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Slack loses its head


Co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield announces he's stepping down from the company and what that might mean for communities that rely on the platform

By Sean Bugler / @sbglr
Dec 9, 2022

Party parrot but sad, digital art. DALL·E / OpenAI

Editor's Note: Getting closer to actually sending these off at 5pm. Thanks to those of you who shared last week’s post, it really means a lot to see those posts out in the wild.

CEO and co-founder of the popular chat and collaboration platform Slack, Stewart Butterfield, announced this week that he is stepping down from his role in January.

In a message posted to an internal Slack channel, Butterfield shared that he plans to spend more time with family and “work on some personal projects.” The Verge has the full text of the announcement and it is absolutely worth the read if you’re interested in that kind of thing (full disclosure: I am).

Stepping in to replace him is Lidiane Jones, who was, before this promotion, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Experience Cloud, Commerce Cloud, and Marketing Cloud at Salesforce.

At first glance, this departure might seem like the kind of thing that only impacts Marc Benioff, who is having a tough time dealing with Salesforce executive departures at the moment, and the 2,500+ people who work at Slack.

But for community leaders who, over the past decade, have looked to Slack as the go-to platform for their online communities, ranging from social justice and advocacy groups to industry groups, parent-teacher associations, and even religious communities, this changing of the guard merits a closer look.

Slack-based communities have thrived over the years in spite of the fact that the company has primarily marketed itself as a business tool, unlike Gen Z darling Discord, which has focused from the beginning on serving the needs of online communities.

Toss in high licensing costs, minimal moderation controls, and an increasingly restrictive free tier, and it quickly becomes apparent that Slack has succeeded despite itself in the community space. In fact, Butterfield has even gone on the record in the past, noting Slack simply isn’t built for the use-case and is “never going to be the right tool for thousands or tens of thousands of people in that context.”

But a lot has changed in the past few years. Not least of all, the company’s $27.7 billion acquisition by Salesforce, which closed last year and has served to insulate Slack from the pressures of Wall Street.

Jones, with her background in consumer and enterprise technology, may bring a fresh perspective to the company and help it better serve the needs of online communities. And we might already be seeing hints at precisely that.

Newly minted Chief Product Office at Slack, Noah Weiss, recently had this to share on Twitter not long after the announcement:

While time will tell how serious Slack is about courting communities, the company has a real opportunity to lean into the space. And despite enterprise and community customers being positioned at odds with each other, many of those investments in community-focused features are likely to have tangible benefits for enterprise customers as well.

For example, wider community adoption might serve as a powerful pipeline for new enterprise customers, allowing decision-makers to experience the product at scale in real-world scenarios outside the workplace.

And don’t get me started on moderation and related harassment protections, which will be crucial as Slack continues to invest heavily in Slack Connect, the company’s vision for connecting organizations to each other within the service. They learned this lesson firsthand with the bumpy rollout of Slack Connect DMs last year.

The transition from Butterfield to Jones is not without its risks. Butterfield has been a beloved figure at Slack, and his departure will undoubtedly be met with growing pains.

But for community leaders who have felt marginalized by Slack's singular focus on business customers, this change is an open invitation to hope for more.

In other news

Apple is wading back into the consumer privacy fight, announcing Advanced Data Protection, an opt-in feature that will enable end-to-end encryption for iCloud backups. As the on-device security of Apple devices have steadily improved, these backups have become a popular target of law enforcement subpoenas. Apple says the feature will be available to users in the United States before the end of this year, and will start rolling out to the rest of the world in early 2023.

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