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Splunked: When you launch a free IT tool and people get mad

Twitter users complained that Splunk's Remote Work Insights tool was intrusive. CTO Tim Tully says it was built with privacy in mind.

Splunk CTO Tim Tully

Splunk's Tim Tully said he wasn't expecting criticism for the free tool it distributed, but welcomed it as "healthy conversation."

Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tim Tully was just trying to help.

His company, Splunk, like most tech firms right now, shifted to remote work last month. Tully, who is Splunk's CTO, started hearing from customers that their IT departments needed tools to visualize things like whether their VPNs were being oversaturated or if employees were able to use Zoom without issues.

Splunk, which makes software for monitoring and analyzing real-time data, quickly came up with a tool that they called Remote Work Insights and decided to offer it for free to other companies that might be suddenly managing thousands of employees remotely.

"The motivations for building this largely came from discussions around what can Splunk do for the world to help people out in this challenging time," Tully said. "The best way to do that is to release free software that will help people make sure that educational institutions, financial institutions, health care institutions and big tech companies are able to make sure people are connected."

But not everyone thought it was a kind gift.

A couple weeks after the tool was announced by Tully in a corporate blog post, tech professionals took notice and criticized it on Twitter. Among their many tweets were concerns that it was Big Brother software that would let managers monitor individual employees as they work from home, and that the company was trying to find a way to monetize anxiety during a crisis. Since the recent explosion of remote work, there's been concern that the copious data generated by popular enterprise software tools will be used to monitor worker productivity inappropriately.

Tully said his reaction to the pushback was that the questions he received were fair to ask, and that he considered it part of a "healthy conversation."

On Friday, Tully published a follow-up blog post to clarify what the RWI tool can and can't do, and how organizations are already using it — like a major university that relied on it to quantify student and faculty demand for Zoom.

One thing that many critics were missing, Tully said, was that the tool wasn't designed to help bosses micromanage.

"It's very much geared towards the IT organization that's making sure the firewall is healthy, the VPN is healthy, or Zoom is still alive. It's certainly not built for managers, it's not built to monitor individuals," Tully said. IT and cybersecurity teams regularly track app usage data to do things like evaluate if additional servers are needed or detect intruders; the RWI tool mainly functions to do that for the various remote work tools that employees are spending more time on now than ever before.

Another key part is that the tool was built with employee privacy in mind, and even if a manager tried using it to monitor their direct reports, they wouldn't get very far. For example, the tool can tell you how many employees across the organization are currently using Zoom or other applications, but it doesn't identify those users.

Additionally, all the data in the tool already exists in organizations; the RWI tool just brings it together in a clear, easily digestible format.

"This is just surfacing data that's there already. All we're doing is surfacing it in a way that's consumable for IT leaders. There's no machine learning or anything like that — it's actually just simple aggregation of data," Tully said.


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Although Tully wasn't too surprised about the reaction on Twitter, he said he might have handled the product launch differently in retrospect.

"Maybe moving forward when we do a blog announcement, we'll be more proactive about addressing some of those questions that came up on Twitter in terms of how we're not violating individuals' privacy and how importantly we take data privacy," he said.

As far as Splunk's customers go, Tully said that the tool has received a lot of positive feedback. "We plan on adding more features," he said, including integration of "more videoconferencing tools and chat applications out there that are heavily used and that people live and die by."

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