U.Va. Engineering alumnus shaping face of social media

James Quarles contributes to Instagram's success


Quarles attributes his success at Instagram to his academic and extracurricular experiences at the University.

Courtesy University of Virginia

The University has a long list of distinguished alumni, with James Quarles being one of the most recent additions. Quarles, who graduated from the University in 1997 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, currently serves as the Vice President of Business at the popular social media company, Instagram.

Over the last two years, Instagram has experienced a surge of success, with usage doubling and revenue projected to reach $2.81 billion in 2017.

“I think why it’s successful for consumers is it inspires creativity and it helps people discover the world around them,” Quarles said. “Whatever your interest category is, you just get this level of connection and intimacy that is very first-person, which you can’t find in other places or on other apps.”

Since June 2016, Instagram has gained over 100 million active monthly users, rapidly expanding its consumer base from 500 million to 600 million users. In this time, Instagram has introduced several new features such as Instagram Stories, which allows users to post clips of what they are doing in temporary pictures and videos at the top of their feeds. The company has also been working to make Instagram a place where consumers go to search for businesses and products.

“We want to be the place where [consumers] find out about new products, they can search and shop for them,” Quarles said. “So what we’re trying to work with and help businesses do is be native and find a way to express themselves with Instagram so that their messages are just as crafted and high-quality as the rest of the content in your feed.”

With about 70 percent of users following businesses, Instagram continues to outperform their competition. The company has engaged with more brands than any other social media platform such as Twitter, Pinterest and its parent company, Facebook.

Quarles attributes his success at Instagram to his academic and extracurricular experiences at the University as well as at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. During his time at the University, Quarles served as a member of Student Council for several years, held a leadership position in his Greek organization, participated in club sports and was a member of the Jefferson Society.

“I think those [extracurriculars] are important for the team-based environments at business, school and the team-based environment that my current job is,” Quarles said. “Most team sizes are like six or eight people and being able to function, particularly at pace, and for how quickly we move at a company like ours, I think they all contribute.”

Quarles emphasized the importance of taking advantage of all opportunities available at the University, advising that students reach out to alumni to discuss the future of different fields in which they hope to pursue a career. In addition, he encouraged students to use their major to build foundational skills, but not to limit their options.

University students have the opportunity to take advantage of what their fields of study have to offer in a way that is directly related to Quarles and Instagram. Over the past several years, students have had the opportunity to visit a variety of tech start-ups and companies in Silicon Valley, including Instagram, through the Digital Safari course taught by Commerce Prof. Ryan Nelson.

Quarles and Nelson both emphasized the importance of taking advantage of these opportunities and the diverse education a liberal arts school has to offer.

“The strong liberal arts foundation at U.Va. helps prepare students for a variety of occupations over a long period of time,” Nelson said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

Quarles added that in his 20 years since graduating from the University, he has acquired a range of skills.

“I think it’s lifelong learning that’s the point,” Quarles said. “You can’t just say I’m going to draw a straight line to this job because truly what makes me successful in this role is all of the accumulation of the experiences that I’ve had to get here.”

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