This UVA Grad is Helping Chart Instagram’s Future

James Quarles got his start in mechanical engineering, but his career soon veered into digital technology.
February 20, 2017

Since its 2010 founding, Instagram has grown from a plucky photo-sharing mobile app into a cultural behemoth with more than 600 million users. Businesses took note: within a year of launching a broad ad platform in 2015, more than 500,000 advertisers were paying to reach its users monthly.

The man at the helm of the company’s business operations is University of Virginia alumnus James Quarles, a 1997 mechanical engineering graduate who is now vice president of business at Instagram.

Recently, UVA Today caught up with Quarles for a few questions about the company’s trajectory, his path from the Engineering School to his current job, and how students interested in digital commerce should prepare for the field.

Q. How does someone with a mechanical engineering background end up in your position?

A. That’s a great thing about the Engineering School: You can’t get out of UVA without a really strong set of generalist skills. I took classes at Thornton Hall, attended the Jefferson Society on Friday evenings; I was in a fraternity; I was interested in a lot of different things. When I left UVA and went into operations consulting, I was working in cereal factories in Omaha, Nebraska and paper mills in Green Bay, Wisconsin, trying to get more efficiency out of production processes. This was right in the early days of e-commerce, and I ended up working on those manufacturers’ e-commerce strategies, which supported a transition into corporate strategy at Dell.

I went back to business school and spent a summer working at TiVo. I knew then that digital technology was my thing, but mechanical engineering was a great “how things work” foundation to build my career on.

Q. You went to Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, in 2011, and from there to Instagram. It’s been a big period of transition for the company; what has that been like?

A. In 2014, I started talking to Kevin Systrom, the CEO and cofounder of Instagram, and I realized there was nothing else I wanted to do. I love photography; I love marketing. This was a chance to work directly with businesses to help them get the most use out of Instagram, which was just beginning to build its business through advertising.

We were able to take our time to ensure the value proposition for marketers was built directly on top of our promise to consumers. Advertisers are eager to connect their brands to peoples’ passions through visuals in a place where they are open and receptive to discovering new things. And that’s exactly what we offer.

In the beginning, we would print out all the ads that were meant to run on Instagram and the CEO and I would review them by hand; we wanted to set a high bar right out of the gate. Then over time it became about measurement tools, results and targeting, because digital advertising offers those things in a way that has never been possible before.

Our growth as a company has been very thoughtful and measured every step of the way, yet this past year has been one of significant evolution.  We changed the feed so that it ranks stories instead of showing them in chronological order; we unveiled a new logo; we launched Instagram Stories. And we’re so much stronger as a result. That’s probably been my greatest career learning thus far – to sustain a sense of urgency to disrupt yourself well before someone else decides to.

Q. What’s next for the company?

A. We’re really excited to work with small businesses. We want millions of business to think of Instagram as a place where they can find new customers. It can be their shop window, a look book and their product catalog all at once.

We also very much want to take new formats such as Instagram Stories and find ways to make them even more powerful. If you transport people through immersive videos we think it can be more powerful than a billboard or a TV commercial.

The third place for us is commerce. Mobile shopping is a brand new Wild West. You have places like Amazon that have been really successful at making purchases on your phone easy, but I think the whole middle space of merchandizing and the exploration you naturally do in a store needs to be transposed to mobile.

Q. What advice do you have for students who are interested in working in those areas?

A. There’s no straight line from your chair on Grounds to a chair in your future career, because life doesn’t work that way. But No. 1, students need to embrace the entirety of the University. You are going to have to be a great communicator, you have to be strategic; you have to be really good at leading people. I don’t think it’s enough to just do one thing really well. Fortunately, I think UVA attracts that type of student through the admission process, and I think the diversity of what’s available on Grounds helps people to get there.

The second thing is, take more advantage of experiential and alumni-based engagements, where you get to see and get inspired by different fields. It doesn’t have to be technology. There’s so much disruption going on in many different areas – health care comes to mind – and getting hands-on experience and perspective from alumni can help you identify the trends that will shape that field over the next 20 years. Remember that Instagram didn’t exist when I graduated. Our co-founders hadn’t even started high school.

The third thing I’d say is to be aware that the first several jobs you take from Grounds are designed to give you baseline skills. It is perfectly OK to not know when you are 21 or 22 years old that “I want to go to work at Instagram now, because that’s what I’m passionate about in my career.” Build your skills first and evaluate your job opportunities based on what you will learn.

But once you do have an idea of what you’re passionate about, know that it’s infectious. Pursue it. Employers and the people you work with can tell.

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Rob Seal

Director of Media Management and Managing Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications