Protocol | Enterprise

Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson explains how he decided to face off with Parler

Also, why he thinks the $3.2 billion purchase of Segment will help Twilio's customers help their customers and why he's OK with being reliant on AWS.

Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson

"I think in a society, words matter, actions matter," Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson said. "That's why companies have things like Terms of Service and acceptable use policies."

Photo: Twilio

Cloud computing companies were one of the few segments of society that enjoyed 2020. But even companies like Twilio, whose stock price tripled over the last 12 months, have had enough of 2021 already.

Last Friday, in the wake of the deadly attack on the Capitol, Twilio sent a letter to the right-wing social media app Parler notifying the company that it was violating Twilio's acceptable use policy for two of its authentication services. Parler decided to turn off Twilio's services rather than moderate calls for violence against elected officials on its app, which became a moot point after AWS cut Parler off from its own computing and storage services Sunday evening.

This was not the way CEO Jeff Lawson wanted to kick off a round of publicity for his new book, "Ask Your Developer." But little that has happened this month has gone according to plan, and he is quick to defend his decision from last week.

"If you walk into a movie theater and yell 'fire,' or you walk into an ice cream parlor and start yelling racist epithets, don't expect to be a customer of that establishment for very long," he said in an interview with Protocol Tuesday.

Lawson built Twilio into a $60 billion company based around communications APIs that allow app and web developers to build customer service and support capabilities into their own products. Just as Stripe became a central hub for payment technology for a generation of developers, Twilio enjoys a similar position when it comes to communications technology.

In his conversation with Protocol, Lawson explained the thinking behind Twilio's decision on Parler, the strategy behind last year's $3.2 billion acquisition of Segment and why developers should be free to choose no code, low code or "yo code" tools when building their apps.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Given everything that's happened in the last week, I was wondering if you could walk me through your decision to suspend service to Parler?

I think in a society, words matter, actions matter. And we all have to work together to build a society. That's why companies have things like Terms of Service and acceptable use policies, because they say "What is acceptable?" There's a wide variety of things that are acceptable, but there's also fringe things that aren't.

This is not new to the online world, but think about the offline world. If you walk into a movie theater and yell "fire," or you walk into an ice cream parlor and start yelling racist epithets, don't expect to be a customer of that establishment for very long. I think what you see is the online world doing the same thing.

When people at the fringes of society are doing things like advocating for violence, overthrow[ing] the government, murder and hate, those are things that are largely illegal. And therefore companies like Twilio are saying: That's not how you're allowed to use our products, our platform,

This is fringe, extremist stuff. And if this were some other religion we'd be having a very different conversation. I just think that because it is happening in America, and it's largely white, it's "why are we shutting it down?" But when it's religious extremism of other varieties? People have a very clear sense: "Oh, yeah, that's wrong. And that shouldn't be allowed."

What was the motivation behind the Segment deal?

Our goal is to build the leading customer engagement platform. And customer engagement is essentially the sum of all of the interactions a company has with its customer that makes the customer love the company and want to buy products and want to be a loyal customer and repeat customer. And there's really two parts to building a great customer experience or customer engagement.

One is knowing your customer, and then, two, engaging with them using communications to say relevant things and to actually be a good communicator. Twilio has long played in the second category of helping companies to communicate with their customers, with text, with voice, [with] video, with chat across many different parts of the customer experience spectrum, whether it's on the ... marketing side, or the sales side, or the customer support side, or while you're using a product.

But the first thing you need to do is really understand your customer: understand who they are, what products they're looking for and how they use your product. That's what helps you be really good at engaging with customers. And that's what Segment does.

If you think about especially B2C companies, the way the story of who you are, what products you're interested in, what your purchase history is, that is all told through data that is on various systems throughout the company. The marketing system knows which emails you clicked on, maybe indicating that you liked those products; the ecommerce system knows which products you bought, historically; the customer support system knows how many times you've interacted with the company and the problems that you've had. The sum of understanding you is the sum of all those data points about you.

Segment allows companies to take all those bits of data that are siloed, all throughout the company and all those different computer systems, and actually pull them together to build a cohesive picture of, you know, you.

The way that your customers go about this is they build these customer service products for themselves, using some of your basic plumbing tools. Do you see yourself increasingly competing with companies that sort of just provide that whole experience as a service?

Generally speaking, companies need to be able to build parts of their customer experience that their customers value, because that's how you differentiate in the market. If you have the exact same customer experience as all your competitors, you're not going to be very differentiated, especially in the digital era where the perception that customers have so many companies is the digital experience you have.

Companies who win are companies who are good at building software that differentiates them in the eyes of their customers. Now, you do that by buying some things and building some things. And so a lot of companies will have, you know, SaaS products that they bought, but they need to make those SaaS products do new and interesting things to answer their customers' needs.

Many of the problems that arise are from companies having bought a whole bunch of SaaS applications that can't talk to each other. They become data silos, and getting the data out of one into the other in order to build a really cohesive experience is tremendously hard. Segment and Twilio allow you to take the investments you've made in a bunch of SaaS products and make them better.

It appears you're all in on AWS from an infrastructure standpoint, behind your own platform. As you get bigger, have you considered multicloud, or bringing in other providers as you scale?

We do have other vendors in the mix at Twilio, although the majority of our infrastructure is with AWS. That doesn't trouble me per se, because if you think about it, what do I want my product teams at Twilio doing? I want them building the things our customers care about.

Our customers don't really care about where our CPU and storage is. They care about what our products do, and how our products are making our customers' lives better. The more time that we get to spend doing those things that our customers care about and are buying from us, the better.

That's the great role of infrastructure; infrastructure lets you focus on the things that you do well as your core competency. We are very happy Amazon customers, they provide a great platform. Of course, it helps that I worked there in the very early days of AWS and I know a lot of the people there. But ultimately it's about picking the best tool for the job and then allowing your teams to focus on building the differentiation that your customers care about.

You mentioned picking the best tool for the job. Increasingly, there are options from Microsoft and Google that are best-in-class tools for a job depending on different needs. But there is obviously some convenience of being all in on AWS, they have a certain way of doing things you understand, so your engineers don't have to learn different tricks. How do you balance that?

Developers have the freedom to propose the tool for the job. Now, if it's a new tool we've never used before, there may be an architectural review, there may be a security review, etc. But ultimately, we want developers at Twilio who are building products to be able to essentially pick the right piece of infrastructure that's going to facilitate them building the best product.

That's one of the points that I make in my book, which is that company policies are useful to protect customers: say, security, and things like that. Of course, you want those things to be taken care of, but you also want to trust your developers to make the right technical decisions for the products they're building.

In fact, in the areas where we don't use AWS, that's because a developer thought that some other service would be the best tool for the job. And having gone through the appropriate reviews, we let them do that.

How do low code and no code strategies play into your thinking over the next few years?

There's three varieties of building tools, if you will: There's low code, no code, and I like to call it "yo code," for the traditional developer approach. There's the right place for each and the right audience for each.

I think there's builders of many different kinds in the world: There's builders who want to open an IDE and hammer out code, there's builders who want to drag and drop and there's builders who want something in the middle. And we support all those methods of building; we're not religious about saying, in order to build something, you have to write code, you have to love Python, or C or whatever it is.

We've got a variety of low code and no code solutions on our platform already. And I think the traction that we're getting with those really speaks to the fact that there's a lot of different ways to build and a lot of different types of builders out there. And ultimately, what we care about is that people are able to innovate at the pace and speed and with the tools that they're most comfortable with.

Even "yo code" has incorporated a lot of abstractions over time, right? I mean, no one's doing assembly.

I like to think of it like how we've used Moore's law over the last 40 years. Computers haven't gotten that much faster in terms of how we use them. It's not like your word processor is 10 million times faster than it was in 1990.

But how we've used Moore's law is to create abstractions that make it easier and easier to build complex, sophisticated software, including the internet itself, right? The fact that you can use Google Docs, which is a word processor, delivered entirely inside the web browser, that's so many layers of abstractions that basically compost the layers below, and make it so that, as a developer or a user, you don't have to care about those details anymore.

That frees you to actually build more sophisticated, more agile software that gets updated more frequently. In many ways, as technologists and as [a] society, we've used Moore's law to do that, instead of to make our computers all that much faster for the user.

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