Meet Ryan “Simmy” Sims, Vice President of Design at Pittsburgh’s first unicorn startup, the iconic language learning app Duolingo. The startup has become one of the city’s go-to places for professionals in any field. It is fast growing to a global scale, has solid funding, a billionaire valuation and an awesome growing talent pool. Not to mention Duo, the endearing mascot that is all over its app, emails and can even be found near the water cooler at headquarters.
Simmy was born and raised in the Midwest, in Joplin, MO, and moved to Silicon Valley with his wife to get a taste of the planet’s largest tech hub and get some blue chip experience under their belts. The plan, however, was always to eventually return to the Midwest, specifically to his wife’s hometown of Pittsburgh. So the idea of living in Pittsburgh was nothing new to them. Simmy first came to town with an expectation of landing in a land of yesteryear, industrial and past its prime. That is, until he first drove out of the Fort Pitt tunnel. “When I first came out of the tunnel and saw that skyline and went across the river on those bridges” he remembers, “I became immediately enamored with Pittsburgh for its beauty and because it didn’t match my expectation of the city.”
The Sims’s didn’t move to Pittsburgh for a job, they moved here for personal reasons, at which point Simmy started his conversations with Duolingo. He had quite a high bar having worked for Adobe and Stripe, a very hot, up-and-coming startup in the Valley plus other opportunities on the table. But when he met with Duolingo founders Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker as well as the VP of people he was apparently “blown away” by what he heard. “I didn’t want to work for a ‘Diet Coke’ tech company, and my bar was very high. The quality of talent at Duolingo is just as high as some of the best companies I worked for in San Francisco, and that’s what drew me to it,” he recalls. “If Duolingo was located in San Francisco it would be considered one of the premier destinations, folks would flock to work there.”
For Simmy, like many other professionals, there’s San Francisco and New York and then everything else. The coasts have their advantages, but there are also downsides. “It’s definitely different here in Pittsburgh. There’s a good and a bad about being in San Francisco, where everyone seemingly works in tech, and it was kind of a grind. After some ten years of everyone working in the same industry as you, it just didn’t feel like a good balance,” he comments. “Cities like Pittsburgh are more diverse, it’s not just tech folk working there, and I think that’s wonderful… you have a lot of industries around tech and that creates a bit of balance.”
For a designer ilke Simmy, Duolingo presents various UI/UX challenges to help people through vocabulary, pronunciation and spelling. But Simmy reflects one more psychological aspect of the app’s experience where they put a lot of focus – motivation. “A lot of people underestimate how much motivation and time it requires to learn language – not days, not weeks, not months, but years. As a designer, the challenge is how do you keep people motivated to come back day, after day, after day.” Surely we all have different motivations to learn a new language, like better communicating with a loved one or moving to another country, and the more intense that need or pressure, the higher the motivation. “What we try to seek out is how do we keep people motivated, engaged and excited to do the same thing over and over, and that’s really challenging. We do this by creating moments of celebration, moments where you feel accomplished doing something hard. The moment of celebration after you’ve put in the work to earn something, it’s pretty incredible to tap into that feeling.”
Enter Duo, the brand’s persistent, lovable green owl and motivator master who’s always ensuring you’re sticking with the program and celebrating your progress. “One of the most interesting things about Duo is that he often serves as a mirror for how people think about staying motivated. A lot of people use shame and underachieving as a powerful motivator, and for them Duo serves as a passive-aggressive someone kind of nagging you to get things done. For other people he’s more of a coach or he’s more positive. It’s kind of interesting to see how Duo mirrors what people need him to be to keep them motivated.
The success of Duo is taking the company to the next level of storytelling as a tool to maintain customers engaged and motivated. “I think we’re trying to figure out how to create other characters that Duo can also interact with. One thing we’re learning is that if we can incorporate storytelling into the daily experience of using Duolingo, then it starts to become more engaging.” The team at Duolingo has introduced a number of new characters throughout the customer journey, in podcasts, social media and within the app to increase engagement and keep people motivated. More characters means more content and more content means more people needs, and like many other fast-growing local tech companies, the language app is looking to expand its team fast.
Simmy takes this at heart, not just to satisfy the company’s hiring needs, but to build a long term solution to raise awareness of opportunities in the region, especially among young, up-and-coming talent. “In some ways Pittsburgh is different from most cities because of CMU, which brings in a lot of kids every year who are becoming more and more proficient at UX design. This is a good short term solution, but as someone who’s committed to the future of this community and this city, the challenge is going to be instituting more long term solutions. We’ve gotta teach people before CMU about the opportunities in tech, starting by making kids in high school or middle school aware of the possibilities that exist. In the midst of the climate of the pandemic, as a design team one reason we’re itching to get back to normal life is because we’re pretty excited in trying to get the local community more involved in the opportunities that exist in Duolingo and in tech in general. As a group we’re trying to brainstorm ways to get more involved and make a longer term impact on the community.”
One such initiative is the company’s mural initiative, which started as a major cosmetic remake of their headquarters and is expanding into a wider program inviting local artists to submit proposals to change the face of the city.
“The commitment I think we’re making supporting local art is representative of the kind of long term action we’re trying to take. Investing in our community, finding local artists, we need to create more opportunities and invest more frequently so that there can be actual change, so that local artists and local students can have careers in the near future. The mural got all this attention, but what we’re really trying to do as a company is figure out how we find more of those opportunities to invest multiple times because those are the ones that will change lives and our impact on the community.”