Getting Ahead

A Love for Problem-Solving Keeps This Software Engineer Inspired at Work

person with beard and gray T-shirt sitting outside
Emmett Wilson, a software engineer at Dropbox.
| Courtesy of Dropbox

Emmett Wilson’s path to becoming a software engineer was not a straight one—he likes to call it unconventional. After studying mathematics in undergrad and graduate school, “I was working as a bike courier after college because pure mathematics was not an in-demand skill set,” says Wilson, who is now a mobile software engineer at Dropbox. “I saw a post about Hour of Code, an online coding tutorial, and decided to give it a try.”

That led to a weekend-long Python course, which turned into Wilson making apps and games in his free time. “I eventually tried my hand at Android development and was hooked,” he says. “The mobile form factor gave me tons of ideas of apps to keep me interested and I decided to make this my career.”

Around the same time that Wilson was plotting his new career path, a nonprofit called LaunchCode was starting up in St. Louis to help people break into programming careers. He landed an apprenticeship through them as an Android developer, which turned into a full-time job—and today, Wilson helps build features for users of Dropbox.

Here, he shares why it’s exciting to work at Dropbox, how his past work experiences have shaped his approach to engineering, and advice for those who want careers in tech.

What attracted you to work at Dropbox?

As I got further in my career, I was looking for new challenges. Dropbox really piqued my interest because they are doing impactful work but do not rely on selling ads or user data. Trust is at the core of their philosophy and this really resonated with me.

What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?

My team is called Mobile Home, and we are focused on features that impact individual users in both the free tier and Plus, like Sharing, Vault, Photos, Media Previews, and Recents. I love working in this space because we are providing value to users and hopefully making them love Dropbox enough to purchase a paid plan. It is really rewarding to read reviews of how people are using the features we work on.

After college, you worked in restaurant management and as a bike courier. What lessons did you learn from those experiences that you apply to your current work?

Slow down to speed up. Restaurants and couriering were fast-paced, high-stress environments. The pace of work is not dictated by you but by external factors like customer and traffic flow. Mistakes, crashes, and minor setbacks will slow you down and compound very quickly in these environments. Slowing down in the moment to prepare, clean up, replenish stock, ensure correctness, or assist with bottlenecks means you can keep a fast, sustained pace.

This directly applies to software development, too. We tend to have rushes for deadlines, but even when we are aggressively pushing for a big launch date it is important to keep the quality bar high and the codebase clean and bug free as you go. Leaving significant tech debt behind for the sake of speed in the moment only slows down future features and can put deadlines at risk.

Your educational background is heavily rooted in mathematics. How does that shape your approach to your work as a software engineer?

I was always drawn to pure mathematics because I love riddles and puzzles. In school, programming was always a tool. It never really drew me in beyond that because it always felt like repeating the same problems—like sorting a list in a bunch of different ways. When I entered the industry, this completely changed. Every day there is a new problem to solve and I always get to use problem-solving skills and logic to find solutions. I particularly love working on bugs because of the puzzling aspect of them. When I finally crack a complicated bug, I get really excited and have had to temper that excitement until after the bug is fixed.

What’s the best career advice you’ve received?

“Become an expert at the domain you are working in.” Tech as an industry is interesting. While we may work in tech, we also work in some other sector whether it be retail, education, photography, media, etc. Whatever your interest, you can find a tech career in that industry. Early in my career I worked as a consultant. This meant I was able to work on projects in many different industries like bakeries, retail, pizza delivery, car rentals, event planning, and ridesharing. One of my early mentors told me that no matter the domain, there was always the need for more than just a programmer. By learning the ins and outs of the specific industry you are working in, you can better collaborate with product and design to build things that provide real value for users and the business.