Making Slack, the massively multiplayer online business tool

CTO Cal Henderson on Slack’s wild ride from indie game studio chat channel to enterprise-wide essential

Slack chief technology officer, Cal Henderson

Slack chief technology officer, Cal Henderson

When a couple of small dev teams at software powerhouse Adobe first started using Slack, Cal Henderson and his team were pleased, but hardly surprised.

Henderson, chief technology officer and one of the founding team of Slack Technologies had designed the cloud-based collaboration service – conceived at the online game studio where they had previously worked – specifically for small, independent teams.

“We were basing it on what we’d built for ourselves when building video games and we knew it would be really good for people like us – small teams of developers, of like forty-ish people. We knew it would work great for that kind of model,” the Brit says.

But the tool started spreading across Adobe, used daily by teams without devs like the HR function, finance and facilities.

“We knew some people that worked there, but we didn't have any kind of formal relationship with them. And it just started popping up in all these teams in Adobe. There were hundreds of these small teams using Slack,” Henderson says.

The tool started spreading at other big tech companies, including the likes of IBM, Oracle, Autodesk and SAP. It usually taking hold in developer teams – Slack works on a freemium model, with advanced features accessed through a paid subscription – before finding users far removed from the function.

“For some reason in our minds we looked at big companies of 10 or 20 thousand employees and thought – well they work completely differently to small companies,” Henderson – who, by the way, claims to have never emailed anyone within the company – remembers. “It was a real surprise that it was so broadly applicable.”

Not long after the product’s launch in 2014, buoyed by the widespread adoption of some of the world’s biggest businesses Slack turned its attention to the enterprise.

That meant not only scaling up the technology behind the tools, making what works for a team of ten work for a company of thousands, but also scaling up Slack as a company.

It has been, as Henderson describes it, a “difficult and wild ride”.

Games often-ending

Slack can trace its origins back to a Vancouver game studio called Ludicorp – where Henderson was web development lead – which in the early noughties released a massively multiplayer browser-based roleplaying game called Game Neverending.

It emphasised social interaction, collaboration and object manipulation and found a passionate fanbase. But Game Neverending soon ended, with development halted in 2004.

From its ashes (and codebase), in particular the social image-sharing functions built into the game, would come image-hosting service Flickr.

(Game Neverending’s legacy remains in the ‘.gne’ file extension in a number of Flickr URLs.)

Henderson became head of engineering at Flickr – writing the platform’s APIs, which would influence the likes of oAuth and oEmbed – and stuck with the company when it was sold to Yahoo!  in 2005.

In 2009 Henderson left Yahoo! to found another start-up with his Ludicorp crew called Tiny Speck, and took a second swing at launching a game, another browser-based massively multiplayer online game called Glitch. Like Game Neverending it was focused on collaboration between players, and again, was ultimately a flop.

"The dream in both cases was to make online video games,” Henderson tells Computerworld, “which definitely didn't work out either time!”

But again, all was not lost, from the "deliciously oddGlitch and the tools Tiny Speck had created to collaborate within its small team came Slack (Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge).

Screenshot from the "deliciously odd" MMO game Glitch
Screenshot from the "deliciously odd" MMO game Glitch

A little over five years ago, when the company launched Slack, it had eight people on staff. As of the beginning of this year there are more than a thousand people in its workforce.

“[The workforce has] doubled every few months consistently for years. The way we operate as a business, the way we build and deliver software for our service and help our customers has had to change constantly as a company has grown,” Henderson says.

Once a small group of product designers and engineers, Slack has since beefed up its finance, infrastructure, sales and marketing teams.

The bulk of staff in Slack’s Melbourne CBD office work in customer support – which is provided equally to both non-paying and enterprise users – a function Slack early on determined should be kept in-house.

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Tags managementcommunicationGooglesoftwarectoatlassianToolsslackSlack TechnologiesG SuiteMicrosoft TeamsFacebook WorkplaceCal Henderson

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