8 Random Questions for Val & Jason Head

Val {@vlh} and Jason {@gjhead} Head are the kick-ass couple behind the scenes at many of the Pittsburgh Pennsylvania web community events. From FlashPitt to Refresh Pittsburgh and Web Design Day, these two are dedicated, passionate… and most importantly… an inspiration. I met them through the internet (big surprise, right?) and after a few visits to the ‘burgh and the magical wonderment of twitter, I can confidently say they kick total butt! Both are hugely talented (Val is a designer and Jason is a front-end developer), and in love with the web and with the web community.

Val, Jason,& Tucker Head

This couple’s enthusiasm and hard work has been a huge inspiration for me and I would really like you to get to know them.

Q:What brought you both to Pittsburgh and why did you start Flashpitt, Design Day,  and Refresh Pittsburgh?

The way we got to Pittsburgh was kind of funny. We were living in Buffalo and wanted a change of scenery. We decided on Pittsburgh as our next destination and planned to move as soon as one of us found a job there. Now we’ve been here a little over three years and we’re loving it so far.

I started Flashpitt because I saw that there was a pretty strong, and growing, group of Flash and other interactive folks in Pittsburgh. Most of the people I talked to had never been to a conference or rarely went because of the travel and cost involved. So, we wanted to see one happen in Pittsburgh because there’s a good community here and we want to see it grow. Obviously there’s more people than just me making it happen, Joe and Jason have been instrumental in making it happen.


I started Refresh Pittsburgh because I had wanted to start one in Buffalo, but there wasn’t enough support. I was inspired after attending An Event Apart – and wanted to get more involved in the local community. It was also a great way to get a bunch of people together – with our same interests – and meet new people when we moved here.

I contacted a fella named Pat Collins who wanted to start a Refresh in Pittsburgh too. Our first meet-up had around 13 people in a local coffee shop. Now we meet regularly at the AIP campus and average around 45 people each meeting. It’s growing more each month, but it’s still rather manageable.

Web Design Day happened because I have been planning a “Speaker Series” for quite some time – where I wanted to bring in out of town speakers. The idea grew from there – and turned into much more. The idea of WDD was to bring in out-of-town speakers who had ties to Pittsburgh as well as featuring some excellent local speakers – while keeping everything at a low cost. It was a huge success. We sold out in about 48 hours – and both the local and out of town speakers were amazing. It was nice to see people from Pittsburgh who went on to do some big things – and even better to have our local speakers share a bill with them. Everyone stood out that day – and I think that everyone benefited from the day. Some really good friendships happened too. I definitely want to do another one next year.

Q: What are the biggest  challenges involved in holding events like these? What has been the biggest benefit?
The last month or two leading up to the event is always crazy. Really really crazy. It’s a challenge to make sure everything gets done while still working full time and still finding time for sleep.

The biggest benefit has been the people I’ve met. Whether it’s someone who works down the street, or someone who lives across the ocean. I’ve made some great friends through doing events I otherwise would never have known.

The hardest part is finding people to speak! Luckily, Refresh covers a lot of different topics, so we have a bigger pool to choose from. But it’s hard convincing people to get in front of a group. Also – we’re lucky that we don’t have the attendance of Refresh DC or Miami – but if we keep growing, we may run into some problems finding places to host the events. So far so good though!

Like Val, the biggest benefit is the people I have met and the friends we have made. We’ve met some really cool people.

Q:How has your involvement in the Pittsburgh web community effected your work (design-wise and career-wise)? Your lives?

Well, I have my job because of the community. I showed up to a PittMFUG (Pittsburgh Adobe Flash User Group – pittmfug.org) meeting three days after moving to Pittsburgh. It turned out the company the hosted the meeting was looking for some freelance help. I started there as a freelancer and they hired me three months later.

On the non-work side, it’s made the community more real. It’s one thing to talk to folks on twitter and IM, or read their blogs. But it’s entirely different when you’ve gotten the chance to meet those people in person at the various user group meetings. Even with all the social networking tools out there, there’s nothing like actually getting to talk to other folks in the community face-to-face.

Val says that it forces me to be more social – which is a good thing :)

Work-wise, it’s nice for the networking. It’s nice to help other people connect and find jobs or other people with their same interests. It’s also good for me – there are a lot of professional opportunities available to me that normally wouldn’t. (And it’s a lot easier to find freelance work too!)

Q:Being that I have some event-planning experience I especially appreciate the fact that you all are able to pull off high-quality events that feel intimate. Can you give some  tips on how to achieve this atmosphere and also some more general tips on how to jump start a community in your own town or city?

I have to give the Pittsburgh interactive community and our amazing attendees a lot of credit for the friendly intimate feel of the events. Most people in the community are really willing to share and are super friendly, so that’s a big help.

The fact that we aren’t some corporation behind the event helps too. We’re just a couple of people in the community putting on events for the community. I like to think that shows through in our events.

Starting a community takes a lot of work and persistence. Starting with a user group is a good first step. You don’t have to be the manager or originator of the group to make a difference. Just get involved and do what you can.

I try to think what I would expect from an event – and make it as close as possible. I don’t want anyone to leave thinking that they didn’t get anything out of it. For Refresh Pittsburgh events – I try to keep it mixed up a bit so no one feels left out. A typical night may have 2 presentations – one of programming and one on design.

Q: How do you find the time? What do you do when you all aren’t making websites or planning web events?

As far as non-web related things, I like to go print at AIR (Artist Image Resource) as often as I can, and I volunteer in the studio at the Warhol Museum some weekends. Like Jason said, I like doing this stuff, so that makes it easier to find time for it.

The only reason I have the time is because it sort of *is* my hobby. It’s fun and interesting for me to do these things, so it’s not too much of a problem. The only time it becomes a burden is during the playoffs and I am busy watching the Penguins win the Stanley Cup (which is why there are more events in DC and Philly around theses times!)

Outside of the internets I’m spending money on records and reading books and hanging out with Val and getting bossed around by the two cats and puppy. Or at a penguin game.

Q:Are you guys looking to grow these events? Where do you see the future of these events heading? Are these events strictly targeted to locals or are you hoping to draw in regional or national crowds?


We’re definitely looking to grow the events, I think that’s a natural evolution for them. Flashpitt 09 is already on track to be bigger than Flashpitt 08 attendance-wise, and we expanded the schedule this year too. I don’t want it to get too big though. I think the small conferences are the ones you can get the most out of and I don’t want to lose that.

The geographical range of attendees depends on the event. Flashpitt definitely draws a national crowd, but the majority of attendees are from PA or neighbouring States. Web Design Day, on the other hand, is more specifically about the Pittsburgh region, so the attendees are more geographically focused around Pittsburgh.

I agree with everything Val said. Flashpitt is more of a large event. Web Design Day is more of a local thing, but I expect to make a few changes for next year. I try to keep the attendance limited to WDD simply to keep it a more intimate event. I want people to not only come to the event but also be able to interact and meet the speakers – and I still want to keep the focus on Pittsburgh folks.

One thing Val and I want to do more of is 1 or 2 workshops throughout the year – plus I would still like to do my one-shot speaker series once in a while too. One thing at a time though!

Q: What is it like being a web industry couple? Where do your skills differ and how do your expertise overlap? Do you have any tips for other couples who are both active in the web industry and community?

We get to do things like debate JavaScript vs. Flash over dinner. Maybe that’s too geeky for some people, though. The downside is that we work too much.

I work more on the design and Flash side of things, and Jason is more on the front-end code and JavaScript side of things. So we don’t overlap a ton, but just enough to have those geeky dinner conversations.

Tips: get out and do non-web stuff too! Oh, and adopt a cat or dog. Pets are amazingly good at reminding you to take some time away from the computer. Plus they’re cute and keep your lap warm when you’re up late designing or coding to meet a crazy deadline.

I like that I never ever have to learn how to do anything in Flash because that’s what Val does. It’s also great being married to someone who values the cost of a high speed internet line as much as I do. The pets are good too, because they remind us to get away from the computers once in a while.

Q: What are the qualities of a great web presentation? Each of you name one talk you have seen at an event (that you all did not organize) that left a great impression on you.

The one thing that always makes the difference when watching a presentation is how much passion the speaker has for the topic. You can just tell if the person is really into what they’re talking about and if it’s something they’re really passionate about that totally rubs off on the audience.

Picking just one presentation is tough, but I’m going to go with Tali Krakowsky’s Streaming Stories talk at Flashbelt back in June. She showed some amazing examples of projects where the environment was the interface and had super insightful commentary about them. That’s what really made the presentation for me.

Two honorable mentions: Jer Thorp and Seb Lee-Delise are two other speakers who I was really impressed with when I caught their sessions this year. (I’m really excited to be bringing them and the rest of the folks on our speaker list to Flashpitt this year!)


Dan Cederholm at AEA Boston was amazing. I’ve found him to be a not only a great speaker – but a great writer too. He’s just a natural at it. He’s a great teacher and he mixes it with a good deal of humor and other insights as well. Plus when he talks, he talks like a regular guy – it’s almost like he’s *not* giving a presentation, but just hanging out and talking to you.

I’m also a huge fan of both Geoff Barnes and you, Samantha. When you two are hitting up the larger speaker circuits I can be like “I saw em back when they first started!”. <– I totally agree {Val}

One Comment

  1. Tom Meagher

    — September 28, 2009