Product Research Through Culture — Behzod Sirjani and How Slack Humanizes Work
Interview by Eugene Kan
Transcript & Text by Alek Rose
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Behzod Sirjani
Transcript & Text by Alek Rose
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Behzod Sirjani
At the heart of anything we create should be an essence. A veritable joie to vivre that serves as the foundation and the direction for what we bring into this world. Often times, we fail to recognize the minutiae that play a significant role in guiding massive bodies of movement. Culture is something that is often difficult to summarize succinctly. It’s a constantly evolving body, it never remains stagnant and evolves based on the inputs and subsequent reactions of its participants. A handbook is something that can only take you so far. To create something that resonates requires research and it requires a comprehensive game plan to dissect and put forth into action the learnings. But comprehension is not to say that it becomes a regimented and sterile process.
Researcher and photographer Behzod Sirjani has dedicated his career towards the understanding of culture. It has come through the lens of both social media, at Facebook and more recently with remote and digital work at Slack. The interactions we’ve engaged in online have changed significantly from our face-to-face communications of the past, and as such, we now see our peers much differently. Our access to their interests, their views, and how they interact is on full display. These cultural nuances, through Sirjani’s role as Senior Researcher at Slack, present themselves as key determinants of how digital work culture moves forward. The inclusion of photography has also given him an added tool to force him to observe and be present as things play out around him.
The speed of culture is unlike anything mankind has ever seen. To not understand it, is to our disadvantage as we must remain diligent and focused on building the tools that uphold the necessary ethics and interests befitting of the countless people it touches.
I think some people feel now a higher pressure because we have so many metrics around engagement, clicks, and you care about who people like this person is following this person and I feel some people haven’t given themselves permission to play.
— Behzod, on how we’ve lost the ability to “play”
I’m a cyclist. I think about this a lot when I’m biking. When someone passes me or I pass someone, I try really hard not to make a judgment about it because I have no idea how many miles they’ve ridden. I have no idea what’s going on in their life. So me being ‘oh I just passed someone,’ it could feel good because yes I was moving faster but maybe they’re a hundred miles in and I started riding. So that doesn’t actually mean anything.
I need to go and find that. And it’s OK that I’m leaving this good company... I may go work at an objectively less-good company in some people’s eyes but I’m going because I need to learn.
— Behzod, on one’s need to continue the journey of learning
At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Behzod Sirjani: The biggest difference that people draw between rhetoric and communication is a lot of communication programs just assume people are listening and they teach you how to speak. And rhetoric assumes that no one is listening and so they teach you how to like understand an audience and speak directly to them in a way that’s like persuasive and engaging. And I think that at least at that time it was a lot easier to explore in a safe way both in the classroom and the digital landscape. I think some people feel now like a higher pressure because we have so many metrics around engagement, clicks, and like you care about who people like this person is following this person and I feel like some people haven’t given themselves permission to play.
Eugene Kan: As we start to see a full generation of digital natives, the results on society psychology and connection are becoming more clear in startling ways. We simultaneously gain broader connections in exchange for social inadequacy. Everybody coming online as of the last few years have been roped into a social media-first world that is virtually inescapable. It’s not as easy as finding alternative ways to dialogue, if your social groups are congregating in the same places online where you’re not. New extensions of sociology and psychology are exploring what the modern idea of a town hall means as we shift online from something that was only available physically in the past.
Eugene: So maybe we’ll even maybe take a step back and you can introduce yourself and how you would describe yourself.
Behzod: My name is Behzod Sirjani. I’m currently a researcher at Slack.
Eugene: Behzod and I were introduced by a friend of ours, CC. Needless to say I was fascinated from the start. First off the role of researcher conjures up different thoughts that you often equate to feel their lab work and not for a digital product or service. Secondly Slack, The messaging platform, has been an interesting place that has often prided itself on re-imagining digital and remote work. Together, both factors represent a crossroads we’re at as a digital culture and society. We often seek meaningful working and connection which Slack has often looked to facilitate. This combination had all the makings of a candid but topically complex discussion around Behzod’s perspective and the broader world around us.
Behzod: My undergrad was in rhetoric and media studies and my adviser at the time was a Puerto Rican American who is super interested in how the notion of a public sphere, the public square changes when it goes from being a physical space to online. Whose Voices are allowed to speak. Whose voices are privileged. Whose voices are hindered. What is things anonymity empower you to do and how does basically the media change. And I took that and thought much more about personal relationships. So if I’m just your friend in a physical space, I only know so many things about you. But then if we’re friends on Facebook or we’re friends on Twitter I start to see more and more of your life and I have a different picture of you. And I was interested in how that changed.
Eugene: Did you think that when you were embarking on this sort of educational journey that it would be as impactful as it is today? Which I think is kind of the hindsight thing right.
Behzod: Yeah, I don’t think so. And I think this is something that I wanted to share with you about, but it feels like the MAEKAN Slack is almost what Twitter was in like 2008. It’s a small group of like-minded people that have found a community loosely connected. But I don’t think most of us at that point thought it would be this. I was in college right when Twitter launched and Facebook had started to scale beyond colleges. And so those things started to change but they hadn’t permeated culture in the way that they do now. They were definitely tech focused. It was a different kind of person it was basically media folks and tech folks. Whereas now in Bangalore (India) every third phone I saw was on Facebook.
Eugene: In the early stages of the conversation based on I lean heavily into process and education. I often have a curiosity as to what is the exact value of school in the creative world when there exists so many examples of the so-called self-taught. To Behzod, the structure to explore and the pursuit of process are the most important parts of getting an education.
Eugene: The one thing that I’m actually really interested in is what role do you think that having an educational foundation plays or just going to school and having a structure on how to kind of explore ideas and concepts that arguably very important within our everyday lives. Now especially. So I think that’s always a kind of the push and pull especially in some ways in the creative world is that while you can learn on your own. So what is the value of actually going to school and learning the theory behind it?
Behzod: I do feel in a lot of ways my undergraduate degree was a degree in common sense. The biggest difference that people draw between rhetoric and communication is a lot of communication programs just assume people are listening and they teach you how to speak and rhetoric assumes that no one is listening. So they teach you how to understand an audience and speak directly to them in a way that’s persuasive and engaging. And I think that at least at that time, it was a lot easier to explore in a safe way both in the classroom and the digital landscape. I think some people feel now a higher pressure because we have so many metrics around engagement clicks and you care about who people, this person is following this person,’ and I feel some people haven’t given themselves permission to play. And so the thing that being in school gave me, that I think people can find outside if intentional about it, is just other people who can bounce ideas off of and a structure for how to explore.
Eugene: So there is kind of overlap there. There has to be a structure towards this creative path which I think is almost the difference between art and creativity, where creativity in my eyes is really about, solving a goal or a problem whereas artistry is really just do whatever the heck you want.
Behozd: Yeah I think that’s really fair. We used to have a poster at Facebook and it was a rocking horse and it said don’t mistake motion for progress. And I think there’s times where you just want to move and it’s OK if you’re not progressing. But, the biggest challenge I see with a lot of people who don’t go to school, is they don’t try to build any structure and they mistake what looks like someone else’s process for the goal they’re moving towards. And I think I would imagine your creative pursuits, there are times where you have to deviate from what looks like the right path to actually learn the thing you want to learn to then get back. I know her photography at least the way I went around it was like I found a bunch of photos that I thought were really interesting and then I learned how to create them. The right way the wrong way. You experiment. And having the goal of I want to create this photo, taught me a lot more than just I want to create photos. And I felt I learned a lot about my own style and editing and that because I had an outcome I was pushing towards, instead of just like I meant to take thousands of photos and get to like 10,000 hours of using a camera. That’ll teach you how to use a camera but it doesn’t help you get to the thing you want. And if you don’t know what you’re moving towards it’s much harder to get there.
Eugene: Process is a key to Behzod’s approach and structure is the wrapper that ties it all together. He knows though, that progression is not always linear and simple. Each one of us has our own process to follow. Sometimes it’s a step backwards to reassess and move forward. When we’re paralyzed by critique it affects our ability to produce things with originality.
Behzod: I don’t know how many hours you guys put into a piece of content but, I imagine it’s a lot more than most people think.
Eugene: No one knows how the sausage is made.
Behzod: Right. Right. And that’s true for a lot of photos or any sort of creative pursuit. There’s so much work that’s not visible and I think people don’t give themselves permission to go through that process and know that good work takes time.
Eugene: You know what’s interesting is there’s this one quote I’ve been continually referencing with this story with an artist name Matt McCormick. And he as saying that a lot of times people are so consumed with how long it takes an artist to create a piece of work. So let’s say you know there’s an artist who’s you know 60 years old. People ask him how long it takes me to create this piece of work. Oh ‘it took me 45 years because I’ve been an artist for 45 years’ right. All these experiences that, as you mentioned they’re not part of the actual physical act of doing it but it’s just as much part of the overall equation.
Behzod: I do think a lot of people get… And the cameras are probably the best example. Whenever young amateur photographer see a photo that they really like, the first question they ask is ‘What did you shoot that with?’ And the reality is that you could have shot it with tons of different permutations of you know cameras and lenses lighting natural lighting. You can achieve the same shot a lot of different ways and it’s your shooting style and my shooting style are probably very different. We could use the same camera create very different things, we can use different cameras and create the same thing. And I think that that obsession is amplified at least now by the media because we pay so much attention to what these creative things look like. It’s oh I have this thing and I’m signaling, you know that I’m a part of this culture. It would be super interesting to hear if that changed or how you feel that changed during your time at HYPEBEAST where brands, I think went from having a strong individual identity, they swung out and then it was I need to be signaling X, Y, and Z and so they dilute down what they are, to be inclusive you know in X, Y, and Z domain.
Eugene: So I think there’s a lot of different factors that need to be kind of broken down. I still really believe that the downfall of modern media really has come at the hands of advertising because of the need to optimize and to really just treat one click as the same as everything right. Whether it’s I spent you know a ton of time researching to create this one piece of content, or hey this is lie a repost of a tweet from Cardi B whatever it may be right. So I think that in general pushed us towards a certain type of content generation which meant that, ‘what’s the optimal way of creating that?’ to elicit a piece of discussion. And that part is really interesting because as it stands currently I agree there’s a lack of ability to be different because sometimes it just gets lost. There’s a kind of a belief in my eyes right now and I’ve I used to push very heavily against it, if there is a trend that’s going on to not be part of the trend is the right thing to do. But sometimes there is a shared common language in playing in the trend. And that’s not really an original thought for me either. That’s from this Joshua Kissi…
Behzod: Oh yeah TONL.
Eugene: Yeah, he talks about and he’s like you know sometimes it’s not bad to play and trends because automatically that’s almost my Trojan horse into another opportunity to speak about somebody else. Right? So I think that’s really interesting. But they’re always going to be people that have different interests into why they want to participate in creative culture. Right. Do you want to be a celebrity? Do just try to make money, a quick buck? Those are all opportunities that exist. But you know as as a lot of people say it’s if you’re the one that’s continually being referential then, what happens when your references dry out. Yeah that could happen. But if you’re always able to reinvent yourself then that also changes. But then to add even more complexity on top of that, sometimes if you’re too experimental, too ahead of the curve, then no one understands you and I think within culture, if things are too complex people are very easy to just move on. I don’t want to. I don’t care I don’t want to spend the time to understand why it’s important or maybe even one step back is people aren’t, if you’re the one communicating the message you’re not doing a good enough job to communicate why it’s important. But beyond that you mentioned rhetoric right. You mentioned that, we’re at a point in time we have to create sort of a context to why something’s important. So coming from having sort of this educational, background or understanding the value in that, what is the challenge that exists between if you have a positive message versus you have, a message that serves as a way to sell something to somebody. How do those two compete against one another? That’s also a challenge that MAEKAN endures. I (MAEKAN) probably cannot give you something that is going to make you feel super excited or laugh in the first 10 seconds because in a lot of times if you want that, that’s what social media is like, here’s a 15 second clip, oh it will be funny and then move on.
Behzod: To the earlier point about making messages land with the audience. I think that’s something that MAEKAN does pretty well because you have a core story, you have the Joshua Kissi story, the interview. And then you guys have broken that up into a bunch of different entry points so. You have Instagram posts, story posts, different clips here and there that are all different doors into the content. I don’t know what that looks like on some of the other channels but at least on Instagram you guys seem to do a good job of providing those diverse entries and I think that’s become, more a part of the job of people who are creating content to say I have this story I have this message I have something that I want to share. And I think there are these n number of audiences that might be interested, how can I give them the sliver that speaks to them best and use that as the way. And I think going back to the brand conversation, that’s probably what a lot of those attempts were, ‘hey you know I’m Nike I’m still trying to sell you shoes but, you might be interested in these shoes because you care about this community and here’s a connection to that community.’ It definitely requires a lot more work and a lot more intentionality, that also I think is masked in a lot of these processes. People just see the and they’re oh that doesn’t resonate with me, ‘next.’ But it totally resonates with someone else and that gets lost here.
Eugene: The one thing that I feel is a bit of a challenge is that everything that we do currently like if it’s not on the basis of selling something, if it’s building something long term, it’s really about just how net positive you are. That’s the only way we can really look at it. It’s hey you know what, I’m making incremental change but then the silver lining always has to be at least it’s making ‘a’ change. At the end of the day the message that a lot of people feel they believe to be the right message, might not resonate right. But as long as you personally feel it’s correct, like have at the end just try to hit as many people as you can. So having said that like maybe the MAEKAN message is the wrong message for some people which is fine. But what I’ve always tried to figure out is ‘hey you know what, are we in a point in time where we have to just settle for the fact that just being net positive is good enough?’.
Behzod: I think about this a lot with regards to how I’ve been using Twitter lately and I think that there are so many interesting conversations going on in the world right now about gender issues, about political issues, about things where either I’m not best equipped to speak or maybe I don’t have something to say. And what I’ve tried to do is amplify other people’s voices that I find interesting or a more important part of a conversation and give space to them. And it feels like in some regards that’s what you guys are doing with MAEKAN. Here are these things that you see as good or true or interesting or valuable to the world, and you’re shining a light on them. I shared TONL with a bunch of people and they were like blown away that that existed and the depths that Joshua and the team had put together. And that wouldn’t have happened without you. But I do think we’re at an interesting point of, when you’re starting out and you’re trying to find your voice and your style and learn the ropes, it’s definitely hard to immediately turn that into well ‘I’m gonna learn how to use a camera and I’m going to tell an interesting story.’ You have to go through some awkwardness of just taking shitty photos. And I think we’re often very quick to judge when we look at other people because we can’t see where they are in that process. I’m a cyclist. I think about this a lot when I’m biking. When someone passes me or I pass someone, I try really hard not to make a judgment about it because I have no idea how many miles they’ve ridden. I have no idea what’s going on in their life. So me being ‘oh I just passed someone,’ it could feel good because yes I was moving faster but maybe they’re a hundred miles in and I started writing. So that doesn’t actually mean anything. Yeah, I think I’ve been trying to take that same philosophy other things and just be what is it that they’re putting out.
Eugene: 100 percent. I felt when I was younger I was very judgmental and to an extent it’s challenging too because as you get older I think experience generally chips into being more judgmental because you have you know what you like. You’ve theoretically seen more than someone that’s 10 years younger than you. But then what I have to catch myself and really kind of walk back on is that in the whole realm of creating something new it’s so challenging that by virtue of someone actually out there doing it should be rewarded and celebrated. I don’t think we do that enough.
Eugene: You know I think that’s the one thing that we need to kind of come to terms with. There was a certain level of dehumanization when I was at HYPEBEAST because I would get, let’s just throw a number out there, let’s say 100 e-mails a day on people working on new brands and a lot of it just, maybe in our eyes, wasn’t very good. And you would just be ‘Yo this is so wack. This shit sucks.’ But the reality is that you know someone is trying, I also lament that currently as we start moving away from the ability to have smaller independent voices as media companies and media platforms, we just generally have pushed the whole ship and weighted ourselves heavily on things that already have a voice. So that means that if, you’re you know that sort of, young brand or that young artists, virality is really not the expectation. It’s a rarity. But You know in some ways the Internet has sort of promoted that anyone can be viral but it’s really it’s very rare. So if you look back on it, there is no opportunity for people to actually grow because the gatekeepers, are generally there already and defined and you can’t be a small brand that started off taking mediocre photos on your bedroom floor. You really need to have a certain level of finesse from day one. Which is not bad either I think it’s just the reality of the situation.
Behzod: Yeah. To your point about being judgmental. Eight years ago now, I had upper and lower jaw surgery and had to relearn how to eat and I’ve been very fortunate in my life. I haven’t really been injured. I am a very able bodied. And so that was the first experience I had. Like ok I’ve spent 21 years eating but now I can’t. And it wasn’t really good reminder that everyone was fighting a different battle that are just completely invisible to you and that was a big transition point for me looking at other people and being ‘you’re putting something out in the world, thank you.’ But it’s something that even I catch myself now, I’ll look at stuff ‘oh that photos not that great,’ but I don’t know where they came from. Who am I to judge?
Eugene: I think that’s something that needs to be reinforced and promoted more especially in a point in time when there’s so much negativity. You know obviously you use Twitter a lot. I use Twitter a lot. Some people get really burnt out by the fact that there’s so much bullshit going on. But I think at the same time it’s, it’s when you do find those moments of positivity it’s ‘hey you know double down on it.’
Behzod: I’ve been trying really hard to spend more time around people and ideas that energize me. And it’s been a weird transition I think, I imagine for you as well. People who have been in different places and you have a wide loose network to focus down on you know a handful of people or a handful of things and that becomes part of your day but it’s also very freeing because you’re I’m spending time around things that are positive for me that I feel I’m giving positive energy to the world. But it’s not something that’s reinforced publicly anywhere and especially with you know Instagram and media, people looking for virality, people looking for a bigger impact or bigger you know influence. It’s hard because especially when you when you start spreading yourself across those things, you lose your original voice. Right. I think a lot of people I know who are super creative they spend some time incubating their own ideas and they just have to say no to the outside world to do that. But that’s also not super well talked about.
Eugene: Social media as a way for us all to present a perfect picture of our lives. This intense curation has led us to a point where we fear making mistakes in public. Without making mistakes and being open to criticism of our work. We limit ourselves. Growth can’t happen unless we begin to value and work on our vulnerability.
Eugene: The one thing you mentioned about finding good conversation I would say that in general having a medium or platform like MAEKAN has opened the opportunity for those conversations. This conversation are the moments that I live for in terms of someone else’s perspective, someone else helping me even work through my thought process or things that I am unsure about and are uncertain about. And it’s interesting because these conversations have the ability to exist more often than not but they’re not really explored. Or at least housed in a certain place. I mean I guess podcasts in a way or like. But I think from the creative perspective like I say MAEKAN is the only one that does it but I would want to see more of it.
Behzod: Going back to people giving themselves permission, a lot of people, don’t necessarily know how to be vulnerable or at least a lot of people I’ve talked to as I going through the creative process it takes them a while to get to a place where they’re comfortable enough with their own ideas that they’re willing to put them out there and let other people challenge them without it feeling like a personal attack. And I think that to your point about encouraging more creation, we want more people creating things and telling their stories and we want that to be okay because it’s their story. And also to realize it that may not resonate with you and I may have a different take, that’s my lived reality. That’s totally fine.
Eugene: Yeah and that level of sort of vulnerability is also challenging because what social media has done, it has reinforced personal brand. Because we know that that engagement comes from personal brand in terms of coming to an Instagram and knowing you just do one thing.
Behzod: Paul Graham and Taylor Pearson, they talk about identity and how one of the most important things about identity is to constrain it to be the fewest things, in terms of the less well-defined you are the more flexibility you have to be anything. And so when people start branding themselves as a photographer you’re inviting other people to only see you through that lens, and to limit how they see your contributions to those things. That’s kind of unfortunate because we’re all multi-dimensional people now. You should welcome any of that. Yeah but to your point the media almost wants you to be in a box. They’re like ‘OK Eugene what do you do now? What’s your title? Where do you work?’ How should I understand the lens that you’re bringing. Yeah and it’s never one thing but we get pushed into that corner.
Eugene: Yeah. So I point to I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I think someone brought this up to me. They said that in Europe there’s less of an inclination to ask someone what their title is. But in the U.S., within the first few sentences, ‘where do you work and what do you do?’
Behzod: Yeah I’ve tried really hard over the last six months to when people are telling me about a friend and actually CC’s super good about this. ‘Oh yeah I want you to be so and so.’ Instead of saying what do they do, but what do you value about them?
Eugene: Yeah it’s a good way of putting it.
Behzod: It ends up being a much more interesting conversation because it’s not ‘Oh this is my friend Bob. Bob works at company. I met Bob through painting and I think he has a really interesting take on music.’ Cool. Now I have some things about Bob that just tell me about him as a person. Not that he does this job and sits in this office.
Eugene: I think those moments of just that are less structured less defined by the transactional nature, my wife kind of shits on me sometimes she’s like ’Oh I feel as though you’re a very transactional.’ I don’t know if it’s transactional so much that I know the value that I that I’m looking for. I think that transactional element is something interesting because we’ve gotten to a point where you know as you mentioned the whole rocking horse thing it’s more meetings means is it movement or is it progress, more time spent and what I like to do is just, you could give me six hours and like just talk to interesting people. That to me has become what’s far more fascinating because I currently feel as though I don’t get that excited about going to places. I get excited about meeting the people in those places.
Eugene: With years spent researching social media, Behzod is acutely aware of limiting his connections as social platforms for both mental and more literal reasons. We’re living in a generation we’re actively broadcasting our lives for others to see and interact with. But there’s now less and less opportunity for us to figure out ourselves without the gaze of millions of people judging every move.
Eugene: One thing I am interested to know is that we’ve all sort of heard one of the downfalls of call it ‘social media over usage,’ whether it’s psychological issues, how do you personally look at that in terms of knowing how it works and are you susceptible to it.
Behzod: I tend to think of how well people can do anything on three axises. They need to know it’s possible, they need to have the resources and agency and ability to actually achieve that, and then they have to care about that outcome. Managing social media ends up or managing media, a lot of people say they care. They may or may not know how it’s possible and then they may, or may not have liked the technical ability or time or resources or whatever to manage it in the right way. Going back to our conversation about fewer being maybe where we’re spending more time I limit a ton of the notifications I get, just because I figured out what are the things that need my attention immediately and what can be delayed and some of that is a negotiation with my team, and my friends, and my girlfriend and what. But I think a lot of people don’t necessarily either have the technical skill or spend enough time really digging into figuring, out how to manage things in a way that makes sense. And I think a lot of companies don’t actually have the right kind of controls built, to acknowledge how people want to manage things. If You think about a lot of how Facebook makes money based on attention, so it’s not necessarily in their best interest to give you, the best controls over how Facebook notifies you about things right. But it’s also really hard, if you are to think about in a given day how you’d want to be notified of certain things, what would those rules actually look like.
Eugene: What do they look like to you?
Behzod: My stack ranking is my family, my girlfriend, my roommate are people that I would always want to hear from. And I can mostly get that done through iMessage and other things. I wish that I could build that rule out for, you know my roommate and I both cyclists we have a Slack channel for Slack workspace. I would love for his notifications there to always be pushed through. Even if I had do not disturb on. But that’s a global rule that would have to exist at the lowest level. Apple hasn’t built that so already there’s friction. It’s basically the notifications I get are things that people actually send me with exception of e-mail which is turned off and then banks and financial stuff I want to know and my credit card gets scanned. But aside from that I pretty much have everything else turned off.
Eugene: I guess another layer to that is that we probably both acknowledge that social media is always a representation of our best foot forward. How have you looked at that? Do you always have to catch yourself when you see, I’m making this up but ‘oh this is someone that you went to school with and they’re now doing this and it’s amazing or how have you personally looked at that?’
Behzod: The best thing to remember is people are choosing what goes out right. And so there’s always some level of, not misrepresentation, but there’s more to this story. There’s a really good quote from Kenneth Burke, so going back to one of the things that school is helpful for and the quote is something ‘in that every word is a selection of reality. It’s both a reflection of reality and a deflection of reality.’ And so I try to think about that everything that I’m being shown was a choice and that choice highlights certain things and it suppresses others. Sometimes it’s helpful to just take that next step and ‘OK Eugene just posted this photo. It looks like they’re having a great time. He’s probably trying to say like hey we had a great time. Him and his wife are having fun.’ You know I’m going to now see a beautiful photo of your office and know that in the back of the office…
Eugene: There’s a bunch of shit and photo equipment.
Behzod: Other stuff and that that’s part of life. I think it would be strange for us to go about living completely in public for everyone else. I don’t want to be a part of the Truman Show. And I think that our conversation about creatives having room to explore, the biggest concern I have with the way that media has progressed is for younger and younger people there’s less space for them to try to figure out who they are without the eyes of a million people watching. The internet doesn’t forget. And I don’t know about you, I did a lot of dumb shit when I was 13 or 14 and I’m really glad a lot of it’s not on the Internet. I think that’s really hard because you you get trained so early to be performative in a way that really isn’t helpful for your growth like we should. We grow through making mistakes and the more that your mistakes are catalogs for other people. The less inclined you are to make mistakes. And this feeds into the conversation about creativity if I’m not incentivized in any way to make mistakes in public then my stuff is going to be super safe. It’s very sanitized. All of our art is going to look the same. All of the feed is going to look the same. Until people are willing to put themselves out there I’m going to fuck up. But I’m going to fuck up in this way because I want to put this out there and then they’ve created a new style that is now safe. Right. And so that’s essentially what tastemaking i. Someone Who’s got a new style, hey here’s this thing you can do it too. People hop into that trend and it progresses.
Eugene: Social media has been inherently based on personal connections often in a public sphere. Behzod’s role at the messaging platform Slack is based heavily around the world of work. But working attitudes change from generation to generation culture to culture and company to company. Designing a central hub for all types of business has been a challenge for Slack. It has looked a research led by people like Behzod who pull from global cultures and his own intuitions to find broader solutions.
Eugene: Before you joined Slack, how would you describe it and what has been sort of the changing definition of it as you spend more time there. For people that aren’t even familiar with Slack, how would you describe it.
Behzod: So before I joined the company I only was using the product with the people that I rode bikes with. And we went from having a Facebook group to a Slack workspace and that helped us because we went from having posts with a lot of people commenting to channels that were dedicated to dirt, ride calls, non-bike stuff like photography or whatever. And I think before that I looked at it just like a better chat application, messaging, forums, a space for people to gather and organize conversation around ideas. I think a lot of the core of that is true now that I’ve been at the company and seen some of these things but in a lot of ways, Slack is really trying to be a central hub for your work. That’s why we want to plug in the tools that you use so that your work actually gets better. One of the best examples I think is expense reports before and after Slack. So before Slack if, you’re my boss I file an expense report you get an email, you have to click the link on the e-mail, go to the website, open 1Password. Type in your password. Look at the expense report, see if it’s like been approved or whatever. If it’s all compliant, you hit accept. In Slack you can have an expense spot that says ‘Hey Eugene, Behzod filed an expense report. It’s totally compliant.’ You can hit a button that you just hit approve, review, or reject and you’re done. And so it’s not that we’re replacing that tool but we’re giving you a better, hopefully simpler and more pleasant way of doing that same interaction that works with whatever system you have. And I think we’re starting to see that in a lot of different ways, so we see people who are monitoring their sales funnel and they can update leads and move them through the flow by just being inside Slack and they don’t have to go inside of Salesforce necessarily. Or Engineering teams that are deploying and they have monitoring services in Slack and so it’s just a place to align a lot of the tools you’re already using in a format that I think is much more accessible to people.
Eugene: One thing I’m also curious based on your kind of trajectory and how you sort of develop personally, going from a Facebook to a Slack where the underlying goals are different. So with Slack, it’s not about ‘hey I need them to message more,’ because I don’t monetize message I just need them to value this product. So how does that change in terms of how you look at… Because I understand they’re uniquely different products right. Yeah. Does it change your mentality when one is about as you mentioned before, monetisation of attention versus the other one is just creating something really good.
Behzod: I think what’s been interesting at Slack is we want to make people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant, more productive. And we’re acutely aware that work looks very different to different people. And I think philosophically we’ve tried to build an open and flexible product to acknowledge that the way you work looks different than the way I work. The business model to your point kind of is in line with that. We don’t make money, if you send more messages because we believe that sending messages is good, maybe sending fewer messages to the right people is what is good for you. Maybe I am a very conversational person and me and my manager chatting all day is the way that we get work done. So there’s there’s totally a different philosophy there and there’s also, we have to be very specific about how we think about measuring value for our customers and acknowledge that they measure value in different ways. We have IBM using Slack. We have Target using Slack. We have small startups using Slack. All of the ways that they work, the hours, the kinds of objects that come out of the work look really different. And so we can’t have a unified lens of this is what work looks like and these things are important. It’s much more a customer kind of level. Which for a researcher very selfishly is great because it means that I get to spend a lot of time with customers trying to understand where we’re helping them and where we’re getting in the way.
Eugene: Now when they I’m curious too is that you’ve just broken off different sort of business use cases, you have an IBM, a Target or a small startup. You might even have different elements within that where some are personal, community driven like MAEKAN versus business but then now obviously you’re coming from Bangalore where you’re doing further research. How Does global culture also play into that as well because that adds another layer of complexity. One thing that’s also interesting is that in certain parts of the world, the way they get work done, it’s just very different in terms of ‘hey they do not use email.’ They just don’t look at it, they won’t reply to it. They want everything to work within WhatsApp which obviously makes certain tasks effective. I can’t even answer right now. But also when I look at what goes on in how they work, how they structure, it doesn’t feel as though there’s a level scalability there. Because I think there’s less of an organization of ideas, assets, etc.
Behzod: Slack was built off of a lot of really good assumptions. And we’ve seen a lot of value in certain cases and we’ve sort of been expanding to figure out how to help other people also use Slack successfully. So when the platform launched in 2015, that was a way of saying ‘Hey part of you doing work is you’re going to use other tools. We want those tools to work in Slack.’ And that’s been a big part of our growth where we have 1,500 apps in the app directory. There are 200,000 developers building different things, mostly for other companies to make their company’s tools work in Slack. And so I think we’ve tried to be as open and flexible as possible, because a team of a thousand people in San Francisco just can’t know how the world works. All over the world in every case. We can, very concertedly go out there and try to understand what are these differences that are important. How is the product getting in the way? But I think there’s always going to be a little bit of a dance of learning the people are using it in a way we didn’t expect and maybe were we’re not helping them.
Eugene: Have you guys been able to derive research of how a certain culture uses it and then apply it on a more global level. So the thing that makes me think about that is sort of the card style kanban style, I’m pretty sure it’s Japanese derived right? It sounds like a Japanese word I don’t know but you kind of see, are there sort of ways of how, I don’t know the Japanese where flow works that could be applied on a global level.
Behzod: We’ve heard that some cultures or ways of working definitely feel better align with Saxo companies that feel very hierarchical where people want to control the message upward seem to be less excited about Slack because of how open and transparent the communication is. So if you know historically you’re my manager, I would send you reports, you sent you collate them across a bunch of different people. You send them to your manager. So it makes it look like you’re very successful because of the team. If I can just post that report in a Slack and your manager can see it, your role is pretty different.
Eugene: Which already makes me think, the traditional way of looking at how Chinese companies work for example. They don’t really value transparency the way that certain cultures do. So that already might be a sticking point for example.
Behzod: Yeah we’ve just kind of made a concerted localization effort over the last year. So we’re in French, Spanish, German, and Japanese. Japanese launched at the end of last year in November. So we’re still in the learning process around a lot of that. So I don’t have a good answer for you but it is something that we think about. Are there things that we don’t know or we are not aware of, where there is just a different style of working. I mean that was a part of why I was in India. What does work look in India? And are there things we need to be aware of that we’re not? Where the product is just totally misaligned or hurting in a way that we were not aware of.
Eugene: What does it mean when we’re continually optimizing or creating more pleasant working experiences. Does it reinforce the notion that we should continue to work, work, work.
Behzod: Slack and Facebook are very different in that way. Facebook provided all the meals, all the time. There were many people who spent 14-15 hours a day there. Slack As a company is very intentional about not doing that. So we get lunch on Mondays, mostly because that’s when new hires come in and so we want them to be able to have lunch their team and not have to worry about that. We have a gather hour on Thursday afternoons so sometimes there’s a theme, food, drinks etc. And breakfast on Fridays. But the goal of that is actually we’re a part of a community and we should step out of the office and be part of that community. And I think that’s something that we think a lot about how do we build tools that help people spend less time doing things that are not productive parts of work. And ideally if you’re spending less time on the not great stuff you’re more efficient but you’re also not trapped in the office as much. And I think this is incredibly true on mobile and as some of the apps have expanded. So we as a company are very good about that kind of work hard go home and Stuard Butterfield, the CEO, talks about, for you to be a good employee, you also need to be a good person, a good father, brother, son etc. So being outside of the office is actually a really important part of what you bring into the office. I don’t know how well that’s reflected in the products because now I’m at the company inside. I have a biased view.
Eugene: I would say that in general for people that don’t use Slack there’s a lot of elements or features baked in that suggests that they want people to create very clear moments of operation, times of usage right. Do not disturb or this is my quiet time and I think it’s important. I talk to the guys here too as we probably should be in a mindset where I need to grind, grind, grind. But I think the best work also needs to come from being well-rested, being connected, all these things that are part of a bigger picture versus just hey how much time you spending from a computer at your desk.
Behzod: Do not disturb is turned on by default for people so we already are saying hey it’s probably a good thing to not be working at some point. But If you look at other even outside of the work context, look at people like bodybuilders who are you know incredibly focused on one thing and one outcome. They spend a lot of their time not training, they spend a lot of time sleeping because sleep is the important thing to like make training valuable. And so I think we’re hopefully creating ways where people can manage Slack so that they can disconnect or separate out work time from other time in a way that’s productive for them.
Eugene: Behzod is a keen photographer outside of work but to say that it’s entirely “outside of his work” would also be wrong. He’s aware of a very fine but meaningful connection between his hobby and his profession. Photography has taught Behzod a lot about people. Watching and documenting human life has benefited him in working more effectively with clients for Slack.
Eugene: One thing I want to talk about too is your passion for photography and how do you think photography has enabled you to operate at a certain level within your professional or research world.
Behzod: I think the best thing that came from photography was the art of watching and listening. I mean most of what I do in my day is ask questions and listen. And so starting shooting in high school and then in college I worked at the newspaper and was the photo editor. And so I spent many hours a week shooting and just watching people. And I think even a lot of the work I do for like music and stuff that has a more journalistic style but that’s definitely fed into how I think about research. How I think about sharing research, what is the experience that I had in the field, what did I see, how do I communicate that back to a team that wasn’t there in a way that feels like authentic to you know to my experience in the context. I think learning a lot of the technical sides of photography, learning how different apertures amount into different types of field, how you can play with light also influences the way I think about rigor and research. The difference between doing a usability test or being in the field and kind of just observing what’s happening naturally doing a survey. I’ve noticed as one progress is the other progress, they definitely feed off each other. It feels a ot like you know how I think being in the gym makes playing a sport better and I guess sport makes being in the gym better. So different muscles that kind of cross-trained.
Eugene: Leaving Facebook for Slack wasn’t seen by all of his peers as the right decision. But it was necessary for Behzod to progress, this decision really embodies all that he’s spoken about. It harks back to the poster on the wall when he worked at Facebook. Don’t mistake motion for progress. Although he felt he was moving at Facebook, Behzod stresses the importance of learning in a happy healthy lifestyle even if money was no object. Learning would still be positioned at the center of his life. Accepting that we aren’t as perfect as social media might suggest is an important step in our ongoing development as people. Be vulnerable, make mistakes and learn.
Eugene: There seems to be a very strong sort of push-pull between our relationship with technology. So for you personally, how do you want to have a positive impact and this overlap between technology, creative culture, and just work. When you look back in 20 years, ‘hey this is what sort of positive outcome I was able to create.’
Behzod: I’ve been thinking a lot about my relative position in the world in circles that I’m in, spaces I inhabit and where I feel most compelled to share my story versus where I want to share other people’s. And so I’ve been trying to think about that in terms of especially photography. A lot of my photography started with friends. I started by shooting a lot of concerts in Seattle because I had friends who were in music and I wanted to help them out. And Seattle has actually a really tight knit music scene where everyone’s kind of helping each other and I think that’s progress. I got to shoot some stuff for Essential (Android phone brand) with CC which was just like, you need some photos lets go make something happen. I think that’s a big part of how I try to use the camera which is I have a way of seeing or a way of shooting and if people find that valuable I want to help them tell their story. And it is similar to how I interpret what you guys are doing with MAEKAN. And I think that’s something that I want to keep being important. So I don’t carry my DSLR with me very often because it’s more a precision instrument. I want to go somewhere and I’m creating something for a purpose but I shoot on my phone all the time. Because I think it’s fun to keep trying to see things differently and capture a part of my life and the things that are fun or in the case of this 35-hour journey home, less fun at times. I want to look back and feel I was speaking at the points I should have been speaking. And I was silent at the points I should’ve let other people be speaking. In research, I’ve been thinking a lot about that too of how do I peel back the things that are maybe true for me but weren’t true in the field and making sure that I’m not just telling my version of what I saw but having layers of here’s what we saw. Here’s how I experienced it. Here’s my interpretation, but acknowledge there’s other interpretations of that and there are probably a lot of things that I am not aware of that could it shape other people’s interpretations.
Eugene: Within all that, how do you approach the whole process and the challenge of the process and knowing that hey you know what you’re currently thinking about this and you feel it’s important that you need to form an opinion. Although you acknowledge that in six months it could be very different or maybe more crystalize or whatever. What I’m interested is people that offer at a certain level. How can you sort of pass along their experience, their advice, to know if you’re you know, that 25-year-old creative, don’t feel as though you need to know all the answers. I think a lot of people feel they need to know the answers at any given moment in time.
Behzod: Yeah there’s that famous quote that if you’re the smartest person in the room you should leave. I think that’s something that I have taken to heart. I think in general I tried to just be intentional. And so even when the thing that I’ve created isn’t objectively good or isn’t what I wanted, it’s a step forward because I tried something and I pushed myself and I learned in some way. And so there was value to it for me even if everyone else thinks it’s ugly and you know. I think the advice I would have for other people especially in this kind of realm is, it’s OK and it’s probably much better than other people that you believe to do things for yourself because unfortunately no one else is looking out for you. And so, in your own life and your relationships in your work, commit to those things you think are valuable and important and let the other stuff kind of fall away. Don’t treat people bad. We’re all humans. Be nice to everyone. But most of the things that a lot of people focus their time on are not as important as they believe they are. And it’s OK to say no it’s ok to care about less things. If you want to just do one thing really well just go and do that thing and give yourself that permission, because no one else is going to do it for you. And I think that’s one of the reasons I ended up leaving Facebook because there are a lot of things I wanted to learn that I felt at its size, Facebook wasn’t really conducive for me to learn. Facebook was a good company. This is a good place to work but I’m not learning these things. I need to go and find that. And it’s OK that I’m leaving this good company and I’m going to go find it somewhere else and I may go work at an objectively less-good company in some people’s eyes but I’m going because I need to learn. When people ask why are you living like I want to learn these three or four things. And I I’m to go find somewhere to learn it. And I’m the only one that has to live with that.
Eugene: And how important is having that sort of engagement on the educational learning side. Is there a direct correlation between what you’re learning and how engaged happy excited you are.
Behzod: Yeah yeah totally. I am a very curious person and I am most excited by people, experiences, etc. that are teaching me something. And So I find myself happiest most content, most willing to work crazy hours when I’m being pushed and I can feel that I’m doing better than I did yesterday and I’m getting closer to what I want to do. And I think that’s actually a good exercise that I did a a while back where someone gave me the advice, imagine that you were totally rich. You don’t have to work. What would your day look like? How would you spend your time and then what would that look six months out and a year out? And for me what was interesting is I realized that, I would basically go down rabbit holes. He used to work on airplanes and the design of airplanes. That Would be super interesting to understand how people conceptualize the interior of an airplane and learning about some of that and then that led into interior design and I probably want to learn how to design a house and then I’d be interested in materials. I noticed that I was just going down these rabbit holes of understanding more and more and more. And that helped me see how and to orient myself towards more of these learning opportunities. Giving myself permission to be a little uncomfortable and be a little bad, but in service of growth was really helpful both for my own energy but also to spend more time around people and experiences that were helping me do that.