Digital Design Leader: Jason VanLue

by Alex Stetson

Jason VanLue has made the big leap from design agency leader at EnvyLabs to product owner at Code School. In this interview we discuss how he navigated that journey and what lessons he’s learned along they way. Although Jason’s journey has really just begun his insights are very valuable for anyone designing or managing a digital product.

Hear from the other digital design leaders we interviewed


Transcript

Jason: I’m Jason VanLue. I help lead Envy and Code School down in Orlando, Florida – home of the Mouse and lots of sunshine. It’s great to be up here in Boston where it’s nice and cold.

Richard: Yeah.

Jason: Yeah.

Richard: Code School is a product of Envy. It’s actually something that’s grown out of the studio.

Jason: Right.

Richard: You’ve ended up being the one at the reins. Tell us a little bit about that transition.

Jason: Right. Envy started about four or five years ago as a web consultancy and still exists today as a web consultancy. We have quite a few clients that we build software for and different web applications. Code School was kind of an experiment about three and a half years ago I guess now where we were doing a lot of teaching and training in the community. That’s always kind of a big core value of ours, being involved in the community. We were teaching an introductory course on Rails. One of our developers decided let’s try to make this more fun, kind of a game. So, we created what was called Rails for Zombies, because we decided if you throw zombies on anything…

Richard: It’s going to blow up.

Jason: …it’s all of the sudden cool.

Richard: Yeah.

Jason: We created Rails for zombies as kind of like this experiment. We were just going to try it out. It started to gain a little bit of traction. A lot of people were excited about it. It was good content. We just decided let’s see how this thing goes. I wish I could say we had this brilliant brand and product strategy, but honestly we didn’t. We just kind of took one day at a time. Three and a half years later we now have over 20,000 subscribers, half a million users.

Richard: Wow.

Jason: It’s pretty wild how we’ve kind of come from that small, small sort of product. My kind of journey is I started out as the lead designer there at Envy and was responsible for all of the creative, all of the brand, the lack of brand strategy I guess for Code School. Over the past several years I’ve kind of transitioned from that role into being someone who kind of leads, helps lead overall strategy for both Envy and Code School.

Richard: Tell us about that transition. It’s clearly quite a big difference in day to day activity, right?

Jason: It is quite a big difference. At times I miss being able to kind of design, although I still try to insert myself wherever I can as much as possible. But, my background, I used to own and lead a small little studio with just a couple of people back in the early days. I have some experience kind of running a company, leading a company, but nothing quite like this. Day to day it’s completely different having to be responsible for decisions that not only affect what you’re designing, what’s right in front of you on the screen, but having to make decisions that affect the company as a whole, all of the users.

Richard: Right.

Jason: You know, all of those kinds of things is kind of a big deal.

Richard: What did that mean for you personally? I mean how did you have to change who you are in order to be able to do that job?

Jason: One of the great things about Envy is we are so culture driven. We make it a big point to make sure that everybody there not only feels like they can sort of embrace their own unique personality and their own unique individualism, but at the same time each person has a very high level of respect from everybody else. The buzzword’s a flat organization, but we really don’t think we are. Really, what it is, is we each have the same level of respect for one another. Everybody’s opinions matter. On that side of things I don’t feel like a lot changed in terms of who I was and how I acted at the company. I think what really changed for me is just having a much greater responsibility. I think for me a lot of it was internal as opposed to external and just…

Richard: Confidence maybe?

Jason: Confidence and, you know, I mean coming into the office every day recognizing that everybody sitting at a desk, what I do and the decisions that I make and the way that I conduct myself directly affects them. So, having that be a good burden but not a crushing burden…

Richard: Overwhelming one, right?

Jason: …is kind of the balance you have to strike.

Richard: Do you think that there’s been a leadership theme or quality in your life throughout, or is it something that happened because of this experience?

Jason: Yeah, yeah, I think so, even growing up. I was a competitive swimmer for 12 years. Through high school I was captain of the swim team and things like that. I think there’s always been sort of that level of wanting to take leadership and wanting to take ownership of things. But, when you’re talking about a team of 20, 30, 40 people versus a bunch of high schoolers, young kids, it’s totally different.

Richard: Right.

Jason: Even though I think there’s been a strong desire for that, I learn lots of things each and every day mostly about what not to do.

Richard: Let’s talk a little bit about that. Over the last couple of years you’ve had to make a bunch of decisions. You’ve hired people. You’ve fired people, I’m sure. Anything that you would do over, any mulligans you’d do?

Jason: I think one big thing has to do with young people getting into the industry and sort of starting out. One of the great things about our industry is there’s this sense of entrepreneurship, or individualism, or wanting to make things and wanting to create things. At least for me getting started in the industry there was a strong desire to just strike out on my own and sort of go west and find my territory. I would actually recommend against that for most anybody who’s getting into the industry. I wish I would have gotten into a really solid firm, or agency, or group of people that I could just sit under and be an apprentice or be someone who can just glean from people. Because I think I just was kind of a wanderer. I didn’t really know what to do, or how to write contracts, or how to deal with clients. Even today I’m still, you know, trying to figure a lot of those things out as I go. That’s one big thing. I think if you’re new to the industry, or even if you’re not necessarily young but getting into the industry when you’re a little bit older, find somebody who can really be a mentor to you. Find somebody who you can watch how things happen and be able to get some of those experiences before you strike out on your own.

Richard: Do you have external mentors and advisors to your life right now?

Jason: I do. Internally at the company Gregg Pollack, who’s kind of the founder of Envy and Code School, is really the guy who I think has spurred a lot of this growth and development on. He’s somebody who I greatly look up to and have been able to sort of sit under and with as kind of a peer throughout the last several years. Then, also externally there are several people in the field and even outside of the industry who I deeply respect either in business or just in life who I go to regularly. Even, like, the past two weeks we’ve had a pretty significant issue with a client. Being able to bounce ideas and hey I’m thinking about responding in this way, how might that come across really helps me to be able to ground myself, I think, before having to make some of those difficult decisions.

Richard: If you were your younger self would there be a kind of mentorship path that you would actively pursue?

Jason: Yeah. I mean I think what was difficult is I don’t think I took the initiative upon myself. I think that’s important. You can’t just wait for somebody to pick you up. You have to be able to say… You have to be able to be humble enough to know that you need guidance and direction and have the initiative to go after somebody and really pursue them. I don’t think that’s any different now.

Richard: Right.

Jason: It’s the same kind of thing. I don’t need to wait for somebody to come to me. I need to go to them. But, at the…

Richard: You might just start sooner.

Jason: Yeah. But, at the same time I think… And, even as a challenge to myself… And, really deeply respect what you guys do with your apprenticeship program. It’s something that we want to grow down at Envy more. Because I want to be someone who helps people figure that out and kind of find that out. Be a place where young people can come, or old people, it doesn’t really matter.

Richard: People.

Jason: Who can just learn, you know?

Richard: Yeah.

Jason: And, hopefully, learn from a lot of the mistakes that I’ve made and be able to have a better track and a better sort of progression through this thing we call business and life by learning from others.

Richard: How much has… Describe maybe your office to us, the physical space. How much does that affect how you work and the cultural organization?

Jason: Yeah. It’s actually a lot like this. We have the same light fixtures.

Richard: Oh, good.

Jason: It’s wide open space. Like I said, culture is a huge thing for us. And, we purposely structured our office in a couple of different ways. We have a large common area, and the common area is meant for anything but work. We want people to come in there and grab a beer or play Smash Bros. on the T.V. or just talk about things, hang out. Then, we have a dedicated work space which is still very open and very relaxed. But, at the same time it’s meant that when you’re in there you’re meant to be collaborating. It’s structured such that you can collaborate but you can do it in a way that doesn’t feel quite as open as maybe the common area would be. We’re trying to create these kind of environments where you don’t feel like you have to be stuck in this little box cubicle all day.

Richard: Yeah.

Jason: You know, open collaboration at the same time having fun. Fun and excellence are two of our core values, and we feel like they go hand in hand in the day to day operations of what we do.

Richard: Yeah. We have had the opportunity to see an industry grow up over the last 10, 12 years. A lot’s changed. Clearly, there was no guidance as to what we should do.

Jason: Right.

Richard: Somebody younger getting into this field can possibly get some guidance from our experiences. What do you think in terms of your responsibility to being a mentor to those folks?

Jason: Boy, that’s the million dollar question. I think that what I love about this industry is that I think it’s one of the most open industries that I can think of. Certainly, I haven’t been as deep in some of those other industries. But, you look at, like, the medical industry or other professional industries. It seems like those industries are really built around competition.

Richard: Right.

Jason: And around protecting…

Richard: Secrecy?

Jason: Yeah. You know, your product or whatever it is that you have, you need to protect it at all costs. This industry is very open. We’re willing to share ideas. We’re willing to share where we
screwed up. I have a friend who publishes contracts online and just said this is what we send to clients, feel free to use at your discretion. Those types of things I think are just extremely important for people who are newer or people who have a lot of experience just to be able to share these ideas, and experiences, and what not to do, and what to do.

Richard: Right.

Jason: I think that’s what makes our industry really special, and I think if we protect anything in our industry it’s that.

Richard: It’s that.

Jason: Making sure that we don’t become this secretive kind of protectionist industry but that we continue to be open.

Richard: Good. What’s in the future for Jason specifically? What’s the next big challenge or step for you guys?

Jason: Yeah, that’s a very good question. I mean I think continuing to grow the product, having a product and having a consultancy is really fun, because we get to do a lot of both worlds. Our desire would be to continue to grow Code School such that we help more and more people certainly such that it creates a really good revenue model and business model for us. I don’t think it’s the last product we’ll create. We’ve got some other kind of things in the works and in the mix. Then, who knows? I’ve got three kids. I don’t particularly want any more, but we’ll see what the future holds there.

Richard: See what your wife decides.

Jason: Yeah, exactly. But, seeing them grow up and having the ability to be a part of a company that values that, that values hard work and creating, making things but also values that family
side.

Richard: Yeah.

Jason: It’s really, really neat. Yeah.

Richard: Are there any particular leadership skills that you think are worthy of your attention in the future, maybe you have to work on a little harder?

Jason: Absolutely. I think the biggest thing right now that I need to work on is how I relate to clients on a non-technical level. I think we’re really, really strong at design, and development, and relating to clients on kind of this is what we’re doing for you. But, when it comes to being that just really good relationship on a personal level, on a person to person type of level, it’s something that we and I need to do a much better job at. So, growing those kind of schools to be able to relate and to be able to have the humility and the willingness to put out fires or stop fires before they even happen is something that I know I need to grow and hopefully we’ll be pursuing in the near future.

Richard: Good. Well, Jason, I wish you luck. Thank you very much for coming down.

Jason: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure, been a lot of fun.

Richard: Cool. I’ll have to come visit you next time.

Jason: Yeah, do it.

Richard: Especially on a day like today.

About Fresh Tilled Soil

Fresh Tilled Soil is a Boston-based user interface and experience design firm focused on human centered digital design