Chris Noon on transitioning from academia to technology
Former Oxford lecturer Chris Noon finds commonalities between academia and his current work on the user operations team at Dropbox.
What did you do before Dropbox?
I was a lecturer in ancient history and classical languages at the University of Oxford. During the summers, I was an archaeologist and director of an ethnographic research project in Italy’s Abruzzo region.
Your career path is not very typical. Why did the Oxford lecturer decide to move to Dropbox?
Actually I didn’t decide to move to a tech company at all. It just sort of happened. After a few highly enjoyable years in academia, I decided I wanted to move outside my comfort zone and tackle new — and more immediately relevant — challenges. I was looking at all sorts of different things, then stumbled upon a job at Dropbox after visiting the website in search of a desktop client for Mailbox, with which I had recently become enamoured.
I almost ruled it out for geographical reasons, until I noticed that an office had just opened in Dublin. I only realized what a perfect fit it was when I started meeting the people and really doing my homework. Looking back on where I could have ended up makes me think that I must, somehow, have built up (and cashed in) a mountain of positive karma points!
There are obviously many differences between academia and the world of technology. Did you find any commonalities?
More than you might think! As an academic, you spend your time working in a field you have an unshakable passion for, and you’re part of continuous dialogue where you are both teaching and learning at the same time. Your place at the table is only earned by sweating the details, and maintained by aiming as high as possible. If you aren’t worthy of trust you get dismissed in a footnote, and your work is relegated to the dusty immortality of the shelves of lesser periodicals in copyright libraries. While I’m sure it sounds like I’m describing academia, it’s all true of Dropbox as well.
What surprised you about Dropbox when you joined?
How much fun everyone was (is!). There were only about a dozen people in the office when I started, so I got to know everyone quickly. We have great times in and out of the office, and you really do feel like part of a family rather than just an employee. I initially expected that this would only last while there were relatively few of us, but it’s still every bit as true a year later, even though there are nearly a hundred of us now.
What do you do at Dropbox?
I’m on the user operations team. This means I split my time between helping users get the most out of Dropbox through training and technical support, and making sure our users’ voices and opinions are heard when the development of our products is being discussed. I also help members of the team better understand more complex issues related to our desktop application, and lead seminars on a number of technical topics for our inbound sales team.
What new skills did you have to learn when switching careers?
I had to learn that clear, explicit communication is crucial. In academia, and no doubt in a lot of professions where you do a lot of work on your own, it’s fine to keep a mental tally of where you are on your various projects, and what you have to do next. I learned pretty quickly that that doesn’t work so well when you’re working as part of a team, especially when people are remote.
What have been some of your favorite moments at Dropbox so far?
On Valentine’s Day 2014, we had a great e-mail chain of people writing funny Dropbox-themed poems. There were about twenty entries from Dublin, then it got passed over to the US offices, which led to at least another 75 contributions. These started out pretty simply with a series of “Roses are red…” offerings, but it got taken to new levels with To sync or not to sync, an inspired pastiche of a well-known soliloquy from Hamlet. This really sticks in my mind because it’s a great example of something silly and spontaneous that brought delight to a lot of people (although no doubt caused some groans as well). I also pretended all the poems were for me, so in that respect it was a great Valentine’s day.
Like many of your colleagues, you’re not native to Dublin and relocated for the job. How do you like your new home?
Size-wise, Dublin is a happy medium between Oxford, which is quite small, and London, which is not. The people are very friendly, the post boxes are green, and there’s a cornucopia of excellent restaurants, as well as some great, rugged natural landscapes only a short trip from the city centre. The local phraseology might seem a little odd to speakers of The Queen’s English at first, but once you’ve got used to saying “grand” instead of “good” and “How are you?” instead of “Hello,” you’re, well, grand.
What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I’m quite into design and carpentry, and am currently making a sort of modern take on a jewellery box. It’s been a really rewarding project so far! I’ve set up a circuit to play music from an internal MP3 player and speaker when it’s open, and have factored in a hidden drawer under the main compartments. I still have to cut some glass so the circuitry remains visible, inscribe the outside, and varnish all the wood. I’m slightly concerned about doing this on my own. My father (who is, inter alia, a master carpenter) lives back in London, and he helped me a lot with the internal structure when I started the project last year. But now that I’m in Dublin, I can’t just ask him to pop `round and give me pointers while I use the chisel!
If you weren’t working in a tech company or lecturing in ancient history, what would you be doing?
I’ve done some pretty varied things so far: ran a cocktail and events consulting company, been a piano and guitar teacher, created cybernetic models for the UK Department of Health’s strategic vision, organized a charity ball in London, and designed and sold a range of gentlemen’s apparel (such as ties, cufflinks, and blazers). A friend of mine wanted to film a travel/cooking show based on my ethnographic research in the Abruzzo, so perhaps I’d be doing that…
Dropbox Dublin is growing. We’d love for you to join us.