Drew Houston, CEO of Dropbox and MIT alum, gives talk on entrepreneurship

MIT alumnus Drew Houston ’05, the CEO of Dropbox, returned to campus Friday, Feb. 4 to give a talk about his life leading up to his current role as the head of the company he founded.

The idea for Dropbox grew out of Houston’s personal frustration with thrumbdrives. He was unable to find tools which would allow him to keep files with him on the go, or transfer files between computers without emailing them to himself. Houston graduated in 2005 from MIT with a B.S. in Computer Science, taking a year to work on his online SAT prep company Accolade before changing direction and creating the file hosting service we know today as Dropbox.

“Everything started when I was sitting in a Chinatown bus from Boston to New York,” Houston said. “I had forgotten my thumbdrive again and had nothing to do. Remember, this was back in the day when the Chinatown bus had no WiFi, so when I say I had nothing to do, I really had nothing to do.”

That’s when he opened up an editor and started to write some code.

According to Houston, he has his given up his coding duties in order to focus on his other responsibilities as the CEO of Dropbox. Over the past ten years, he has fostered an amiable culture within his company—one derived from MIT’s culture. “The company first started off with Course 6 undergrads and that’s how we built up this ethos around engineering quality within the company,” he said. “The work ethic you develop here [at MIT] is really unlike at most places.”

The challenges he faces in his career today concern scaling up: “You need to be good or better at what you’re doing today, while dealing with other new stuff. … With thousands of employees in the company, you need coordination—and it can become total chaos. Ultimately all the vectors need to point in the same direction.”

When asked about his thoughts on “getting more experience before starting a company,” Houston replied that the notion is empirically wrong. “There’s this saying that advice is equal to limited life experience and over-generalization.”

He emphasized that there is no perfect path through life. “Sure, when you’re trying to get into college it’s kind of like checking off every box. But real life doesn’t work that way.”

“What’s important is that you’re a good engineer. It’s not valuable to drop out because you don’t get to learn the technical stuff on the job. I draw a lot from my engineering education I got here at MIT,” Houston said.