slack was explicitly an antidote to email—the formality, the clunkiness, the crush of useless messages, the bottomless replyalls, and the chirpily false I hope this email finds you well! s. It organized information by subject (like a message board), not conversation (like email), and its architecture encouraged users to share knowledge broadly. Everything was saved by default, so all the flotsam and jetsam of daily work was captured in a sort of running ledger. It worked on desktop and phone, and made switching between the two seamless.

“As soon as you were in, it was like, ‘Oh, this is better. This is what it’s going to be for everybody in five years,’ ” says the tech executive Anil Dash, whose company at the time, ThinkUp, was one of Slack’s very first customers. “I was pretty evangelical about it.”

Part of the appeal was the way the software felt. The company’s name was a wink, a self-aware joke, a sensibility: a hint at the kind of casual, effortless culture the companies that adopted it early seemed to be hoping to cultivate. The product itself was bubbly and bouncy, with a kindercore color scheme and a little cartoon robot that showed you the ropes. New messages announced themselves with a swoosh-tap-tap-tap that was inspired by jazz percussion and is, as the sound designer Josh Mobley told me when I called to ask about it, “Pavlovian,” “iconic,” and “very clever.” He added, “I wish I’d made it.” The interface supported GIFs and emoji and offered upbeat, cutesy messages as it booted up.

“It just felt like it wasn’t something made by, like, Microsoft,” Dash told me. “It just had a soul to it.”

Slack was the beneficiary of good press and word of mouth— when its preview version debuted in 2013, 8,000 companies signed up within 24 hours—but also of a larger trend. From the dawn of the office to the mid-2000s, the tools people used to do their jobs were largely dictated from the top down. But as technology became a consumer product—and especially after the first iPhone was released, in 2007—rank-and-file employees began doing work on their personal devices, using whatever software they wanted.

And so workers installed Slack’s free, low-feature version on their work-issued laptops and started chatting, until eventually they converted enough people that leadership had no choice but to pay for a professional license. Soon enough, and without advertising at all, Slack was a perk, if not a shibboleth, for a certain kind of employee and a certain kind of company.

Slack is work software that insinuated itself into our lives precisely by feeling unlike work software.

Eight years, more than 10 million users, and an acquisition bigger than the GDP of El Salvador later, Slack has managed to mostly hold on to the cachet of its early days. “All of the other messaging apps that we tested just felt sort of corporate y,” says Melanie Pinola, who wrote the Wirecutter review that declared Slack “by far” the best team-messaging app. “And the ones that were fun were really just imitations of Slack.” The user-experience researcher Michele Ronsen, who has done work for Slack and other global brands, told me that she’s seen no other product evoke such uniformly positive reactions among consumers. “When I recruit and conduct studies, over half of the people volunteer their love for the product and the platform and the benefits, completely unsolicited,” she said. “That does not happen very often.”

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