Jun
01
2020
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India’s richest man built a telecom operator everyone wants a piece of

As investors’ appetites sour in the midst of a pandemic, a three-and-a-half-year-old Indian firm has secured $10.3 billion in a month from Facebook and four U.S.-headquartered private equity firms.

The major deals for Reliance Jio Platforms have sparked a sudden interest among analysts, executives and readers at a time when many are skeptical of similar big check sizes that some investors wrote to several young startups, many of which are today struggling to make sense of their finances.

Prominent investors across the globe, including in India, have in recent weeks cautioned startups that they should be prepared for the “worst time” as new checks become elusive.

Elsewhere in India, the world’s second-largest internet market and where all startups together raised a record $14.5 billion last year, firms are witnessing down rounds (where their valuations are slashed). Miten Sampat, an angel investor, said last week that startups should expect a 40%-50% haircut in their valuations if they do get an investment offer.

Facebook’s $5.7 billion investment valued the company at $57 billion. But U.S. private equity firms Silver Lake, Vista, General Atlantic, and KKR — all the other deals announced in the past five weeks — are paying a 12.5% premium for their stake in Jio Platforms, valuing it at $65 billion.

How did an Indian firm become so valuable? What exactly does it do? Is it just as unprofitable as Uber? What does its future look like? Why is it raising so much money? And why is it making so many announcements instead of one.

It’s a long story.

Run up to the launch of Jio

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani gave a rundown of his gigantic Indian empire at a gathering in December 2015 packed with 35,000 people including hundreds of Bollywood celebrities and industry titans.

“Reliance Industries has the second-largest polyester business in the world. We produce one and a half million tons of polyester for fabrics a year, which is enough to give every Indian 5 meters of fabric every year, year-on-year,” said Ambani, who is Asia’s richest man.

May
20
2020
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Identity management startup Truework raises $30M to help you verify your work history

As organizations look for safe and efficient ways of running their services in the new global paradigm of increased social distancing, a startup that has built a platform to help people verify their work details in a secure way is announcing a round of growth funding.

Truework, which provides a way for banks, apartment-rental agencies, and others to check the employment details of an applicant in a quick and secure manner online, has raised $30 million, money that CEO and co-founder Ryan Sandler said in an interview that it would use both grow its existing business, as well to explore adding more details — both via its own service and via third-party partnerships — to the identity information that it shares.

The Series B is being led by Activant Capital — a VC that focuses on B2B2C startups — with participation also from Sequoia Capital and Khosla Ventures, as well as a number of high profile execs and entrepreneurs — Jeff Weiner (LinkedIn); Tom Gonser (Docusign); William Hockey (Plaid); and Daniel Yanisse (Checkr) among them.

The LinkedIn connection is an interesting one. Both Sandler and co-founder Victor Kabdebon were engineers at LinkedIn working on profile and improving the kind of data that LinkedIn sources on its users (the third co-founder, Ethan Winchell, previously worked elsewhere), and while Sandler tells me that the idea for Truework came to them after both left the company, he sees LinkedIn “as a potential partner here,” so watch this space.

The problem that Truework is aiming to solve is the very clunky, and often insecure, nature of how organizations typically verify an individual’s employment information. Details about salary and where you work, and the job you do, are typically essential for larger financial transactions, whether it’s securing a mortgage or another financing loan, or renting an apartment, or for others who might need to verify that information for other purposes, such as staffing agencies.

Typically that kind of information gathering is time-consuming both to reach out to get and to confirm (Sandler cites statistics that say on average an HR person spends over 1,000 hours annually answering questions like these). And some of the systems that have been put in place to do that work — specifically consumer reporting agencies — have been proven not be as watertight in their security as you would hope.

“Your data is flowing around lots of third party platforms,” Sandler said. “You’re releasing a lot of information about yourself and you don’t know where the data is going and if it’s even accurate.”

Truework’s solution is based around a platform, and now an API, that a company buys into. In turn, it gives its employees the ability to consent to using it. If the employee agrees, Truework sources a worker’s place of employment and salary details. Then when a third party wants to verify that information for the person in question, it uses Truework to do so, rather than contacting the company directly.

Then, when those queries come in, Truework contacts the individual with an email or text about the inquiry, so that he/she can okay (or reject) the request. Truework’s Sandler said that it uses ISO27001, SOC2 Type 1 & 2 protections, but he also confirmed that it does store your data.

Currently the idea is that if you leave your job, your next employer would need to also be a Truework customer in order to update the information it has on you: the startup makes money by charging both larger enterprises to make the platform accessible to employees as well as those organizations that are querying for the information/verifications (small business employers using the platform can use it for free).

Over time, the plan will be to configure a way to update your profiles regardless of where you work.

So far, the concept has seen a lot of traction: there are 20,000 small businesses using the platform, as well as 100 enterprises, with the number of verifiers (its term for those requesting information) now at 40,000. Customers include The College Board, The Real Real, Oscar Health, The Motley Fool, and Tuft & Needle.

While all of this was built at a time before COVID-19, the global health pandemic has highlighted the importance of having more efficient and secure systems for doing work, especially at a time when many people are not in the office.

“Our biggest competitor is the fax machine and the phone call,” Sandler said, “but as companies move to more remote working, no one is manning the phones or fax machines. But these operations still need to happen.” Indeed, he points out that at the end of 2019, Truework had 25,000 verifiers. Nearly doubling its end-user customers speaks to the huge boost in business it has seen in the last five months.

That is part of the reason the company has attracted the investment it has.

“Truework’s platform sits at the center of consumers’ most important transactions and life events – from purchasing a home, to securing a new job,” said Steve Sarracino, founder and partner at Activant Capital, in a statement. “Up until now, the identity verification process has been painful, expensive, and opaque for all parties involved, something we’ve seen first-hand in the mortgage space. Starting with income and employment, Truework is setting the standard for consent-based verifications and unlocking the next wave of the digital economy. We’re thrilled to be partnering with this exceptional team as they continue to scale the platform.” Sarracino is joining the board with this round.

While a big focus in the world of tech right now may be on building more and better ways of connecting goods and services to people in as contact-free a way as possible, the bigger play around identity management has been around for years, and will continue to be a huge part of how the internet develops in the future.

The fax and phone may be the primary tools these days for verifying employment information, but on a more general level, there are companies like Facebook, Google and Apple already playing a big role in how we “log in” and use all kinds of services online. They, along with others focused squarely on the identity and verification space (and Truework works with some of them), and using a myriad of approaches that include biometrics, ‘wallet’-style passports that link to information elsewhere, and more, will all continue to try to make the case for why they might be the most trusted provider of that layer of information, at a time when we may want to share less and especially share less with multiple parties.

That is the bigger opportunity that investors are betting on here.

“The increasing momentum Truework has seen since its founding in 2017 demonstrates the critical need for transformation in this space,” said Alfred Lin, partner at Sequoia, in a statement. “Privacy, especially around identity data, is becoming increasingly top of mind for consumers and how they make transactions online.”

Truework has now raised close to $45 million, and it’s not disclosing its valuation.

May
12
2020
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LinkedIn adds polls and live video-based events in a focus on more virtual engagement

With a large part of the working world doing jobs from home when possible these days, the focus right now is on how best to recreate the atmosphere of an office virtually, and how to replicate online essential work that used to be done in person. Today, href=”http://linkedin.com” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>LinkedIn announced a couple of big new feature updates that point to how it’s trying to play a part in both of these: it’s launching a new Polls feature for users to canvas opinions and get feedback; and it’s launching a new “LinkedIn Virtual Events” tool that lets people create and broadcast video events via its platform.

Despite now being owned by Microsoft, interestingly it doesn’t seem that the Virtual Events service taps into Teams or Skype, Microsoft’s two other big video products that it has been pushing hard at a time when use of video streaming for work, education and play is going through the roof.

The polls feature — you can see an example of one in the picture below, or respond to that specific poll here — is a quick-fire and low-bar way of asking a question and encouraging engagement: LinkedIn says that a poll takes only about 30 seconds to put together, and responding doesn’t require thinking of something to write, but gives the respondent more of a ‘voice’ than he or she would get just by providing a “like” or other reaction.

But as with some of the other social features that LinkedIn has implemented over the years, its timing has not been quite right. With polls, you might say it’s been frustratingly late… or you might say it left the party too early.

The feature was first spotted by developer and app digger Jane Manchun Wong a couple of weeks ago, but it comes years after Twitter and Facebook have had polls in place on their platforms. I’d say it’s taken LinkedIn years to catch up, but actually it had polls in place years ago, yet chose to sunset the feature, back in 2014.

You could argue that LinkedIn miscalled the direction that social would go with engagement, or that it took too long to resuscitate the experience, or that the novelty of the concept that now worn off. Or you might say that LinkedIn has picked just the right time to bring it back, at a time when people are spending more time online than ever and are looking for more ways of varying the experience and interacting.

Those creating polls will be given the option in the menu of items when starting a new post. They can add four choices/options into the poll answers, and decide how long they would like for the poll to stay up, in a range of 24 hours to two weeks. You can also write an introduction post to accompany your poll with hashtags to come up in more searches.

Two important distinctions with LinkedIn Polls as you can see above are that you are polling a very specific audience of people in your professional circle, and those people can both respond to the poll but also include comments and reactions. Both of these set the feature as it works on LinkedIn apart from the others and should give it some… engagement.

The polls feature is getting rolled out (again) starting today.

The LinkedIn Virtual Events feature, meanwhile, falls into a similar placement as polls: it’s a way of getting people to engage more on LinkedIn, it taps into trends that are huge outside of the platform — in this case, videoconferencing — and it’s something that is coming surprisingly late to LinkedIn, given its existing product assets.

But is also potentially — potentially, because Live is still in an invite-only phase — going to prove very popular because it’s filling a very specific need.

LinkedIn Virtual Events is a merger of two products that LinkedIn launched last year, a live video broadcasting tool called LinkedIn Live, and its efforts to foster a sideline in offline, in person networking with LinkedIn Events. The idea here is that while physical events have been put on pause in the current climate — many cities have made group activities illegal in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus — you can continue to use LinkedIn Events to plan them, but now carry them out over the Live platform. 

Given how huge the conferencing industry has become, I am guessing that we will be seeing a lot of attempts at recreating something of those events in a virtual, online context. LinkedIn’s take on the challenge — via Virtual Events — could therefore become a strong contender to host these.

When LinkedIn first launched Events I did ask the company whether it planned to expand them online using live, and indeed that did seem to be the plan. LinkedIn now says that it “accelerated” its product roadmap — unsurprising, given the current market — to merge the two products for targeted audiences.

That’s why we accelerated our product roadmap to bring you a tighter integration between LinkedIn Events and LinkedIn Live, turning these two products into a new virtual events solution that enables you to stay connected to your communities and meet your customers wherever they are. This new offering is designed to help you strengthen relationships with more targeted audiences.

This is not a simple integration, I should point out: LinkedIn is working with third-party broadcasting partners — the initial list includes Restream, Wirecast, Streamyard and Socialive — to raise the level of production quality, which will be essential especially if you are asking people to pay for events, and if you have any hope of replicating some of the networking other features that are cornerstones of conferencing and other in-person events.

It’s also building on what has been a successful product so far for LinkedIn: the company says that Live has 23X more comments per post and 6X more reactions per post than simple native video.

Apr
21
2020
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AWS and Facebook launch an open-source model server for PyTorch

AWS and Facebook today announced two new open-source projects around PyTorch, the popular open-source machine learning framework. The first of these is TorchServe, a model-serving framework for PyTorch that will make it easier for developers to put their models into production. The other is TorchElastic, a library that makes it easier for developers to build fault-tolerant training jobs on Kubernetes clusters, including AWS’s EC2 spot instances and Elastic Kubernetes Service.

In many ways, the two companies are taking what they have learned from running their own machine learning systems at scale and are putting this into the project. For AWS, that’s mostly SageMaker, the company’s machine learning platform, but as Bratin Saha, AWS VP and GM for Machine Learning Services, told me, the work on PyTorch was mostly motivated by requests from the community. And while there are obviously other model servers like TensorFlow Serving and the Multi Model Server available today, Saha argues that it would be hard to optimize those for PyTorch.

“If we tried to take some other model server, we would not be able to quote optimize it as much, as well as create it within the nuances of how PyTorch developers like to see this,” he said. AWS has lots of experience in running its own model servers for SageMaker that can handle multiple frameworks, but the community was asking for a model server that was tailored toward how they work. That also meant adapting the server’s API to what PyTorch developers expect from their framework of choice, for example.

As Saha told me, the server that AWS and Facebook are now launching as open source is similar to what AWS is using internally. “It’s quite close,” he said. “We actually started with what we had internally for one of our model servers and then put it out to the community, worked closely with Facebook, to iterate and get feedback — and then modified it so it’s quite close.”

Bill Jia, Facebook’s VP of AI Infrastructure, also told me, he’s very happy about how his team and the community has pushed PyTorch forward in recent years. “If you look at the entire industry community — a large number of researchers and enterprise users are using AWS,” he said. “And then we figured out if we can collaborate with AWS and push PyTorch together, then Facebook and AWS can get a lot of benefits, but more so, all the users can get a lot of benefits from PyTorch. That’s our reason for why we wanted to collaborate with AWS.”

As for TorchElastic, the focus here is on allowing developers to create training systems that can work on large distributed Kubernetes clusters where you might want to use cheaper spot instances. Those are preemptible, though, so your system has to be able to handle that, while traditionally, machine learning training frameworks often expect a system where the number of instances stays the same throughout the process. That, too, is something AWS originally built for SageMaker. There, it’s fully managed by AWS, though, so developers never have to think about it. For developers who want more control over their dynamic training systems or to stay very close to the metal, TorchElastic now allows them to recreate this experience on their own Kubernetes clusters.

AWS has a bit of a reputation when it comes to open source and its engagement with the open-source community. In this case, though, it’s nice to see AWS lead the way to bring some of its own work on building model servers, for example, to the PyTorch community. In the machine learning ecosystem, that’s very much expected, and Saha stressed that AWS has long engaged with the community as one of the main contributors to MXNet and through its contributions to projects like Jupyter, TensorFlow and libraries like NumPy.

Apr
03
2020
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Want to survive the downturn? Better build a platform

When you look at the most successful companies in the world, they are almost never just one simple service. Instead, they offer a platform with a range of services and an ability to connect to it to allow external partners and developers to extend the base functionality that the company provides.

Aspiring to be a platform and actually succeeding at building one are not the same. While every startup probably sees themselves as becoming a platform play eventually, the fact is it’s hard to build one. But if you can succeed and your set of services become an integral part of a given business workflow, your company could become bigger and more successful than even the most optimistic founder ever imagined.

Look at the biggest tech companies in the world, from Microsoft to Oracle to Facebook to Google and Amazon. All of them offer a rich complex platform of services. All of them provide a way for third parties to plug in and take advantage of them in some way, even if it’s by using the company’s sheer popularity to advertise.

Michael A. Cusumano, David B. Yoffie and Annabelle Gawer, who wrote the book The Business of Platforms, wrote an article recently in MIT Sloan Review on The Future of Platforms, saying that simply becoming a platform doesn’t guarantee success for a startup.

“Because, like all companies, platforms must ultimately perform better than their competitors. In addition, to survive long-term, platforms must also be politically and socially viable, or they risk being crushed by government regulation or social opposition, as well as potentially massive debt obligations,” they wrote.

In other words, it’s not cheap or easy to build a successful platform, but the rewards are vast. As Cusumano, Yoffie and Gawer point out their studies have found, “…Platform companies achieved their sales with half the number of employees [of successful non-platform companies]. Moreover, platform companies were twice as profitable, were growing twice as fast, and were more than twice as valuable as their conventional counterparts.”

From an enterprise perspective, look at a company like Salesforce . The company learned long ago that it couldn’t possibly build every permutation of customer requirements with a relatively small team of engineers (especially early on), so it started to build hooks into the platform it had built to allow customers and consultants to customize it to meet the needs of individual organizations.

Eventually Salesforce built APIs, then it built a whole set of development tools, and built a marketplace to share these add-ons. Some startups like FinancialForce, Vlocity and Veeva have built whole companies on top of Salesforce.

Rory O’Driscoll, a partner at Scale Venture Partners, speaking at a venture capitalist panel at BoxWorks in 2014, said that many startups aspire to be platforms, but it’s harder than it looks. “You don’t make a platform. Third-party developers only engage when you achieve a critical mass of users. You have to do something else and then become a platform. You don’t come fully formed as a platform,” he said at the time.

If you’re thinking, how you could possibly start a company like that in the middle of a massive economic crisis, consider that Microsoft launched in 1975 in the middle of recession. Google and Salesforce both launched in the late 1990s, just ahead of the dot-com crash, and Facebook launched in 2004, four years before the massive downturn in 2008. All went on to become tremendously successful companies

That success often requires massive spending and sales and marketing burn, but when it works, the rewards are enormous. Just don’t expect that it’s an easy path to success.

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.

Screen Shot 2019 10 31 at 2.36.27 PM

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.

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