In MIT Journey, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston ’05 Discovers Quick Change

When cloud storage firm Dropbox decided to close its offices with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, co-founder and CEO Drew Houston ’05 had to send nearly 3,000 of the company’s employees home and tell them they could not work. But not coming back. anytime soon. “It felt like I was declaring a snow day or something.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Houston says Dropbox reacted as many others did to make sure employees were safe and customers were taken care of. “It is real, there is no playbook on Zoom for running a global company in a pandemic. For a lot of this we were taking it as we go. ,

Houston talked about her experience leading Dropbox through a public health crisis and how COVID-19 has hit MIT’s Stephen A. In a fireside chat with Dan Huttenlocher, dean of Schwarzman College of Computing, distributed work has accelerated.

During the discussion, Houston also mentioned its $10 million gift to MIT, which would provide the first shared professorship between the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the MIT Sloan School of Management, as well as providing a catalyst startup fund for the college. .

“The goal is to find ways to unlock more of our brainpower through a multidisciplinary approach between computing and management,” Houston says. “It’s often at the intersection of these disciplines where you can bring people together from different perspectives, where you can really unlock big. I think academia has a big role to play. [here], and I think MIT is in a very good position to lead. So, I want to do anything I can to help with that.”

virtual first

While the sudden swing to remote work was unexpected, Houston says it was pretty clear that the whole way of working as we knew it was going to change indefinitely for knowledge workers. “There’s a silver lining to every crisis,” says Houston, noting that people have been using Dropbox for years to do things more flexibly, so it’s time for the company to lean on and be early adopters of the distributed work paradigm. It makes sense to become one in which employees work in different physical locations.

Dropbox redesigned the work experience across the company in October 2020, unveiling a “virtual first” working model, with remote work being the primary experience for all employees. Personal work spaces went by the wayside and offices located in areas with high concentrations of employees were converted into combination and collaborative spaces called Dropbox studios for working individually with teammates.

“There is a lot we can say about Covid, but for me, the most important thing is that we will look back in 2020 as the year when we are going to be working out of offices permanently, mainly working out of screens. Were were It’s a transition that’s been going on for a while, but Covid has completely ended the swing,” says Houston.

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Imagining a Future Workplace: A Fireside Chat with Dropbox’s Drew Houston

Designing for the workplace of the future

Houston says the pandemic prompted Dropbox to reevaluate its product line and think about ways to improve. “We have this whole new way of working that’s forced upon us. Nobody designed it; it just happened. Even tools like Zoom, Slack and Dropbox are old world and designed for that.” were done.”

Going through that process helped Dropbox gain clarity on where they could add value and led to the realization that they needed to go back to their roots. “In many ways, what people in theory need today is exactly what they needed in the beginning — a place for all their stuff,” Houston says.

Dropbox revamped its product roadmap to revamp efforts from syncing files to organizing cloud content. The company is focusing on moving towards this new direction with the release of new automation features that users can easily implement to better organize their uploaded content and find it quickly. Dropbox also recently announced the acquisition of Command E, a universal search and productivity company to help accelerate its efforts in this area.

Houston sees Dropbox as still evolving and sees many opportunities ahead in this new era of distributed work. “We need to design better tools and smart systems. It’s not just the individual parts, but how they are woven together.” He is surprised at how little intelligence is actually integrated into current systems and He believes that rapid advances in AI and machine learning will soon lead to a new generation of smart tools that will eventually reshape the nature of work – “in the same way that we had with the new generation of cloud tools.” It has revolutionized the way we work and we have all the advantages we could not have imagined.”

founding roots

Houston famously turned its frustrations on carrying USB drives and emailing the files to itself in a demo by becoming Dropbox.

After graduating from MIT in 2005 with bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, he, along with fellow classmate Arash Ferdowsi, co-founded Dropbox in 2007 and created a platform for a service used by 700 million people worldwide. Led the company’s development from simple thought. Today.

Houston credits MIT with preparing her well for her entrepreneurial journey, recalling that what surprised her most about her student experience was how much she learned outside of the classroom. At the event, he emphasized the importance of developing both sides of the brain to a select group of computer science and management students who were in attendance, and a wider live stream audience. “One thing you learn about starting a company is that the hardest problems usually aren’t technical problems; they’re people problems.” He says he didn’t realize it at the time, but that some of his first lessons in management were gained by taking on responsibilities in his fraternity and in various student organizations, creating a sense of being “on the hook”.

As CEO, Houston has had the opportunity to see behind the scenes how things happen and appreciate that problems don’t solve themselves. While individual people can make a big difference, he points out that many of the challenges facing the world at the moment are inherently multidisciplinary, which sparked his interest in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing.

He says the college’s mindset of connecting computing to other disciplines resonated and inspired him to launch his biggest philanthropic effort as soon as possible because “we don’t have that much time to address these problems.”

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