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Slack’s Head of Platform Promises It Won’t Burn Developers

“The platform is Slack and vice versa.”


April Underwood, Slack’s new head of platform, has high hopes for the service. The workplace-chatting app, if internal Re/code activity is any indication, is a great place to share GIFs about how happy we are it’s Friday. But if Underwood has her way, Slack hopes to rival “Her” as a manager’s personal assistant.

“How many users opened our app today?” managers will ask Slack bots over chat. “Compile a list of the employees who’ve RSVP’d ‘yes’ to the company retreat,” they’ll write. Slack will do scheduling, letting co-workers know the times when everyone can meet. The array of applications will automate work and reduce the amount of time people spend bouncing between different browser tabs and applications.

“Slack has this rich potential for customization,” Underwood told Re/code in an interview. “I would love for teams to tap into internal data and tools they have in-house.”

It sounds good, but how Is Slack going to do it?

Underwood has to convince outside developers to build for the service without the company paying them. It’s the “platform approach” — creating a tech environment where outside applications can run.

Building for platforms is a devil’s bargain for engineers. Successful tools can find an immediate audience with the service’s users, but developers don’t have control over the businesses they’re building for. Some companies — Facebook and Twitter, for instance — have cut partners off from their platforms when engineers made tools they didn’t like.

Twitter has one of the worst track records with developers; Underwood, who hails from the big blue bird, knows this well. She spent the last half decade there, working her way up to the the director of product role after joining the company in 2010. She observed how platforms can hurt third-party engineers and she’s determined to make sure that doesn’t happen at Slack.

“The examples of developers being burned or being at odds with the platform they’ve built on don’t apply here,” Underwood said. “We have a fundamentally different business model versus a consumer product like Twitter.”

Since Slack doesn’t rely on advertising and instead makes money from users’ subscriptions, Underwood said the company doesn’t care about crowning the best third-party tools that keep people’s eyeballs inside Slack longer. Its business model relies on companies picking and choosing which services work for them.

“It’s core to our vision of the product,” Underwood said. “The platform is Slack and vice versa.”

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