In MIT go to, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston ’05 explores the accelerated shift to distributed work | MIT Information


When the cloud storage agency Dropbox determined to close down its places of work with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, co-founder and CEO Drew Houston ’05 needed to ship the corporate’s almost 3,000 staff house and inform them they weren’t coming again to work anytime quickly. “It felt like I used to be saying a snow day or one thing.”

Within the early days of the pandemic, Houston says that Dropbox reacted as many others did to make sure that staff had been secure and clients had been taken care of. “It’s surreal, there’s no playbook for operating a world firm in a pandemic over Zoom. For lots of it we had been simply taking it as we go.”

Houston talked about his expertise main Dropbox by way of a public well being disaster and the way Covid-19 has accelerated a shift to distributed work in a hearth chat on Oct. 14 with Dan Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman School of Computing.

In the course of the dialogue, Houston additionally spoke about his $10 million present to MIT, which can endow the primary shared professorship between the MIT Schwarzman School of Computing and the MIT Sloan Faculty of Administration, in addition to present a catalyst startup fund for the school.

“The purpose is to search out methods to unlock extra of our brainpower by way of a multidisciplinary method between computing and administration,” says Houston. “It is usually on the intersection of those disciplines the place you may carry folks collectively from totally different views, the place you may have actually large unlocks. I feel academia has an enormous function to play [here], and I feel MIT is tremendous well-positioned to guide. So, I wish to do something I can to assist with that.”

Digital first

Whereas the abrupt swing to distant work was sudden, Houston says it was fairly clear that the complete means of working as we knew it was going to vary indefinitely for data employees. “There’s a silver lining in each disaster,” says Houston, noting that individuals have been utilizing Dropbox for years to work extra flexibly so it made sense for the corporate to lean in and change into early adopters of a distributed work paradigm by which staff work in several bodily areas.

Dropbox proceeded to revamp the work expertise all through the corporate, unveiling a “digital first” working mannequin in October 2020 by which distant work is the first expertise for all staff. Particular person work areas glided by the wayside and places of work positioned in areas with a excessive focus of staff had been transformed into convening and collaborative areas known as Dropbox Studios for in-person work with teammates.

“There’s rather a lot lets say about Covid, however for me, probably the most important factor is that we’ll look again at 2020 because the yr we shifted completely from figuring out of places of work to primarily figuring out of screens. It’s a transition that’s been underway for some time, however Covid utterly completed the swing,” says Houston.

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Envisioning the Future Office: A Fireplace Chat with Drew Houston of Dropbox

Designing for the longer term office

Houston says the pandemic additionally prompted Dropbox to reevaluate its product line and start pondering of the way to make enhancements. “We’ve had this complete new means of working form of compelled on us. Nobody designed it; it simply occurred. Even instruments like Zoom, Slack, and Dropbox had been designed in and for the outdated world.”

Present process that course of helped Dropbox achieve readability on the place they might add worth and led to the belief that they wanted to get again to their roots. “In a number of methods, what folks want in the present day in precept is similar factor they wanted to start with — one place for all their stuff,” says Houston.

Dropbox reoriented its product roadmap to refocus efforts from syncing recordsdata to organizing cloud content material. The corporate is concentrated on constructing towards this new course with the discharge of recent automation options that customers can simply implement to raised arrange their uploaded content material and discover it rapidly. Dropbox additionally not too long ago introduced the acquisition of Command E, a common search and productiveness firm, to assist speed up its efforts on this area.

Houston views Dropbox as nonetheless evolving and sees many alternatives forward on this new period of distributed work. “We have to design higher instruments and smarter methods. It’s not simply the person elements, however how they’re woven collectively.” He’s shocked by how little intelligence is definitely built-in into present methods and believes that fast advances in AI and machine studying will quickly result in a brand new era of good instruments that may finally reshape the character of labor — “in the identical means that we had a brand new era of cloud instruments revolutionize how we work and had all these benefits that we couldn’t think about not having now.”

Founding roots

Houston famously turned his frustration with carrying USB drives and emailing recordsdata to himself right into a demo for what turned Dropbox.

After graduating from MIT in 2005 with a bachelor’s diploma in electrical engineering and pc science, he teamed up with fellow classmate Arash Ferdowsi to discovered Dropbox in 2007 and led the corporate’s progress from a easy concept to a service utilized by 700 million folks all over the world in the present day.

Houston credit MIT for making ready him nicely for his entrepreneurial journey, recalling that what shocked him most about his scholar expertise was how a lot he realized outdoors the classroom. On the occasion, he careworn the significance of growing either side of the mind to a choose group of pc science and administration college students who had been in attendance, and a broader reside stream viewers. “One factor you find out about beginning an organization is that the toughest issues are normally not technical issues; they’re folks issues.” He says that he didn’t notice it on the time, however a few of his first classes in administration had been gained by taking over tasks in his fraternity and in numerous scholar organizations that evoked a way of being “on the hook.”

As CEO, Houston has had an opportunity to look backstage at how issues occur and has come to understand that issues don’t resolve themselves. Whereas particular person folks could make an enormous distinction, he explains that lots of the challenges the world faces proper now are inherently multidisciplinary ones, which sparked his curiosity within the MIT Schwarzman School of Computing.

He says that the mindset embodied by the school to attach computing with different disciplines resonated and impressed him to provoke his largest philanthropic effort to this point sooner slightly than later as a result of “we don’t have that a lot time to handle these issues.”