If you ever have to go to an enterprise software conference, pray that Box CEO Aaron Levie will grace the stage.
We’re not sure whether it’s his comic-book hair, comedian’s charisma, or the fact that he’s been neck-deep in the enterprise software world since he was 19, but somehow Levie has a knack for making business operations and cloud computing sound positively fascinating.
Levie’s story is one of Silicon Valley legend. In 2005, he dropped out of his junior year of college to start the file-storage company Box with a childhood friend. They secured their initial funding from Mark Cuban after sending him a cold email. A decade later, Levie took the company public at a $1.7 billion valuation.
In the years since Box went public in 2015, the company has had its ups and downs as competitors like Dropbox and Google entered the cloud-storage space. But Levie has always maintained optimism and the long view that Box is part of a larger shift in how all businesses will eventually operate.
Quartz at Work had the chance to sit down with Levie and ask him about running a public company, his advice for other business leaders, and his predictions for the future of work. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
QaW: Box is a very different company than it was a decade ago. How has your approach to building company culture changed as you’ve grown to over 2,000 employees?
Levie: There are a lot of things that you learn when you’re a really scrappy, small startup that actually make a lot of sense as you grow. We would be on a support call with a customer and 10 minutes later go and build the feature that fixes their problem. How do you bottle that up and scale that to a 2,000-person company? That’s the never-ending quest that I’m on.
A lot of it is taking lessons from other companies. What do you do to keep teams really small, create a culture of ownership, and scale that within a network of 500 other teams that are all working toward an ultimate company goal? That’s the utopian state: You get the power of the whole, but the decentralized means of executing at a much faster pace that doesn’t get bogged down by your scale.
That all sounds well and good for a software company, but what about other industries that have very different sets of problems to solve?
These ideals—small teams with a lot of autonomy that are constantly iterating—come from software development. Every modern software company has been founded on this. The question is, is this just as applicable to the HR team at a pharma company or the product design team at a consumer packaged goods company? Our belief is yes. And the reason for that is the speed of how business is changing demands that every function in your company, whether you’re a digital company or industrial company, move at that same pace. And so the really exciting part is not how you do this at 2,000 people; it’s how to do that at 100,000 people when you’re not a software company.
Companies are finally recognizing that they have to almost unwire themselves from the past 100 to 150 years of working—the hierarchical management, the top-down execution, the waterfall product development processes—to something that is more flat, open, and transparent.
So what’s a piece of advice would you give to that Fortune 500 CEO who is running a 100,000-person workforce?
I think these things are so hard to generalize because each company has a different sort of approach, but at the highest level, to the point that it sounds fluffy, I would say, find ways to incentivize this set of modern principles—testing rapidly, being transparent, and open sharing across the organization—to break down the bureaucracies that are making you move slow.
Create that sort of organizational infrastructure that supports a much faster and much more dynamic way of working, and that will change your culture, it’ll change the technology you’re using, and it’ll change many of the ways that you’re operating as a business.
What do you think most people get wrong about the future of work?
When you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and you’re sitting in your board meeting looking at the trend of Uber and Netflix and Airbnb coming after your industry—startups with unlimited capital that are innovating much faster than you—and they’re building better consumer experiences, your initial instinct is to look at the downstream consequences of those businesses, which is their products and business models, the things that are fundamentally disruptive to your business.
But the root of where that innovation comes from, whether it’s Netflix, Amazon, Lyft, or Airbnb, is that these businesses are run completely differently than the incumbents. A lot of incumbents attempt to either buy, acquire, or partner with those disrupters, but that’s not going to get to the root of actually solving the problem over the long run, which is that your company has to fundamentally run in a different way in the digital age.
You see a lot of these efforts which are like, “Oh, we’ll just go buy a startup” or “We’ll just have that run on the side and that will somehow solve our problem,” and it doesn’t because you haven’t fundamentally changed the culture and the way that you operate across your entire business.
That’s the fundamental difference between how most people are responding to disruption and how you realistically need to in the digital age. Yes, the business model is important. Yes, the consumer experience is incredibly important. But the sustainable way to make sure you’re always able to keep up with that is by looking at your organization and your operations. That’s the thing that most companies tend to miss.
Ok, now for some rapid-fire questions. Remote work or co-location?
I personally am a very big fan of people coming in and working with their team in person whenever possible. There’s a sort of serendipity you get. Just the flow of work in collaboration—I put a massive premium on that. However, for a variety of reasons, that’s not always practical. The reality is you have to build a hybrid model.
What do you think people are missing when they say, “Robots are going to take all the jobs?”
We look very myopically at the specific jobs that exist today and imagine how those jobs can be automated. But we miss the fact that, in the process of automation, a bunch of other ecosystems will emerge which will create new markets for talent to do completely new things. The question is, how do we actually navigate our way there and, and can we create the right safety nets from the government or from companies to actually get there in a relatively frictionless way? That’s the more interesting conversation as opposed to the binary outcome of whether robots will take all the jobs or not.
What’s another enterprise problem that you wish you had the time to work on?
Performance reviews. It’s the one thing no one has cracked. We know that continuous, real-time feedback is a way better way to operate, and yet, most of our business systems have these discrete moments where you’re giving feedback.
Last question: If you had to take a six-month sabbatical tomorrow, what do you do?
Umm… can I come back after a week? I really love my job.