Uncertainty and Big Decisions — J.J.’s Path to the Web

JJ Carlson - Director of Web Development - Columbia Marketing GroupI’m an introvert. I’m a nerd. I don’t have a fascinating story to tell. For the most part, I walk through every day unbeknownst to the world around me. I pursued a career in the digital space not because I want to minimize my interactions with people, but because I want to maximize my time with what I enjoy doing for a living.

“The path to success is to take massive, determined action.”
Tony Robbins

Humans don’t create straight paths. We are incapable of creating straight paths. If we employ instruments to create straight paths for us, we end up diverting those paths in some way. I aim to create a straight path for me and my family, and at the same time, I work hard to disrupt that line and create obstacles. After all, if life was predictable, it would be boring. Progress comes from making committed decisions and disrupting the flow of daily routine. With change comes opportunity.

Creative strategy and technical expertise were always mutual interests of mine

My path to the Business Times Company (BTC) can be traced back to my elementary school years. While I managed just fine for a while in all subjects, the areas that captured most of my passion were in creativity. I wrote stories that were dozens of pages long while my classmates barely could pen a single page. I spent time outside of school working out the details in my art projects. I drew at home.

To create what you want, learn to use the tools you need

When I first was introduced to computer art, the screens at the time had large blocks of pixels rather than the high definition screens we use today; yet I spent time creating something on screen, pixel by pixel, until I was satisfied. In eighth grade I wrote a “choose your adventure” program on the computer. My brain wasn’t comfortable working just in the left or the right. I had to dive into both.

In high school I had the privilege of developing my own personal track in art class, so I spent most time drawing. I created my first website in computer class, but this was in the 90s, and the previous year we had typewriters instead of computers in that classroom! So, given today’s digital culture, I was already behind. That didn’t stop me from using the tools I had to create, however, and my interest in digital creation only grew.

Hard work isn’t just on the farm

JJ Carlson posing with Pluto at Disney's Hollywood Studios
JJ Carlson and Pluto

Before graduating college, I was lucky enough to participate in the Disney College Program in Orlando. The program turned out to be one of the most exciting and growing times of my life. Not only did I gain lifelong friends but I also worked hard and had a blast doing it. It was also a nice perk to go and play in the parks on days off, which I did often.

Upon graduation from Minnesota State University, Mankato, with a graduate certificate in Technical Communication, I accepted a position at a technology company in Austin, Texas, where I wrote and edited a manual for a teen robotics competition. Unfortunately, after a few short months, I realized that the work I thought I’d enjoy doing just wasn’t fulfilling. My creative passion was nearly wiped out of my daily tasks. I needed to disrupt my flow. So I ditched the job and pursued web and graphic design.

What was so helpful at that point in my life is that the employer who was willing to hire me wasn’t looking for someone who knew how to do everything; they just wanted someone who could get the job done in an adequate way. I wasn’t interested in half-assing through my creative projects there, however, and I sharpened my eye for great design. My time in and out of the office was often spent learning design techniques and software that I could have learned had I chosen that path in college. It’s a path that has become more common in recent years with the internet offering both free and paid resources to learn.

My wife forced me into uncertainty, and it became one of my greatest life blessings

Bichon, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and Dachshund (Lily, Monty, Simone) - JJ and Alisa's dogs
Lily (Bichon), Simone (Dachshund), and Monty (Cavalier King Charles Spaniel)

I worked with that employer for nearly three years, and during that time, I met my wife, Alisa. Our love for dogs is what brought us together, because our dogs, Monty and Lily, insisted on meeting each other. After that, we often met outside, leashes in hand and dogs playing at our feet, to chat for long hours. Alisa, who currently works as Associate Curator of European and American Art at the Museum of Art and Archaeology in Columbia, was pursuing her PhD in Art History when we first met, and her pursuits actually played a significant role in my path to where I am today.

JJ and Alisa on their wedding day
JJ and Alisa on their wedding day

Soon before our wedding day in June 2011, Alisa was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to perform research in Berlin, Germany, which was an exciting disruption in our lives. I left my job and we embarked on a new chapter as newlyweds in a city (and country) full of captivating culture, art, and people. While Alisa did her research on the portrait drawings of Hans Holbein the Elder, I was the “Hausmann” (house man, or house husband, as we often said). My duties included making the meals, cleaning house, and other tasks.

The greatest professional opportunity for me while we were in Germany was the option to study and practice coding and design. I had a membership to one of my favorite resources, Lynda, where I regularly took courses in web design and development. By the end of our time in Berlin, I had learned how to customize themes from scratch in WordPress, design in Illustrator and Photoshop, and more, and I had created and published a portfolio site of my work.

Illustrator artboard with wolf illustration work in progress
Arctic Wolves sports logo illustration using techniques and software learned while in Germany
Photoshop document of jjcarlson website
Work in progress Photoshop document of JJ’s portfolio website.

Uncertainty brought about opportunity

The scary thing with returning to the U.S. after a year abroad was answering the question, “What next?” Because Alisa was writing her dissertation in her PhD program at the University of Texas at Austin, we decided returning to Austin was the most logical next step. I was applying for jobs in both graphic and web design, but had no certainty as to which path I would end up in.

After interviews at various employers, I was offered the position of Graphic Designer at a small web and technology company. While I was excited about having the job, I wasn’t as excited about fitting into a position solely focusing on graphic design. All of the coding I learned over the previous year sparked a strong interest in me for designing and developing for the web.

Just five days prior to starting that job, I was contacted directly by the marketing director at Practice Cafe. She found my resume on Indeed and viewed my online portfolio, and indicated that my visual design skills fit what they had been looking for. I interviewed the next day, and was offered the job the following day. As a web designer at Practice Cafe, my role was to not only design a website but also code and publish it. Typically job roles exist either in design or coding, rarely both. Practice Cafe’s needs met my ambitions perfectly.

For over three years with Practice Cafe, I moved the web department to where it is today. When I started my role with the company, we were a staff of two, and we designed and custom coded all of our websites. When I departed, the web department had more than doubled in size and was developing custom WordPress sites for our clients, and providing ongoing web support and backup services. During my time with Practice Cafe, I stressed the importance of stronger SEO focus, and that led to the launch of an SEO program, which resulted in the start of Practice Cafe’s SEO team. The SEO team became the fastest growing department on staff, and it continues to be the leader in SEO for dentists among dental marketing companies.

The people you have relationships with matter more than your abilities, and your loyalty to each other strengthens your work

I value people and relationships more than most anything else in my professional life, and at Practice Cafe I developed a strong loyalty to my team and leaders. We cared for each other not only inside the office but outside as well. They are my friends, and I am so grateful for my time with them.

Loyalty through change sharpens our character

Alisa and I moved to Columbia in September 2015. I continued to work for Practice Cafe, but took on a remote role. Up until that point, Practice Cafe only had on-site staff members. Given how Alisa’s job could lead us in any direction, my leaders recognized the likelihood that I would not remain in Austin, but valued my contributions enough that they wanted to keep me on staff. The loyalty worked in both directions.

It’s funny, then, that I talk about loyalty to Practice Cafe, and I’m now working for the awesome BTC. Well, let me tell you, it was quite the interview process! I was contacted in the spring of 2016 regarding a new position (Director of Web Development) at Columbia Marketing Group (CMG). My first response was no thanks, I’m happy where I am, but I was encouraged to at least do an interview.

I met with Erica for the first interview. She explained to me that CMG was looking to expand into web with someone who can design and code websites, which is what I’d been doing with Practice Cafe for over three years. Immediately I could tell Erica was someone I can get along with and have a great deal of respect for, so I was torn. I talked with Alisa about the position and the company, and she said she would support my decision either way, but had strong feelings toward BTC. Still, I declined, with my main reason being my loyalty to the people at Practice Cafe.

Erica reached out again to me, encouraging me to come in to interview a second time and meet some of the team. She insisted that I would be the right fit for the team. I was sincerely flattered and felt that it would be in my best interest to meet with her again and be introduced to some of the team.

My second interview was more casual, which demonstrated BTC’s commitment to its people in another way. Erica explained the importance of healthy culture within the business, and man, she really is a person you can trust and respect by listening to for only a short time! I then met with Jamie and Brenna, two brilliant people with strong visions and goals.

After my second interview, I actually called my boss at Practice Cafe and told her just how torn I was. What followed was one of the best conversations I’ve ever experienced. She said that (as my boss) it would be sad to lose me as a valued employee, but (as a friend, and if she was my sister) that I should go for it because it’s a great opportunity to start something exciting and get involved within the community I now live. Having that real, open and honest conversation with my boss and friend reinforced my belief that people in general are kind and caring.

I disrupted my path in order to strengthen my future. BTC and CMG are now my home!

JJ Carlson goofified!
JJ in a Photoshopped, goofy way.

The people and the culture at the Business Times Company are what make the company successful. The passion and drive demonstrated here create and maintain progress. The commitment to each other produces results and keeps us moving forward. The loyalty that comes from that environment has proven to me that my decision to accept this position was the right one, and I’m excited to see where we go.

We have plenty of work to do, and plenty of exciting things to create. I love to create. I have a passion for both creative and technical, which is why I’m so grateful for an opportunity to do both. Without having that balance, I feel like I’m missing out. I’ve taken action in many directions of my professional development in order to get where I am today, and with the digital world’s horizon only expanding and diversifying, I’m never going to stop learning about how to provide unique and exciting experiences on the web.

I decided early on that I can be creative, and I can learn the tools to create what I want, so I wrote long stories as a child, and I learned to code and design websites as an adult. Now I get to do both of those things with CMG. The only limitation I believe we have is the limitation we choose for ourselves. I’m eagerly looking forward to where CMG will continue to go, and how our team will evolve with the digital world around us. It might not always be what we expect, but we can always expect to evolve and succeed when we continue to believe in each other.

My path at home

Cohen, JJ's son, in a baseball uniform pajama outfitAlisa and I have seen a lot of new directions and uncertainties in the last couple of years. Our most joyful direction this year is a diaper-filling bundle of joy named Cohen. He makes it easy to have an excuse to stay home. We’re blessed to have this little cutie to take care of, even if taking care of a dependent human is one of the scariest, most challenging jobs anyone can have. It’s also (obviously) one of the greatest jobs anyone can have, and we’re so ready to take on the challenge.