Slack's AI boss explains its secret weapons in the coming chat wars with Microsoft, Facebook, and Google
Today, Slack is a $3.8 billion business with over 800 employees, and a growing roster of paying customers that include IBM, Walmart's Jet.com, and, yes, Business Insider. For many companies, chat is the way people are getting things done. Slack wasn't the first company to do chat at work, but it's certainly the most visible.
And so, tech titans like Microsoft, Google, and Facebook have all launched their own work chat apps, trying to crush Slack before it's too late. Under that pressure, Slack is doubling down on its biggest advantage: Generally speaking, people actually enjoy using it, which isn't often the case with software meant for use in the office.
Enter Noah Weiss, former Googler and Senior VP of Product Management at Foursquare, who now leads Slack's Search, Learning and Intelligence team out of the company's spiffy new New York City offices. It's his team that's going to be making much of the "magic" that keeps users glued to Slack, even as the alternatives proliferate.
"Slack is a very bizarre enterprise software company," says Weiss. "And I mean 'bizarre' in the best possible way."
Because people are using Slack all workday, every workday, there's an astonishing amount of information that's already flowing through the app. Not just text, but the photos and links and documents that your coworkers are sharing with each other.
"All of that data exhaust is something that we think we can tap into to make Slack itself smarter," says Weiss.
Slack already integrates some of that, with smarter search suggestions. And users can opt-in to receive regular suggestions for chat rooms within their company - whether that room is for a special sales project populated by the people they talk to every day, or for "Game of Thrones" fans.
The data that's feeding the beast is largely coming from outside apps, says Weiss. For example, he says, teams at Slack itself use Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Dropbox Paper, and Quip, just for the creation and sharing of documents. Regardless which app employees use to create the file, they use Slack to share it with coworkers.
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"Slack ends up being pretty good connective tissue for this increasingly diverse set of tools," says Weiss.
Over time, Weiss says, Slack can really start to "learn" things about users based on the things they send around. If you share a lot of spreadsheets with "expenses" in the title, you probably work in accounting. If you post a lot of links about Elon Musk, you're probably into space. And so on.
All of which comes back to helping people love Slack more, explains Weiss. All of this data will help its users sift through the noise that comes with everyday conversation, and find the answers they're looking for, more quickly. Once Slack "understands" the relationships between people and files, it can subtly point you towards the right answers, without requiring you to change the way you work.
"There is tremendous collective knowledge building up in Slack," says Weiss.
Versus Microsoft and Google
Microsoft, in particular, is hard at work on similar principles. In 2016, the company introduced the Microsoft Graph, which, as you may guess from the name, traces the relationships between documents and coworkers the same way that Facebook's famed social graph does for your friends.
Still, Weiss believes that Slack has a few advantages. First and foremost, it's been doing it longer, and claims a leading 5 million daily active users. That means lots more data flowing in, which means it can release new, smarter, time-saving features faster.
"We kind of created this category; we have the most usage in this category," says Weiss.
Furthermore, Weiss says, Slack is way more focused than Facebook, Google or Microsoft, all of whom support a plethora of messaging apps beyond whatever it is they offer to office workers. For Slack, messaging is literally all they do. Weiss' team has one mission, and it's not powering a search engine or whatnot - it's building a chat app that helps people be more productive.
"When you think about how Slack itself is wired, we are here on this Earth to do this one thing," Weiss says.
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