Aaron Levie: 'You can have a mindset of moving quickly'
For the closing session of this year’s Management of Change conference, ACT-IAC invited Aaron Levie, the 29-year-old co-founder and CEO of Box, to discuss technology trends and leadership strategies. The cloud-based document collaboration company went public in January and is now valued at nearly $2 billion.
FCW Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider sat down with Levie shortly before his May 19 presentation.
Not to put too fine a point on it, why are you at MOC? Cambridge, Md., is a long way to come for a few hours at a federal IT conference.
Yeah. [laughs] I thought it was a lot closer to the airport.
I’m here because we’re ramping up our investment within the federal space pretty aggressively. Starting a couple years ago, we saw that our product was being pulled into federal agencies. We recognized that there was a huge opportunity to make a pretty big dent in how agencies collaborate, share and actually work together.
Was there a catalyst that prompted you to say, “Hey, the public sector is actually a place we should focus on and worth the investment to meet the security and acquisition requirements”?
In Silicon Valley, the government IT and agency ecosystem is very mysterious. It’s this black box that we don’t fully understand. You hear stories about billion-dollar IT projects gone wrong. It’s this confusing landscape that you tend not to pay attention to.
But it became obvious that actually these organizations look a lot like the same organizations we serve in the private sector. They have the exact same talent issues. They have the same resource constraints. They’re trying to get more efficient, more productive and more innovative.
Somewhere along the way, we recognized that if agencies looked exactly like Procter and Gamble, General Electric, Eli Lilly and the hospitals we serve, then we could probably have a pretty big impact.
Has government proven to be a different beast or is it just another regulated sector?
There are unique flavors of the challenges and of the things that we’ll run into but nothing that is operationally different from the work that we had to do to get into financial services or to get into health care.
In fact, in some industries, I wish there were a sort of FedRAMP equivalent because it creates a very nice standard across the ecosystem of how to adopt these kinds of technologies. In the federal space, it’s nice to have that level of consistency.
What does success look like for Box in the federal space?
We’d like government to run better. We think technology can actually be that bridge. We can be that bridge between agencies. We can be that bridge between teams. We can be that bridge between agencies and the outside world. We think that with the right technology — not just Box, but lots of these up-and-coming platforms — the government can just be more efficient, be more productive.
That translates into better services, better regulation, better costs. Those are all things that are incredibly important. That’s the ultimate goal.
Are there lessons that you think agencies can learn from how Box operates — not just the tools it provides, but the way your team works together?
Yes! Now, we have a different set of factors in our business. We don’t have the procurement policies that government has. We don’t have the hiring policies. We don’t have a lot of the legacy that any large organization or institution has.
But I think the thing that we can and we do share is you can have a mindset of moving quickly, of being disruptive, of trying to find edges and the boundaries of what is possible.
Some agencies already do that, for sure, and some we want to help catch up to that.
There are methodologies that get you there. There are certainly agile methodologies. But there’s also just the mindset, in general, of impatience: Why do things happen in the timescales that we’re seeing? Why can’t they be a third or half or a fourth as long?
What about picking partners? There is a lot of teaming on federal contracts, and Box seems to be both collaborating and competing with many of the bigger names in tech.
Most of the partners that we’re coming into the federal space with are purely complementary. They’re providing a government infrastructure function for us. That’s a little bit different than what we do in the software space, where we both partner and compete with Microsoft. We partner and compete with Google.
It takes an understanding that the entity is different from the product. We can partner with Microsoft even if we compete with a product of Microsoft’s. We’ve had that mindset since Day One. And now Microsoft finally has that mindset, too. I think that’s a big change that’s happening with a lot of the big tech companies right now.
You were invited to MOC because people wanted to pick the brain of a Silicon Valley executive, but are there things you’re trying to learn from those in the government space?
All of the domain of government, I’m learning constantly. Most of my time out here is actually just listening. What are the pain points? How is work changing? What do you wish technology could do that it doesn’t do? That gives me a better sense of where there are the points of friction or misalignment between the Valley and D.C. and what can we do to more broadly actually create that alignment.
And separate from “can we get government to run better?” is “can we get government to be an attractive place for Silicon Valley to engage with?” That’s going to be a unique challenge because in Silicon Valley, you don’t want to be held up by regulation or bureaucracy. You want to be able to move as quickly as possible, so that leads a lot of tech companies in the Valley to not necessarily engage with D.C.
It would be great if we could figure out a better, more common way to work together.
Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN.
Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of NationalJournal.com, Schneider also helped launch the political site PoliticsNow.com in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.
Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.
Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.