Trump visas sus­pen­sion ‘will ben­e­fit ri­vals’

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page - By James Tit­comb in San Fran­cisco

ONE of Sil­i­con Val­ley’s top soft­ware com­pa­nies has said Don­ald Trump’s sus­pen­sion of high-skilled visas will boost ri­val tech hubs in­clud­ing Lon­don at Amer­ica’s ex­pense.

The US pres­i­dent last week signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der sus­pend­ing new visas in­clud­ing those that are com­monly used by com­puter pro­gram­mers en­ter­ing the coun­try for tech jobs.

Stewart But­ter­field, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the busi­ness mes­sag­ing ser­vice Slack, said: “I think it’ll be an ad­van­tage to the UK, to the EU, to Canada, to Aus­tralia, to other coun­tries or ju­ris­dic­tions where they’re going to have a more wel­com­ing at­ti­tude”. Slack said this month that it would al­low all of its em­ploy­ees to work re­motely on a permanent ba­sis.

Mr Trump’s or­der is pre­dicted to keep more than 500,000 high-skilled work­ers out of the US this year.

Stewart But­ter­field has a one-word an­swer when asked how he, per­son­ally, has found run­ning a com­pany dur­ing the pan­demic.

“Ex­haust­ing?” Slack’s chief ex­ec­u­tive says, his re­sponse in­flect­ing to a ques­tion, as if ask­ing if it is all right to ad­mit it. “I am find­ing it, just harder, much more tax­ing. I’m ex­hausted by 6pm.”

One might ex­pect a dif­fer­ent an­swer, be­cause his com­pany is fly­ing. This year, the work­place chat app has seen shares rise by al­most 50pc. In its last quar­ter, a record 90,000 or­gan­i­sa­tions be­gan us­ing it.

If Zoom has been the tech tool of the pan­demic, Slack, an­other star of the work­ing from home boom, has not been too far be­hind.

Slack’s main ser­vice is a mes­sag­ing app for busi­nesses. It is of­ten billed as an email killer, a term that But­ter­field is happy to embrace, to an ex­tent. “We have noth­ing against email,” he says. “But tak­ing the parts that are most amenable to im­prove­ment … that’s the idea.”

In prac­tice, Slack re­places in-per­son con­ver­sa­tions and meet­ings as much as the in-box.

So in the same way that What­sApp groups have re­placed the fam­ily gath­er­ing in re­cent months, Slack has filled the void left as of­fice work­ers have de­camped to their kitchen ta­bles.

But­ter­field de­scribes the pan­demic as a mo­ment “when a me­teor hits the earth”, and says com­pa­nies will be forced to re­visit how they work.

“Sud­denly there’s this big surge of evo­lu­tion­ary creativ­ity and ex­plo­ration, be­cause all these equi­lib­ri­ums are re­set. I think you’re going to see a pro­lif­er­a­tion of new tools, the need for which wasn’t ob­vi­ous in the world be­fore,” he says.

But­ter­field is used to adapt­ing. His pre­vi­ous com­pany, the photo-shar­ing web­site Flickr, was sold to Ya­hoo in 2005. Af­ter quit­ting, he as­sem­bled a group of former em­ploy­ees of Flickr to start Tiny Speck, a video games com­pany, in 2009. Their game flopped, but the chat tool they had built for it showed prom­ise.

In 2014, the com­pany re­branded as Slack (an acro­nym of “search­able log of all knowl­edge and con­ver­sa­tion”, rather than a ref­er­ence to work­place idle­ness). The com­pany went pub­lic at a val­u­a­tion of $23bn (£18.6bn) last year.

Slack now bills it­self as a com­mand cen­tre for em­ploy­ees as much as a mes­sag­ing app: video meeting soft­ware, cal­en­dars, sales and data tools all in­te­grate with the soft­ware. Last week, the com­pany un­veiled an ex­ten­sion, let­ting these tools work across dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies rather than just within them. For ex­am­ple, take­away or­ders placed on De­liv­eroo for chicken wings au­to­mat­i­cally show up in Nando’s Slack chan­nels. In the­ory, this would not only cut down on emails, but meet­ings, pre­sen­ta­tions and con­fer­ence calls. Of­fice life would be en­tirely con­densed to a bright­ly­coloured app, run­ning in the cloud.

But­ter­field is toy­ing with other ways to let com­pa­nies adapt to work­ing from home, such as let­ting peo­ple send au­dio or video clips back and forth in­stead of hav­ing to get to­gether for Zoom calls. “There’s a lot of places where we use meet­ings just be­cause that’s the tool we have,” he says.

An­other mooted idea is an up­date to the way work­ers present their on­line sta­tus, so that col­leagues could drop in and start in­for­mally chat­ting, in the same way the phys­i­cal of­fice al­lowed peo­ple to stop by co-work­ers’ desks.

But­ter­field, holed up in the at­tic of his San Fran­cisco home, has had the same home-work­ing hic­cups as the rest of us. Dur­ing our in­ter­view, his door­bell rings for a pack­age de­liv­ery, twice, and But­ter­field says he has only re­cently had his home Wi-Fi fixed.

But true to its own sales pitch, Slack has said it will al­low its own staff to work from home in­def­i­nitely. Twit­ter and Face­book have done the same, and But­ter­field sug­gests many com­pa­nies will have lit­tle choice but to fol­low. “If we say we ex­pect you to come into the of­fice ev­ery day, and [others] say you can work re­motely … we’re cut off from this enor­mous pool of tal­ent that they now have ac­cess to.”

More of those em­ploy­ees could be out­side the US if Don­ald Trump con­tin­ues with last week’s sus­pen­sion of high-skilled visa ap­provals, which was roundly crit­i­cised by the tech in­dus­try. But­ter­field calls it a “ter­ri­ble de­ci­sion”, but one that could be “an ad­van­tage to the UK, to the EU, to Canada … where they’re going to have a more wel­com­ing at­ti­tude”.

Slack’s more im­me­di­ate con­cern might be com­pe­ti­tion: Mi­crosoft’s ri­val prod­uct, Teams, has ex­ploded dur­ing the pan­demic. But­ter­field says he is less wor­ried about Mi­crosoft than he used to be, sug­gest­ing the Win­dows gi­ant has moved its attention to video meeting ser­vices like Zoom, and taken its eye off Slack. “I think over time there’ll be an in­creased di­ver­gence. I would pre­fer never to think about Mi­crosoft at all.”

Few soft­ware com­pa­nies have that lux­ury. But­ter­field will have to sat­isfy him­self with killing email.

Slack boss Stewart But­ter­field says the pan­demic has led to a surge of creativ­ity

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