Growing up with code and dreaming of startups
When Drew Houston was very young, his parents bought a PCjr — their first computer. Soon after, his father, a Harvard University trained electrical engineer, introduced his fascinated five-year old son to programming in BASIC. Although he played his share of computer games while growing up, Drew was far more intrigued by how the games worked. In fact, he taught himself C by reading the source code to a text-based online game.
By freshman year in high school, Drew gained access to a computer game by signing up to test it. Not so interested in playing the game, he instead discovered a variety of security-related bugs and made the game company aware. Soon after, Drew at age 14 was invited to work with them — though his father had to sign the legal documents.
The idea of innovation was at Drew’s core from an early age. At a college prep talk to his eighth grade class, the speaker asked: “Do you know what you want to do when you grow up?” Drew was the only one to raise his hand. He notes, “I knew that I loved computers and that I wanted to start a company.” He was also a big fan of Bill Gates.
Like his Dropbox co-founder, Arash Ferdowsi began programming at an early age. His father introduced Arash to Q Basic while he was in elementary school in Kansas City. While he was in middle school, he took classes at a community college to learn C++. He too was passionate about computers and programming and realized that MIT was the best place in the world to become a computer scientist. He says about this decision, “There was no doubt in my mind that I needed to end up there.”
The Ultimate Incubator For Startup Training
Unlike high school, at MIT Drew found he could devote himself to subjects that he was interested in. “First and foremost,” he notes about his MIT Course VI education, “I became a better engineer at MIT. Growing up programming was important, but paired with the theory, I became better much more quickly.” He also came to understand that good business decisions in technology companies are often made by good engineers. “You have all these examples of technologists who have picked up the business side on the job but I can’t think of any examples in the other direction,” he notes.
One of Arash’s favorite classes at MIT was 6.046, Introduction to Algorithms. In his words: “I love algorithms — I am obsessive about performance and doing everything possible to shave milliseconds off code runtime. 6.046 helped formalize a lot of my intuition around performance and gave me a much deeper understanding of how to design algorithms that truly scale. This was particularly important because my main focus in the early days of Dropbox was to figure out how to make our backend infrastructure horizontally scalable.”
Drew wasn't expecting it, but his experiences living in his fraternity at MIT became his first training for managing Dropbox. Not only did he learn to live with and appreciate many people who were naturally gifted in diverse areas, but he also took on offices such as rush chair. Recollecting this responsibility, he says: “You’re handed a budget and some unpaid volunteers, and you've got to make something very complicated happen, which is very similar to my experience with Dropbox.”
Although Arash had felt for a long time that one had to have a business degree or a lot of experience to start a company, he became aware through friends in classes and at his East Campus dorm that this was not necessarily true. Besides his Dropbox experience, he credits the “infectious curiosity for hacking and innovating” that he found all around him at MIT. With several friends who ultimately joined Dropbox, Arash started a book exchange website called BookX@mit.
At MIT, Drew surrounded himself with people who were also interested in starting companies. He joined the Entrepreneurs Club, took courses like Prof. Hadzima’s ‘Nuts and Bolts Business Plans’ during IAP, and met a lot of other MIT entrepreneurs. He also remembers and values talking with EECS faculty — such as Prof. Charles Leiserson — about their experiences starting companies.
Drew has always been interested in both business and management, so it wasn’t surprising that he would take a class or two at Sloan. He describes one in particular. “One of the most eye-opening classes I took was the negotiation class at Sloan. Here was a subject that at first seemed totally opaque to me. Were we going to practice bluffing and yelling?” Instead, he discovered well-established and logical frameworks that could allow anyone to become an effective negotiator. He notes: “The important lesson for me was that some things that I didn’t understand at all — leadership, public speaking, management — could be learned and weren’t as mystical as I thought.”
Arash’s passion has always been in scale – making things work across thousands of computers and distributed systems that make every aspect of a design horizontally scalable. After his sophomore year at MIT, he applied to intern at Facebook. He notes: “The fact that it was growing so rapidly, meant that they were doing pretty innovative things to reach scale. That definitely appealed to me.”
The Right Amount of Frustration, Good Luck and Timing
Not long after graduating from MIT and on his way to New York City, Drew experienced a reality check that has now been labeled the ‘aha moment’ for creating Dropbox. He had become comfortable with the MIT Athena environment, where backing up his workstation or forgetting a thumb drive was never a worry. After having graduated, however, he had to upload his entire Linux development environment to a thumbdrive, so he could work at multiple computers (on another startup). Leaving the thumbdrive behind as he boarded the bus for NYC tipped the frustration balance. With nothing else to do, he spent the trip writing out the first lines of code, which would ultimately become Dropbox.
That was the summer of 2007 and Drew was told by a venture capitalist to get a partner to build Dropbox. He recalls about this process, “That's one of the great things about MIT — you know what real talent looks like.” That talent was Arash Ferdowsi who Drew describes as “… really smart and yet sort of crazy enough to jump in on this.”
Naturally a bit reserved and cautious, Arash notes, “These things don’t generally work out so well.” But in less than five hours, they had decided to go for it. Arash says, “I think part of it was just having the itch like Drew did.” He notes that MIT is really good about this process. “If you are doing well [in your classes], you can take the time to try something, and if it doesn’t work out you can always come back.” He also credits MIT with giving him the confidence to make this decision.
The Wisdom of Yin and Yang
Although Arash did not have startup experience, Drew found that Arash’s talents were refreshingly complementary to his own and that they shared similar intuitions about technology. In running Dropbox, Drew and Arash have similar instincts for how to build a product, treat teammates well, and articulate the values that drive their company. However, they also have disparate areas of focus and views that balance each other. Drew notes that Arash’s pragmatism helps keep his (Drew’s) natural optimism in perspective. “So we have this kind of yin and yang thing going,” he says.
Much press has been given to the challenge early in Dropbox’s existence, when Apple founder and CEO, Steve Jobs offered to buy out Dropbox. Drew notes: “ Nobody knew our business better than we did. And our thinking was, we built something we really loved, and it’s doing well. If the company has this much value today, it's going to be much more valuable in the future.”
Drew’s equanimity also helps keep competition a manageable part of the picture. Drew suggests that more often than not, companies don't reach their potential because of ‘self-inflicted wounds’. “So they hire people that aren't as good,” he says and adds: “…or don't focus on making their users happy or they try to do too many things. And that kind of thing happens a lot more than getting threatened by a competitor. The Dropbox advantage,” Drew explains, “is to focus on making our users really happy – the one problem that we can solve.”
Nurturing Dropbox Culture and Product
At Dropbox, Arash Ferdowsi says he focuses on two things, both very much about quality. He meets everyone that they hire — a measure that allows them to maintain their unique culture. This culture he explains can seem like an extension of college, where everyone is excited about and dedicated to collaborating towards the Dropbox product goal – to make Dropbox users happy.
Arash devotes the rest of his time to making sure that the product they release works really well and is easy and enjoyable to use. The technical problem solving to achieve this requires a rigorous approach. All Dropbox members meet every Friday to collaboratively review the important developments. During the week, the open layout of the workspace – all on one floor – enables maximum transparency. User operations personnel, who keep on top of user-experience, are embedded with engineers for immediate feedback.
In the effort to keep their culture and product fresh, the company holds week-long hacking sessions during which every member works on something, for example, that is particularly interesting or challenging that has not yet been solved. Hackweek, held multiple times a year, has yielded new features and intensive team-building for the entire company.
Dropbox has lately been more aggressive with recruiting and acquisitions – a step that Drew and Arash have found very healthy for the company. Drew notes: “We've had a lot of really talented teams join us because overnight we can give them a lot of scale. And, it's a really interesting playground for them.” Notable recent hires include Guido van Rossum, the father of Python, who had previously worked at Google. Arash comments, “At a company like Google where they have over 10k engineers, if you join, you’re not realistically going to be able to spend time with an engineer like Guido. In contrast,” he notes, “at Dropbox with 70 engineers, anyone can eat lunch with Guido.”
When asked what he would suggest to MIT students who are thinking about working in a startup, Arash suggests that although startups sound risky, “there will always be a job at the larger companies. So take risks early in your career when there is not so much to worry about.” He adds that whether doing a startup or joining an existing one, the number one factor needs to be the quality of people. He says, “I think the best things happen to each of us when we find the most brilliant people and surround ourselves with them. I think it's certainly true in startups and tech where everyone is really smart. Your competitive advantage is being around the absolute best. It just makes such a big difference.”
Be sure to tune in for the June 7, 2013 MIT Commencement at which Drew Houston will be speaking.