Kellan, Ruchi, and Stephen on how staff engineers are shaping the future of Dropbox

During Virtual First, we’ve found many new ways to connect with our teams from afar — through coffee chats, virtual volunteer events, online happy hours, Vibe Committee activities, and much more. But recently, our staff engineering team took things to a whole new level by organizing their very own virtual summit with the theme “Building our virtual-first staff engineering community.”

Staff engineers from across the world gathered virtually to discuss our challenges and our opportunities, get to know one another better, and get excited for the future. In a lively panel event, Sr. Director of Software Engineering Ruchi Varshney, VP of Engineering — Infra Stephen Voorhees, and VP of Software Engineering Kellan Elliott-McCrea got together to speak directly to our staff engineers, sharing their appreciation for all they do and their ideas for how we can become even stronger together.

How has our culture evolved since going Virtual First?

  • Kellan: There are some things that were somewhat expected but still nice to see. It’s great to see leadership opportunities spreading out to other areas as we become more distributed. It brings in a wide variety of different people and different perspectives, and that’s been really positive.

What role do you see staff engineers playing in the execution of projects, and what can we do to overcome some of the challenges we’re facing?

  • Stephen: From an execution basis, we do a great job on a team-to-team basis! What we sometimes struggle with is identifiying the project milestones along the way and communicating them to the teams that depend on us or that we depend on. This team can help us to think about how to break these problems down into smaller, consumable milestones.
  • Ruchi: Often we do run into slowdowns when we’re working with teams across many different orgs, but staff engineers can really help surface these misalignments. It’s often this group that’s very well aware of the players and the context of the situation, so helping us surface this in a way that’s systematic and process-driven helps me to be highly effective in coming up with the right approach to get alignment with leadership on both sides. You’re seeing this and living this and breathing this every day, so you have a holistic view of the situation, and that’s a powerful insight this group can bring.
  • Kellan: Staff engineers can play a huge part in modeling a risk-embracing behavior. So often we see our roles as senior engineers to think about all the possible ways things can go wrong, rather than how we can help you simplify. That’s one of our core values that we’re still learning to embrace as a company, and I think that’s one of the things that this group can really help with.

What non-engineering domains can staff engineers lean into or engage with to improve their work?

  • Kellan: CX and sales. If I had infinite time, I would have already set up a program where people are rotating through CX! There’s almost nothing more valuable you can do than talk to a customer or talk to someone who’s talked to a customer recently.
  • Ruchi: I would add product marketing to the mix as well, they can bring another flavor of insight.

What are unique values you’re looking for product staff engineers to bring?

  • Ruchi: I think a key point that is crystallizing in my mind about how product staff engineers are operating is less about addresssing technical complexity and more about technical decision making and pragmatism. It’s about being pragmatic about what helps us validate a hypothesis. Whether it’s a core product or a new product doesn’t matter; it’s about what’s bringing that learning faster to us and accelerating that behavior of iteration.
  • Kellan: 99% of all product ideas are bad; Dropbox is one of the ones that got lucky. You need to be building products such that you are testing hypotheses, and you need to know what you are going to learn from each iteration. So often, the heart of what’s hard is figuring out that risk-reward balance. What do we need to build to learn versus what do we need to build to learn based on the assumption that this product is going to work (because it’s probably not)?

How do you think we can create a lasting competitive advantage in our industry?

  • Kellan: I think you build a culture of processes. When a lot of us were getting into tech, it was growing organically, so your work was mostly about catching a wave, and customers would come and you had to be in the right place and stay up. That’s changed as the industry matures, and any given advantage is constantly under attack. So it comes down to getting really good at inventing processes.

What is your five-year vision for the Dropbox user experience?

  • Ruchi: I think really doubling down on understanding how our customers are going to behave in that five-year window is crucial. We’ve seen a huge shakeup with COVID-19 and remote work and proliferation of all kinds of devices. We’re working on how to make Dropbox really relevant in the ways that we work every day. To me, those seem like obvious areas to think about to build for the future.

Interested in learning more about our engineering teams and the part you may be able to play in creating our future alongside them? Visit our jobs site.

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