Ad Ops All Stars: James Strang, AdOps Boost
by Kathleen Booth, on Jul 7, 2021 9:00:00 AM
James Strang is the Founder of AdOps Boost and a technical whiz when it comes to the business of ad operations.
He's also a champion of neurodiversity who's been chronicling what he's experienced professionally as a person on the Autism spectrum via a series of videos on LinkedIn (search #spectrumofjames on LinkedIn to find his video blogs).
In this week's episode of Ad Ops All Stars, James shares how his career led to the field of ad operations, what he's building at AdOps Boost, and why he believes neurodiversity is an asset that should be valued by employers.
Listen to or watch the full episode, or read the transcript below, to hear James's story.
Resources from this episode:
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Kathleen: Welcome to the Ad Ops All-Stars podcast, I'm your host, Kathleen Booth and my guest today is James Strang who is the founder of Ad Ops Boost. Welcome to the podcast James.
James: Hi. Thanks for featuring me.
Kathleen: I'm super excited to talk to you. You are somebody whose name has been mentioned a lot. I always ask other guests who I should talk to next and I've had a few people mention you, which is always a sure sign that it's going to be good interview. But then also I've been following some of the content you're creating online and I want to talk about that a little today. But first, before we get into all of that, can you talk a little bit about what Ad Ops Boost is.
James: Okay. So Ad Ops Boost is like an Ad Ops ad tech consultancy. We have a small team. Two full time people, two part time people, and myself. We bridge gap between strategy and implementation for a lot of publishers, essentially implement things that they don't have the skills on their team to implement. But we also consult with some vendors and talk about what their product is, how they can open up new markets or open up new capabilities with their product in a much more technical sense.
Kathleen: That makes sense. And I want to dig in to your background a little bit more, but before I do, I have an icebreaker question that I like to ask people and I'm curious to hear what you have to say about it. So, if you had to explain what you do for a living to a five year old, how would you explain it?
James: I did a presentation on, can I explain it like I'm five kind of thing, for Ad Ops optimization before. And I explained it like a farmer. So if you think about the internet and the people who want to buy fruit and vegetables from the farmers. The farmers are the publishers and people buying are the brands. And so as a publisher you have so much land and you got to figure out how to make the most amount of money to get the most fruit you can sell. And so you got to think about what kind of trees you can grow, what kind of yield, how you water and all those different things that go into making good usable fruit and vegetables.
James: And then the only difference in our industry, to compare to a farm industry, is that people are bidding as the fruit becomes ripe. Essentially to say, "Oh, that's a really nice apple, extra large, I got to pay a little more for that," or, "You know what? You have an apple here, it's a little smaller and I'll give you a little less but I'm going to buy it." And so, what we do in our job is we try to optimize for the most amount of revenue, but we know that we're going to have the bad apples and the good apples.
Kathleen: James, that is an amazing explanation. You just did such a good job of making something that could be super complicated, not. So, kudos to you. I'm giving you a round of applause. That was amazing. All right. Now, even I understand it and sometimes I wonder if five year olds are not smarter than me. So, when I listen to you talk about what Ad Ops Boost is, what came to mind, and this is going to date me big time, was it sounds like you guys are like the A Team for ad and revenue operations. You've got your team of experts and you come in and you do the job and you make it all better and then you go away and you're on to the next assignment. So, I don't know if you remember the show The A Team.
James: I do. It was not new when I watched it but I watched it.
Kathleen: In order to be the A Team I feel like you have to have had a deep background. Those guys were experts, right? And so, talk to me a little bit about your career and what you did before starting Ad Ops Boost to basically be in a position where you could come in and take this holistic look at what publishers are doing, and also you mentioned vendors, and really be able to advise them in the way that you do.
James: You want me to go backwards or forwards?
Kathleen: Start at the beginning and work forwards. How about that?
James: And then after that I became a part time and then full time job doing website design before I even graduated from high school. Yeah, and then shortly after I graduated, I continue to work there and then I got to the point where I'm got to start my own business. I want to make more money. So, I never went to college or anything. I already have a job that pays $25 an hour at the time. Then I was starting to charge $40 and hour for my own work. So, I was like, "I'm not going to go to college." And then a couple years go by, I burnt out from it. It got to a point where I couldn't really do website design as a job anymore. I get so frustrated just dealing with the clients.
Kathleen: We'll have a conversation about this, maybe after this podcast, because I owned an agency for 11 years and one of the things we sold was websites. And so, I think you and I could do a whole another podcast episode just on that. I know your pain.
James: Yeah. It's funny because I always said, "I don't want to do that anymore." And now I find myself with my own business again. I guess it wasn't so much the business stuff, it was just the way I came at it, being very young at the time. I was just focused on the jobs and not necessarily the holistic approach of running business. So from there, I decided I didn't want to do website design. I don't want to work anymore at all. I don't want to work with someone else. I don't want to work for myself.
James: I then went to college for Electronic Engineering. And then after two years at a three year program, I got really involved in 3D printing and I started working in 3D printing. Again, I left, I never graduated. I just got a job and decided that was all I needed. So, I work my way up in the 3D printing industry over three years to a point where I was head of support for 3D printer company, helping out with the development and design as well as documentation and all the customer tickets. We had a small team, just five guys and I had one guy who's a direct report.
James: So from there, 3D printing crashed and burned. And where I am, all the companies that I worked for is slightly out of business or have to let people go or whatever. And so, of the two years I was doing it, I was at three different companies. Then when I saw the writing on the wall of that last company, I decided that I was looking for something else. And my best friend, who we do all this crazy projects together, got a job at this new tech company as a salesperson. He's ranting and raving about how awesome it is, how this product is so nice and so easy to sell and that he gets free lunch every single day.
Kathleen: It's all about that free lunch.
James: Yeah. And he also says that there's beer at the office that people just drink in the middle of the day. I said, "I could use some drink," but he's like, "You might be interested in that," I'm like, "Yup." So, that was Sortable. So, I applied and got a job at Sortable. And that's why I got an ad tag, it's because a company had free lunch.
Kathleen: That's awesome. So you worked at Sortable, what were your different roles there?
James: So, I was there for three years. I started as, what they call, a customer success specialist. But really it was just a role that bridged the gap between sales and software development. The software developers were doing all the support beforehand and the sales did all their own account management. And so if there's any an issuer where salesperson didn't know how to fix it, which essentially meant anything that required debugging, the software developers have to get involved. They didn't like that and so the software developers decided that they want to hire the teams. So, I got interviewed by four of the devs for my role. And I was the first one in on that role the company.
James: And from there, we just trained ourselves, talked through a bunch of issues and figure out how to be useful at the company and it worked out really well. Within three months, I was promoted team lead to lead the team as it grew and then we posted the positions and hired, we posted over two more we ended up hiring three, three months after that. So within six months of me starting, we had more than doubled the size of the team.
Kathleen: Wow. That's amazing. So, what I think is so interesting about your career is that the theme of really diving deep into the technical side of things. I've come to the Ad Ops world from marketing, right? So, I'm not highly technical. And it has been really interesting to me how technical Ad Ops seems to have gotten. This team has come out in my interviews with some of the other folks I've spoken to where they, especially the ones who've been in the field a lot longer, where originally it was like you're working directly with the advertiser and it's more of sales and account management position. And now with Programmatic, it's definitely evolved. And I'd love to get your take on how important is it for somebody who's entering the world at Ad Ops today? Some people are listening and they're thinking they want to build their career in this industry. How important is it to really understand the technical side of things?
James: I think it's key. I built a team of technical problem solvers from an area where no one had any Ad Ops experience whatsoever. And I think that it's key to focus on the technical if you're looking to solve problems. Certain things like on page, logic, like just being understand a little bit of JaveScript can go a long way. When we hire, we always look for people who have the technical skills but not necessarily software developer. Because we want someone who kind of is in the growth stage who can bring them up into Ad Ops, but we need to build off of something. And so there has to be some of those technical skills. So a couple of people have moved into my team from other roles that are more data entry type roles.
James: When I was at Sortable, they really had to put in a lot of work in understanding HTML. Because that really has been key the whole time. SQL, that's if you're dealing with data. At Sortable we're able to use SQL to basically query any of the data that we have available at the company. So, in addition to the dashboards that we surface to customers as well as internal like sales we would just use the dashboard and a tool. But we could go in and we could actually go and query that data with SQL and then if something's not working, sometimes it was a dashboard issue, we could go in and basically highlight the problems and figure out what exactly is going on.
James: When a technical solutions specialist, which was our role, or technical solutions analyst, actually they changed the role titles a couple of times, brings a ticket to software developer it most likely is going to include the solution. There's been cases where we've literally sent a ticket to a software developer and says, "Here's the line of code and here's what you need to change it to." We just don't have the authority to change it. And the software developers have to their test phases and all that stuff, right? But that's the kind of technical expertise that we're able to get to. But we didn't start there and we just having... Yeah. So...
Kathleen: So, when you think about hiring people for those roles, what skills, and I know there's hard skills like, "Hey, I know HTML." Or, there's soft skills like, "I'm a great communicator or I'm super curious and I like to get to the bottom of problems and all." Like a dog with a bone when I have something I need to solve. What's the combination of skill that you would look for if you were hiring for an Ad Ops role?
James: Yes. So, to actually clarify, not all Ad Ops roles are technical. Some Ad Ops roles are more like sales and implementation. Can you use Google Ad Manager and things like that. But for my team of technical problem solvers, we have five key things we are looking for. One was technical skills. So it's like the backbone of like, "Do you any skills that actually are relevant to work we do?" Another one was technical communication. We pay very close attention to the correct use of certain words because that's key to communicating effectively with the technical team, is to avoid the common terms like tag when you could use element, ad slot, ad creative, ad unit, things like that. Another one was you have to be self-directed, that's very much a soft skill, but you have to be able to take a project and work on it by yourself, but also be able to say, "Okay, I'm hitting a wall here, it's time for me to check in." It is like a good balance and we just put that under self-directed but motivated and whatnot is what we're looking for.
Kathleen: Yeah. That makes sense. One thing I'm fascinated by is, you work with a lot of different publishers which gives you really interesting perspective. What are some of the more common challenges that you see publishers facing when it comes to Ad Ops?
James: I think one of the biggest things that publishers are working through constantly is selecting the right vendor. There are so many different players in the Ad Ops space that do a lot of the same things but with different lens sometimes, a different niche. You take a look at companies like Sortable, they do a full service monetization. I could name at least 12 that are live on my publisher's sites or that I've tested out. There's so many different options out there. And how do you know what's best short-term and long-term? I think that's probably the biggest challenge, but also I don't necessarily have the solution.
Kathleen: I was going to say, how do you counsel publishers to navigate their way through that? Because I feel like there are a lot software review sites out there, right? But, I'm in marketing so I know that the company that comes out as number one in the software review site is not necessarily the best software. It's the one that did the best job of getting a lot of reviews and maybe is paying the software review site to get featured. There's a lot of gamesmanship that goes on behind the scenes that determines how companies is ranked. They're valuable to a certain extent but I'm curious what you tell your customers about evaluating software.
James: Well, because I've worked with so many of them, I have some good recommendations. So I know in certain circumstances that vendor A might be better that vendor B. Or I can also say that vendor C you might not considered but this is actually their specialty. Or I have a good relationship with vendor D and I know they're interested in lowering their terms to bring on some more business right now, and so you can get a better deal there, things like that. Other than that, it's all about testing. We could do some AB testing.
James: I built a tool to do session level split tests on publisher's sites that will log up a bunch of data to Google Analytics as well as the Google Ad Manager, assuming the partners are using Google Ad Manager. This will allow us to see, one, what's the revenue difference in a pure 50/50 AB split, but also what are some of the more soft metrics like bounce rates and time on page and even page speed metrics we can tract by those custom dimensions. And so you want to find the one that is the right balance. There's not necessarily one metric you want to prioritize over others.
Kathleen: And I would imagine that's probably like, I don't know, correct me if I'm wrong, I used to own a marketing agency and so I would advise my clients on picking software for certain things and people would always be like, "Well, what's the best SEO software?" And very often the answer was not, "It's this one." The answer was, "Well it depends what you want to use it for." Right? There's the right SEO software for you and then there's the right SEO software for somebody else and there's a lot of factors that go into determining that. Is it similar in the ad tech world?
James: Yeah. I think it really is. Because if you look at like the example of full suite monetization solution, anyone can run pre-bid and get your big partners in there, right? Your Google, your Rubicon, your AppNexus, Index, Sovereign and all that stuff. That's the default. But then you got to think, "Oh, okay this partner specializes more in sites that are food related." Which means that they have more connections to get higher paying PMPs in the food market. And so, because of that, are they a better fit for my site that's food related? And I think that, quite often, a deficit in the tech can be made up for by an asset in that niche.
James: So it really is there's never one solution for everyone. And even then, sometimes a publisher might be big enough to be able to make all their own tech and be able to get everything built in-house, but they could still find that one of these monetization partners, who bring in more money at the end of the day than their fees cost. So it's all very much a balancing act. Right now I have some clients that are moving to their own pre-bid, some clients that are moving from one vendor to another. It's always in constant change. For me, my skills are in taking things out, putting them in really easily, no downtime, implementation changes, things like that. I'm really good at that.
Kathleen: Well, shifting gears a little bit. Speaking of things that you're good at, I've really enjoyed listening to some of the videos that you've been making on LinkedIn. The theme behind them has been Autism Awareness Month. And I just listened to one this morning, where you talked about unordered list and how that's really helped you do the things that you need to do and I would love it if you could just talked a little bit about some of the stuff that you discussed in your videos. You've been amazingly open about being on the spectrum and how you've navigated you career with that. And I would love it if you could just share a little bit of that with folks who are listening.
James: Yeah. I would argue the theme as neurodiversity. That Autism Awareness Month is the occasion but for me, I have had autism my entire life and I got Asperger's... I don't know, syndrome, that's what it's called. But I have really felt the negative effects of that at a young age and learn how to adapt and work with that and move on from the negative. But I've always thought that I'm not necessarily disabled, I've never used my autism or Asperger's in a way that would give me advantage or I've never put that on my, you know, when you're applying for a job like you require accommodation. I never did that. I didn't even tell my wife until we're married at two years. She's like, "Oh, well I guess that makes sense."
Kathleen: I was going to say, how did she react when you told her? That's interesting.
James: She's like, "Yeah. I get it now."
Kathleen: It's like when I found out my husband was ADHD and I was like, "It all makes sense now."
James: Yeah. Because I wasn't even thinking about it. It's not like I hit it. It's not something I thought about regularly. But at the same time it's because I've always believed that just my mind is different. That my mind is not broken or disabled in any ways. It's just different. And I think differently and that's the essence of neurodiversity, which wasn't really very popular until recently. And so I never even heard about it until this Autism Awareness Month where I saw some people posting about neurodiversity. That's what I believed. It's crazy. So I came up to that conclusion in parallel to not ever hearing about those terms.
Kathleen: I love that that's how you looked at it. Because I feel like, for a very long time, really dating back to when I went to business school, which was a really long time ago, I'm not going to say how many years, they had us taking variations of those tests like DISC, there's tons of them, there's Myers-Briggs and all these different, they call them, personality assessments. But a lot of what they get at is how people think. But it's interesting that they don't really factor in the full breadth of the term that you've used which is the neurodiversity. It's a narrow set of categorizing how people think. What I've always found, I'm a big fan of tests like that, not because I think they tell you whether somebody's right or not right for a job. I don't actually believe in that, but I do think that the more we all can understand how each other thinks the better we can be at communicating with each other.
Kathleen: So, I find it really interesting like when I managed teams of people to use some of those types of tools to figure out, is this the person who, for example, needs to do all the homework and investigate everything and feel like they have all the information before they make a decision? Or are they like me where I'm totally a shoot first aim later person, right? I'm all about let's just make a decision and move forward. And I think understanding all this dynamics in a team is really powerful. And so that's part of what I loved about listening to your video, you covered beyond what those tests can tell you about how people think, which I thought was really interesting. And the more we understand about it the better we all can work together and communicate with each other. So I don't know what your experiences has been on that but I loved that you were sharing it.
James: Yeah. What do you want to know?
Kathleen: I think from what you've said, it was so interesting listening to you talk about your career. What left out at me is that you're exceptionally talented with technical stuff and then when you just said now, when you were talking about having Asperger's, that you never listed it as disability. It made complete sense to me because listening to you talk I was like, "Oh," I would never have pegged you as somebody who had a disability or needed a special accommodation. Because it seems that you've done a lot of different jobs really well. And so, I don't even know if I have a question based on there, but I just think it's really interesting because it almost feels like you can look at it as a superpower or a disability and how you look at it has a big bearing on whether you're able to leverage it as a strength or not. Would you agree with that?
James: I think so. And for me, there are things that I struggle with and I still get things wrong sometimes. I make mistakes in different way than other people make mistakes. But in the same way, one thing that I think is really key is that every mistake is a learning experience. And so I've been able to learn so much by making so many mistakes. But I normally try to do things in a way that I can catch my own mistakes and then correct them. I'm always, maybe even be a little bit too proactive sometimes and like, "Oh you know what? I said this in this situation here and I feel like that was insensitive." And so I send a message out saying, "I feel like I was insensitive." And someone's like, "No." I thought it was a funny joke like you don't need to worry. So sometimes I hit, sometimes I miss.
James: But to understand that also really helps. And I don't really focus on the negative in those videos because the idea is that there is a lot of positive and that needs to be celebrated. Maybe one day, having something like Asperger's would be something you put on your resume. I have Asperger's, I'm really great at these things in an exceptional way. But right now, it's not something that I would do because I feel like that would be naming a disability and that's not what I want. I don't want you to treat me like I have a disability.
Kathleen: Have you run into that? Have you run into, in your career, intolerance for any of... I mean you're not out there broadcasting that you have it, but have you run into anybody on the teams you've worked with or in the companies you've been at that's been intolerant of any of that?
James: Somewhat, yeah. Not necessarily in the advertising technology world but when I was in 3D printing there's a lot more... We have a warehouse style setups and so there was a little bit of a suck it up and deal with it kind of thing. I'm trying to progress myself and I really don't want to be associated with a certain level of humor or things like that, but I get thrust upon you a little bit there. But I don't know, I think I don't really tell people a lot too about it. I don't know if there's been an opportunity until I've outed myself this last month for someone to discriminate based on it. So...
Kathleen: Well, no. I think it's really great that you're sharing it and it was interesting when you're talking about putting it on your resume someday. It reminded me a little bit of, I think there's a book in the last couple of years that came out about the power of introverts. Funny enough, I'm a huge introvert and I hide it really well. But the definition of being introvert is not necessarily somebody who's shy. It's like being amongst other people can drain energy from you as opposed to giving you energy, which is what extroverts are. And this woman wrote a book about how, in team environments and in workplaces, you need introverts to do certain things. They fill a really vital role within a company.
Kathleen: And I feel like it's similar with what you're talking about with Asperger's. Like really well functioning teams generally are not homogeneous. It's about putting the right combination of skills and personalities together so that you're addressing all the different needs that you have as an organization. And so I totally agree with you. I think it would be awesome if we were at a point where people can say either I have Asperger's or I have this other thing. And here's what's really strong about me because of that. And so if you're a team that's looking for strength in this area, I would be a great addition.
James: Yeah. My team at Sortable that we hired, every single person had a very unique strength that we didn't have already on the team. Whether it was a background and actual monetization, we had someone who came in huge SQL powerhouse. Me, when I joined the company, I don't know SQL experience. I had to learn it on the job when I started, which I did pretty well. Then having someone come in with an education in that really helped fill out the team's gaps. Then we had someone come in who had worked with publishers before. And someone who came in with a lot more account management experience.
James: It's interesting to see people come in and they, over the years, they accelerate and they landed a different roles in the company. Some people move in to software development after being on the team for a couple of years. Some people became account manager or some people became a product manager. And it's all of those different skills that we bring in and then everyone learns everyone else's skills. But then those base skills are still key to that person's career growth and what they want to do. And so it's really interesting to be able to look back and say, "Oh, I had nine people that were on the team at that point when I was there, and this is all the different moves that they've made." And how interesting that is.
Kathleen: Oh, I love that. That's great. Now speaking of looking back on your career, who do you think has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
James: Well, Sortable was the company that had a huge impact on my career. Because without Sortable I wouldn't have been able to realize I could use my web skills that I had and pivot to another industry. I would have just been keeping those as a hobby thing this entire time. I didn't say this earlier but when I joined Sortable it's like a perfect marriage of my support and documentation that I've been doing with 3D printing and my technical skills from my website design. And I put that together and was able to work out really well for Sortable and for me. So I think that I owe a lot to the growth that I was able to have at Sortable. I don't know if there's a specific person that I would name because it really is like a group effort, right? No one at Sortable is the king. Even the CEO is very much like everything's delegated. So yeah.
Kathleen: Fair enough. That makes sense. How about, if you were able to turn back time, you had such an interesting career evolution, what advice would you give to your younger self when you were just starting out in your career?
James: Focus on the technical. Become really good at something and just do that because for me I'd just went very general and have lots of fun stories and things like that but if I've not left the web industry and got into 3D printing I probably would have been a lot further ahead now. I might not be in this industry but I'd be in some other industry. But also it's okay not to be a software developer. That would be the other thing is I can't focus for long enough periods of time to do the software development job. I can write code and all that stuff but it's okay for me not to be software developer. For longest time I dreaded having to make that career choice and this thing that would kill my soul because I have to sit in front of the computer and stare at code for hours. Because that was the next career move for me. It's okay not to do that. That wasn't what I wanted to do, although I wanted to stay technical I didn't want to be the guy writing all the code. I want to be the guy making more decisions and seeing how things work.
Kathleen: Oh, I love your story and how you've carved out a path that's really unique and right for you. I think that's fantastic. Well, there are two questions that I ask everybody who comes on this podcast. So I want to hear your answers to these. The first one is that the Ad Ops world is constantly evolving in response to regulatory changes, platform updates, you name it. And we're on the thick of it right now with identity and all kinds of issues like that. How do you personally stay on top of all of that? Do you have certain sources of information that help you remain educated and on the cutting edge?
James: I try to get on every source of information. I read every single post that happens on Reddit, in the Ad Ops Reddit. I read, I'm on three different slack teams that are all for our industry that I follow up to make sure I know what people are posting and read more if possible. And I've also joined the IAB Canada because I'm in Canada. So, I'm a member there and I have access to all their webinars and such. I try it really hard to stay current and that's one of the things that I sell my business on, is that I stay current so you don't have to. I spend a lot of my time just reading and trying out new stuff.
Kathleen: Nice. So the other question I like to ask people is who in the Ad Ops world do you think is doing really outstanding work and should be our next guest? So, on this podcast we try and profile generally Ad Ops team leads and you work with a lot of Ad Ops teams. So I'm curious if you had to name one or two people who are really setting the bar for that, who would you say?
James: I work with a lot of publishers. I wouldn't say working on Ad Ops teams because I feel like if you're large enough to have an Ad Ops team, you don't need me. But there is someone that really came to mind. Vincent So, formerly the head of Programmatic at 9GAG, now he's at HYPEBEAST. He brings a really unique perspective because he's been monetizing user generated content. 9GAG, he's done some really interesting things while he's been there with that as well as I would be excited to see what's he's doing at HYPEBEAST. Because I think that he's probably making some big changes.
Kathleen: Nice. All right. That really sounds like a really good one. Well before we wrap up, if somebody wants to connect with you online, learn more about you or Ad Ops Boost, what is the best way for them to do that?
James: So, I have a website, AdOpsboost.com. So, I have contact links on there. Also, I should be really easy to find on LinkedIn, but you can actually find my LinkedIn by just going to jamesstrang.com and redirects there to my-
James: So, I connect with basically anyone who sends me a message from the connection. If people want to talk I'm totally open to talking. I very rarely will turn down a request for a quick chat.
Kathleen: Fantastic. Well I definitely recommend people to check out some of your recent LinkedIn videos because they're really wonderful and interesting. So I guess hit jamesstrang.com, that's your shortcut to get there. But I will put the links to all of those in the show notes. So definitely check those out if you're listening. Otherwise, thank you for joining me for this episode of Ad Ops All Stars. If you enjoyed it please consider leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or the podcast platform of your choice. And to hear more interviews with leading Ad Ops experts head to clean.io and while you're there check out our resource center to learn more about protecting your user experience and your revenue. That's it for this week. Thank you so much for joining me James.
James: Thanks for having me.