From Employee #1 at Dropbox to Entrepreneur
This week we spent some time learning about Aston Motes. Aston was the first employee at Dropbox and is now an entrepreneur. He was kind enough to share some insights he learned from the early days of Dropbox and his thoughts on why he decided to start his own company.
Name: Aston Motes
Grew up in: Columbia, SC
Role: Founder, Assorted Bits; CSA, Merchbar
Favorite Book(s): Thinking, Fast and Slow
Degree: Electrical Engineering & Computer Science
How did you get into the world of technology?
I went to MIT and got a degree in EECS expecting to go work at Google or Microsoft, but I was wooed away to the world of startups primarily by essays from Paul Graham. I really wanted to go through his YCombinator with my own startup, but I ended up joining others instead: first OkCupid and then to Dropbox, where I was the first employee after the founders Drew and Arash.
I went to MIT and got a degree in EECS expecting to go work at Google or Microsoft, but I was wooed away to the world of startups.
Who has been your most important professional mentor and why?
I haven’t had official mentors, but I’ve been blessed to find myself surrounded by lots of extremely smart and talented peers who I’ve learned a tremendous amount from. In every job I’ve taken, I’ve made a point of choosing to work with people I thought I could learn a lot from, even if it meant working on something slightly marginal. It sounds surprising now, but both OkCupid and Dropbox were relatively unknown when I joined. Now both are clearly awesome, and that’s in large part due to how great the early people at the company were.
What has been the most meaningful professional experience you’ve had and why?
By far the most meaningful professional experience of my life was spending the first few years of my career at Dropbox. When I joined we were three people in a small, pre-furnished apartment in North Beach with a service maybe 75 people had used, and when I left the company had 75 million users and over a hundred employees. It’s grown substantially since then, but the hypergrowth we saw in the early years were a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
As an engineer right out of school, I had enough experience to build software for the thousands of users we had in college. But Dropbox taught me very quickly that building something millions could use (and use easily) is a different challenge altogether. I had to grow into the big shoes the role needed filled, and the founders trusted all of the early engineers to take on big responsibilities and to step up in that way.
Choosing a career in technology is about choosing a lifetime of learning.
What advice do you have for young people of color who are looking to get into technology?
Ultimately, choosing a career in technology is about choosing a lifetime of learning. The hot technologies of the late 90s when I started coding are still around now and are still useful, but they’re definitely not hot at all. I’m looking at you PHP! So the very best way to get started in the technology world is just to continually pick something you’re interested in, and then go learn as much about it as you possibly can. When I was really young, that meant borrowing books from the library or reading manuals in a Barnes and Noble, but now that everything’s on the internet, there’s little need to pay for resources and so little excuse not to just be voracious about your consumption of information.
Maybe one obstacle to pursuing things like technology is that there aren’t that many role models or examples to look up to in STEM vocations. I was fortunate because my parents made sure I knew there were black astronauts like Ronald McNair and Mae Jemison. And I had plenty of people around me who were interested in technology so I knew it was something I could do. But I didn’t actually meet or learn in detail about software engineers until quite late in life. So if you’re reading this, you’re already off to a better start than I was!
You were very early at Dropbox. What was it like working at Dropbox in the earliest days?
Drew and Arash, the founders of Dropbox, are both really talented generalist coders and are both MIT alums. So in the early days they built the company out of like-minded people, namely our MIT alum, generalist coder friends. It made for a pretty intense environment that, slight homogeneity aside, was basically a machine for crunching out quality code. Because Dropbox was such a technical product, we got away with not hiring very many non-technical people for a really long time. That included designers, which maybe explains the sort of stripped down design ethic of the company. Despite the hardcore nerds in house, the team was extremely empathetic to our users needs and was able to put together really usable software.
It took about 18 months from Drew’s first public announcement of Dropbox until we publicly launched, so along the way we couldn’t ever be really sure of the true demand for what we were building. Within our somewhat small beta group, pretty much everyone who tried it loved it, so we knew we had something. But even our most optimistic guesses about how many people would use the product were blown away by the eventual traction. Once things really started taking off, we all had to just grab onto the rocket ship and try to hold on.
I still had the entrepreneurial itch, and I was able to find a moment to give myself a chance to build something completely on my own terms.
What inspired you to make the jump to starting your own company?
I joined Dropbox as the first employee knowing that one day I would leave to work on my own ideas. I figured that the best way to learn how to start my own company and build a business out of a cool product idea would be to watch my friends do it from close up, and helping them along the way seemed like a lot of fun. Dropbox of course ended up going super well for all involved. But I still had the entrepreneurial itch, and I was able to find a moment when I wasn’t in the middle of a huge product launch or deep in the weeds fixing bugs to give myself a chance to build something completely on my own terms. And it also allowed me to dig in deeper on my areas of passion, which has been great.
Right now I’m focused on reshaping the music industry. Recorded music is making less and less every year, so it’s really important to find things that can drive more revenue for artists. I have a number of things I’m excited about that are at the intersection of music and technology, but the big one right now is Merchbar, an app that lets you buy merchandise easily from all of your favorite bands. Traditionally that stuff is only sold offline at concerts, so aggregating it all together in one digital store is a huge step forward.
What do you think it will take to get more African-Americans into technical leadership roles?
I’m pretty optimistic about the future diversity of the technology workforce. At a minimum, I think we’ll need time for the future generation to grow into roles. Silicon Valley changes quickly, and the number of black folks in technical roles has grown leaps and bounds since I moved here seven years ago. Of course, we’ll have to continue to encourage a stronger pipeline of minorities of all types to get into these sorts of roles, but I see organizations and programs of all sorts doing exactly that, so I have no fears we’ll get there, and hopefully soon!