Trump visas suspension ‘will benefit rivals’
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