If you work at a tech company, you probably use Slack. And for good reason: the chat app is amazing for your company's culture. Slack acts as a great collaboration hub, a means to communicate key information internally and in real-time, both company-wide and through direct messages between co-workers. This enhances overall cross-team communication, and fosters stronger employee engagement among employees. That sense of community in a company is essential to great company culture — something the San Francisco-based company is all about. While the path to founding the company has zigged and zagged, Slack was always sure that people were at the front of its culture.
In 2011, entrepreneur and future Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield was feeling lucky—he had successfully co-founded Flickr in 2004, had been on the cover of Newsweek in 2006, and was just coming off a high stakes stint at Yahoo from 2005 through 2008. But he wanted to do something different; something that nobody had seen before. He set out to build Glitch, an online video game that featured a fantasy world that encouraged creativity in each user as they had the power to collaborate and craft different parts of the universe.
But there just wasn’t enough of an audience, and Glitch shut down after a little over a year.
However, Glitch had developed a system of internal communication, one they preferred over any other kind already on the market. They didn’t even think about it as “a thing.” It was just something they made to help internal communications at Glitch. But it worked very well, and they added hacks to include features, and more hacks, and more hacks on hacks. Sound familiar?
Out of the ruins of Glitch came Slack, the online messaging app that has likely made your office life easier, or at least more entertaining (hello, gifs for all occasions). While Glitch failed, Slack thrived. Last year, Slack hit 8 million daily active users — no surprise there; it's a great product. But it's no coincidence that as its grown, Slack’s culture and performance management process have made the news several times for their innovation. Here are three parts of Slack’s company culture that we can learn from.
Stand behind the people you hire — even (or especially) when things get tough — and empathize with them. Glitch failed as a business, but management found ways to try to support the employees they had to lay off. Management so genuinely believed in their employees that they used whatever resources they had to back them. They built a website called Hire a Genius, which had everyone’s name, portfolio, and endorsements, and used company savings to keep paying everyone for several months while they hunted for new jobs. The 37 people who were laid off all got another job — in most cases, a better than the one they’d had.
“I think that making sure everyone got hired generated an enormous amount of goodwill, like, in the community at large,” Butterfield said in an NPR interview. “And I think that was very helpful for us down the road when we started Slack.”
In fact, many of those same employees became Slack employees — they trusted Slack's leadership because they saw evidence of goodwill before Slack even existed.
When Slack was smaller, Butterfield thought that his job was to be “smarter than everyone.” But the reality is more complicated than that, especially when a company grows on such a large scale and it becomes harder for everyone to understand what’s going on. New people will start having questions and it can be difficult to answer them all while others are just learning how to do their job. What is the vision that is holding everyone and everything together? How do you hire the right people that you can trust to work hard and deliver great product? How do you build a strong Slack team?
“[When] everyone's pushing in the same direction, you're able to achieve something,” Butterfield said. “If people are pushing in opposite directions, then you can put as much energy as you want in, and nothing happens.” Instead, he realized the performance of the company was tied to the vision of not just the company, but its employees. Their core values had to line up, and the best place to find out if they would would be during hiring.
Butterfield realized that since the company was growing quickly, he had to become especially focused on creating a set of values that brought in the right people in order to scale its culture properly. Butterfield has spoken often about how important he felt his own liberal arts education was, and was keen to find people with a similar spirit. In the early days of Slack, curiosity was a key value.
Butterfield would try to find this key value in candidates by asking them three questions:
1. What's 3 times 17?
2. Name three countries in Africa.
3. In which century was the French Revolution?
You weren’t disqualified for getting answers incorrect -- instead, it's a test of human dynamics, not a test of knowledge. but the questions are meant to spark conversation and understand the interviewee as a person.
While Slack's company values have changed a bit over the years, the one Slack value that remains consistent is empathy. Empathy is important not only to the company's culture, but to its product: Slack works well as an internal messaging system because it strives to understand the wide variety of ways people communicate, and how everyone has their own preferences and needs in a communication platform. By hiring people who were interested in personal dynamics and other people's experiences, Slack was building the perfect community to enhance the Slack experience, both in the product and in the company.
While other big tech companies in Silicon Valley tend to have appointed a designated “diversity” person, Slack wants everyone in the company to be part of the effort. According to an article in the Atlantic, since 2015, the company has stepped outside traditional programmer pipelines and instead, has sought candidates from diverse sources like Hackbright, an all-women’s coding camp, and programs that focus on training Black and Latinx programmers. Recruiters are also trained to look at skills, rather than alma mater. Last year, Slack entered into a partnership with a technology training program for incarcerated people The Last Mile to build an initiative called "Next Chapter," an experiment with hiring people who'd been previously incarcerated.
Intentions on diversity are also demonstrated in the language used in their job descriptions, in which terms like “lasting relationships” and “care deeply,” appear, as both are phrases that statistically result in a higher percentage of female applicants. Finally, they have a guide online on how to get an engineering job at Slack, including insights into the software challenges they give candidates, and how they distinguish great work from the best work.
Candidates are all asked the same set of questions. “If you ask every candidate the same question,” said Grace, “you start to see what a good answer looks like.” This was enabled to help alleviate self-bias, or the preference for candidates who are most like the person interviewing or hiring them. And it’s not just candidates who brace themselves for the interview process. Interviewers are asked to do mock interviews with existing employees so that the interviewers can become more skilled and less biased in the process.
Slack is open about the fact that they're still growing and learning — both in terms of their product and the way they build culture. But as a company who has made sure to integrate our product with Slack practically since our inception, we believe other companies can learn a lot from them already.