The Politics of Salesforce + Slack

Observations on Activist CEOs, and the Politics of Privacy, and Surveillance

Salesforce is purchasing Slack, and there are slew of things that are interesting about it.

One is the seemingly unstoppable march of consolidation. Bigger tech companies controlling more of the platforms that drive our work, home, and social lives as the behemoths buy up the upstarts has extraordinary political implications. It makes it more likely that the answers to the big socio-polticial questions tied up in questions around privacy, advertising, hate speech, and more will be those that continue to favor growing big tech.

Another is the disparate fortunes of companies servicing the 25% or so of people who are working from home now, and maybe forever. Why couldn’t Slack compete with Teams or whatever well enough to stay independent, but Zoom doesn’t appear to be headed into the Microsoft vortex?

I’ll come back to both of those questions in the coming weeks, but for now: Salesforce acquiring Slack is also interesting because both CEOs and both companies have forged interesting paths in political activism. And both companies’ businesses intersect with interesting socio-political questions.

If you’ve never used Slack or Salesforce, you’ve probably never worked in a tech startup or in a communications, fundraising, or customer service function, or been part of a network of people rooted in those worlds. Both tools are ubiquitous in those communities. That said, the most entertaining content on this merger are the memes about no one actually having any idea what Salesforce does. That’s interesting in itself: Salesforce is a $3 billion publicly-traded company, selling software that powers thousands of businesses and millions of interactions every single day. The founder and CEO has published a best selling book. But what Salesforce does is still sort of mysterious.

At the risk of making those memes slightly less entertaining, and with the certainty of wildly oversimplifying, Salesforce is an extremely powerful database that organizations use to centralize, organize, analyze, and utilize the information they collect from people in the course of a massive array of interactions. If you’ve donated to, asked for customer service help, contracted, attended (or just RSPVed) to an event, signed up for an email list, purchased a product or service, or done pretty much anything else online with any of thousands of organizations, you’re in a Salesforce database somewhere. And those organizations might use the information they’ve collected about you to personalize content, cultivate more engagement from you, connect you to the services or people they think you’re most likely to respond well to, learn about information flows, empower (and evaluate) salespeople, and much more. The technical term for Salesforce’s service is Customer Relationship Management, or CRM, and Salesforce is the world’s most-used CRM.

Slack is less mysterious: it’s a sophisticated messaging app for businesses (mostly). It’s everything you’d expect in a good text messaging tool and a whole lot more — integrations with your calendar, your google docs, tools that monitor website usage, and much, much more. It’s not a huge exaggeration to summarize that if it’s a cloud-based tool to do pretty much anything, it has an integration with Slack (or someone’s working on that.)

Salesforce and Slack share a fundamental value proposition: secure, reliable, customizable information consolidation and organization to make work faster, more efficient, and more productive.

Both have extensive and widely well-regarded programs for “social good” — they take corporate social responsibility seriously. And both companies’ CEOs have been on the bleeding edge of corporate and CEO advocacy, both direct and indirect, though in different ways.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was a prolific donor to candidates on both sides of the aisle until he bought Time Magazine in 2018, when he made the (political) decision that as the owner of a media entity he should stay out of electoral politics. Benioff also famously picked a fight with fellow tech titan Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, over a San Francisco tax measure to fund anti-homelessness measures (Benioff was for it, Dorsey was against it, the measure won).

In Benioff’s business memior, Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change, he embraces the moniker “activist CEO”, and the book is an unambiguous argument for the power and responsibility of businesses to be a force for good in the world. To create “value from values.”

The role of business in society is a foundational political question, so it’s sort of funny that in his deeply political book Benioff kind of disavows politics: “I was at one time a Republican, but now I’m an independent,” Benioff wrote Trailblazer. “I’ve given advice to both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. I personally held a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but I had no problem coming to the Donald Trump White House in my capacity as a business leader to talk about workforce development and technology training programs. Salesforce is not a political organization and our values don’t come with party affiliations.”

On the question of whether Salesforce is a political organization, with party-affiliated values, there might be a few ways to evaluate that. One might be political contributions, both from the company-affiliated PAC and by company affiliated individuals. By that measure, Salesforce is a deeply political company, filled with folks whose values are Democrat-aligned.

In the 2020 election cycle, Salesforce-affiliated political giving ranked 300 out of the more than 20,000 organizations tracked by OpenSecrets.org, at close to $2m. The vast majority, 96%,of that giving was from Salesforce employees (it is a requirement of federal political contributions that the employer is disclosed) and the vast majority of dollars — 94.68% — went to Democrats. 64% of Salesforce federal PAC dollars went to Republicans.

Salesforce’s “Ohana, a Hawaiian word for intentional family”- this is how they refer to themselves on their website — “is guided by four core values that serve as the foundation for our decisions, actions, and communication: trust, customer success, innovation, and equality.”

Diving just into that last one, Salesforce’s equality commitments lean heavily into building a workforce that is inclusive of women and people of color at every level. They set a goal of a US workforce that is at least 50% “underrepresented groups”, which they define as Women, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Multiracial, LGBTQ+, People with Disabilities, and Veterans.

Is “equality” a partisan value? All evidence points to yes. See for example the 2018 GLAAD LGBTQ acceptance survey that not only did extremely few Republicans respond to, but just slightly over half that did could be characterized as “allies” based on responses to seven scenarios: having an LGBTQ person at your place of worship, learning that you have an LGBTQ family member, learning that your doctor is LGBTQ, seeing an LGBTQ coworker’s wedding photo, seeing a same-sex couple hold hands, having your child learn about LGBTQ history in school and learning your child has an LGBTQ teacher.

Or the 2017 Pew research finding that Democrats are twice as likely to say that, “more work is needed to bring about gender equality,” and Democrats nearly twice as likely to say that advances in gender equality are a good thing across a range of societal issues.

As of earlier this year, there was a 32-point partisan gap in the belief that Black Americans face discrimination (77% of Democrats vs. 45% of Republicans said yes).

So, are Slack’s stated values and the investments they make in ensuring the company lives up to them partisan? Absolutely they are. Sorry, Mr. Benioff.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield has also been an outspoken activist CEO, once famously ending a 19-tweet rant protesting WSJ editorial that explicitly denied racism as the cause of a mass shooting by a white supremacists at Charleston, SC black church with, “WSJ editorial board, fuck you!”

Slack employees gave prolifically for the 2020 cycle — 99% to Democrats. https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/slack-technologies/recipients?id=D000070466

Slack has also made public statements in hot political moments, like the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer, and Butterfield has been an outspoken critic of President Trump’s actions on immigration and statements on race and white supremacism.

Again, any company that is leading on equity or equality as a company value is being not just political, but partisan, and Slack is by most accounts doing just that.

Benioff’s and Butterfield’s political comfort levels are maybe a tad different — Benioff may be a bit more squeamish about being explicitly politically partisan — but they’re aligned in an evident belief that businesses have responsibilities beyond delivering cash to shareholders.

But what about the campaigns their companies are running beneath the surface? Is there anything inherently political in consolidating information for more seamless use by businesses and employers?

Salesforce and Slack have the same “freemium” software as a service (SaaS) business model — offer software with a core set of useful services for free, with expansions that make those services much more useful for a fee. Both are also platforms that make other services more useful (or sometimes make other services possible at all). This is different than the business model of other tech firms. It’s not selling software (like Microsoft) or selling advertising (like Google). The relevant socio-political questions include two big ones:

  • Privacy: What is a reasonable expectation of privacy in interactions with organizations? What level of personal data collection and consolidation can you reasonably knowingly consent to, and what level of consent should be required before organizations plop you in their databases? What counts as “personal” data? And to what extent do the platforms that enable data collection and consolidation have responsibility for throttling versus enabling it in the context of varying levels of consent?
  • Work Surveillance: how much of our lives should be accessible to our employers, in terms of time on the job, how we spend that time, and expectations of availability off the job. At what level of detail should time and attention be monitored by the people we work for and with? What level of surveillance is appropriate, reasonable, societally healthy?

Both companies seem to land on the “use is consent” end of the privacy questions, and on the “more is fine” end of the surveillance questions, too.

You probably checked a box somewhere consenting to be added to a database before you got your Salesforce record IDs (and you probably have many of them, in many different Salesforce installations), but you almost certainly never expressly consented to an organization consolidating all of the information they can legally acquire about you into a profile that can then be analyzed, linked to other profiles, and used in whatever ways are in the capacity of the organization who has it to most effectively move the way you think or act.

“But wait,” I imagine you protesting right now, “isn’t that just databases? Couldn’t organizations just be collecting my information in a spreadsheet and doing the same thing?” Yes, sort of.

Way back in the day, before the internet was a thing (yes, I’m that old), one of my first jobs involved building out a Microsoft Access database of donors for a nonprofit organization. I was very good at it — it was an extraordinary database. But it had to be sort of hacked to do something as sophisticated as connect the records of spouses with different last names. It was literally impossible to build links between say, groups of donors, or to run analytics to reliably target donor messaging to maximize contributions, thanks to the limits of the database application and limited of computer processing power. The Access donor database lived on the hard drive of a desktop (lol there weren’t laptops!) that was dedicated to it. If you were in our database, we could send you mailers referencing your last donation amount and maybe, just maybe, manage not to send a duplicate to other adults who live at the same address. As longs as there weren’t any data entry errors, we could run reports that would accurately attribute all of your contributions to you. And we could often (but not always) accurately report whether your contribution was to our nonprofit (c3) or political (c4) arm. That was about it.

The thing about Salesforce is that it’s an *amazing* database, with capabilities and integrations beyond anything a spreadsheet or even a super sophisticated Access database could ever do. No, Salesforce didn’t invent putting information in databases and trying to make those databases as useful as possible. But it’s grown massive by perfecting that capability in ways that would be impossible if our politics around privacy were different than they are now.

Salesforce’s core value proposition and business model are deeply tied to our societal answers to big important questions around privacy, in ways that are different than the companies that make money from advertising (i.e. Google, Facebook, Twitter.) Google, Facebook, and Twitter could be useful to users with a different business model, one that didn’t require massive levels of personal data collection. A business model where the users aren’t the product. Salesforce… maybe not.

Slack works in part because it has built-in the attention-sucking mechanisms perfected by the technologies that make money off of our constant and urgent engagement — things like red dots indicating there’s something for us to pay attention to and feedback emojis. But workplace surveillance is a secondary feature (or maybe a bug?) of Slack. In addition to the standard workplace communication things — yes, your employer can read your work emails and monitor activity on your company-provided cell phone — Slack tracks when you’re connected, how much of that time you’re active, how many “actions” you’re taking, and much more.

To be clear, this isn’t a judgment on either company’s offerings in the context of the political questions. Rather, it's an observation that the way both companies work both depend on and reinforce the context, which is political at the very deepest level. The more convenient, ubiquitous, unquestioned, and profitable it is to build companies and culture around these particular answers to the big political questions of privacy and surveillance, the harder it is to answer them in any different way.

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