Arden Hoffman has a “very 2015” job title. She is VP of People at San Francisco-based Dropbox — and she doesn’t 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’s (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 “hackers,” 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’ve seen a rise in apps, games, hackathons and hack camps — basically, any activity that shows how FUN engineering can be. It’s 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’s just show people what amazing things they could do if they’re interested in it. It’s exposure, but it’s also recognizing that you don’t have to be perfect at math to be good at creating something — you could be an incredible designer and be good at engineering and create an incredible, beautiful product. Telling that story for people when they’re younger is really important and I think it’s something only the tech industry can do.
Dropbox did something cool over the summer — a Summer Hack Day for women interns in the Bay Area. I noticed that on the Summer Hack Day’s FAQ section, under the question, “Do I have to be a woman?” the answer was, “Yes, the program is for all people who identify as women.” 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’t want to make these efforts so gender focused that they are, in turn, exclusive.
AH: I think this is a very nuanced topic — 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 — much like the Bay Area — and I think we’re 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’s 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’t come. We do a full hack week — a whole company-wide thing — where we invite visitors, and that’s not a gender-oriented thing. There’s a lot of opportunity in the industry as a whole. I don’t 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’ 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’s 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’s Tamagotchi — it’s an Apple Watch app modeled after the ’90s Tamagotchi in Japan. It encourages you to work out by tying your fitness to the health of Pusheen the cat.
There’s 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 “Cupcake Awards.”
There’s 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 “Be Worthy of Trust” 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’s exciting to see what’s available to people that wasn’t available when I was younger, when people in the Generation X category were going through high school and college. It’s incredible what you can do if you actually are interested in coding and want to create things. This isn’t about engineering; this is about creation.
It’s 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’m not surprised by the interest level from women. My partner’s 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’s talk about advice for young women. If I’m interested in STEM, but think I’m “bad at math,” where do I begin? What’s 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’t speak to other geographic areas of the country, (I just don’t know, so I don’t want to mislead). There are internships that go to visit a number of tech companies and see what it’s like to work at those companies. It’s less about programming skills and much more about having access and looking at the industry and thinking, “Oh, I don’t have to be an engineer to go to this job.” It’s thinking, “I could do finance at a tech company. I could do HR, I could do strategy and operations. I could do all kinds of things!” Those high school programs are huge and kids are raising their hands to get involved in those.
There are summer programs — 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… We’re involved in Girls Teaching Girls to Code… 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’re remotely interested to kind of reach out, to feel more tangible. I also think we tend to just follow everyone into, “Oh, you’re a girl, you’re a young woman, you should go into engineering.” How do we think about defining and showing the tech industry as a whole?
There are a lot of jobs… I don’t think we do a good job [of showing that]. Just like the banks don’t do a good job — you go to a bank, you think, “Oh, I should be in finance.” 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’m interested in STEM but feel like, “Wow, there are a lot of ways I could take this interest — crap — now I feel overwhelmed,” 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’t 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 — how many people are actually going into infrastructure? You don’t see a lot of people in infrastructure but it’s a hugely important part of engineering, especially if you’re at Amazon or Dropbox.
Those are some areas where it would be great to see more growth and more interest but I think it’s 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’s something — that network effect — that’s about connecting people, the collaboration pieces, is only going to get bigger and bigger as we go. It’ll be a really interesting space to watch as well. Those are the major pieces I see from a pretty limited view… but I think it’s 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’t 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… Frankly, I think you put it really well — look at an industry you’re interested in and then layer on top of that — what’s the engineering view of that industry? If you were interested in food and cuisine, if you’re interested in travel, transportation, communication — every industry is being turned upside down by tech, so talking about that — the creation piece — is just going to grab a lot more people. It’s like there’s 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, “Oh, here’s a math class you can take.” I’m not sure that’s 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’t be afraid to ask questions, be curious, especially — [that is] a value I’ve seen across the valley. If you’re curious, if you’re interested, you should be asking questions. People value that a lot more than they value the quiet person who doesn’t say anything. But they also value someone who is thoughtful too and who can absorb the environment around them. Enjoy it; it’s the beginning of a very long career. Just have a good time.
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(Photos via A Tale Ahead Photography + Dropbox)