Nov
04
2019
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Microsoft Teams gets Yammer integration, secure private channels and more

You’re forgiven if you thought Yammer — Microsoft’s proto-Slack, not quite real-time chat application — was dead. It’s actually still alive (and well) — and still serves a purpose as a slower-moving social network-like channel for company and team-wide announcements. Today, Microsoft announced that, among other updates, it will offer a Yammer integration in Teams, its Slack competitor. Yammer in Teams will live in the left-hand sidebar.

With this, Microsoft’s two main enterprise communications platforms are finally growing together and will give users the option to use Teams for fast-moving chats and Yammer as their enterprise social network in the same way Facebook messenger and its news feed complement each other.

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Oh, and Yammer itself has been redesigned, too, using Microsoft’s Fluent Design System across all platforms. And Microsoft is also building it into Outlook, too, to let you respond to messages right from your inbox. This new Yammer will roll out as a private preview in December.

With this update, Teams is getting a number of other new features, too. These include secure private channels, multi-window chats and meetings, pinned channels and task integration with Microsoft To Do and Planner (because having one to-do app is never enough). Microsoft is also making a number of enhancements to Teams Rooms, with upcoming support for Cisco WebEx and Zoom meetings, the Teams Phone System, which is getting emergency calling, and the IT management features that help admins keep Teams secure.

A Teams client for Linux is also in the works and will be available in public preview later this year.

Nov
04
2019
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Microsoft launches Power Virtual Agents, its no-code bot builder

Microsoft today announced the public preview of its Power Virtual Agents tool, a new no-code tool for building chatbots that’s part of the company’s Power Platform, which also includes the Microsoft Flow automation tool, which is being renamed to Power Automate today, and Power BI.

Built on top of Azure’s existing AI smarts and tools for building bots, Power Virtual Agents promises to make building a chatbot almost as easy as writing a Word document. With this, anybody within an organization could build a bot that walks a new employee through the onboarding experience, for example.

“Power Virtual Agent is the newest addition to the Power Platform family,” said Microsoft’s Charles Lamanna in an interview ahead of today’s announcement. “Power Virtual Agent is very much focused on the same type of low-code, accessible to anybody, no matter whether they’re a business user or business analyst or professional developer, to go build a conversational agent that’s AI-driven and can actually solve problems for your employees, for your customers, for your partners, in a very natural way.”

Power Virtual Agents handles the full lifecycle of the bot-building experience, from the creation of the dialog to making it available in chat systems that include Teams, Slack, Facebook Messenger and others. Using Microsoft’s AI smarts, users don’t have to spend a lot of time defining every possible question and answer, but can instead rely on the tool to understand intentions and trigger the right action. “We do intent understanding, as well as entity extraction, to go and find the best topic for you to go down,” explained Lamanna. Like similar AI systems, the service also learns over time, based on feedback it receives from users.

One nice feature here is that if your setup outgrows the no-code/low-code stage and you need to get to the actual code, you’ll be able to convert the bot to Azure resources as that’s what’s powering the bot anyway. Once you’ve edited the code, you obviously can’t take it back into the no-code environment. “We have an expression for Power Platform, which is ‘no cliffs.’ […] The idea of ‘no cliffs’ is that the most common problem with a low-code platform is that, at some point, you want more control, you want code. And that’s frequently where low-code platforms run out of gas and you really have issues because you can’t have the pro dev take it over, you can’t make it mission-critical.”

The service is also integrated with tools like Power Automate/Microsoft Flow to allow users to trigger actions on other services based on the information the chatbot gathers.

Lamanna stressed that the service also generates lots of advanced analytics for those who are building bots with it. With this, users can see what topics are being asked about and where the system fails to provide answers, for example. It also visualizes the different text inputs that people provide so that bot builders can react to that.

Over the course of the last two or three years, we went from a lot of hype around chatbots to deep disillusionment with the experience they actually delivered. Lamanna isn’t fazed by that. In part, those earlier efforts failed because the developers weren’t close enough to the users. They weren’t product experts or part of the HR team inside a company. By using a low-code/no-code tool, he argues, the actual topic experts can build these bots. “If you hand it over to a developer or an AI specialist, they’re geniuses when it comes to developing code, but they won’t know the details and ins and outs of, say, the shoe business — and vice versa. So it actually changes how development happens.”

Oct
08
2019
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Facebook’s Workplace hits 3M paying users, launches Portal app in a wider push for video

The rapid rise of Slack — which has recently broken the 100,000 mark for paying businesses using its service — has ushered in a rush of competition from other companies across the worlds of social media and enterprise software, all aiming to become the go-to conversation layer for businesses. Today, Workplace, Facebook’s effort in that race, announced a milestone in its growth, along with a bigger push into video services and other improvements.

The service — which starts at $1.50 per month per front-line worker and then has tiers of $4 and $8 — now has passed 3 million paying users, adding 1 million workers from mostly enterprise businesses in the last eight months.

And to capitalize on Facebook’s growing focus on video in its consumer service, Workplace is announcing several steps of its own into video. It’s releasing a special app that can be used on the Portal, Facebook’s video screen; and alongside that, it’s announcing new video features: captioning at the bottom of videos; auto-translating starting with 14 languages; and a new P2P architecture that will speed up video transmission for those who might be watching videos on Workplace in places where bandwidth is constrained.

The features and milestone number are all being announced today at Flock, the Workplace user conference that Facebook puts on each year. Alongside all these, Facebook also announced several other features for its enterprise app (more on the other new features below).

The push to video comes at an interesting time for Workplace on the competitive front. Karandeep Anand, who came to Facebook from Microsoft and currently heads up Workplace with Julien Codorniou managing business development, has made a point of differentiating Workplace from others in the field of workplace collaboration by emphasizing how it’s used by very large enterprises like Walmart (the world’s largest single employer) to bring together on to a single communication platform not just white-collar knowledge workers but also frontline workers.

The company says that today, its customers include 150 companies with over 10,000 active users apiece, with other names on its books including Starbucks, Spotify, AstraZeneca, Deliveroo and Kering.

The push to video follows that trajectory: it’s a way for Workplace (and Facebook) to differentiate the experience and use cases for the product to businesses, which might already be using Slack but might consider buying this as well, if not migrating away from the other product altogether. (Teams is a different ballgame, of course, as it has a strong video component of its own and also likes to position itself as a product for all kinds of employees, too.)

Workplace’s video efforts here will mark the first time that Facebook is positioning Portal as a product for businesses. This is notable, when you consider there has been some adoption of Amazon’s Alexa in workplace scenarios, too; and that there has been some pushback from consumers about the prospect of having a Facebook video device sitting in their homes. This gives Facebook’s $179 hardware (which will be sold at the same price to businesses) a new avenue for sales.

Video has been a cornerstone of how Workplace has been developing for a while now, with companies using it as a way for, say, the big boss to send out more personalised communications to workers, and for people in workgroups to create video chats with each other. A dedicated screen for video chats takes this idea to the next level, and plays on the fact that video conferencing services like Zoom have caught on like wildfire in modern offices, where people who work together often work in disparate locations.

There is another way that Portal could find some traction with businesses: videoconferencing solutions tend to be very expensive, in part because of the hefty hardware investments that need to be made. Offering a device at $179 drastically undercuts that investment. Codorniou declined to comment on whether Facebook might make a more concerted effort to push this as a cost-effective videoconferencing alternative down the line, but he did point out that today Facebook and Zoom have a close relationship.

The other video features that Workplace is announcing today will further enhance the experience: Facebook will now give users the option to include automatic captions at the bottoms of videos, with the bonus of translation, initially in 14 languages. And the improved video quality for those with limited bandwidth is significantly not something that Facebook has rolled out in its consumer app: the aim is to improve the quality of broadcasting in scenarios where bandwidth might not be as strong but there are simultaneous people watching the same event — something you could imagine applying, say, at a company all-hands or town hall event with remote participants.

Alongside all of these video features, Workplace is adding in a host of other features to expand the use cases for the product beyond basic chatting:

  • New learning product. This is not about e-learning per se, but Workplace is now offering a way for HR to add onboarding teaching and videos into Workplace for new employees or new services at the company. There are no plans right now to expand this to educational content, Codorniou said.
  • Surveys are also coming to Workplace. These will be set by administrators — not any worker at any time — and it seems that for now there will be no anonymity, so that will mean it’s unlikely that these will cover any sensitive topics, and might in any case see a chilling effect in how people feel they can respond.
  • Frontline access is getting overhauled in Workplace, where people who do not use company email addresses will now be able to create accounts using generated codes.
  • Those admins that are trying to track how well Workplace is actually working for them will also be able to track engagement and other metrics on the platform.

Workplace is also adding in some gamification features to the platform, where people can publicly thank people, set and follow workplace goals and award badges to individuals who have achieved something in areas like sales, anniversaries or other positive milestones.

As with the video features, the idea is to bring services to Workplace that you are not necessarily getting in Slack and other competitive products. That is the maxim also when the features are replicas of features you might have seen elsewhere, but not all in one consolidated place.

Asked what he thought about the claims that Facebook is too much of a “copycat” when it came to building new features, Codorniou was defensive. “I think Workplace itself is getting to a market that has been untouched before. When it comes to badges or goals, for example, yes people have but these before, but the difference is that we are offering them to a wide network of people. If you have to use a separate app, it’s not a great experience.”

And, he added, “everything that we ship is the result of customer feedback and requests. If they tell us they want these, it means they’re not finding what they needed on the market.”

Sep
21
2019
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Facebook has acquired Servicefriend, which builds ‘hybrid’ chatbots, for Calibra customer service

As Facebook prepares to launch its new cryptocurrency Libra in 2020, it’s putting the pieces in place to help it run. In one of the latest developments, it has acquired Servicefriend, a startup that built bots — chat clients for messaging apps based on artificial intelligence — to help customer service teams, TechCrunch has confirmed.

The news was first reported in Israel, where Servicefriend is based, after one of its investors, Roberto Singler, alerted local publication The Marker about the deal. We reached out to Ido Arad, one of the co-founders of the company, who referred our questions to a team at Facebook. Facebook then confirmed the acquisition with an Apple-like non-specific statement:

“We acquire smaller tech companies from time to time. We don’t always discuss our plans,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Several people, including Arad, his co-founder Shahar Ben Ami, and at least one other indicate that they now work at Facebook within the Calibra digital wallet group on their LinkedIn profiles. Their jobs at the social network started this month, meaning this acquisition closed in recent weeks. (Several others indicate that they are still at Servicefriend, meaning they too may have likely made the move as well.)

Although Facebook isn’t specifying what they will be working on, the most obvious area will be in building a bot — or more likely, a network of bots — for the customer service layer for the Calibra digital wallet that Facebook is developing.

Facebook’s plan is to build a range of financial services for people to use Calibra to pay out and receive Libra — for example, to send money to contacts, pay bills, top up their phones, buy things and more.

It remains to be seen just how much people will trust Facebook as a provider of all these. So that is where having “human” and accessible customer service experience will be essential.

“We are here for you,” Calibra notes on its welcome page, where it promises 24-7 support in WhatsApp and Messenger for its users.

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Servicefriend has worked on Facebook’s platform in the past: specifically it built “hybrid” bots for Messenger for companies to use to complement teams of humans, to better scale their services on messaging platforms. In one Messenger bot that Servicefriend built for Globe Telecom in the Philippines, it noted that the hybrid bot was able to bring the “agent hours” down to under 20 hours for each 1,000 customer interactions.

Bots have been a relatively problematic area for Facebook. The company launched a personal assistant called M in 2015, and then bots that let users talk to businesses in 2016 on Messenger, with quite some fanfare, although the reality was that nothing really worked as well as promised, and in some cases worked significantly worse than whatever services they aimed to replace.

While AI-based assistants such as Alexa have become synonymous with how a computer can carry on a conversation and provide information to humans, the consensus around bots these days is that the most workable way forward is to build services that complement, rather than completely replace, teams.

For Facebook, getting its customer service on Calibra right can help it build and expand its credibility (note: another area where Servicefriend has build services is in using customer service as a marketing channel). Getting it wrong could mean issues not just with customers, but with partners and possibly regulators.

Aug
15
2019
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How Facebook does IT

If you have ever worked at any sizable company, the word “IT” probably doesn’t conjure up many warm feelings. If you’re working for an old, traditional enterprise company, you probably don’t expect anything else, though. If you’re working for a modern tech company, though, chances are your expectations are a bit higher. And once you’re at the scale of a company like Facebook, a lot of the third-party services that work for smaller companies simply don’t work anymore.

To discuss how Facebook thinks about its IT strategy and why it now builds most of its IT tools in-house, I sat down with the company’s CIO, Atish Banerjea, at its Menlo Park headquarter.

Before joining Facebook in 2016 to head up what it now calls its “Enterprise Engineering” organization, Banerjea was the CIO or CTO at companies like NBCUniversal, Dex One and Pearson.

“If you think about Facebook 10 years ago, we were very much a traditional IT shop at that point,” he told me. “We were responsible for just core IT services, responsible for compliance and responsible for change management. But basically, if you think about the trajectory of the company, were probably about 2,000 employees around the end of 2010. But at the end of last year, we were close to 37,000 employees.”

Traditionally, IT organizations rely on third-party tools and software, but as Facebook grew to this current size, many third-party solutions simply weren’t able to scale with it. At that point, the team decided to take matters into its own hands and go from being a traditional IT organization to one that could build tools in-house. Today, the company is pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to running its IT operations, but getting to this point took a while.

“We had to pretty much reinvent ourselves into a true engineering product organization and went to a full ‘build’ mindset,” said Banerjea. That’s not something every organization is obviously able to do, but, as Banerjea joked, one of the reasons why this works at Facebook “is because we can — we have that benefit of the talent pool that is here at Facebook.”

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The company then took this talent and basically replicated the kind of team it would help on the customer side to build out its IT tools, with engineers, designers, product managers, content strategies, people and research. “We also made the decision at that point that we will hold the same bar and we will hold the same standards so that the products we create internally will be as world-class as the products we’re rolling out externally.”

One of the tools that wasn’t up to Facebook’s scaling challenges was video conferencing. The company was using a third-party tool for that, but that just wasn’t working anymore. In 2018, Facebook was consuming about 20 million conference minutes per month. In 2019, the company is now at 40 million per month.

Besides the obvious scaling challenge, Facebook is also doing this to be able to offer its employees custom software that fits their workflows. It’s one thing to adapt existing third-party tools, after all, and another to build custom tools to support a company’s business processes.

Banerjea told me that creating this new structure was a relatively easy sell inside the company. Every transformation comes with its own challenges, though. For Facebook’s Enterprise  Engineering team, that included having to recruit new skill sets into the organization. The first few months of this process were painful, Banerjea admitted, as the company had to up-level the skills of many existing employees and shed a significant number of contractors. “There are certain areas where we really felt that we had to have Facebook DNA in order to make sure that we were actually building things the right way,” he explained.

Facebook’s structure creates an additional challenge for the team. When you’re joining Facebook as a new employee, you have plenty of teams to choose from, after all, and if you have the choice of working on Instagram or WhatsApp or the core Facebook app — all of which touch millions of people — working on internal tools with fewer than 40,000 users doesn’t sound all that exciting.

“When young kids who come straight from college and they come into Facebook, they don’t know any better. So they think this is how the world is,” Banerjea said. “But when we have experienced people come in who have worked at other companies, the first thing I hear is ‘oh my goodness, we’ve never seen internal tools of this caliber before.’ The way we recruit, the way we do performance management, the way we do learning and development — every facet of how that employee works has been touched in terms of their life cycle here.”

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Facebook first started building these internal tools around 2012, though it wasn’t until Banerjea joined in 2016 that it rebranded the organization and set up today’s structure. He also noted that some of those original tools were good, but not up to the caliber employees would expect from the company.

“The really big change that we went through was up-leveling our building skills to really become at the same caliber as if we were to build those products for an external customer. We want to have the same experience for people internally.”

The company went as far as replacing and rebuilding the commercial Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system it had been using for years. If there’s one thing that big companies rely on, it’s their ERP systems, given they often handle everything from finance and HR to supply chain management and manufacturing. That’s basically what all of their backend tools rely on (and what companies like SAP, Oracle and others charge a lot of money for). “In that 2016/2017 time frame, we realized that that was not a very good strategy,” Banerjea said. In Facebook’s case, the old ERP handled the inventory management for its data centers, among many other things. When that old system went down, the company couldn’t ship parts to its data centers.

“So what we started doing was we started peeling off all the business logic from our backend ERP and we started rewriting it ourselves on our own platform,” he explained. “Today, for our ERP, the backend is just the database, but all the business logic, all of the functionality is actually all custom written by us on our own platform. So we’ve completely rewritten our ERP, so to speak.”

In practice, all of this means that ideally, Facebook’s employees face far less friction when they join the company, for example, or when they need to replace a broken laptop, get a new phone to test features or simply order a new screen for their desk.

One classic use case is onboarding, where new employees get their company laptop, mobile phones and access to all of their systems, for example. At Facebook, that’s also the start of a six-week bootcamp that gets new engineers up to speed with how things work at Facebook. Back in 2016, when new classes tended to still have less than 200 new employees, that was still mostly a manual task. Today, with far more incoming employees, the Enterprise Engineering team has automated most of that — and that includes managing the supply chain that ensures the laptops and phones for these new employees are actually available.

But the team also built the backend that powers the company’s more traditional IT help desks, where employees can walk up and get their issues fixed (and passwords reset).

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To talk more about how Facebook handles the logistics of that, I sat down with Koshambi Shah, who heads up the company’s Enterprise Supply Chain organization, which pretty much handles every piece of hardware and software the company delivers and deploys to its employees around the world (and that global nature of the company brings its own challenges and additional complexity). The team, which has fewer than 30 people, is made up of employees with experience in manufacturing, retail and consumer supply chains.

Typically, enterprises offer their employees a minimal set of choices when it comes to the laptops and phones they issue to their employees, and the operating systems that can run on them tend to be limited. Facebook’s engineers have to be able to test new features on a wide range of devices and operating systems. There are, after all, still users on the iPhone 4s or BlackBerry that the company wants to support. To do this, Shah’s organization actually makes thousands of SKUs available to employees and is able to deliver 98% of them within three days or less. It’s not just sending a laptop via FedEx, though. “We do the budgeting, the financial planning, the forecasting, the supply/demand balancing,” Shah said. “We do the asset management. We make sure the asset — what is needed, when it’s needed, where it’s needed — is there consistently.”

In many large companies, every asset request is double guessed. Facebook, on the other hand, places a lot of trust in its employees, it seems. There’s a self-service portal, the Enterprise Store, that allows employees to easily request phones, laptops, chargers (which get lost a lot) and other accessories as needed, without having to wait for approval (though if you request a laptop every week, somebody will surely want to have a word with you). Everything is obviously tracked in detail, but the overall experience is closer to shopping at an online retailer than using an enterprise asset management system. The Enterprise Store will tell you where a device is available, for example, so you can pick it up yourself (but you can always have it delivered to your desk, too, because this is, after all, a Silicon Valley company).

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For accessories, Facebook also offers self-service vending machines, and employees can walk up to the help desk.

The company also recently introduced an Amazon Locker-style setup that allows employees to check out devices as needed. At these smart lockers, employees simply have to scan their badge, choose a device and, once the appropriate door has opened, pick up the phone, tablet, laptop or VR devices they were looking for and move on. Once they are done with it, they can come back and check the device back in. No questions asked. “We trust that people make the right decision for the good of the company,” Shah said. For laptops and other accessories, the company does show the employee the price of those items, though, so it’s clear how much a certain request costs the company. “We empower you with the data for you to make the best decision for your company.”

Talking about cost, Shah told me the Supply Chain organization tracks a number of metrics. One of those is obviously cost. “We do give back about 4% year-over-year, that’s our commitment back to the businesses in terms of the efficiencies we build for every user we support. So we measure ourselves in terms of cost per supported user. And we give back 4% on an annualized basis in the efficiencies.”

Unsurprisingly, the company has by now gathered enough data about employee requests (Shah said the team fulfills about half a million transactions per year) that it can use machine learning to understand trends and be proactive about replacing devices, for example.

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Facebooks’ Enterprise Engineering group doesn’t just support internal customers, though. Another interesting aspect to Facebook’s Enterprise Engineering group is that it also runs the company’s internal and external events, including the likes of F8, the company’s annual developer conference. To do this, the company built out conference rooms that can seat thousands of people, with all of the logistics that go with that.

The company also showed me one of its newest meeting rooms where there are dozens of microphones and speakers hanging from the ceiling that make it easier for everybody in the room to participate in a meeting and be heard by everybody else. That’s part of what the organization’s “New Builds” team is responsible for, and something that’s possible because the company also takes a very hands-on approach to building and managing its offices.

Facebook also runs a number of small studios in its Menlo Park and New York offices, where both employees and the occasional external VIP can host Facebook Live videos.

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Indeed, live video, it seems, is one of the cornerstones of how Facebook employees collaborate and help employees who work from home. Typically, you’d just use the camera on your laptop or maybe a webcam connected to your desktop to do so. But because Facebook actually produces its own camera system with the consumer-oriented Portal, Banerjea’s team decided to use that.

“What we have done is we have actually re-engineered the Portal,” he told me. “We have connected with all of our video conferencing systems in the rooms. So if I have a Portal at home, I can dial into my video conferencing platform and have a conference call just like I’m sitting in any other conference room here in Facebook. And all that software, all the engineering on the portal, that has been done by our teams — some in partnership with our production teams, but a lot of it has been done with Enterprise Engineering.”

Unsurprisingly, there are also groups that manage some of the core infrastructure and security for the company’s internal tools and networks. All of those tools run in the same data centers as Facebook’s consumer-facing applications, though they are obviously sandboxed and isolated from them.

It’s one thing to build all of these tools for internal use, but now, the company is also starting to think about how it can bring some of these tools it built for internal use to some of its external customers. You may not think of Facebook as an enterprise company, but with its Workplace collaboration tool, it has an enterprise service that it sells externally, too. Last year, for the first time, Workplace added a new feature that was incubated inside of Enterprise Engineering. That feature was a version of Facebook’s public Safety Check that the Enterprise Engineering team had originally adapted to the company’s own internal use.

“Many of these things that we are building for Facebook, because we are now very close partners with our Workplace team — they are in the enterprise software business and we are the enterprise software group for Facebook — and many [features] we are building for Facebook are of interest to Workplace customers.”

As Workplace hit the market, Banerjea ended up talking to the CIOs of potential users, including the likes of Delta Air Lines, about how Facebook itself used Workplace internally. But as companies started to adopt Workplace, they realized that they needed integrations with existing third-party services like ERP platforms and Salesforce. Those companies then asked Facebook if it could build those integrations or work with partners to make them available. But at the same time, those customers got exposed to some of the tools that Facebook itself was building internally.

“Safety Check was the first one,” Banerjea said. “We are actually working on three more products this year.” He wouldn’t say what these are, of course, but there is clearly a pipeline of tools that Facebook has built for internal use that it is now looking to commercialize. That’s pretty unusual for any IT organization, which, after all, tends to only focus on internal customers. I don’t expect Facebook to pivot to an enterprise software company anytime soon, but initiatives like this are clearly important to the company and, in some ways, to the morale of the team.

This creates a bit of friction, too, though, given that the Enterprise Engineering group’s mission is to build internal tools for Facebook. “We are now figuring out the deployment model,” Banerjea said. Who, for example, is going to support the external tools the team built? Is it the Enterprise Engineering group or the Workplace team?

Chances are then, that Facebook will bring some of the tools it built for internal use to more enterprises in the long run. That definitely puts a different spin on the idea of the consumerization of enterprise tech. Clearly, not every company operates at the scale of Facebook and needs to build its own tools — and even some companies that could benefit from it don’t have the resources to do so. For Facebook, though, that move seems to have paid off and the tools I saw while talking to the team definitely looked more user-friendly than any off-the-shelf enterprise tools I’ve seen at other large companies.

Aug
08
2019
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‘The Operators’: Experts from Airbnb and Carta on building and managing your company’s customer support

Welcome to this transcribed edition of The Operators. TechCrunch is beginning to publish podcasts from industry experts, with transcriptions available for Extra Crunch members so you can read the conversation wherever you are.

The Operators features insiders from companies like Airbnb, Brex, Docsend, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Carta, Slack, Uber, and WeWork sharing their stories and tips on how to break into fields like marketing and product management. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs on how to hire and manage experts from domains outside their own.

This week’s edition features Airbnb’s Global Product Director of Customer and Community Support Platform Products, Andy Yasutake, and Carta’s Head of Enterprise Relationship Management, Jared Thomas.

Airbnb, one of the most valuable private tech companies in the world, has millions of hosts who trust strangers (guests) to come into their homes and hundreds of millions of guests who trust strangers (hosts) to provide a roof over their head. Carta, a $1 Billion+ company formerly known as eShares, is the leading provider of cap table management and valuation software, with thousands of customers and almost a million individual shareholders as users. Customers and users entrust Carta to manage their investments, a very serious responsibility requiring trust and security.

In this episode, Andy and Jared share with Neil how companies like Airbnb, Carta, and LinkedIn think about customer service, how to get into and succeed in the field and tech generally, and how founders should think about hiring and managing the customer support. With their experiences at two of tech’s trusted companies, Airbnb and Carta, this episode is packed with broad perspectives and deep insights.

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Neil Devani and Tim Hsia created The Operators after seeing and hearing too many heady, philosophical podcasts about the future of tech, and not enough attention on the practical day-to-day work that makes it all happen.

Tim is the CEO & Founder of Media Mobilize, a media company and ad network, and a Venture Partner at Digital Garage. Tim is an early-stage investor in Workflow (acquired by Apple), Lime, FabFitFun, Oh My Green, Morning Brew, Girls Night In, The Hustle, Bright Cellars, and others.

Neil is an early-stage investor based in San Francisco with a focus on companies building stuff people need, solutions to very hard problems. Companies he’s invested in include Andela, Clearbit, Kudi, Recursion Pharmaceuticals, Solugen, and Vicarious Surgical.

If you’re interested in starting or accelerating your marketing career, or how to hire and manage this function, you can’t miss this episode!

The show:

The Operators brings experts with experience at companies like Airbnb, Brex, Docsend, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Carta, Slack, Uber, WeWork, etc. to share insider tips on how to break into fields like marketing and product management. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs on how to hire and manage experts from domains outside their own.

In this episode:

In Episode 5, we’re talking about customer service. Neil interviews Andy Yasutake, Airbnb’s Global Product Director of Customer and Community Support Platform Products, and Jared Thomas, Carta’s Head of Enterprise Relationship Management.


Neil Devani: Hello and welcome to the Operators, where we talk to entrepreneurs and executives from leading technology companies like Google, Facebook, Airbnb, and Carta about how to break into a new field, how to build a successful career, and how to hire and manage talent beyond your own expertise. We skip over the lofty prognostications from venture capitalists and storytime with founders to dig into the nuts and bolts of how it all works here from the people doing the real day to day work, the people who make it all happen, the people who know what it really takes. The Operators.

Today we are talking to two experts in customer service, one with hundreds of millions of individual paying customers and the other being the industry standard for managing equity investments. I’m your host, Neil Devani, and we’re coming to you today from Digital Garage in downtown San Francisco.

Joining me is Jared Thomas, head of Enterprise Relationship Management at Carta, a $1 billion-plus company after a recent round of financing led by Andreessen Horowitz. Carta, formerly known as eShares, is the leading provider of cap table management and valuation software with thousands of customers and almost a million individual shareholders as users. Customers and users trust Carta to manage their investments, a very serious responsibility requiring trust and security.

Also joining us is Andy Yasutake, the Global Product Director of Customer and Community Support Platform Products at Airbnb, one of the most valuable private tech startups today. Airbnb has millions of hosts who are trusting strangers to come into their homes and hundreds of millions of guests who are trusting someone to provide a roof over their head. The number of cases and types of cases that Andy and his team have to think about and manage boggle the mind. Jared and Andy, thank you for joining us.

Andy Yasutake: Thank you for having us.

Jared Thomas: Thank you so much.

Devani: To start, Andy, can you share your background and how you got to where you are today?

Yasutake: Sure. I’m originally from southern California. I was born and raised in LA. I went to USC for undergrad, University of Southern California, and I actually studied psychology and information systems.

Late-90s, the dot com was going on, I’d always been kind of interested in tech, went into management consulting at interstate consulting that became Accenture, and was in consulting for over 10 years and always worked on large systems of implementation of technology projects around customers. So customer service, sales transformation, anything around CRM, as kind of a foundation, but it was always very technical, but really loved the psychology part of it, the people side.

And so I was always on multiple consulting projects and one of the consulting projects with actually here in the Bay Area. I eventually moved up here 10 years ago and joined eBay, and at eBay I was the director of product for the customer services organization as well. And was there for five years.

I left for Linkedin, so another rocket ship that was growing and was the senior director of technology solutions and operations where I had all the kind of business enabling functions as well as the technology, and now have been at Airbnb for about four months. So I’m back to kind of my, my biggest passion around products and in the customer support and community experience and customer service world.

Aug
07
2019
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Zendesk puts Smooch acquisition to work with WhatsApp integration

Zendesk has always been all about customer service. Last spring it purchased Smooch to move more deeply into messaging app integration. Today, the company announced it was integrating WhatsApp, the popular messaging tool, into the Zendesk customer service toolkit.

Smooch was an early participant in the WhatsApp Business API program. What that does, in practice, says Warren Levitan, who came over as part of the Smooch deal, is provide a direct WhatsApp phone number for businesses using Zendesk . Given how many people, especially in Asia and Latin America, use WhatsApp as a primary channel for communication, this is a big deal.

“The WhatsApp Business API Connector is now fully integrated into Zendesk support. It will allow any Zendesk support customer to be up and running with a new WhatsApp number quicker than ever before, allowing them to connect to the 1.5 billion WhatsApp users worldwide, communicating with them on their channel of choice,” Levitan explained.

Levitan says the entire WhatsApp interaction experience is now fully integrated into the same Zendesk interface that customer service reps are used to using. WhatsApp simply becomes another channel for them.

“They can access WhatsApp conversations from within the same workspace and agent desktop, where they handle all of their other conversations. From an agent perspective, there are no new tools, no new workflows, no new reporting. And that’s what really allows them to get up and running quickly,” he said.

Customers may click or touch a button to dial the WhatsApp number, or they may use a QR code, which is a popular way of accessing WhatsApp customer service. As an example, Levitan says Four Seasons hotels prints a QR code on room key cards, and if customers want to access customer service, they can simply scan the code and the number dials automatically.

Zendesk has been able to get close to 1,000 businesses up and running as part of the early access program, but now it really wants to scale that and allow many more businesses to participate. Up until now, Facebook has taken a controlled approach to on-boarding, having to approve each brand’s number before allowing it on the platform. Zendesk has been working to streamline that.

“We’ve worked tightly with Facebook (the owner of WhatsApp), so that we can have an integrated brand approval and on-boarding/activation to get their number lit up. We can now launch customers at scale, and have them up and running in days, whereas before it was more typically a multi-week process,” Levitan said.

For now, when the person connects to customer service via WhatsApp, it’s only via text messaging — there is no voice connection, and no plans for any for the time being, according to Levitan. Zendesk-WhatsApp integration is available starting today worldwide.

Jul
18
2019
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Investor Jocelyn Goldfein to join us on AI panel at TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise

Artificial intelligence is quickly becoming a foundational technology for enterprise software development and startups have begun addressing a variety of issues around using AI to make software and processes much more efficient.

To that end, we are delighted to announce that Jocelyn Goldfein, a Managing Director at Zetta Venture Partners will be joining on us a panel to discuss AI in the enterprise. It will take place at the TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise show on September 5 at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco.

It’s not just startups that are involved in AI in the enterprise. Some of the biggest names in enterprise software including Salesforce Einstein, Adobe Sensei and IBM Watson have been addressing the need for AI to help solve the enterprise data glut.

Computers can process large amounts of information much more quickly than humans, and as enterprise companies generate increasing amounts of data, they need help understanding it all as the volume of information exceeds human capacity to sort through it.

Goldfein brings a deep engineering background to her investment work. She served as a VP of engineering at VMware and as an engineering director at Facebook, where she led the project that adopted machine learning for the News Feed ranker, launched major updates in photos and search, and helped spearhead Facebook’s pivot to mobile. Goldfein drove significant reforms in Facebook hiring practices and is a prominent evangelist for women in computer science. As an investor, she primarily is focused on startups using AI to take more efficient approaches to infrastructure, security, supply chains and worker productivity.

At TC Sessions: Enterprise, she’ll be joining Bindu Reddy from Reality Engines along with other panelists to discuss the growing role of AI in enterprise software with TechCrunch editors. You’ll learn why AI startups are attracting investor attention and how AI in general could fundamentally transform enterprise software.

Prior to joining Zetta, Goldfein had stints at Facebook and VMware, as well as startups Datify, MessageOne and Trilogy/pcOrder.

Early Bird tickets to see Joyce at TC Sessions: Enterprise are on sale for just $249 when you book here; but hurry, prices go up by $100 soon! Students, grab your discounted tickets for just $75 here.

Jul
16
2019
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Workplace, Facebook’s service for business teams, is raising its prices for the first time since launch

Three years into its life with 2 million paying users signed up, Workplace — Facebook’s platform for businesses and other organizations to build internal communities and communications — is about to make a significant business shift of its own. Come September 2, Workplace is changing its pricing tiers, how it charges its users and the services that it provides customers.

Up to now, Facebook has taken a very simple approach to how it charges for Workplace, unique not just because of it being a paid service (unlike Facebook itself, which is free), but for how it modeled its pricing on the basic building block of Facebook-the-consumer product: a basic version was free, with an enhanced premium edition costing a flat $3 per active user, per month.

In September, that will change. The standard (basic) tier is getting rebranded as Workplace Essential, and will still be free to use. Meanwhile, the premium tier is being renamed Workplace Advanced and getting charged $4 per person, per month. And Facebook is introducing a new tier, Workplace Enterprise, which will be charged at $8 per person, per month, and will come with a new set of services specifically around guaranteed, quicker support and first-look access at new features. (Those who are already customers have the option of being grandfathered for a year, the company said, before switching to a new plan.)

Screenshot 2019 07 16 at 14.16.02

Those are not the only changes. Two other notable shifts are getting introduced with these new tiers. First, these prices will be for all users, regardless of whether they are active in the month.

And second, they are specifically prices for people who access Workplace as general “knowledge workers” — marked by having email addresses and specific job functions. Frontline workers — for example, cashiers or baristas or others mostly on their feet all day helping customers — will be an add-on at $1.50 per person per month, also regardless of whether they are active or not.

For now, the rest of the features in the different tiers are remaining the same.

Screenshot 2019 07 16 at 14.16.33

The changes at Workplace come amid a number of other developments among workforce collaboration and communication platforms.

First and foremost, Slack has gone public, subjecting it and its ups and downs to a lot more public scrutiny, but also putting it on the map as a business of some standing, helping it make a bigger move into brokering more deals with the larger enterprises that Workplace has been winning over. The latter’s customers include the likes of Walmart, the world’s biggest employer; as well as Nestlé, Vodafone, GSK, Telefonica, AstraZeneca and Delta Airlines, and Facebook says there are more than 150 companies signed up with more than 10,000 employees each.

Teams, meanwhile, has now passed Slack in user numbers, and in a way is a more direct competitor: it has positioned itself (like Workplace) as a tool for both knowledge and frontline workers, helping with actual back-office collaboration, as well as a way to broadcast communications to a wider group of employees.

Julien Codorniou, the VP of Workplace, said the changes in pricing tiers was not a reaction to competition, but rather a reaction to customers. Although the pricing for Workplace was an interesting twist on how enterprises tend to procure IT, it turned out to be too novel by half: it turned out that most actually like the predictability of paying the same amount for a service upfront, rather than having the pricing change each month depending on usage.

“Today, customers’ bills change every month, for example when a co-worker goes on vacation or whatever,” he said. “It’s a nightmare for the accounting department, who needs to know how much to pay two years out.”

He added that this doesn’t mean you can’t change how much you pay: you could change the pricing each month if necessary.

So far, no one has made the shift to the new tiers, so it will be interesting to see how and if they have much of an impact. I do know that from retail theory, customers in stores are more likely to select a middle-priced product if they are given an option of something cheap and something expensive at either end, and so this could be an interesting way to drive more users to Workplace’s paid tier.

What is more clear is that this is also a way for Facebook to raise its prices for the first time since the service launched, and lays the groundwork for more differentiation between different kinds of offerings.

Jul
03
2019
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Capital One CTO George Brady will join us at TC Sessions: Enterprise

When you think of old, giant mainframes that sit in the basement of a giant corporation, still doing the same work they did 30 years ago, chances are you’re thinking about a financial institution. It’s the financial enterprises, though, that are often leading the charge in bringing new technologies and software development practices to their employees and customers. That’s in part because they are in a period of disruption that forces them to become more nimble. Often, this means leaving behind legacy technology and embracing the cloud.

At TC Sessions: Enterprise, which is happening on September 5 in San Francisco, Capital One executive VP in charge of its technology operations, George Brady, will talk about the company’s journey from legacy hardware and software to embracing the cloud and open source, all while working in a highly regulated industry. Indeed, Capital One was among the first companies to embrace the Facebook-led Open Compute project and it’s a member of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation. It’s this transformation at Capital One that Brady is leading.

At our event, Brady will join a number of other distinguished panelists to specifically talk about his company’s journey to the cloud. There, Capital One is using serverless compute, for example, to power its Credit Offers API using AWS’s Lambda service, as well as a number of other cloud technologies.

Before joining Capital One as its CTO in 2014, Brady ran Fidelity Investment’s global enterprise infrastructure team from 2009 to 2014 and served as Goldman Sachs’ head of global business applications infrastructure before that.

Currently, he leads cloud application and platform productization for Capital One. Part of that portfolio is Critical Stack, a secure container orchestration platform for the enterprise. Capital One’s goal with this work is to help companies across industries become more compliant, secure and cost-effective operating in the public cloud.

Early-bird tickets are still on sale for $249; grab yours today before we sell out.

Student tickets are just $75 — grab them here.

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