Interview with Anthony James – Founder of Linux Academy, and new co-host!
Interviewed by Christophe Limpalair on 12/29/2017
Please help me welcome Anthony James, our new co-host! Anthony built Linux Academy from the ground up into what's become one of the fastest growing private companies in the U.S. on the Inc 500 list. He's learned a lot of technical and business lessons along the way, which he shares in this episode. If you're a technical founder, entrepreneur, or if you want to learn more about the show's new co-host and our plans for 2018, check this out.
Links and Resources
We're adding a co-host to the show! Here's why this is good for you
We've got big plans for 2018, and this is the first step towards those plans. Here's why:
- We recently integrated Scale Your Code into Linux Academy and Cloud Assessments – and we have really big plans for that. Having Anthony on the show as a co-host will help expedite this because he is the CEO and founder of Linux Academy and Cloud Assessments.
- Anthony has very deep technical knowledge in specific areas I may not have knowledge in. That way he can ask questions that I may not have thought of. That’s going to provide a lot more value to the listeners of the show.
Christophe: Anthony, tell us a little bit more about your background in IT and business.
Anthony: I’m Founder and CEO of LinuxAcademy.com and Cloudassessments.com. It all really started around 17 years ago when I got my first job working support and doing web hosting system administration at an internet service provider. Not just any internet service provider, a dial up internet service provider, that also provided web hosting – where I actually got some of my first business lessons, believe it or not.
You actually studied business in school, but then you got IT jobs and you were doing IT things before then, so how did that work? What happened there?
Anthony: Back when I was 16, I also started a PHP and Linux how-to website (you can see it in the way back machine) called Pinehead, at the same time I was working at the internet service provider. The funny thing was at the time I wrote a lot of code in php, I did a lot of those things. I just thought that studying engineering and computer science in school wasn't for me. There is a lot of math associated with it, and I didn’t enjoy math at the time. Instead I decided to major in finance and economics only to go down a path which arguably has more math.
Turns out economics is really geared towards statistics and calculations and all this other stuff where you have a lot of math associated with it. I’m just kind of excited that I was able to go through both. I got a lot of experience from the computer side of it, always did that through college in my spare time, continued working at that service provider for a long time, and I got the experience for economics in business which I think is valuable.
Between the time of you working at the ISP and starting Linux Academy, can you back track and tell us what you did during that time period? And then when did you start Linux Academy?
Anthony: After college, I started doing something called fund accounting. I don’t know how much you are aware of accounting – there is not a lot of creativity. In fact, the more creative you get with accounting the more arguably in trouble you’re going to get in. So there is not a lot of creativity allowed for that, so I was ready to close the gap. I was missing that IT component.
So I took my IT background, and I started working for a company as a business intelligence analyst. I was building financial dashboards using a technology called click view and a lot of SQL queries in order to build intelligence around finances, decisions, projections and other things like that. From there I went to go work at a church developing streaming architectures using AWS. It was actually the second church in the United States that had an online campus. I was responsible for developing that back-end and even the front-end of that online campus. I was really excited about working with those technologies. It was when I was first introduced to AWS.
This was in 2010, I was super excited, and I wanted to keep doing more with it, so that is when I founded Linux Academy while working at the church. So I was doing that part time. Then I went on to work as a senior systems engineer at a media company that hosted a whole bunch of websites. It's architecture received about 70 million visitors per month that we were responsible for.
When did you realize that Linux Academy was going to be a “thing,” and decide to go full time/put all your efforts into it?
Anthony: It’s funny, this is my wife’s favorite thing, because quite honestly my goals for Linux Academy were never to be a huge company. Really the reason I started LA is multi-faceted
- I was interested in certifications
- I was really interested in cloud technology and I wanted to continue using those
- I genuinely just love helping people.
When you combine those things together, you get Linux Academy. Really the only intention behind it was to have enough customers to fund being able to do it. I just wanted to do it. One of the first business lessons I ever learned was from the ISP, that if you are not growing you’re shrinking, so I kept the mentality that we must always be doing something.
I would communicate with customers asking what they wanted next. Then I just kept going. A year and a half later into it, I was working 80 hours a week between the two jobs, so I went to my wife who is a physical therapist, and I asked “Can I go full time with this?” She said yes and was super supportive. I have to give her props and a shout out for that.
Then I went from working 80 hours in one week between two jobs to working 80 hours on Linux Academy. Any time you focus more on something the better it becomes. It got all of my attention. At that point, when it got all my attention, it began to grow a little bit more.
Well, I wasn’t really expecting for it to get bigger, but I did know I was unable to support all the customers by myself, so I ended up hiring someone else, our first hire, Stephen Smith, who is our Chief Content Officer now. Then from there we needed a little bit more help on development, so we hired Richard Layton, our software developer. From there we kept going. When we needed more we added a little bit more. We wanted to make sure we were able to assist and provide a really good value for our customers.
How did you figure out the technical components? I know you launched LA with something called Cloud Servers where you can SSH into different distributions, play around with those distributions, and also play around with different tools like Puppet, Chef, and others. Did you use your previous IT experience or did you have to learn that from scratch?
Anthony: That’s funny, what I really enjoy about the certifications and this core development around it, is that it increases your base line level of knowledge. If you think about what an idea is, an idea is just two things combined into one. That is a quote from the author of the book, “The Idea Book.” When I look at that, that is the only thing that happened. I liked AWS, I needed a way to continue learning. When I learn I need to listen, practice, memorize, and do it over and over again. I looked at that and thought, how can I provide value? How can we do this with the tools I already know? How can I combine those two things together? Bam! Cloud Servers were born.
You grew the company from 7 people in January of 2016 to now 80 people in December of 2017. Which is really fast growth in such a short period of time. What were some of the challenges and what spurred that growth?
Anthony: I don’t know if I can even remember everything that has happened. The first thing I will say is that it seems like fantastic growth, but it is not without its own problems.
Scaling companies is a little bit different than scaling architecture. You have to change your thought process and how it operates. What kind of spurred that growth was two things. We took a round of Venture capital series A. We did that because we wanted to expand our offerings. Our students that were there kept saying, “We want more. We love Linux Academy. We want you guys to teach these technologies. We don’t want to go somewhere else.” When we looked at that, it was going to be a bit more challenging to have money in the bank to weather any down turns in the economy, while also continuing to invest in growth. So, we took a little bit of venture capital, and we focused on building out that additional value for our students.
It was centered around being able to expand, and offer that type of service based off of what our students were asking for.
A lot was trial and error honestly. Like you said we went from 7 people in 2016 to 80 today. It was pretty amazing. I have to give a shout out to the team. Quite frankly, the agility required to go through that type of growth – there has been a lot of changes, re-organization structures, there has been challenges, there has been good times, there has been bad times. The staff that has been able to do that for the benefit of the student required agility. I give a big shout out to them because they have done an amazing job.
As the company has grown so much, how did you go from having your hands in everything to delegating almost everything and giving ownership to the entire team?
Anthony: It was hard. I like doing. I just do. The problem is that you start scaling as a company and you have a CEO that likes doing and being involved in everything, you start to become a bottle neck. I wish I would have learned this a little bit faster because I probably would have avoided some challenges.
My current mind set is this: I have a lot of information and knowledge about Linux Academy itself. I have a lot of knowledge around different technologies through all of the certifications because I’ve created a lot of content and I have ten certifications at this time, and I look at it like – how can you scale yourself?
When you’re looking at building companies, you want to put processes of empowerment.
Number 1, I want the company to operate for the benefit of the student without me. I want them to go in and provide value around areas that I can’t. If I’m not able to provide value, or I am not around for some reason, they are still able to move forward for the benefit of our customers with our regular mission of providing high quality and affordable hands-on training.
Also, your role as CEO of the company has changed as we've gone from a handful of employees to now 80. How has it changed? What are some tips that you have learned along the way that you can share with first time CEOs?
Anthony: When you think about it, when you have seven people on staff almost every single day you're communicating with each other. Everybody knows exactly what is going on at all times.
When you have 15 people on staff, the communication is still not a major issue. You don’t have to worry about different processes of communication and empowerment because everyone is on the same page.
Well, what happens at the point when you have around 50 people, it gets a little bit different. Your role does really have to change as CEO from being in the day-to-day stuff to more around the culture.
It is my job to take care of our team, so they can take care of our customers. So, around 50 people you have to start working on processes, and a different type of structure that allows your teams to move forward and communicate, versus just assuming. I think the biggest thing I want to encourage everybody is - don’t assume everybody just knows anymore at that size. You really have to think differently. You have to be able to look at the organization and see it differently than you did when it was small. Quite honestly, it becomes way different.
My day-to-day is completely different than it was when there was a handful of us. It’s going to be different when there is even more of us as well – and that’s okay. I just have to learn to, or whoever is doing has to learn to adapt. Also, find that one thing that ignites your passion. Because a lot of times you see CEOs or founders don’t make the transition into large scale CEOs because they are focused on what they love. Which is building that technology. What I would say is, building that technology and helping that customer – you can still do that. It is just different how you do it. You are assisting others to be able to do it versus actually hands-on writing the code yourself.
(Which you still can by the way!)
I know one of the major struggles of first time technical founders is that they have to give up some of that technical responsibility as CEOs or CTOs. How did you handle that struggle? How did you go from having your hands in the technical features to backing off and focusing on the business aspects?
Anthony: I love that question! I have a new philosophy. I said it a minute ago. I am a value add in those areas. What that means is, as CEO I can go in and push for certain projects. I can be involved in certain coding projects and content projects. The thing is, I never should be a key person or be dependent upon those projects to be successful. Because quite frankly, in any moment I could be pulled away for an entire day to deal with different issues or different types of meetings that you have to have. When you have so many different departments of the company, they all need that attention.
Everybody in the company needs to really understand what’s going on throughout the organization. If you don’t know what’s going on, and you can’t see some of the issues to help solve, it’s going to create an unhealthy organization. What I would say is, I can still do those things. In fact, I have a project that I’m involved in now. I do some of it at home, but I’m not a key person. It can move forward without me.
How do I stay up to date? Well a lot of times, Christophe you know, you invited me to do a webinar on financial technologies security. The coolest part about that is we went in there and I got to get up to date on so many new things that AWS has done that isn’t even covered in certifications. It reignited my passion. I was able to get in there every week. I was able to talk about it. Help people involved with it. It really just brought me up again.
The other side of it is, you invited me to co-host Scale Your Code! So that is another way I intend staying on it without being a bottleneck for anybody to provide any of that additional value.
I mentioned in the introduction of this episode that we integrated SYC into Linux Academy and Cloud Assessments. How do you see that integration providing value to new or existing customers, and also listeners of the show?
Anthony: If you think about it, what we do is provide training on technology and certifications. A lot of times companies use those technologies differently. How they are using it for example, or how they are implementing it. In every industry, it is used differently.
What I view SYC as is your original vision - interviewing those developers those companies, those CEOs, founders, directors of IT, VPs of engineering and seeing how they are using that specific technology to solve their problems. I think the big key is - how do I use this to solve different problems? In information technology and cloud computing, the problems are not the same.
The technology is applied differently in so many different use cases. Interviewing those companies, those engineers and architects who are using that is going to be super exciting.
I think one of the best ways that we are going to be incorporating that through the site is that when that happens, were also going to start providing hands-on labs designed for specific use case associated with that interview. For somebody that really wants to learn, they can go in and do that specific scenario in a hands-on way and really get that experience.
For any enterprise’s team leads or directors, or IT leadership that is watching, this can help you keep up with different technologies and new technologies and how they are being used to solve real world problems in organizations. You can also see how others structure engineering teams and solve problems there.
Is there anything else you can think of that you would like to add?
Anthony: I don’t think so. But for one, Scale Your Code is actually free for anybody out there. You can sign up for a Linux Academy free community edition to gain access to that. If there is anybody or anything that you are interested in us having an interview for, please reach out to us.
Reach out and let's work as a community to really provide some great value to each other.
Now if anyone wants to stay up to date with anything you’re working on, or if they have any personal questions for you. How can they reach out?
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