How a high-tech superstar learned to lead

Be­ing thrown into the deep end by Mark Zucker­berg helped pre­pare Aditya Agar­wal

The Hamilton Spectator - - CAREERS - TRACEY LIEN

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.”

AN­DREAS GEBERT, ZUMA PRESS

Aditya Agar­wal of Drop­box worked un­der other first-time CEOs.

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