On the Platform: Toast CEO & Engineer Rea Loretta on Driving Virtual Community
Slack Open Source Engineer Alissa Renz chats with Toast engineer and CEO Rea Loretta about building on the Slack API and her work with the Slack Community.
As a software engineer with a specific problem to solve, Rea Loretta wasn’t thinking about scale, or branding, or enterprise solutions. She needed a communications tool that her small team could use to eliminate coding bottlenecks. So, she built one.
In the years following, her Slack app known as Toast would become a must-have tool for software development teams around the world, including enterprise-level clients with 1,000+ engineers. By integrating essential GitHub processes into the Slack workspace, Toast makes it easier to keep tasks moving through the programming pipeline, eliminating the inefficiencies of micromanagement.
For the third installment of our On the Platform interview series, Rea and I talked about the early days of Toast, the future of remote work and the value of virtual programming communities.
The following is a condensed transcript of our interview; answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a bit more about Toast, and how it got started.
We first got the idea for Toast in late 2018. It was me and two engineer friends … similar to a lot of other startup stories from San Francisco. We were still trying to figure out all the engineering processes. It became clear that communications was where the big bottlenecks were.
We never meant to be a company. We just had this communications problem to solve for our own team. So we naturally decided to work inside of Slack, because it was already the hub of communications.
It was very basic in principle, just a messaging service that could provide some value for our business. From there, we were able to discover more issues involved with building an engineering team.
What does your day-to-day look like?
Beyond being CEO, I’m also an engineer and designer. So my day-to-day is learning about the problems our customers are facing, prototyping new features and playing with new toys from the Slack API team. I basically leverage that first-hand access to Slack API to provide even more visibility and usability for our customers.
You mentioned that Toast wasn’t intended to be a business. When did you make that flip, and what has that journey been like?
It was at a holiday party of all places. I was not prepared as a founder to be pitching to people; that’s not why I was there. But then people start asking you where you’ve been, or what you’ve been working on. I started talking about what I was doing with Toast.
Before long, people were tapping me on the shoulder and asking what I was talking about.
When you’re talking about something that you’re passionate about, it just really comes through. People were really interested in the fact that I was building for Slack.
Why did you choose Slack as a platform, especially with everything else that exists?
From the beginning, Toast has always been an integration company. Because I had done so many of them, I knew that Slack was the benchmark on what it means to work an integration with another company. The documentation is really robust and unique.
Then there’s the helpful people like yourself and the Slack internal team. I’m continually impressed with how quickly you all can move. It’s not like working with a customer service rep who is going to put me on hold and say “I’ll get back to you next week.”
You’re also one of the founders of the San Francisco chapter for Slack Community. What prompted that? How has that experience been starting a Slack Community chapter?
It all started because I was hacking together a Slack app. I knew right away that I was going to run into a lot of issues. Even though Slack had phenomenal documentation, I couldn’t just read it all at once.
Back then, there was a Slack workspace called Developer Hangout. A lot of other Slack engineers were on there. I made new friends and was able to share some pieces of code, which was new for me. I wasn’t ‘out there’ as an engineer; It wasn’t my space yet. But it was my first foray into public coding. That’s when I found out that there was a way to drive the community and surface our concerns in a formal way, while supporting and nurturing other struggling developers.
Not all developers find that on their own. I wanted to make a home where we could grow together. It’s a place to explore.
What was it like trying to drive a virtual community through something like COVID? Do you think virtual events are getting any better?
The one cool thing about a virtual community is that a lot of the stuff we’re talking about is the same. Time zones aside, the problems we’re trying to solve here are the same problems that they’re trying to solve in India. It’s something everyone can relate to.
Founder isolation is a real thing. Then there’s COVID isolation on top of that. It’s amazing, the energy you get from other people that are overcoming the same challenges. In a way it lends itself to a virtual community, and even a global one. Everybody gets help feeling good about what they’re doing. We’re all struggling together, we’re all growing, we’re all overcoming.
You’re not just the founder and CEO of Toast … You’re also a designer, engineer and now a Slack Community leader. Is there something that appeals to you about that context switch? How do you go about embodying those different roles?
I was pretty unintentional about that in the beginning. I think that’s how a lot of founder journeys go. It’s a combination of imposter syndrome, and then the revelation that you’re doing 20 jobs inside one company.
It becomes a personal responsibility thing. I have my day-to-day, but I also work well with sporadic bursts of energy. That’s when I throw my day-to-day out the window and try to solve a problem with a mini hackathon.
Everything is a lot simpler because of Slack. I start with a hand-drawn concept in my notebook, then send that to Block Kit Builder. I go from there to working on our data model and databases. Then I send that to Slack API and they deliver it directly to the users, so I can work on some of those interactions right away.
That’s one day of prototyping. If not for code review, I would be able to ship a new feature out by the end of the day.
We’ve actually had a lot more customers because of the pandemic. We’ve had to question what that means for us, accounting for API limits and how to deal with the flood of data from large teams. We never thought we’d have a customer with 1,000 engineers on GitHub.
We’ve managed to overcome the scale issues by making some elegant changes in our own infrastructure.
Are there other changes that you’re preparing for with the switch to a hybrid workforce? Any hopes and dreams for the future of work?
For us, Toast was always about solving time inefficiencies. When a piece of work is ready, it’s value is best served by moving it right along the engineering pipeline. If it’s ready to be merged, then it needs to be merged.
But managers and higher-level executives want to be subscribed to the issue. They will track the issue from this person’s plate to that person’s plate, and so on, peeping over their shoulders. It’s micromanagement, and it’s not just a problem that remote companies face. It was a problem that needed to be solved anyway.
Now, people are starting to learn about efficiency solutions like Toast. Even if we all go back to the office, I think people will take this kind of thing with them.
Besides Toast, are there any other apps that you admire from a UX perspective?
One of the old-school apps that we always looked up to was Geekbot. They had a lot of innovative ways of building in Slack, and using the Slack API for non-conventional means.
What’s your favorite Slack feature that you think people should know about?
You probably hear this often, but it’s the ability to make custom emojis.
Yes, the amount of emojis I upload to the Slack workspace is ridiculous.
It’s a low-effort, high-impact way to incorporate culture into your company. I made a sticker pack for myself to use, all engineering humor related. Now it’s in a lot of the workspaces I’m in. I’m able to inject culture across multiple workspaces. It’s such a fun way to customize things and build with positivity.
Any advice for people who are interested in building for the Slack API?
Don’t worry about whether or not your concept is enterprise ready. If you want to build something just for yourself, go for it. Make it the best that you can for yourself. After all, you’re the first user. Then allow other people to try it, and see where it goes. If someone is really excited about it, you can worry about the enterprise solutions later on.
As engineers we put these roadblocks in front of ourselves. The truth is, the process of getting an app approved for the marketplace is not that hard. It’s actually the easiest part of the process.
Go build it. Let your beta users give you the hard feedback; they’ll become your champions in the process. That’s how you grow.
As always, we are here for you. Never hesitate to email email@example.com.