FamilySearch Family Tree's Ron Tanner, Taking Care of Business
By Jan Mayer
If you’ve ever tried to attend a session at a family history conference where Ron Tanner is speaking, you know of his popularity, or the high consumer interest in the product he manages—the FamilySearch Family Tree. There are standing room only crowds, and conferences have to offer multiple sessions to accommodate demand for his classes. At FamilySearch, Ron Tanner is the product manager for the FamilySearch Family Tree—a very robust, massive, free online genealogy service that enables millions of people to collaborate on their family history worldwide. Users can create, share, and preserve family research, artifacts, stories, and photos. To-date, there are over 1 blillon persons in the FamilySearch Family Tree, and millions more records are added monthly. To speak with Ron for this story, I had to meet with him by phone and in his home. The popularity of Family Tree means Ron is very busy, and his days are long. Outside of work, he’s known as “family history Ron,” sweetheart, dad, grandpa and friend. But he’s much more than the titles he wears.
Ron has one of those dispositions where even though you may have just met him, within minutes, you feel like you’ve known him all your life. He is a happy kind of guy, full of stories and ideas, but not full of himself. Providing a free service that enables individuals and families to record and share their collective history is a daunting challenge. Yet Ron is very open and affable when he speaks publicly, and particularly when responding to sometimes very pointed questions from Family Tree users in the audience. In fact, the average speaker would hold questions until after the presentation, but Ron is undaunted as he takes them upfront--warmly disarming the audience while simultaneously endearing himself to them.
Away from the lectern, Ron couldn’t be more down-to-earth or attentive when he’s helping people--which is how he sees the Family Tree product and his role as its product manager. He seems quick to praise others but doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at himself. His work in helping people discover and connect their family history is crucial to him, but his deepest devotion is to his own family—his wife, CheRee, their 4 grown children, and 6 grandkids.
Preparation for Family History
Ron was raised in El Paso, Texas, but hadn’t considered a career in computer programming until he needed more semester credits. The only class that fit at the time was Introduction to Computer Science. He admits the class was tough, but he was hooked and graduated from BYU with B.S. and M.S. degrees in that field.That wasn’t the only thing that hooked him. The first week after he returned to BYU after a two-year proselyting mission to Guatemala, he joked with a family home evening sister about being poor, and that he would have to propose with a band-aid for a ring. By the end of the week, he had proposed to her with a band-aid, and amazingly she accepted. That was 38 years ago in July, and she’s still his greatest fan.
“He always asks me where I want to go for dinner. We can go to McDonalds—it doesn’t matter—I just want to be with him,” CheRee said. And Ron can’t gush enough about CheRee, who grew up in Brigham City, Utah.
“I admire her—she’s a good woman. She’s spiritual, and we have good conversations. She’s very talented as a school teacher and professional seamstress. She can make a pattern from looking at a dress in a magazine. Anything that can be sewn, she can sew. She’s amazing,” he said.
Ron worked for Bell Labs in Denver for 9 years and Novell in Utah for 13 years before accepting the product management job with nonprofit FamilySearch International. It meant a 40 percent pay cut at the time, but he wanted to do something that had profound value.
At first, he hesitated to take the job because he worried that his “excitable and animated” personality wouldn’t fit into the subdued, conservative work environment.
“I warned them that I’m kinda crazy and asked if they were ready for this,” Ron said. The reply was, “I think we could use you.”
Helping Others Connect in the Family Tree
Ten years later he’s responsible for Family Tree and everything related to it. That includes anything connected to FamilySearch Memories, Search, and hinting of historical records, and the mobile apps. He is also working on family history solutions for Chinese patrons. His office is in Lehi, Utah, where he and his team of project managers work to continually develop or improve programs to meet the needs of FamilySearch customers.
His usual workday is spent “running from meeting to meeting. It’s nuts,” he remarked. “When I came here, I was amazed at the caliber of the employees. They don’t make the most money in the industry, but they’re devoted like none other,” Ron said.
“You can’t beat the reason for what we’re doing here,” Ron says referring to their goal to create free web-based services that enable individuals to discover, gather, and connect their family history. His team is constantly meeting several days a week to understand user needs and to see what they could do better.
“There are miracles that happen in this stuff. I’m convinced that God writes code because He has saved us a few times,” he laughed. There have been times when the team was stumped, but through inspiration they’ve finished a project in half the time. “It’s just amazing to see,” Ron said.
The most fun he has at work is figuring out what his team can do to make things better—new capabilities that make a desired task easier for the customer. But sometimes adding or changing programs can be risky. “I was really petrified minutes before we launched Family Tree, because it was going to change the whole way of doing genealogy. I remember saying to an associate, ‘remind me this is a good thing.’ I was worried that everyone would run away; they wouldn’t want to do it. The exact opposite happened. The [Family Tree] growth has been phenomenal, and it continues to be helpful to more and more users,” Ron stated.
As the tree has grown (to-date, 4.4 million users and 1.2 billion records), so have his responsibilities. And it doesn’t stop once he gets home.
“All day long I’m busy doing things to keep the wheels going. My kids will tell you that the first thing I do when I get home is turn on the computer. I answer about 200–400 emails every night. I just have to keep it up and create plans for the future—for 2 to 5 years out,” he stated.
But he’s not complaining.
“I have deep passion and lots of energy—even though I am getting old—and sometimes I’m tired. But I find that the Lord helps me. I get inspiration like, ‘You need to take care of these 3 things,’ or ‘Here’s an answer to this problem you’ve been working on.’”
Family History Ron
Ron is a popular presenter at family history conferences and usually allows questions at the end—or the beginning and middle—of his sessions. But no matter how many answers he gives, the same thing happens every time. People stand in line afterwards to ask him more. And he stays...and stays—sometimes for over an hour—much to the dismay of the audiovisual or conference management crew who are trying to get the next session primed to go on time.
“I love what I do! I like helping people understand how to use the product and work with them until I know they’re happy. There’s just never enough time to answer every question,” he explained.
He wanted to expand his reach to include people from other places that had questions too. In 2016, with the help of his daughter, Teagan, a social media expert, they setup a Facebook page, Family History Ron, where patrons can ask questions, disclose issues, and get reliable answers. Questions can be submitted prior to the live feed. He can also be followed on twitter, instagram and youtube, where patrons can research questions from previous shows.
Living a Happy Life
Ron is very close to his family, which fuels his drive with his work. He beams when he talks about gathering for dinner every other Sunday, getting away to the mountains for a picnic or tinfoil dinner, playing games, or watching football together.
“We like to choose opposite teams to cheer for. It makes it more fun,” he said. “One of the best things about my family is the way we laugh with each other, whether it’s over a game, watching a funny show, or just joking with each other,” he expressed.
Ron is the cheerful leader of the whole gang, and they support each other no matter what. “I watch him very carefully. If he’s stressed, I take him to Brigham City to my dad’s, where there isn’t any internet. I give him a book to read and we go to Maddox for a nice steak,” CheRee explained.
At the end of the day, when Ron finally has time to breathe, he grabs a good book from a wide range of fiction—medical mysteries to thrillers, or sometimes he works on one of the two novels he’s writing.
Ron says he learned the value of a jovial nature at an early age. “If you’re positive and happy, everything works out. We can choose whether we’re happy or not, no matter the situation. It’s not that things have always been easy. There were plenty of experiences along the way that were difficult,” he explained.
As a young boy there was an issue that caused him to feel extremely depressed and miserable. He didn’t like the way it felt, so he said he just decided to be happy, and that’s made all the difference in his life.
CheRee smiled and nodded in agreement. “It’s true,” she said. “That’s how he still is today.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jan Mayer, who spent most of her life in Colorado, graduated from BYU in Child Development/ Family Relations. Being a parent and grandparent has been the joy of her life, but she has also been a weekly writer for the Denver Post, an elementary school teacher, an editor for DISH Network, and a publisher of The LDS Community Journal, a monthly tabloid newspaper in the Denver area. In addition to serving in leadership positions in church and community, she is currently a volunteer writer for FamilySearch and a freelance writer. She and her husband, Richard, live in Cedar Hills, Utah, and have 5 children and 11 grand-children.
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FamilySearch International is the largest genealogy organization in the world. FamilySearch is a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Millions of people use FamilySearch records, resources, and services to learn more about their family history. To help in this great pursuit, FamilySearch and its predecessors have been actively gathering, preserving, and sharing genealogical records worldwide for over 100 years. Patrons may access FamilySearch services and resources free online at FamilySearch.org or through over 5,000 family history centers in 129 countries, including the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.