Getting to Know Jonathan Hodges

How long have you worked at Classy Llama?
As of March 16th, I’ve worked here for nine years.

How did you end up at Classy Llama?
I was going to school at Evangel University, and my professor told me about the position. I saw Classy Llama’s website, and they said they pretty much do Magento exclusively. I had just finished a freelance project on Magento a few months prior. I called them up and told them I had a little bit of experience. They brought me in for an interview and hired me a couple weeks later.

What was it like working on Magento at this time?
It was really brutal. This was 2010, and it came out in 2008. It didn’t hit mainstream until about 2010. When I started, I didn’t know what to expect. There was no documentation on it, so I had to learn it on my own.

Did you always want to work in ecommerce?
When people asked me what I wanted to do in programming, I used to say artificial intelligence or robotics. They’re interesting fields, and I’m still interested in them today. I ended up taking a very practical route into my career and followed the opportunities.

What was Classy Llama like when you started?
It was crazy. There are a whole bunch of things that defined the uniqueness that Classy Llama was. At the time, everything from random 30-60 minute hacky sack games in the middle of the day, to multi-hour staff meetings many weeks, to very in-depth conversations about any topic under the sun, to being paid primarily through profit sharing. It was very unique and really scrappy.

Our office was basically a concrete room. The floor was concrete, and I think the walls were concrete as well. It was one room with a closet and a bathroom. And they loved it. They were like, “This place is so awesome!”

And I was just thinking, “What?” Because I’d worked in two different offices and both were significantly nicer than this office. But they loved it.

One thing I really appreciated was that Classy Llama was all about creating value from the beginning. We didn’t use that terminology back then, but I really liked that the approach wasn’t simply exchanging services, it was about doing all we could to make a difference.

What excited you most about working with Classy Llama?
They were willing to hire me before my degree was complete. That was it. And I got paid for programming. The previous job I’d been at had been much more basic, more web design than actual programming, and Magento was actually challenging.

It was great working with people who knew more about real world programming than me. I had learned so much about programming on my own, so it was cool to be working with people who were peers in terms of intellectual capability and the way they think, but who were further along the path. They helped point me in the right direction along the way. That was extremely helpful.

What are some things from the early years of Classy Llama that you’re glad changed?
Everybody was really passionate and didn’t always know how to listen to each other very well. There was a lot of talking and not very much listening going on. And we didn’t have a clear direction. I felt like we were continually bouncing from thing to thing.

It was like, “This week we’re doing Magento and next week we’re doing this event for this book that Kurt wrote.” And I think there was a lot of discord. We were all passionate people who had a lot of immaturities. Things didn’t always get worked out quickly. I think they built up over time.

I feel like things get worked out faster now and we really get to the heart of the matter. We apologize, move on, and care about each other. And I think the care was there, but it wasn’t expressed very well.

In your nine years here, what have been the most important things that you’ve tried to champion at Classy Llama?
Helping people to understand each other better. The number one thing for me is connecting people. Next would be gaining their trust and championing their causes. That’s something really big for me.

Finally, I think it has been helping people move forward in their personal careers. That mostly took the form of assisting developers to move forward for many years.

What is your current title?
Executive Director.

What does your day to day look like?
I lead the Classy Llama organization. I have meetings with our senior leadership, keep us focused on key initiatives, get buy-in, and communicate to the team. I work toward completion of those key initiatives and meet with all of the directors regularly to support them. I am really focused on operations right now as we’ve had some really exciting changes in that area and they need my attention most right now and our sales and marketing has seasoned leadership.

How does this role differ from past positions you’ve had at Classy Llama?
It’s kind of been an interesting progression. I started as a Developer, and after a couple years, I became a Senior Developer. And then I became the Director of Development, which was my first real significant leadership role. I earned that by doing a lot of day-to-day teaching. Any time a new developer would come in, I would help them. I was passionate about helping them understand what they needed to do to acclimate to the company. This Director role brought me into more administrative things and more leadership-related tasks. I learned how to hire and help build people up and move them forward in their careers. I had some say and influence, but a lot of the decisions were made for me at a level above me.

Then I became Vice President of Production, where I kept all of my Director of Development responsibilities and lead Project Management and Design, too. At this point, I was working with Paul and Kurt in the leadership of the company, which was a significant shift. It really helped me move toward breaking off a lot of the restrictions that I previously had and starting to really recognize how much authority I actually did have.

The key difference is that for a long time, I had a role that required me to produce direct individual work products for our clients. Now most of my work is focused on helping others produce things for our clients. I am focused on unblocking people in the company from doing their work and being as effective as possible.

What have you learned since taking a leadership role?
I learned a lot of things. I learned that I was really good with developers, but I wasn’t quite as good with all people at first. I had to learn how to listen better and listen to hear what people were meaning and try to put myself in their shoes.

Initially, it was a painful period. I found out how incompetent in some areas I was. I really care about people and the downside of that is that I also care what they think about me. During that time, not everybody was happy with how I was doing things. I made some mistakes along the way, and I think I unintentionally hurt some people. I had to walk through that pain and decide if I still really wanted to be a leader.

It was a hard period, and I ended up wrestling with what I want to do. Do I really want to be here? Do I want to be doing this somewhere else or do I want to do work more like what I started with? I was really torn up about it at one point and I was praying, and I felt God very clearly said, “I have you here to learn how to be a leader.”

I feel like He gave me an immense amount of peace that I was where I was supposed to be. Within a couple of days, I got promoted to the role I have now. In the grand scheme of things, I know He was preparing my heart for what he had for me next, but I didn’t realize it was coming.

Over the past nine years, how have you changed personally?
I started dating my wife about three months before I started working at Classy Llama. Since then, we got married, had four kids, moved several times, and bought a house. A lot has changed. I’ve learned how to bear up under a lot of weight and still enjoy my life and to have joy through pretty much any situation. I’ve learned how to lead people that I didn’t even understand before.

I’ve always been pretty in touch with who I was, but I’ve become more connected to the fact that I have weakness and in what areas, and how I need people. I’ve learned it’s okay to not be amazing at everything and that it’s actually more strength to recognize that. It’s better to bring someone around you and operate in your strength than it is to shore up that weakness.

I’ve learned a lot about how to connect with people who have weaknesses in areas where you have strength and how to actually help them.

A hint: the answer is not to tell them to do better and that they just need to change their choices.

I’ve learned a lot about identity and belonging over the years, too. I recognize some of the things about my life that were harder because of a lack of belonging at times. I moved away to go to college, so most of my support system was not here. The process of building a lasting one here has taken a lot of work, but I would say I have a much stronger group now. I feel like I have more close friends than some people do in an entire lifetime. I have people that are able to challenge me on the hardest things, or I can tell my most challenging, most soul-tearing things to. There’s a lot of really amazing relationships that I’ve built here.

What do you do for fun?
I watch TV shows and go to movies. I play video games and board games as well. I really enjoy the social aspect, but I also really like the strategy side of things. Games that require strategic thinking are entertaining for me. My wife likes playing similar types of games, and my kids have really started to be interested as well, which is great. We also have a monthly game night with friends where we get together and play Starcraft II.

We’ve also been going to the local theme parks, Silver Dollar City and White Water, in the summer. Our kids love it and it’s a great time for us to connect and just get out and be outdoors. I hate the Missouri summers, but these parks have made them a lot more bearable.

What things do you spend the most time thinking about?
Honestly, leadership, personal development, and spiritual development. These are long-running obsessions for me. For two and a half years, I’ve been reading every leadership book that I can get my hands on. I listen to a lot of speakers and do my best to put things into practice. It’s been huge for me.

I think a lot about how to be a better leader. How do I organize things in such a way that people understand them better? There’s been a pretty high degree of crystallization on a lot of those topics in my mind.

If you had to give one short piece of advice to those wanting to develop in leadership what would it be?
Get clear on where you’re going. It starts with getting clear on what the problem is. Develop a solution and clearly state it repeatedly. Then apply consistent pressure in that direction over time. I can’t overemphasize consistency.

What advice would you give to your younger self now?
People don’t change by having good information and making good choices. They change by changing their identity; who they are and the groups they belong to. Fundamentally, that’s how transformation happens. I think if I understood that much sooner, I could’ve saved myself a lot of heartache.

What’s something you’re weirdly good at?
Math. I’m really good at math. The other day Rob was showing me a fancy new spreadsheet that he put together and, at a glance, I pointed out one box and asked, “Why did you use such strange numbers on that?” And he goes. “I didn’t use strange numbers. I used the same numbers.” Quickly scrolling through it, I somehow managed to spot an error without even looking for it.

I’m also good at solving a Rubik’s Cube.

What’s the fastest you’ve ever solved a Rubik’s cube?
Twenty eight seconds.

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