Takeaways from Twilio Signal 2018 Conference

Twilio held its Signal conference in San Francisco. The event gathered 3,000 developers and customers and was packed with product announcements. It came shortly after the company announced its intent to buy SendGrid, its largest-ever acquisition. Let me share my takeaways.

A Flurry of Announcements

The company made five product announcements:

  1. Twilio Autopilot, a bot development platform;
  2. Twilio Pay, a secure in-channel payment API;
  3. Twilio Global Super SIM, an IOT abstraction layer allowing IOT deployments on multiple networks;
  4. Twilio Narrowband, a narrowband IOT development platform; and
  5. The long-awaited General Availability (GA) of Twilio Flex, its programmable cloud contact center platform.

This impressive lineup shows that the company was able to preserve its culture of innovation, cultivating small autonomous teams encouraged to identify and groom new API use cases.

The company had announced two days before the event its planned purchase of SendGrid to add email to its communication APIs roster. Financial analysts raised concerns about the price of the proposed transaction. The addition of email is logical and needed for the company’s customer engagement ambitions. Email deliverability is both hard and critical. So buying instead of building a best-in-class solution makes sense. Many customer service organizations are looking to shift email traffic to new messaging channels. These transitions are great use cases for Twilio that can be enabled by a platform supporting the various modalities. Another promising scenario for Twilio is to better connect sales and marketing communications. Today, they are managed in different applications and use extensively email. By adding email to its platform, Twilio can go after projects aiming at orchestrating customer communications across departments.

And the star of the show was...

Flex was the star of the show. Its product leader and newly appointed vice president of product management and engineering, Al Cook, left a memorable imprint on the audience. He ended his presentation with the official announcement of Flex GA, put down his microphone, and turned back on his heels to leave the stage, sharing his feeling of a mission accomplished. I found a photo capturing this moment for this blog article.

The company shared two stories of early adopters of Flex. Both are sizable organizations that shared the same need to better customize their contact center solutions. Shopify transitioned its 1,000-seat operation from a cloud contact center application. The development started in spring with three engineers and two interns and went live in September. Lyft is another large deployment underway. I have since run into two other businesses using Flex. It took three months and two developers for an insurance startup to replace its existing cloud contact center and only three weeks with one developer for a residential solar company to build its sales dialer. The time and effort to develop the initial solution are important yardsticks. If Flex can remain within such orders of magnitude, it will become a major contender for large contact centers.

Digging in

The company unveiled its pricing for Flex. You can buy the product as a subscription for $150 per user per month or on a usage basis for $1 per active hour per user. Most contact center vendors price their solution per concurrent seat allowing several users to share one. It is making the comparison somewhat difficult, but the $150 named user pricing suggests a premium positioning. Doing back-of-the-envelope computations using average utilization rates, I am finding the usage pricing more attractive.

The roadmap presentation was another session that made an impression on attendees. Twilio had created a plugin allowing the roadmap slides to be displayed in Flex side-by-side with the flow of incoming questions that anyone in the audience could ask using text SMS. While the product doesn’t have all the features, the pace of addition felt pretty solid. Also, Twilio was very transparent on the features it supports and how, the ones it was planning to release in the coming quarters, and what would need a specific development.

I got very intrigued by the plugin architecture that Al announced on stage. Twilio devised an architecture allowing the user experience to be fully customized through plugins. It lets you encapsulate in a plugin how each frame of a user desktop should look. Plugins can be dropped into a live environment without touching a single line of code of the cloud software. Twilio announced that the framework will be extended to create plugins to customize the handling and management of interactions. Details were not provided, but it seemed a promising approach to deal with the challenge of keeping the simplicity of cloud deployments while allowing the deep customization larger enterprises expect.

Ken Landoline, a principal analyst at Ovum, tweeted that he came to the event because he knew Twilio was a new entrant in the contact center market and left considering them a thought leader. Indeed, in a few months, Twilio has propelled itself to the forefront of the customer interaction management space.


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