When the cloud storage company Dropbox decided to close its offices with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, co-founder and CEO Drew Houston ’05 had to send the company’s nearly 3,000 employees home and tell them they would not return to work any time soon. “It felt like I was announcing a snow day or something.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Houston says Dropbox responded, as many others did, to ensure employees were safe and that customers were taken care of. “It’s surreal, there’s no playbook to running a global business in a pandemic over Zoom. Too much of it we just took it while we went.”
Houston spoke about his experience leading Dropbox through a public health crisis and how Covid-19 has accelerated the shift to distributed work in a fire chat on Oct. 14 with Dan Huttenlocher, dean of MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing.
During the discussion, Houston also spoke about his $ 10 million donation to MIT, which will provide the first shared professorship between MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the MIT Sloan School of Management, as well as provide a catalyst startup fund to the college.
“The goal is to find ways to free up more of our brain power through a multidisciplinary approach between computing and management,” says Houston. “It’s often at the crossroads between these disciplines, where you can bring people together from different perspectives, where you can get really big unlocks. I think academia has a huge role to play. [here], and I think MIT is super well positioned to lead. So I will do my best to help. “
While the abrupt shift to teleworking was unexpected, Houston says it was pretty clear that the whole way of working, as we knew, would change indefinitely for knowledge workers. “There’s a golden edge to any crisis,” says Houston, noting that people have been using Dropbox for years to work more flexibly, so it made sense for the company to lean in and become early users of a distributed work paradigm where employees work in different physical locations.
Dropbox went on to redesign the work experience across the company and unveiled a “virtual first” work model in October 2020, with teleworking being the primary experience for all employees. Individual workspaces went out of the way, and offices located in areas with a high concentration of employees were transformed into meeting and collaboration spaces called Dropbox Studios for personal work with teammates.
“There’s a lot we can say about Covid, but for me the most important thing is that we will look back on 2020 as the year in which we permanently switched from working outside offices to working primarily off screens. It is a transition that has been underway for a while, but Covid completed the swing completely, ”says Houston.
Envisioning the Future Workplace: A Fireside Chat with Drew Houston from Dropbox
Design for the workplace of the future
Houston says the pandemic also prompted Dropbox to re-evaluate its product line and start thinking of ways to make improvements. “We’ve got a whole new way of working in a way. Nobody designed it; it just happened. Even tools like Zoom, Slack and Dropbox were designed in and for the old world.”
Reviewing this process helped Dropbox gain clarity on where they could add value, and led to the realization that they needed to get back to their roots. “In many ways, what people need today is, in principle, the same thing they needed in the beginning – one place for all their stuff,” Houston says.
Dropbox reoriented its product roadmap to refocus efforts from syncing files to organizing cloud content. The company is focused on building 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 under development and sees many opportunities ahead in this new era of distributed work. “We need to design better tools and smarter systems. It’s not just the individual parts, but how they are woven together. ” He’s surprised at how little intelligence is actually integrated into current systems and believes that rapid advances in AI and machine learning will soon lead to a new generation of smart tools that will ultimately reshape the nature of work – “in the same way , as we had a new generation of cloud tools revolutionizing how we work and had all these benefits that we could not imagine not having now. “
Houston turned his frustration at carrying USB drives and email files to himself into a demo for what became Dropbox.
After graduating from MIT in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science, he teamed up with classmate Arash Ferdowsi to found Dropbox in 2007 and led the company’s growth from a simple idea to a service used by 700 million people around about in the world today.
Houston credits MIT for having prepared him well for his entrepreneurial journey and remembers that what surprised him most about his student experience was how much he learned outside of the classroom. At the event, he stressed the importance of developing both sides of the brain into a select group of computer science and management students who were present, and a wider livestream audience. “One thing you learn by starting a business is that the most difficult problems are usually not technical problems; they are people’s problems. “He says he was not aware of it at the time, but some of his first lessons in leadership were achieved by taking responsibility in his brotherhood and in various student organizations that evoked a sense of being “on the hook.”
As CEO, Houston has had a chance to look behind the curtain at how things happen, and has come to understand that problems do not solve themselves. While individual people can make a huge difference, he explains that many of the challenges the world faces right now are inherently interdisciplinary, sparking his interest in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing.
He says the mindset that the college has incorporated into connecting computer with other disciplines resonated and inspired him to launch his biggest philanthropic effort to date sooner rather than later because “we do not have that much time to address these problems.”