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#2 A Better Web with Ben Callahan

Ben Callahan is the co-owner and president of Sparkbox, a web software studio with offices in Dayton and Pittsburgh. He is a writer, speaker, and thinker on topics like web development processes, design systems, and building human-centered teams. In this episode, Ben shares his philosophy around working together to “build right.”

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Build Right: Workshops for a Better Web

Editor’s Note

Hoping that practice will make perfect on this whole using-a-microphone thing (and muting my iMessages, apparently). All the thanks to you for coming along for this ride.


ALAINA WIENS: Welcome to StrategyCar. I’m Alaina Wiens and this episode has been a long time coming. Audio problems, computer problems, mainly user error, but I’m so glad to finally bring you today’s guest, Ben Callahan. Ben is the co-owner and president of Sparkbox, a web software studio with offices in Dayton and Pittsburgh. He is a writer, speaker, and thinker about topics like web development processes, design systems, and building human-centered teams. He loves his family, he loves beach volleyball, and he loves coffee. When I started trying to shape this conversation around making things better on the web, I coincidentally came across Ben’s work at Sparkbox at the same time that his name kept coming up as someone I should talk to. And for good reason. He’s always quick with encouragement and in every conversation I learn something new. Ben, thank you so much for catching up with me today.

BEN CALLAHAN: No problem at all. It’s exciting.


ALAINA: When we talked last, I had just started doing a bunch of research on a bunch of things but I was just googling things like better web.

BEN: Yeah.

ALAINA: And I found you.

BEN: Right.

ALAINA: I thought it was amazing that someone out there in the world had been talking about doing the web better in such a concise way. And I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about what you do and what spark box is and sort of the philosophy behind the work that you do.

BEN: Yeah I’d love to. So Sparkbox is a–we call ourselves a software studio or a digital studio. There’s about 40 of us now and we’ve been around for coming up on 10 years. At the end of this year it will be 10 years and it’s been a crazy, crazy journey. You know, when we started there were just four of us and we just kind of got together because we really, because we wanted to create a place that we would want to work at, you know. And then we wanted to support our family. So that’s kind of how we got started. And then I think, you know, over the years as we’ve kind of just sort of grown slow, slow and steady really. One of the things that I would say we’ve really honed in on as kind of why we exist is because we’ve all built a lot of stuff on the web. And I think most people who are in this business have had that experience where they build a thing, they’re super excited about it because they’ve kind of kind of poured their life into it for a season. And you know you get it live and it’s out there and people are actually looking at it and then, you know, a month later, three months later, a year later it’s sort of kind of withered you know. And and one of the things that I think really drives us is that we were trying desperately to figure out how to build things that can last and in order for that to happen we really have to kind of–you can’t really fight against the grain of the web. [laughs] And so you have to kind of build in a way that is really flexible, that’s really, you know, I mean the beauty of the web is that anybody in the world 24/7, 365 days a year has the possibility of seeing the thing you’ve built. Right? And it’s never done. You can always change it. You can always fix it, you can always make it better. So you know those things require that you’re kind of being, you know, leaving a lot of room for flexibility, a lot of room for–you know, you want to build in layers so that lots of people can have access to this thing depending–irregardless, or regardless of like, are they on a slow connection or, you know, a small device? Are they on a huge screen, you know, or a projector somewhere or somewhere outside where the sun’s bright and shining and they don’t really have the same kind of level of visibility that you do inside? And there’s all these considerations and all this, all this flexibility. And that’s the beautiful thing about the web. It’s also what makes it tough, you know. And when we talk about building right, I struggle with that a little bit because I don’t ever want to come across as saying, “Hey, you’re doing it wrong, we’re doing it right.” That’s not at all what the intent is there. It’s really about stepping back from, you know, the control that we think we have and saying, “Hey, how can I build this in a way that it will last? How can I look at the customer that I’m working with or whoever it is, you know, the users that are going to use this thing and figure out what’s really going to serve them well and and try to kind of focus my energy on those things? And that’s, you know, that’s–there’s always constraints, right? But it’s like working within those constraints to try and build something that can last and that will really serve the user well.

ALAINA: So when you’re building those things and you’re trying to make things that’ll last, what do you think keeps products from lasting? What are you trying to safeguard against when you create this stuff?

BEN: You know, that’s a good question. I would say, you know, we tend to  kind of look at it like what’s,  what’s important to us in the moment and if we do that we’re kind of forgetting about the big picture, you know. We’re like a little bit too close to the problem or too close to a trend or a fad and we’re kind of jumping on what seems popular without looking at the history, you know, that we have in the industry and saying, “Hey, you know, where are we in that history and what’s worked before and, you know, will continue to work?” And so for us it’s kind of like, you know, we’re always playing with new stuff because we’re, you know, we’re kind of nerds and we love to do that but we’re always also very conscious of, you know, the kinds of technologies that our customers are using so we’re helping them make good decisions about that tech, not just saying, “Hey, you should be using whatever, you know, technology because that’s the cool new thing.” But understanding what could–what they could own, what they could maintain, you know, what would be a sustainable choice for them. There’s lots of things I would say that if you go out and look around on the web you’re going to find, you know, a whole bunch of websites that are not that good to be honest, you know, and probably half of those are ones that I built a long time ago [laughs], you know, so they’re out there right and everybody’s done it, and so I’m not ever trying to say, you know, like we’ve got this figured out but I think the whole point is that nobody has it completely figured out and that every single person out there who’s doing this probably has something that I can learn. You know, they’ve probably got something to teach me. So I’ve got to kind of approach this with that mindset of like, “Hey, I have a lot to learn,” but I really do honestly want to do something that’s going, that’s going to last. And I want to understand what the real reason we’re doing this is and really try to focus in on that, so.

ALAINA: Yeah, like you mentioned you’re still trying to learn and how we all should be trying to learn and one of the things that struck me about what I was able to find about what you guys do is that you seem to have this like educational component, too. You’ve got workshops that you offer and you do a lot of speaking and sharing. Why do you do that? I mean, I think that you can probably find hundreds of other people out there who do work similar to what you do that might consider their peers to be competitors and might not be so willing to share what they’ve learned or what they figured out over time. So why do you look at it differently?

BEN: I think it’s because of kind of how we started this conversation. The whole reason that we exist is because we really do want to try to create a better web. And there’s no–it’s impossible for us as 40 people to do that. It’s never going to happen,. Right? Forty people just with their heads down building stuff, like doesn’t even make a dent. The internet is massive. You know the web is the biggest thing ever. And so for us it has to be more about, like inspiring and empowering people, you know. So it’s kind of like it’s one thing for me to be able to build a site well. It’s another thing for me to teach, you know, some of the folks on my team to do that. It’s another level for us to kind of teach our customers and that’s kind of what we do every project that we do. It’s also an investment in the team that we’re working alongside. It’s always educational. We don’t ever disappear, build a thing, and come back and give it to somebody. It’s always we’re going to work alongside your team and so that education is built into the work. So it’s at that level as well but then also, you know, another level where we’re going and, you know, teaching a workshop on how we do the things that we do, or writing a small article maybe about some thing or some tidbit that we just learned, or running an apprenticeship, you know, where we can actually pour into somebody’s life and help them get a start in an industry. And all of those things have, like this like wildfire-like spread kind of potential, you know.


BEN: Like we can teach other people and they understand that they also–it’s not enough for them to just go do the work, that they also have to be sharing the things they’re learning. Then all the sudden the potential is there, right, for us to actually have an impact. And I don’t know, that’s what gets us up every day. You know, like it really is–like every person we hire is a learner. They’re all, they’re just they’re never satisfied with the status quo. They are always digging, they’re always trying new things. We joke about this but we say that our tools and our technologies and our process, it’s always fighting for its life because there’s always another way. There’s always someone out there that thinks they have a better idea and we’re gonna try it, you know. We’re going to we’re going to play it with it at least and if it helps us be more efficient or if it helps us deliver a better product then we’re going to embrace it, you know. So that’s kind of the mindset. I hope that answers the question.

ALAINA: Yeah definitely. And I really like a lot of what you said about how people in our field need to work together to work toward that better web because we can’t we can’t do it alone. We all have our piece to do. I wonder, especially with somebody like you who actually articulates it in that way, what does the web look like when it’s better? What does it do when it’s better that it doesn’t do now?

BEN: I mean, I bump into this stuff all the time, you know. Like I try to make a reservation online and, you know, I’m on my phone and it’s like half off the screen and I’m trying to get over there and select the input so I can type in a date or something and it just it, just doesn’t work, you know. And this is me, a guy who like, I live and breathe this stuff, you know. Like if anybody can figure out how to use a web interface on their phone it should be me, right? [laughs] But I’ve got the, you know, the latest greatest phone. I’ve got blazing fast internet. You know, all the cards are stacked in my favor, right. And if they’re–and I still all the time run into things that I just can’t, I can’t get it done. And, like that in my mind, it’s just, I can’t understand that, you know. I think we confuse this idea of what it means to be beautiful. Right? Like on the web, beauty–it’s almost been redefined. You know it’s like a new thing. It’s not just about how it looks. It’s about how it works and can somebody actually accomplish a task. And before we ever think about, you know, the type or the color or the spacing or any of that, we have to make sure the thing can work, you know, and animations and all these other things that can be tremendously helpful in the experience can also get in the way of something simple. And, you know, so I think just like going back to the basics at the beginning, you know. It’s this old idea of progressive enhancement that sticks with us no matter what else happens, you know. And the idea that we’ve got to start simple and just layer on. You know, we start with our content, layer on a way that that looks, you know, a design. And then we layer on some interaction. And if we take that approach then we kind of have this built in method for like, you know, allowing people—for sort of meeting people where they are, you know, whatever technology they happen to have at the moment and they’re able to accomplish the tasks. And so, I don’t know. I mean, there’s probably a million examples but the web would be faster. You know, it would be more accessible. It wouldn’t be difficult. I have a buddy who’s visually impaired and he was talking to him one day. We’ve done some work with him where he’s tested some of our sites and we have him come in and do a little testing on our work while we’re doing it instead of kind of at the end, you know, so that we have some idea from an accessibility standpoint how things are looking and how things are going. And I asked him one day just like, “Hey, you know, what websites do you use that are good? Tell me. Tell me, you know, what do you do?” And he’s like, “Oh, I don’t. I don’t use the web.” I was like, “Wait, what?” [laughs]


BEN: And he’s like, “It’s so bad that I just, I can’t do it.”

ALAINA: And that breaks my heart.

BEN: I know, right? And so, I want to be in a world where he would be like, “Oh, most of them are pretty good, you know. Like, you know, I can kind of get around and I can get the things done that I need to get done.” But it’s just not like that, you know. We have so much work to do, you know.

ALAINA: And if we can just get out of people’s way in the way that you’re talking about and– gosh, they’ll not just be able to make their dinner reservations, but they can get the information they need and the resources they need and… It feels, it feels sometimes like an awareness of that, an awareness of how us getting out of people’s way can be helpful to them comes along with some kind of obligation to tell everybody else.

BEN: [laughing] Yeah. Maybe.

ALAINA: Just, “Stop that. Let’s, let’s try to work toward something better.” And I struggle a little bit with how to communicate that message to folks that aren’t in a place to hear it or don’t understand where I’m coming from. Do you–have you run into that? Or do you have any advice for someone like me who wants so badly to bring people along and think about things in a new way but, especially in a community like where I am where there’s not a whole lot of other people doing work on the web, or–you know, I’m in Flint, Michigan where so many of the organizations in town are focused on their business and on serving the people that they’re trying to help. They don’t really have time to stop and think about how they can use the internet to help or how they can do the internet better to get out of people’s way.

BEN: Yeah.

ALAINA: Do you have any advice for how to bridge that gap and sort of bring people along?

BEN: Yeah, I mean I—So the approach that we’ve taken… I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Simon Sinek has this fantastic little TED talk that he did it’s like, I think it’s like 18 minutes long and it’s about basically about the power of “why.” He calls it, I think, the golden circle. And he basically just says that there’s too many people who are out there trying to tell everybody what they do and they’re not telling them why they do it. And he says several times in this talk, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” And so, you know, that has really kind of stuck with me ever since I saw that. And so everything that we’ve done has kind of come back to the why. And so what we do is we just, we just tell everybody what we believe about the web.  [laughs] And we’re incredibly vocal about it. And what that does, it does two things. One, it attracts people who care about those things, too. Right? The other thing is that it repels people who don’t care about those things. And so what happens for us is that employees who–people who are interested in working for us, well they come to us because they agree with that sort of philosophy and people who don’t agree with that just don’t apply. You know, like they’re not interested in working with us. And same thing with clients, you know, customers who care about those things come to us and say, “Hey, we’d love a chance to work with you.” People who don’t, they’re not interested in working with us. They just have other priorities. And so I think that’s been a way–and I’m not–this isn’t really a perfect answer to your question, but what it’s done for me is it’s at least, like, helped me to feel a little bit better about things because I think I understand the frustration that you’re expressing, you know, where there’s people who you could, you know that if they could just shift their mindset a little bit, you know, they could have a huge impact. But I don’t know if it works that way. You know, I don’t know that you can change people’s minds. So, what I what I try to do is just, you know, share the things that I believe and hopefully, you know, kind of put my money where my mouth is and demonstrate it with the work. And the educational side, you know we give people an opportunity to come learn the way that we do things. Or you know we lift, try to raise the voices of people who are doing great stuff, you know. And so that, that would be a way, you know maybe you could say, hey look, it’s not just me, look at all these other people who are also doing this. Look at the benefits, you know.

ALAINA: I never really thought of it before. You almost made it sound like a litmus test a little bit, like I make the joke a lot that I’m kind of the Lorax in my town wandering around going, “Listen to me talk about the internet!” and everybody’s like, “Oh-okay.” So that look that they get on their face when I get real excited and I overwhelm them a little bit might just be, you know, that moment where I realized that their priorities are not the same as mine.

BEN: Mm hmm.

ALAINA: Are you, are you maybe saying that if I keep going long enough I’ll find that other person who doesn’t look at me that way?

BEN: [laughing] Tell me you found one.

ALAINA: I think I will.

BEN: Yeah.

ALAINA:  I think I will. And I don’t–There have been moments along the way where people have very much said, “Yeah that makes a lot of sense I would love to help in some way.” But the reality of–I guess the landscape in which I find myself is that there’s just not a lot of people who, even if they have the understanding of the why or the willingness to sort of come along, they don’t necessarily have the tools they need to help. I’m even one of those people. I would love to, I’ve got big plans to like gather data and build dashboards and do all kinds of things, but I don’t know how. I’m not a developer. So…

BEN: Sure.

ALAINA: I think if I could assemble the right combination of people with the right combination of tools, sort of like, I don’t know. I just got this image of Voltron in my head.

BEN: Yeah.

ALAINA: Where maybe I’ll plug in and–

BEN: Love some Voltron.

ALAINA: Yeah, [laughing] eventually maybe I’ll find my Voltron? This has turned into a really weird analogy.

BEN: [laughing] It’s okay. It’s okay.

ALAINA: I think you know where I’m going.

BEN: I do.

ALAINA: I’m hopeful.

BEN: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know, it’s tough. I mean the the “how” is out there, right? Like there’s a million tutorials, there’s a million brilliant people that are out there sharing how to do things. So that’s easy, right? If you, if you can find somebody who believes the same kinds of things then you can get them pointed–they can they can find the resources, you know, they can find ways to learn. So, I think it’s more important that you have the right people than it is, necessarily, the immediately have the skill sets that that you think you need. You know?

ALAINA: I mean, gosh, we’re not limited by anything. We’ve got an entire internet to use to find all this stuff. And there–I have, I’ve come across so many people just like you who are willing to share their time and share their thoughts. And it can feel very overwhelming because you don’t have a budget to put programming together or you don’t have development skills. But… the web’s messy and it feels bad sometimes, but it is pretty great, too.

BEN: Yeah, yeah. And the web is open, right? Like this is something that’s super unique about what we do. It’s like I remember the first time I sat down with my lawyer to explain to him that we were going to run a workshop on, this is one of our first ones on how to do responsive web design. This was like back in 2010. You know it’s like, “Hey, this is a thing. We think we need to be doing this.” We had made the decision to just do it on every website. We didn’t even talk about it. We just said, “This is what we’re going to do.” And then at the end of that year we were like, “We should, you know, we should kind of put some of this together and like offer a workshop.” And I remember going to my lawyer because we were going to say, hey, you know, like we need a little contract or whatever. We need to think about this. And, you know, for whoever’s going to host it, like what does that look like, you know? And so the lawyer was like, “Wait a sec, wait wait wait. You’re going to teach all of your competitors how to do the thing that you do?” And like he asked me that like seven times at this meeting. I was like, dude, yes just give me the freaking paperwork, you know [laughing]. And he couldn’t get it into his head that that was an OK thing because no other industry really does that, you know. But on the web, I can go look at your website, I can view source, and I can see exactly how you built that thing, you know. [laughing] So, so there’s this kind of culture of openness, I think, that comes with it, with the web because that’s the foundation that it’s built on, you know. And so, I don’t know, part of me is a little bit nervous about, you know, future technologies that are a little bit more closed, a little bit more proprietary and less open and I don’t want that to impact the amazing openness that we have, you know, but we’ll see I guess.

ALAINA: Have you seen returns from that kind of thing, when you’ve shared your work and shared the ways that you’re doing things that are new? What do you feel like you get back out of that?

BEN: Oh goodness, so many things. I mean, like I’m a firm believer that writing and speaking and teaching make you smarter, they make you better. Right? If you’re, if you were asked to go speak at an event on, you know, whatever thing that you–like podcasting, say. OK, so you just started this, but hey somebody is like, “Whoa, she’s got a podcast, let’s have her come talk about it.” So now all of a sudden, you know, what’s going on in your head? You’re thinking, oh my gosh. Like, a bunch of people who probably listen to millions of podcasts are going to come to this session where I’m going to teach them how to do it. I better know my crap, you know. And so you do the work, right? Like that pressure kind of forces you to dig in in a way that you don’t necessarily have to if you’re just kind of getting by. Right? So teaching, writing, like they make you better. You have to be prepared, you know. And so, I think we get that out of it for sure. We also just meet our people, you know. Like the people who pay a little bit of money to go to an all-day workshop on how to build a site in a specific way, those are our people. They love it like we love it. Right? So, we get to meet those people and we get to hear how they’re, how they’re trying to solve these problems. So, you know, it–every time we do a workshop it changes the next time because people, the people in these workshops are brilliant, you know, and they’re and they’re attending, but they’re sharing their solutions and we’re absorbing that and kind of working it in and then it changes how we work, you know. I don’t know, I think it’s, it’s good, you know. And for us it’s also, like we don’t do a lot of–like we’re not like a hard sales kind of company, right? So, you know, we write in hopes that people kind of remember who we are and at some point in the future, if they need someone to help, you know, maybe they’ll think of us, right? So it’s, it’s a way to kind of stay, I don’t know, top of mind for folks that might need somebody like Sparkbox to work with them.

ALAINA: What are you excited about learning next? What do you want to dig into and do?

BEN: Yeah, I don’t know that you’re going to like the answer from me because I’m uh… So, I started off as a computer science major. My business partner Rob Harr and I both were computer science majors and over the last 10 years we’ve slowly shifted more towards you know working on the business instead of in the business. And so, we don’t really write code anymore, you know. [laughs] There was a time when the two of us were writing all the code and our creative director, Jeremy Loyd basically doing all the design and that was it, you know. But over the years we’ve kind of focused more, we went through a season where we really focused on kind of leading teams to do those things. We’ve gone through seasons where, you know, we’ve been more focused on sort of consulting with customers at a higher level before they’re like, you know, before we’re actually engaging with them on a project, but more just kind of offering some advice doing some consulting work. And then, you know, now were really kind of trying to figure out, like what size does an organization like Sparkbox have to be in order to accomplish the things we really want to accomplish and in order to have the impact that we want to have? And so, you know, we spend a lot of our time just like kind of thinking about ways to kind of help our team be better, help our team collaborate better, you know, solving problems like, “Hey you know we just opened an office in Pittsburgh. So how does that look culturally? How does that work?” When we have, we’ve always been this very like centralized, you know, Dayton, Ohio company. Now we have some folks in other cities and we have a whole new office in Pittsburgh and it’s like, what does the culture look like? We can’t cook together like we used to cook together, right? Because we have we have six people in Pittsburgh, we have a guy in Tennessee, we have a couple people in Columbus. I mean, so it’s not the same, right? So, the company is changing and the culture is changing and growing and every time we hire somebody it changes, right? And so, the thing I’m thinking the most about right now, the place that I really want to dig in is really around sort of creating an environment that’s welcoming to every human. No, it doesn’t matter who you are, what you–where you came from, what you believe, the color of your skin, any of that stuff, right? Like I just want us to be a group of people who see humans, see the value that every human brings. And so that’s what we’re working on, you know. It’s not really much about HTML or CSS or JavaScript, but it’s kind of where my head is and, you know, that’s–I mean, we’ve been trying to work on that for three or four years now. And we were slow to start, you know, I mean that we’re almost 10 years old. That means we had six or seven years where that wasn’t even something we thought about, right? And when you don’t think about it, you grow in a way that looks almost exactly like the owners, the founders, right? And so, we grew and we were just a bunch of white dudes like me, you know, and so we’re, you know, we’re looking at that now we’re trying to figure out how do we change that, you know? And it’s not that white dudes are bad. Like I kind of like white dudes, you know. [laughs] But we just have to think about, like there’s a whole other world out there and it’s not just that, it’s like socioeconomically, right? How do we give some opportunities to people who are absolutely brilliant, but they just don’t have the same, they didn’t have the same, you know, amazing privilege that I happened to have, you know? And so, like they don’t necessarily have the finances to buy a computer, they’re learning at the library, right? So how do we help them, you know? What about students, you know, who don’t even know that this is a career that they could have, right? What can we do there, you know? We run this little Girl Scouts workshop thing where we teach Girl Scouts how to code. Some of the folks on our team are now taking that same curriculum and repurposing it for, um, we just had a brand-new library built in Dayton so we’re running these adult web design classes in the local downtown library, you know. And these are just completely different audiences than we’ve ever thought about reaching before and our approach is, hey, let’s invest in places that are already trying to do good work, you know, and maybe we can build some relationships and I think that’s how it has to start. So, I don’t know, that’s, that’s kind of where my head is.

ALAINA: You said I wouldn’t like that answer but I actually liked it very much. I liked it very much.

BEN: OK, that’s good. [laughs] It’s so important. I feel like I haven’t, I feel like I’m scratching the surface of that and I’m like such a newbie there. You know, I have so much to learn and I know that we’re going to look a lot different in a couple of years than we do right now, and I’m excited about that and just trying to figure out how to get us there, you know.

ALAINA: I think if more people would scratch at that we could have a better web, but we could have a better world. And that that feels really important, too.

BEN: Yeah, absolutely.

ALAINA: Gosh, thank you so much–

BEN: My pleasure.

ALAINA: –for your time and for being here and for being patient with me while I worked through seven thousand technical difficulties. [laughs]

BEN: [laughing] You know what? In like a year you’re going to look back at that and be like, “I can’t believe I did that. It was no big deal at all.” And you’ll have like, you’ll have like 30–

ALAINA: You were the most gracious person to have gone through this with. [laughing]

BEN: [laughing] You have like 30 episodes or something, and–

ALAINA: I sure hope so.

BEN: Yeah, it’s going to be awesome.


ALAINA: Thanks to Ben and thanks to you for being here today. You can get the next episode of StrategyCar wherever you get your podcasts and you can join the conversation anytime as