Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Dropbox Summons the Spirit of Its Early Days With Employee Hack Week

Do you remember the most productive time in your life?

Drew Houston does. It was the summer of 2007, and he was working on Dropbox day and night — mostly night — with his co-founder Arash Ferdowsi.

Dropbox CEO Drew Houston

He’d begin each day at 1 pm, drive over to Ferdowsi’s MIT dorm room, then over to a cheap Cambridge office sublet where they could get away from other people and write code for their syncing and storage software.

“The sun would go down, the sun would come up and we’d be coding,” Houston recalled. Then he’d drop Ferdowsi back home at 6 or 7 am.

The rent wasn’t as cheap as they might have thought — it turned out to be something like $1 million per month, according to Houston — because they gave the landlord Dropbox stock.

But over the course of that 90 days the two turned a simple prototype into a product, creating crucial features like a Mac version of Dropbox, shared folders, their server infrastructure and those signature icons in the Finder bar.

It’s that kind of productive energy that Houston wants to foster at Dropbox, five years and more than 50 million users later.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee with Houston at the Dropbox office opening overlooking AT&T Park

Last year, when Dropbox was valued at $4 billion in a private financing, the company had fewer than 100 employees.

Now it is up to about 170 people, working out of a new office that can fit as many as 500, with stunning views of the San Francisco Bay and the Giants’ AT&T Park.

One of the ways Dropbox tries to harken back to those early days is with a tradition called Hack Week, where Dropbox employees put their regular responsibilities on pause and pour five days and nights into side projects.

“Hackathons” are pretty common at Silicon Valley start-ups, but Dropbox is one of the companies that takes it a bit further and gives employees a full week to jump into something more substantial.

A mosaic made of Rubik’s cubes takes shape

Houston and I talked mid-afternoon during Hack Week, and he told me with pride that the office had been going full steam at 2:30 that morning, and that he expected to be there till 4 am again.

Dropbox wouldn’t break down employee demographics for me, but its team page looks an awful lot like a college yearbook. Hack Week is not the kind of thing you can imagine many people with families partaking in.

(In response to my observations, a Dropbox spokesperson noted the company does employ people with families who support their participation in Hack Week.)

Also, the world doesn’t stop turning during Hack Week; while I visited the most recent edition, some at the company were dealing with the very serious problem of an outbreak of spam sent to user accounts that stemmed from a stolen employee password.

But Hack Weeks have turned out to be so good for stimulating creativity and team spirit that the company now plans to hold them every six months, instead of once a year, Houston said.

I talked to desktop client engineer Alicia Chen, whose Hack Week project was working on push notifications for the Dropbox API; infrastructure engineer Akhil Gupta, who was designing an automatic tool to help people uploading batches of photos filter those that are out of focus into a different folder; and Houston himself, who was designing a way to give read-only access to shared Dropbox folders.

(Houston said he was eager to show that he still has chops, given that 90 percent of the company joined after he stopped writing code. He goes into a bit more detail on his own project, Hack Week and Dropbox culture in the video embedded below.)

A photo uploaded from a helium balloon to a Dropbox folder, from space.

Lest you get the impression that this was all very serious, I also dropped by a team in the hallway working on a mosaic of the Golden Gate Bridge built out of Rubik’s Cubes, and a bread-making class being offered in the cafeteria.

One of the winning Hack Week projects combined fun and work more directly: Interns Isaac Goldberg and Adam Cook sent up a high-altitude helium balloon 80,000 feet into space, with two Android phones attached to capture photos and videos, while they boosted a long-range Wi-Fi signal to the balloon using a large parabolic dish to upload the trip to a Dropbox folder as it happened.

“Dropbox in Space” won the “Sicknasty Award,” presented at a Friday night ceremony at the close of Hack Week.

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