Arden Hoffman has a 鈥渧ery 2015鈥 job title. She is VP of People at San Francisco-based Dropbox 鈥 and she doesn鈥檛 take her title (or responsibilities) lightly. You may think you know the HR world, but you have no idea. Today in tech, diversifying and normalizing the workforce, promoting company-wide tolerance and changing everyone鈥檚 (internally and externally) opinion of your average, everyday tech worker are a major part of the gig. Arden, who was previously an HR exec at Google, sat down for a deep and meaningful with us to talk about an emerging army of 鈥渉ackers,鈥 why engineering is far from the only job in tech and how the industry has a whole new story to tell beyond coding.


Lisa Raphael: We鈥檝e seen a rise in apps, games, hackathons and hack camps 鈥 basically, any activity that shows how FUN engineering can be. It鈥檚 like we are trying to re-brand STEM and STEAM. Why do you think that is?

Arden Hoffman: I think some of it is taking a step back and exposing youth, kids, young talent to what tech brings to the table. There are all these different ways you can create new things in the world, with different types of tech combining with design, combining with emotional intelligence and AI. Let鈥檚 just show people what amazing things they could do if they鈥檙e interested in it. It鈥檚 exposure, but it鈥檚 also recognizing that you don鈥檛 have to be perfect at math to be good at creating something 鈥 you could be an incredible designer and be good at engineering and create an incredible, beautiful product. Telling that story for people when they鈥檙e younger is really important and I think it鈥檚 something only the tech industry can do.

Dropbox did something cool over the summer 鈥 a Summer Hack Day for women interns in the Bay Area. I noticed that on the Summer Hack Day鈥檚 FAQ section, under the question, 鈥淒o I have to be a woman?鈥 the answer was, 鈥淵es, the program is for all people who identify as women.鈥 I really appreciate that response. Is that something on your mind as we try to include more women in this world? (PS: It is on my mind!) We don鈥檛 want to make these efforts so gender focused that they are, in turn, exclusive.

AH: I think this is a very nuanced topic 鈥 I say that because Dropbox has a very specific cultural value of really being a very inclusive, welcoming place to work. We have a good population of trans people here at Dropbox 鈥 much like the Bay Area 鈥 and I think we鈥檙e very sensitive to not being too gender focused in terms of how we position things and wanting it to feel open. So to me, that was less about not allowing men; it was more about including people.

One of our values is that we want to communicate to the public in the same way that we would communicate to our company. There are a lot of opportunities given to different populations in different industries and I think it鈥檚 about, for lack of a better term, leveling the playing field and having just as many opportunities to be creative to do it in an environment that feels supported and safe as opposed to just singling people out who can鈥檛 come. We do a full hack week 鈥 a whole company-wide thing 鈥 where we invite visitors, and that鈥檚 not a gender-oriented thing. There鈥檚 a lot of opportunity in the industry as a whole. I don鈥檛 worry about excluding men. I do worry about people wanting to come into the fold, not about kicking people out of the fold.


LR: What did the participants鈥 days look like while they were in the program? Any cool apps or creations come out of this that we need to DL?

AH: The interns spent Friday and Saturday hacking and then attending sessions hosted by Dropboxers to give them all sorts of experiences in software engineering and open their minds. Then Ruchi Sanghvi, the first woman engineer at Facebook and co-founder of Cove, spoke to the interns about her experience, finding a job in the tech industry and the challenges she鈥檚 faced, so we added that personal element to the experience as well.

The winners were really cool. We have everything from very cool practical things people want to a light bulb. On the fun side, there鈥檚 Tamagotchi 鈥 it鈥檚 an Apple Watch app modeled after the 鈥90s Tamagotchi in Japan. It encourages you to work out by tying your fitness to the health of Pusheen the cat.

There鈥檚 another app Here and Now, which is a social event sharing iOS app that provides a platform for local merchants, chefs and artists to post their events as pins on a live, updating map. That got one of our 鈥淐upcake Awards.鈥

There鈥檚 also Team Haven, which is a social web application that connects people with mental health issues with other anonymous support groups that would very much align. We dedicate awards based on our values, so that was our 鈥淏e Worthy of Trust鈥 value.

LR: As a woman who is farther along in her career than these scrappy, bright-eyed, budding engineers, what is it like for you to witness a female-focused hackathon in 2015?

AH: It鈥檚 exciting to see what鈥檚 available to people that wasn鈥檛 available when I was younger, when people in the Generation X category were going through high school and college. It鈥檚 incredible what you can do if you actually are interested in coding and want to create things. This isn鈥檛 about engineering; this is about creation.

It鈥檚 going to become a lot more appealing to not only women, but people of all different types of backgrounds. Kids now are playing on iPads or Android tablets to create a sort of level of fun and to get people thinking about their own futures. I鈥檓 not surprised by the interest level from women. My partner鈥檚 15-year-old daughter is in high school and she gets info on tech and coding.

I think we still have more to do as an industry to tell that story of creation as opposed to the story of coding. I think that narrative needs to change in order to attract not just engineering degrees, but [people] from any type of degree.


LR:Back to school season just happened! Let鈥檚 talk about advice for young women. If I鈥檓 interested in STEM, but think I鈥檓 鈥渂ad at math,鈥 where do I begin? What鈥檚 an activity I should get into or a class I should take that would be useful?

AH: So many programs now are targeting young women across the entire Bay Area. I can鈥檛 speak to other geographic areas of the country, (I just don鈥檛 know, so I don鈥檛 want to mislead). There are internships that go to visit a number of tech companies and see what it鈥檚 like to work at those companies. It鈥檚 less about programming skills and much more about having access and looking at the industry and thinking, 鈥淥h, I don鈥檛 have to be an engineer to go to this job.鈥 It鈥檚 thinking, 鈥淚 could do finance at a tech company. I could do HR, I could do strategy and operations. I could do all kinds of things!鈥 Those high school programs are huge and kids are raising their hands to get involved in those.

There are summer programs 鈥 we had our summer program advising 10th grade girls. There are 12 participants; we provide broad exposure to different artificial intelligence topics. There are faculty lectures, industry field trips鈥 We鈥檙e involved in Girls Teaching Girls to Code鈥 I just feel like there are so many different academies and community outreach around these things that we [at Dropbox] try to support. I tell anyone if they鈥檙e remotely interested to kind of reach out, to feel more tangible. I also think we tend to just follow everyone into, 鈥淥h, you鈥檙e a girl, you鈥檙e a young woman, you should go into engineering.鈥 How do we think about defining and showing the tech industry as a whole?

There are a lot of jobs鈥 I don鈥檛 think we do a good job [of showing that]. Just like the banks don鈥檛 do a good job 鈥 you go to a bank, you think, 鈥淥h, I should be in finance.鈥 But half the bank [jobs] are actually not bankers. With technology and engineering companies, you can see 40-50% of the population actually not having anything to do with engineering.


LR: If I鈥檓 interested in STEM but feel like, 鈥淲ow, there are a lot of ways I could take this interest 鈥 crap 鈥 now I feel overwhelmed,鈥 what areas of study (and future careers) do you recommend looking into? Can you predict some of the jobs and careers that will be hot coming up? For example: VP of People is a relatively new, very 2015 title. What are other careers like that, in tech, that people should have on their radar?

AH: I don鈥檛 like the title speak. But I think about skills; I think one that you already mentioned would be accessibility. How do we think about accessibility? Privacy and security is huge, so what areas are we doing that in? Another is cloud infrastructure 鈥 how many people are actually going into infrastructure? You don鈥檛 see a lot of people in infrastructure but it鈥檚 a hugely important part of engineering, especially if you鈥檙e at Amazon or Dropbox.

Those are some areas where it would be great to see more growth and more interest but I think it鈥檚 an education and marketing issue. I think it also depends again on what you can predict is going to happen with tech. Five years ago it was social networking, so now, how are we thinking about how we create networks across different platforms? Dropbox has a huge network of users and that鈥檚 something 鈥 that network effect 鈥 that鈥檚 about connecting people, the collaboration pieces, is only going to get bigger and bigger as we go. It鈥檒l be a really interesting space to watch as well. Those are the major pieces I see from a pretty limited view鈥 but I think it鈥檚 gonna be pretty big.

LR: How can parents get their daughters more interested in STEM? Do you think all of these new toys, like GoldieBlox to name one, are the way to go?

AH: Well, I can鈥檛 speak much to child development, but I think we have to be really balanced. I think as in any educational topic, you have to give people exposure to the basics鈥 Frankly, I think you put it really well 鈥 look at an industry you鈥檙e interested in and then layer on top of that 鈥 what鈥檚 the engineering view of that industry? If you were interested in food and cuisine, if you鈥檙e interested in travel, transportation, communication 鈥 every industry is being turned upside down by tech, so talking about that 鈥 the creation piece 鈥 is just going to grab a lot more people. It鈥檚 like there鈥檚 taking calculus and then how do you apply that to something cool and interesting at Dropbox? More people need to hear that story. We need to think more creatively about who our audience is instead of, 鈥淥h, here鈥檚 a math class you can take.鈥 I鈥檓 not sure that鈥檚 gonna move the needle.


What advice would you give to an intern on the first day at her dream job?

AH: Listen and enjoy it. Take it all in. I think starting any job, you need to absorb everything around you, listen, learn from people, don鈥檛 be afraid to ask questions, be curious, especially 鈥 [that is] a value I鈥檝e seen across the valley. If you鈥檙e curious, if you鈥檙e interested, you should be asking questions. People value that a lot more than they value the quiet person who doesn鈥檛 say anything. But they also value someone who is thoughtful too and who can absorb the environment around them. Enjoy it; it鈥檚 the beginning of a very long career. Just have a good time.

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(Photos via A Tale Ahead Photography + Dropbox)