By Kathryn Mahon PeachThis article appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Tower Hill Bulletin
When it comes to the skills it takes to become successful at a tech firm in Silicon Valley, excellence in computer science and math might be the first things that come to mind. But according to Andrew Fong ‘99, the director of engineering at Dropbox, it’s the ability to think creatively, prioritize and communicate—all skills that he learned at Tower Hill—that give tech leaders the extra edge.
“For me, an engineer who has leadership skills and has the ability to prioritize is going to have more of an impact on the company,” Fong said. “Almost everybody we hire has the same GPA, but it’s the intangible skills that you get through life that make a huge difference to us.”
Fong joined Dropbox, the secure file sharing company, in 2012. At the time, the 5-year-old San Francisco-based startup had just over 100 employees. In the past four years, the company has experienced the “hypergrowth” that has become common for companies in the startup world and now boasts 1,700 employees in offices throughout world. An IPO is expected this year.
As Fong sees it, working in tech you’re a day-to-day problem solver. “It’s not about computer science. It’s not about math. Those are just the tools you use to solve a situation,” he said, adding that his ability to problem-solve was honed by educators at Tower Hill who routinely presented students with problems and encouraged them to figure things out for themselves.
“People who come from straight-up math and science backgrounds often don’t have the creativity to think outside the box to solve a problem. They approach a problem from a completely logical perspective, and there’s very little intuition or ability to flex, which you have to do a lot because these companies grow very fast,” Fong said. “At Tower Hill, they made sure that you could think creatively and come up with solutions that weren’t necessarily black and white. There are a lot of grey areas when companies grow, so it’s important to be adaptable.”
Fong notes that his English teachers Hugh Atkins and John Robinson inspired him to reflect on these grey areas, as well as his role in the world. Their classes included authors ranging from William Shakespeare to Neal Stephenson who explored a common theme: “How do you view the world, and how can you make it better?”
“These courses were a lot about how do you see the world and how can you push the boundaries of the world, which I found very interesting, and I think it probably has some thematic parallels about how every single person in Silicon Valley views the world,” Fong said. “You’ll never find anyone here who doesn’t think that they can’t change the world in some crazy way. It’s very idealistic, and I think those classes were very idealistic.”
Tower Hill also fostered Fong’s interest in computer science. He remembers accessing his email via a workstation in the Science Department, but noted that the program never worked properly—and he enjoyed the challenge of fixing it. That, coupled with a programming course, jumpstarted his interest in tech and led him to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) upon graduation in pursuit of a computer science degree. After one semester, Fong found that he missed the liberal arts.
At RPI, “there wasn’t a lot of English, there wasn’t a lot of philosophy, there wasn’t anything that made you think outside of a very defined black-and-white system. And I actually missed that. I just really hated not being able to have any books to read aside from an algorithm or a book on pure programming or a straight-up calculus. It didn’t fulfill everything that I wanted to do.”
Second semester, he transferred to the University of Delaware and combined his major in computer science with a minor in philosophy, which taught him how to construct a logical argument, a skill he uses nearly every day. During college, he combined his coursework with jobs at Ameristar Technologies/Versalign, Emron and LNH Inc. This work experience—as well as some old-fashioned networking—helped him land a job at AOL and later YouTube.
His advice to students feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of school: learn to prioritize.
“I never really realized it until actually post-college, but at Tower Hill there is a massive amount of things going on with athletics and class work and homework and class trips and all that, and the ability to pick what’s important and decide ‘This is where I’m going to spend my time’ is important,” Fong said. “To actually have good time management is probably one of the most valuable things I’ve gotten out of Tower Hill. Nothing felt hard after Tower Hill.”