Box CEO Aaron Levie on cloud, tech stacks, and the future of work

Innovation and disruption are constants in technology but the impact is huge in every industry. A cloud computing pioneer shares his views on innovation and offers advice to Chief Information Officers.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Repeatable processes make an organization successful, especially during periods of stability. Customers know what to expect because people inside the organization use those processes to deliver time-tested products and services. Everybody wins.

However, stable, time-tested processes that do not change favor the status quo. When customer expectations, technology, and competition evolve, the traditions and approaches that created success can become a challenging, corporate albatross. Old processes, business models, compensation incentives, and cultural mindsets become a burden when they stop new, innovative products and services from reaching the market.

Look no further than the recent liquidation announcement of Toys"R"Us for one stark example of a corporate giant that did not adapt. But it's hardly alone.

Only 60 companies from the Fortune 500 list in 1955 remained on the list in 2017. In that year alone, 15 companies dropped off the list, including once-powerful brands such as Hess, FMC, and Barnes and Noble.

Closer to home for ZDNet readers, the enterprise software industry has faced an epic battle between on-premise products, with their highly profitable support and maintenance revenue streams, and software-as-a-service products, which customers demand but present difficult economics for established software companies.

Managing tensions between old and new business models is a defining leadership challenge of our time. The concept of digital transformation is a useful umbrella to talk about change agents, regardless of industry, working on the front lines of innovation to help organizations adapt.

Also: What enterprises will focus on for digital transformation in 2018

Managing transformation in the face of disruption is our focus on the CXOTalk series of conversations with the world's top innovators.

Aaron Levie, the CEO of Box, is one of the most successful and outspoken innovators in the enterprise software business. For this reason, I invited him as a guest on episode 278 of CXOTalk.

In the first part of our conversation, Aaron discusses important dynamics around technology and the future of work. These dynamics have profound implications for Chief Information Officers and others in IT.

Watch the entire conversation with Aaron Levie and read the full transcript at the CXOTalk site.

TechRepublic: How Aaron Levie and his childhood friends built Box into a $2 billion business, without stabbing each other in the back

The short video embedded at the top of this post gives you a tantalizing glimpse at the conversation. Below is an edited transcript for part one of our discussion; see this space for part two!

Box replaced established, on-premise systems and processes with cloud software. How did you think about that when you started the company and what are the implications today for the future of work? Also, what does this mean for CIOs and technology stacks?

Every couple of years we sort of step back, and we say, "Okay. What is happening in the world, and how do we make sure that we're aligning our strategy and our technology to the broader landscape, the broader set of changes?" That was the very way that we started the company in the first place.

When we started the company in 2005, we looked at, okay, we want to work on multiple devices. We want to be able to share with people all around us. Storage technology is getting cheaper, and browsers are getting faster and better, so we could use the Web as the conduit by which people could access and share their information. Those were the big megatrends that we looked at in 2005.

When we look at 2018, the megatrends have multiplied pretty significantly regarding all of the things impacting businesses. Companies want to be able to work in a much more real-time way. They want to be able to work with much flatter hierarchies so that people can share up and down the hierarchy of the organization much more rapidly. Organizations are working with a much larger number of partners, globally, so they want to be able to instantly collaborate no matter where somebody is in the entire world that they're working with.

We know that manual processes are going to give way to more AI driven processes. How do we use automation, whether that's machine learning or artificial intelligence, to begin to advance the business processes that we're doing as opposed to a much more manual approach? We know that product experiences are going to become much more digitized and personalized and much more automated for customers.

When you look at all those big megatrends, and then you add in cybersecurity threats, you add in compliance issues, globally, we see this shaping what the future of work looks like. We imagine a workplace and an organization where people have access to all of the information they need to do their job. They're able to share and collaborate with anyone they need to be able to connect to, to be able to present their ideas or to be able to accomplish their tasks.

We believe that teams are going to be much more agile, so that you can make decisions much more quickly. We know that the sort of blurring of the inside of an organization and the outside of an organization is happening, so you can share just as easily with an external partner as you can an internal colleague. We want to build a technology platform that supports that future of work.

What we also are very cognizant of is that it's not just going to be Box that is a part of that future of work. We know that companies are going to use Slack. They're going to use Facebook Workplace. They're going to use Okta. They're going to use Office 365. They're going to use Google Docs.

Our job is to find a way to be the place where content can go when you want to be able to govern it, secure it, manage it, and collaborate around it. But, we know that you're going use content in lots of different places -- where you're doing your work.

That's sort of what we see as the future of work. Our job is to evangelize it and make sure that, unlike the '90s or the 2000s, the world doesn't end up with just one homogeneous technology stack, largely coming from one or two vendors. To get the kind of innovation that we know is possible when you have a plethora of amazing solutions.

CXOTalk offers in-depth conversations with the world's top innovators. Be sure to watch our many episodes! Thumbnail image Creative Commons from Pixabay.

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