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How Dropbox is trying to bring order to WFH craziness

The company's new COO says it's "tying everything together" for all sorts of remote workers.

Olivia Nottebohm

"I really believe in this concept of creating a platform where you have a place," says new Dropbox COO Olivia Nottebohm.

Photo: Courtesy of Dropbox

Taking on a big new role is never easy. But try taking on a big new role amid one of the biggest public health crises in U.S. history.

Olivia Nottebohm joined Dropbox as chief operating officer at the end of January, when just a few cases of coronavirus had been detected in the U.S. Since then, she's had to navigate the implementation of work-from-home orders across Dropbox's 3,000 employees, spread around 13 countries, while getting to know a brand-new team and learning a brand-new product line.

So far, it's worked out pretty well: Dropbox swung to a profit for the first time in its history during the first quarter, and has seen similar surges in demand for its cloud-based file-sharing and collaboration tools that many of its rivals have also observed during this massive shift to remote working. Trials of Dropbox's Business product for enterprise customers are up 40% over the last few months, while trials of the individual plans are up 25%.

Nottebohm, fresh off a four-year stint running multiple sales and operational teams at Google Cloud, must now help Dropbox navigate what promises to be a chaotic second half of the year as COVID-19 continues to reshape work and business around the world. She thinks Dropbox has a central role to play: as a hub for workplaces of all sizes as its customers attempt to figure out new ways to keep on top of remote working.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Amid the pandemic, have you seen anything notable in terms of how people are using Dropbox? Was there an appreciable difference in levels of activity or some features that were used more heavily than maybe you would have expected?

We did see some really, really interesting spikes that tracked with the integrations that we have. So we saw 2,000% increase in the usage of our Zoom integration, and we saw record levels of integration usage with Slack and Atlassian. Which isn't surprising, but it was wonderful to see that our customers do value those integrations and are turning to those integrations as they shift to intense remote and distributed work.

As people start to talk about going back to offices in greater numbers, do you have a sense of how that will unfold for Dropbox, as office life starts to reboot?

We are constantly monitoring the trends. First and foremost, we're thinking about our own employees and their health and well-being. And so we have a team that we've set up that meets on a very frequent basis to be monitoring those [trends], how we're helping our own employees through this, and then, broadly, how we're helping our customers.

We see what the ecosystem is doing and what the other players are doing. And so we're trying to be very thoughtful about the guidance that we give our employees and making sure that they have enough visibility to plan for themselves and their families in a very uncertain time.

Twitter said last week that it's going to allow people to work from home permanently. Other companies like Google and Facebook have at least extended working from home through the end of 2020 and into 2021 in some cases. Have you made a similar determination?

We've determined that we are going to be working from home through the end of the summer and that employees have the option to be working from home through the end of the year. And then obviously we'll reassess at regular intervals.

One thing I've been talking to a lot of people about over the last month or so is how this new era of remote work will change product development strategies. It has opened up new opportunities for different kinds of products, different kinds of thinking about products in the way they're built.

About a year ago we launched this concept of the smart workspace, and we talked about the new desktop app. And as we actually see adoption of that, we've been really pleased to see how pervasive it is.

We've seen a 60% increase [in adoption] of the new desktop app during this time. And for us, what that means is that we have now over 350,000 teams on that new desktop app out of the 450,000 Dropbox Business teams that we have.

What that app allows you to do is really effectively move across applications in a very seamless way and always cut back to the workflow that you have within Dropbox. And what we're seeing is that is really appreciated by the customers, because we're providing that additional service of tying everything together at a time where people are working from home in a remote distributed way and having to navigate across this fragmented place.

So that's been gratifying, in the sense that we believe our customers are finding a ton of value in that, and that's why they're driving up those usage rates to that extent. And from a product roadmap perspective, the vision that we have and the belief we have is that we are truly providing a unique product to our customers because it's the only one that helps you organize across Microsoft, G Suite and the best of breed world.

One of the things I wanted to ask you about was your time at Google Cloud and how that informed what you're doing now at Dropbox. What gave you the idea to switch over to Dropbox, and what did you learn at Google Cloud that you're applying in your current role?

I really enjoyed my time at Google. It was an amazing experience building up that cloud business, and I was really attracted by Drew's [Houston] vision.

I was feeling the fragmentation in the workplace myself, on a very personal level and for my team, and really believe in this concept of creating a platform where you have a place, you almost have a home base, right? You're choosing which applications you're interfacing with, but in a much more structured and organized way so that you take out the fragmentation.

And then I really believe in Drew's leadership, it was very compelling. He's built an amazing company. He's built an incredible culture at Dropbox. Now that I've been here and I've gotten to know all of Dropbox … the company is really a stellar group of people. So I'm excited to be here.

In terms of what I learned … Google Cloud was similar. I worked on G Suite and what we call GCP, the Google Cloud Platform, which was the IaaS and PaaS portion of it. And we really touched all segments, we were selling G Suite to [very small businesses] all the way up through enterprise. And Dropbox is similarly in that pretty unique situation of a company that sells across customer segments and has to be very thoughtful in tailoring the product and making sure the product is delivering its highest value to those different customer segments.

Do you see that mix changing for Dropbox, in terms of focusing more on enterprise or focusing more on smaller businesses? It seems like maybe there's even more opportunity in small businesses, given their past lack of usage of some of these tools, as they move to remote work?

The wonderful part about Dropbox is that we have a relationship with our users before any seller shows up, right? It's very unique in that way.

And so to some extent we are building our best products for our customers and we see that they continue to adopt our products across the various customer segments. So as of now, no, I don't see that mix shifting. I continue to see that incredibly diversified portfolio both across customer segments and across verticals and industries.

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Tom Krazit ( @tomkrazit) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering cloud computing and enterprise technology out of the Pacific Northwest. He has written and edited stories about the technology industry for almost two decades for publications such as IDG, CNET, paidContent, and GeekWire. He served as executive editor of Gigaom and Structure, and most recently produced a leading cloud computing newsletter called Mostly Cloudy.

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