Interview: Sam Schillace, the man behind Google Docs, just left to join red-hot collaboration startup Box

Credit: Sam Schillace via Google+

Sam Schillace was a pioneer in consumerization: back in 2004, he created Writely, the web-based collaborative word processing program that Google acquired and turned into the basis of Google Docs. 

Last week, Schillace left Google to become the director of engineering for Box, a red-hot provider of cloud-based collaboration services to enterprises. Box started off in 2005 as a consumer company, but switched to an enterprise focus a few years ago and has never looked back. It has since signed up millions of end-user customers, and is in use at about 80% of Fortune 1000 companies. It's also raised more than $200 million in venture funding, which will give it plenty of room to continue to expand.

We caught up with Schillace yesterday to discuss what he learned with Writely and at Google, and learn his biggest goals for Box.

Writely started off as an experiment. Schillace had been fascinated with AJAX, a then-new technique for building interactive web apps. He wanted to see how far they could get building a full word processor that ran within a browser.

Within months, he was getting calls from enterprises who were curious about the product. Google quickly realized Writely was on to something, and acquired the company in 2006. Schillace stuck around to help Google build a real enterprise business and learned a lot about the power of consumerization. By focusing on users first, Google created tools that improve employee productivity without requiring a lot of extra training.

"Google fundamentally is a consumer company, and it's building a nice enterprise business out of those collaboration tools," said Schillace.

How nice? Probably more than $1 billion in revenue per year, based on its earnings statements. That's peanuts compared with Google's almost $40 billion ad business, but pretty impressive on a standalone basis.

The rise of smartphones has been a big driver of consumerization, says Schillace, and not just because they encourage users to access work from anywhere. Smartphones have a constrained user interface, with small screens that are limited to touch inputs. That means that app designers really have to think about the user experience. Now, people are expecting the same kind of ease of use in business software.

"You have a computer in your pocket now. Whether Android or iOS, it's a very high quality user experience. People expect that. They don't expect a clunky web form that looks like it was out of the '80s."

Schillace also believes the move to cloud-based collaboration and mobile devices is fundamentally changing how people think about work.

"We're seeing a trend away from the artifacts of collaboration. People don’t care about document itself. We used to write a document, print it out, and hand it to somebody."

Now, Schillace says, "people care more about context.. They care about the collaboration and interaction itself.... Getting the job done is what matters, not writing a perfectly formatted letter."

Even email is "starting to crack" with things like tweets, status updates, and instant messages driving up expectations for real-time collaboration.

Schillace couldn't say exactly what he'd be working on first, but he's most excited about building out Box as a platform.

"I'm less interested in Box as a storage company, and much more as a collaboration platform for businesses."

Last year, Box introduced a platform for developers to build collaborative business apps. Developers benefit from Box's attention to enterprise security needs and its scalable infrastructure."There are really hard problems to solve around permissions, data security, data transport, hierarchies, collaboration. These are problems I've confronted repeatedly in career."

More generally, Schillace believes that Box is at the intersection of three big trends: mobile, social, and cloud computing. "People talk about mobile, social, and cloud as three new emerging platforms. I feel like they're one platform, and there's a need for new tools to deal with that."

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