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Delve Talks: Vance Strader, Harley-Davidson

Delve Talks is a podcast that digs into the challenges around design, product development, leadership and innovation. Our second season continues to explore how to create a culture that supports innovation through interviews with leaders of startups, educational and banking institutions, and multinational corporations.


Dave Franchino [00:00:00] Hello, everybody, Dave Franchino here and I'm joined by my business partner, Vice President of Strategy, Stefanie Norvaisas, and really excited about today's guest, Vance Strader, Chief Group Engineer in Advanced Engineering for Harley- Davidson.

[00:00:13] Vance, I know you've been working on motorcycle engineering for more than 20 years, 15 of those with Harley-Davidson. And then, you were with Buell before that, which was how we met. And for our listeners, just a reminder that we started this podcast last year and we're trying to explore a culture of innovation and to do that we've been facilitating conversations with a wide variety of business leaders and people with backgrounds and experiences might be able to give us insights into where innovation comes from. So, really excited to be joined today by Vance, who is the chief engineer for one of the world's most iconic brands and has a really unique background and experience. We're excited to talk to him about his experience in building culture and creativity in innovation at Harley-Davidson.

Vance Strader [00:01:03] It's great to be here, Dave. And especially since we've known each other now more than 20 years. So I really, really appreciate the opportunity to get together and talk.

Dave Franchino [00:01:13] Great. What do we start, Vance? Maybe for our listeners, tell us a little bit about yourself and how and why did you become to become an engineer and why focus on motorcycles? What was the path you took for that?

Vance Strader [00:01:24] Yeah. So I knew I was going to be a mechanical engineer when I was 9 years old. I was into BMX bicycles. I had a dirt bike my dad had bought me. My dad happened to be a mechanical engineer, as well. And it was at that point I realized, "I'm going to be a mechanical engineer and I'm going to design cars and motorcycles." And amazingly, that's exactly what I've had the opportunity to do, design cars and motorcycles. Not a whole lot of people are fortunate enough to have that kind of clarity from such an early age. So choosing to go to college, choosing my major, finding the companies I wanted to work at -- everything just kind of fell into place for me. So, I've been very fortunate to have been able to do what I've done so far.

Dave Franchino [00:02:05] It's interesting, Vance, my father was also a mechanical engineer and I'm just kind of curious what having sort of that family influence meant in terms of maybe your approach to innovation or the decision-making process for your career.

Vance Strader [00:02:22] Well, of course, I could thank my genes that my father passed down. It turns out that actually both my grandfathers were also engineers -- one a civil engineer for the city of Los Angeles and one mechanical engineer that did all sorts of things from designing engines to tractors across the Midwest. So, it's sort of a family thing that probably even if I didn't want to do it, I probably couldn't have avoided. And so, you know, this idea of innovation, I think there are some of us who are just wired that way. I can't not think that way. I can't not be innovative and think about what could be. It's just how I was made.

Dave Franchino [00:03:01] Yeah, one of the interesting things about your background I think our listeners might find it kind of interesting is the fact that you worked for a while in the radio- controlled car industry, correct? Tell us a little bit about that experience. I know that was very early in your career.

Vance Strader [00:03:17] It was. That was my second real job out of school. And, in fact, when I was first approached about that job, I said, "No, thank you. I do real things." Prior to that, I had been designing components for industrial and aerospace and automotive industries. And I thought, what do I want to do with toys? Well, it turns out it was a company that developed high-end radio-controlled race cars, and had a team that raced all around the world. And as soon as they convinced me to go visit, I was convinced that this was the right thing for the next step in my career. And frankly, it was one of the best learning experiences I could have had, especially because for a large portion of the time, I was really the only engineer, the only design engineer. There was a manufacturing engineer there as well.

[00:04:01] And in so having to rely on nobody but yourself, it just created really great habits around learning and around being accountable for results because there is nobody else. And so I think I developed a lot of the things that have since become strengths through that experience. And of course, it was just super fun to be able to work with some of the other people. The founder's son, who really was a ... I think of him as a creative genius, but barely got through high school. And working with someone like that, and to be able to conceive an idea in the morning, design it in the afternoon, have it made in our shop at night, and then have someone on the race team testing it that evening at one of the local racetracks. That kind of rapid learning cycle allows such exploration and allows you to really go nuts with theories, with hypotheses and very quickly evolve them into something that is really meaningful.

Dave Franchino [00:05:03] So one of the things I think is really interesting about the trajectory your career's taken is you started at a very small firm, but then you moved to the firm where I met you, which was Buell, a little bit larger, but still kind of, I'll call it, an innovation incubator. I know originally somewhat affiliated with Harley-Davidson, eventually owned by Harley-Davidson. Tell me how that influenced your approach to innovation, working at a sort of an arm which was a little bit separate from the larger organization?

Vance Strader [00:05:36] Well, first of all, the reason I chose to go to Buell is ... I wasn't even looking for a job, but I happened to be sitting at my desk eating lunch one day at the RC car company and I was reading, I think, Design Engineering magazine and saw an ad for a project leader at buell Motorcycles. At the time, I was still very much into motorcycles and the idea of going and leading a team to develop an American sport bike was super compelling to me. So I immediately reached out and one thing led to another. Ended up working for Erik Buell, who again, it was just another fantastic learning opportunity. I worked with a ton of great people there. Erik is such an inspirational guy, super creative. I think similarly wired but probably just to the next level where he can't not innovate. And it was ... I think there were good and bad things in terms of the connection between Buell and Harley-Davidson. Certainly, it's something that feels more like a startup. But having the financial backing and the stability and the resources of a large company is really valuable. But I think as many in that situation learn, is there also a lot of challenges with that.

[00:06:49] And we may talk later about some of the challenges, even within Harley-Davidson that we see in doing that with some of the new work we're doing in the new facilities we've opened up. But, you know, there's oftentimes cultural differences that are hard to overcome. And so lots of learning opportunities for me and the others that were involved there. But I give a lot of credit to Erik and the rest of the team there that was able to work through those things. And, you know, we developed some really innovative products. One of the things I'm most proud of is when we released the XB family of motorcycles that I was responsible for leading Cycle World magazine called it perhaps the best chassis in sport motorcycling. So that was really fun to me to be able to be a part of that and to really have an impact on the industry. But, you know, overall, there's lots I look back on and think, "Boy, I wish I would've handled that differently. I wish I would've done this differently." But awesome learning experiences.

Stefanie Norvaisas [00:07:53] So in the two experiences that you just shared with us ... both were marked with leadership that you referred to as like creative genius. How do you think having leaders who are wired that way? How did that affect the ability for each of those teams? Or did it to innovate?

Headshot of Vance Strader from Harley-Davidson
“It’s really important that we understand … what are the experiences we want to provide.” — Vance Strader

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