How a high-tech superstar learned to lead
Being thrown into the deep end by Mark Zuckerberg helped prepare Aditya Agarwal
Aditya Agarwal, 34, is the chief technology officer of online file storage company Dropbox. He leads hundreds of software engineers in building tools used by Dropbox’s half a billion registered users. With a multibillion-dollar valuation, the privately held company is considered a heavyweight in the personal and business data storage industries.
Born in India to a father who was a chemical engineer and mother who was a homemaker, Agarwal moved homes a lot with his family, with stints in Cameroon, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, before later settling in the United States. One of the constants in his life, though, was his love for computers.
“My dad got us a computer when I was 11 or 12 years old and I was always fascinated by the ability to program stuff,” he said. “I mean, it’s kind of a crazy thing, right? You’re sitting in your office or bedroom and you can build stuff that can do stuff. There’s something really intoxicating and powerful about that.”
Agarwal used books to teach himself to code, and later took programming classes in Indonesia. When it came time for college, he ventured to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to study computer science.
One of the misconceptions about software engineering, Agarwal said, is people tend to think of it as a mechanical job. He prefers to think of coding as a creative job. “Writing a beautiful computer program is like building a work of art,” he said. “The best engineers are the ones who are able to reduce a problem to its simplest possible artifact. The ones who are not as good end up with these complicated solutions that are way more clunky.”
After graduation, many of Agarwal’s computer science peers were drawn to Wall Street because of the promise of making big bucks in the information technology departments of financial services corporations. Agarwal admits he was close to pursuing a similar path, but said he could never convince himself he cared enough about the kind of work he’d be expected to do.
So while his classmates moved farther east to New York City, he went as far west as he could go, landing a job at Oracle in Silicon Valley.
“I’d been writing code for a year and I remember walking into my manager’s office and asking when we were going to get feedback from real users,” Agarwal said of his brief time at Oracle. “She looked at me and said, ‘Probably another three years.’ I was like, what do you mean? This is ridiculous. How will we know if we’re building the right thing?”
In that moment, he discovered he had another workplace deal breaker: He needed to be somewhere with a fast pace.
In the summer of 2005, Agarwal was introduced to Mark Zuckerberg, then the fresh-faced chief executive of a startup called Facebook. Agarwal wasn’t a Facebook user, but walking into the company’s makeshift office in Palo Alto, he was buoyed by its energy.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is about as polar opposite as you can get from the Oracle office,’” he said. “They were all wearing pyjamas, there was cereal everywhere, there were still kegs there, a bunch of them were playing video games. But my God, the energy was great.”
On the advice of his then girlfriend (now wife), Agarwal joined the company as a software engineer. Facebook at the time had fewer than 15 employees. Agarwal was 22 years old.
“I was brought on to do whatever they asked me to do,” Agarwal said. “On my second day, Mark (Zuckerberg) said to me, ‘Hey, I need you to write Facebook’s search engine.’ I had no clue how to do that. I’d never built a search engine before. And I remember Mark looking at me and saying, ‘Yeah, I didn’t know how to write Facebook. So if I can write Facebook, why can’t you write the search engine?’ ”
Agarwal often had doubts about whether he was ready for the responsibilities given to him. At 24 he started managing Facebook’s engineers. He rose to be its first engineering director. By the time he left in 2010 to start his own company, Cove (which Dropbox acquired in 2012), he managed Facebook’s entire product engineering division. But he eased his doubts by drawing inspiration from the executives with whom he worked — first Zuckerberg at Facebook and later Drew Houston, chief executive of Dropbox.
“Mark and Drew had never been CEOs before, but they’re doing a fantastic job of it,” Agarwal said. “If they can do it, why should I hold myself to a different standard? If they can learn, why can’t I learn?”
He also found comfort in the idea even though he wasn’t the best manager in the world because of his lack of experience, it was possible he was the best manager for Facebook at that point because of his unique understanding of its products, people, culture and history.
“It was about having self-confidence and the ability to both be humble about the stuff I didn’t know, but also being confident about the stuff I did know,” he said.
As chief technology officer of Dropbox, Agarwal now spends his days recruiting, strategizing and delegating tasks instead of writing code. But he believes that anyone wanting to be a leader of a particular function within a company should have a deep understanding and appreciation for the craft they’re leading.
One of the things that he believes leaders at some of the most innovative companies in the world have in common — even if they don’t practice their craft every day — is “this super-honed intuition about what worldclass looks like in their particular function,” Agarwal said. “If somebody’s trying to do what I do, my (advice) would be to become really good at the craft that you want to lead. Do not dissociate the actual craft from the act of leadership.”
Aditya Agarwal of Dropbox worked under other first-time CEOs.