Box’s Aaron Levie on disruptive innovation

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Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie, who spoke at ACT-IAC’s annual Management of Change conference last month, talked to FedScoop about the tech landscape. (Wyatt Kash/FedScoop)

Few places contrast in culture, style and productivity more vividly than Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. Yet a form of high-tech, high-touch shuttle diplomacy appears to be rekindling between the two coasts as the White House keeps recruiting some of the valley’s brightest tech stars and tech firms sense fresh business opportunities from government.

Washington’s connection with the tech world is hardly new. But recent trips by Defense Secretary Ash Carter to set up a Silicon Valley innovation lab and by U.S. CIO Tony Clark, who led an entourage of federal CIOs on a West Coast tech tour last month, have put a fresh spotlight on Washington’s renewed efforts to inject innovation into federal agencies.

Coincidentally, while Clark’s team toured Silicon Valley, one of the valley’s latest tech millionaires, Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie, was calling on federal agencies in and around Washington just days before the Justice Department announced it had awarded a contract for his company’s cloud-based file sharing and information management tools for all 59 of the department’s bureaus and offices.

FedScoop caught up with Levie to talk about the rapidly evolving technology landscape in Silicon Valley and what those changes are likely to mean to government agencies and IT leaders.

(Editor’s note: Interview edited for clarity and length.)

FedScoop: You recently tweeted “There won’t be an ‘Uber for everything,’ or an ‘Airbnb for everything,’ but there will be a disruptive model for everything.” What steps would you advise your 45,000 enterprise customers – including government agencies – to take in response to these disruptive forces?

Aaron Levie: The disruptive thing about both Uber and Airbnb – what they both built were services that got to the very essence of what people were trying to do with those categories of products.

So with transportation, if you had to design that kind of experience through first principles, the most basic thing you really want is on-demand transportation. So what Uber did was design an end-to-end experience that delivered a high-quality, highly consistent transportation experience. They reinvented almost every single mode of transportation and the taxi business to deliver that.

The same is true now in a lot of other industries. What we’re seeing is this ability to go back to the very root of what are people actually trying to do with the service you offer, and [ask] what is the absolute best way to way to deliver that?

So for a government agency, this actually has massive implications.

What is the organization actually trying to do? What can technology do to allow me to achieve that job better? So when you say what is the job of the IRS, the [U.S.] patent office, the FDA, you can really reimagine a lot of the digital experiences that would get created to do those jobs better.

We’re going through a revolution where consumers have all new expectations around how they’re going to interact with corporations as well as governments. Government agencies have an opportunity to really reimagine how they deliver their service their constituents.

FS: Given your perspective of the technology landscape, what do you see changing over the next 12 to 24 months, and what would you advise government CIOs and other officials to factor into their planning?

AL: What’s happening right now is there’s an explosion of innovation in the enterprise space, within Silicon Valley. This wasn’t true five or 10 years ago.

I would say things like the government procurement process that we’ve run into [isn’t] prepared for the volume of new innovation that we’re seeing.

The risk that we see is the government has a procurement process that assumed there are like 10 consistent vendors that build everything in the world – and it turns out there are actually going to be hundreds if not thousands of amazing technology companies that could drive better innovation within the government.

But the process that we have to procure technology in the government can’t possibly keep up with that amount of innovation.

In the private sector, you don’t have this issue. The private sector is only limited by bandwidth and the strategic priorities of the organization. Unfortunately, the government sector has artificial limitations because the procurement process tends to exceed what a startup will want to work through to actually serve the government.

So the big challenge is that we’re going to have a divergence in the kind of innovation that you can get from technology — and that a private company can get — and what the public sector can get.

I think that’s a huge risk. Because at a point where we need more productivity and innovation in the government, it’s going to be harder to leverage the best-in-class technologies that are emerging.

And the cycle is just going to repeat itself where we’re just going to be running on the next version of whatever EMC or Oracle has. I think it’s really important to recognize that there’s hundreds of “Boxes” out there that are building innovation technologies and we need to find a way to get them into government.

FS: While government leaders have arguably embraced cloud computing more quickly than they get credit for, government still moves at a glacier pace adopting new technology. So what interests or compels Box about doing business with government?

AL: I think for us, we are not fazed by heavily regulated industries. We have gone proactively at the health care space, at financial services — and we’ve had pretty significant success in serving those organizations.

The only difference [with government is] you don’t have the same competitive forces as those industries face. So the impetus driving new technology change in government agencies is way more out of personal passion from IT leaders to drive better technology into their organization. That’s a pretty fundamental difference between government and the private sector in general.

Our excitement really stems from what we think our technology can offer the government [in terms of] enabling individuals and organizations to share, to collaborate, to move information between teams and institutions, in a very secure way.

FS: Where is Box in terms of getting the government’s Federal Risk and Management Program (FedRAMP) authority to operate cloud services for agencies?

AL: We have a bunch of agencies that have signed on board [for certain enterprise services], so we don’t have much friction there. We’re going through the FedRAMP [application and review] process now to make that even more frictionless [with Box’s Enterprise Cloud Content Collaboration Platform].

We are being sponsored by DISA [Defense Information Systems Agency] at the Department of Defense for our FedRAMP certification.

We have probably a dozen or two agencies that are using Box in some meaningful way.

FS: Box works with a lot of partner companies. How would you describe to government IT users where Box fits in the ecosystem of managing data in the cloud?

AL: The way to think about Box is we handle the infrastructure for storing and securing content. But we also have a software layer that has all the application capabilities around managing information securely.

For employees, it’s being able to securely share files. At the other end, an agency is able to develop applications on top of our platform.

So if you think about having content management capabilities, workflow capabilities, collaboration capabilities — they get exposed into our first-party products, like our mobile experience, but you can also build on top of those capabilities.

If you want to build a new digital front end to your agency, that might allow third parties to share or collaborate with you, that can be built on top of the Box platform.

Read more about what Levie told an audience of government IT leaders at last month’s American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council annual Management of Change conference.

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Aaron Levie, Box Inc., Government IT News, Innovation, Procurement
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