Here’s a question that the more forward thinking product manager would like an answer to: how does a tech startup scale up from 2,000 users to 175 million in just five years? As recent news reveals, that’s exactly what Dropbox has done – and its former head of service engineering, Rajiv Eranki, has been explaining the engineering that lay behind its explosive success.
A haphazard learning curve
Eranki joined the fledgling Dropbox team in 2008. That was in the days when it had just 2,000 users, and things were distinctly glitchy. His job was to help scale up the platform, and he had just one full-time colleague to help him.
Reassuringly for product managers looking after a new tech offering, in the beginning, Dropbox was, as Eranki puts it, “buggy” and it needed to have “joins” across its databases separated. But Eranki found the haphazard, inefficient efforts of the early team to be ultimately highly productive, because he thinks it led to some key engineering benefits that wouldn’t have been found otherwise.
Joins across databases were easy to accomplish, as it happens, and the Dropbox team did them as and when they needed to. And because they could put queries readily into MySQL, bug fixing was actually a breeze. And even if a product manager might be skeptical that a solitary database machine and a solitary front-end server could facilitate scaling upwards, the team would disagree: it meant they only had one log to study.
Combined, Eranki says, these factors allowed for “tremendous flexibility and scalability” and a good deal of learning to boot. Like, for example, finding out that they could use Python for everything: even when Dropbox had acquired its first million users, Python ensured that the platform would run on just a few hundred lines of code. As Eranki puts it, Python meant “we could get to 40m users without having to write thousands of lines of C code.”
When Eranki and his colleague analyzed what Dropbox’s real core users were doing with it, they worked out how the platform could be developed into a real money-making business. And he now believes it’s possible to scale up from 175 million users to a billion without any difficulty.
That silence you’re hearing is the sound of a product manager being impressed.