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Inside the tech talent wars: Dropbox CEO talks how to recruit top talent

How to recruit top talent, what engineers want, and Dropbox for Business: The Data Mill reports.

The year is 2007. An MIT student is traveling from Boston to New York City. He chooses to take the bus so he can get work done en route to his destination, but he runs into a tiny problem: Andrew "Drew" Houston forgot his flash drive at home. After the fuming, disappointment and self-condemnation, Houston vows to figure out a way to make sure this never happens to him again. And Dropbox Inc. was born.

Today, the San Francisco-based startup, which specializes in file synching, is more than 200 million users and 500 employees big. And Houston, the company CEO, has moved on to solving another problem -- this one not so tiny: How to recruit top talent.

Last week, Houston returned to the Cambridge, Mass.-based campus for a fireside chat on "The War for Talent" with Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review. Here are five ideas on how to win the war -- or at least put up a good fight.

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1. Grow your network. Houston and his co-founder Arash Ferdowsi are "totally obsessed with keeping the talent bar high." They've tapped friends and colleagues for jobs and recommendations. They keep a running inventory of people who have impressed them, adding their names to a list of potential future employees. And they "shake down" their employees for referrals. "If every employee brings in one to two good people, you've got something that's relatively scalable," Houston said.

2. Be the pursuer. Dropbox is aggressive when it comes to recruiting, especially with experienced talent where "it's hand-to-hand combat for everyone." The company doesn't wait to be pursued by good candidates, it does the pursuing. "Our company is full of people who were not looking for other jobs," he said. Another tip? When you read about talented people doing interesting things, reach out to them.

3. Be relentless. Recruiting top talent can take time. For those who don't come with a well-vetted referral, start by "bringing them into your orbit," Houston said. Have them swing by the office for drinks, introduce them to more people in the company and "tastefully educate them" about what the company does. Also, when recruiting top talent, don't "put up hurdles before you even start running," he said. Houston is a fan of Python, the programming language, and he knew a guy who knew its creator, Guido van Rossum, then employed by Google Inc. Houston asked for an introduction, got one and then invested 12 months in (successfully) recruiting van Rossum to join Dropbox.

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4. Figure out what "world class" looks like. As Houston built the company, he needed skills beyond his own expertise, which created a "calibration problem." Here's his analogy: For non-musicians, a guitarist at an open mic night might seem talented until the performance is compared to a world-class guitarist like Jimi Hendrix. In other words, to understand what great is, figure out how the best marketers, sales, customer service representatives, etc. do their jobs. Houston recommended leveraging your network connections here, too.

5. Try to do the job yourself. "How do you find a great engineer? A pretty good answer is to learn how to code," Houston said by way of example. Doing so will give greater appreciation for and insight into the work they do. 

What do engineers want?

Engineering jobs come in an array of shapes and sizes -- from corporate positions at the Googles of the world to short-lived stints with garage startups and everything in between, Houston told Pontin. The work at each of these places comes with its own set of pros and cons, but, in general, Houston has found that good engineers typically want three things out of a job. "They want to work on problems that are really important; they want to be challenged and to grow; and they want to be surrounded by people they respect," he said.

Dropbox for Business

Houston updated Pontin on the latest version of Dropbox for Business, which was released late last year and enables users to link their work and personal Dropbox accounts together. Part of the motivation behind the revamp? The "ugly dilemma" that CIOs and IT experience between "making the workforce more productive and letting workers use tools they want to use, or keeping everything safe and secure," Houston said. "With consumerization, it's one or the other. I don't think anybody has done a good job of doing both." Naturally, he believes Dropbox can change that.

Welcome to The Data Mill, a weekly column devoted to all things data. Heard something newsy (or gossipy)? Email me or find me on Twitter at @TT_Nicole.

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How are you winning the tech talent wars?
Great article Nicole and there’s some fantastic (if not common sense) tips on how to attract talent but I’m sure most of the readers will know firsthand that it’s not always this simple. Smaller, less well known companies will not have the time, money or resources to take such an approach and I’m confident that hiring the creator of Python didn’t come cheap! The war on talent is a much debated subject; I wrote a blog post recently called; “Can't Fill That IT Vacancy? It May Be Your Fault!” ( that dovetails nicely in to your article and I will be mentioning you in my next blog post. Keep up the great work and I look forward to reading your next article. Feel free to follow me at @scott_sherriden