Believe in people. Try to see what others see. By the time that everyone in Tech wants someone, they are too expensive, and the probability of getting them is low for a startup. You have to find the “diamonds in the rough” and be committed to their development. This has driven our success more than anything else. I didn’t say it was easy always to survive the growing pains, but it is worth it when they start rewarding you with all-star skillsets.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brandon Ahmad, founder of Instructor Brandon. This EdTech company specializes in delivering high-skilled practical training in programming. He has been a software architect for over a decade while also doing freelance teaching. He is currently serving a 2-year term as Microsoft Certified Trainer — Regional Lead for the U.S.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Many years ago, I had just graduated from college, and I was broke. I had spent months looking for a job and couldn’t get anything but some temp, manual labor jobs. I was looking for a job and read something about I.T. skills being in demand. So, I went to the library and found a book on certifications. Eventually, I got certified and landed a job. From there, I was never unemployed again in my life.
Somewhere in my career, I started teaching and developing, which led to this natural progression. I never forgot where I started and always wanted to bring enhancements to high skills training. When I turned 40, I decided to start working towards making it happen.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I’d say end up in Latin America, Europe, the U.S., and Latin America. I come from Oklahoma, and things are kind of isolated for us Oklahomans. But a strange thing happened, which usually happens.
We needed particular skillsets to get our custom proprietary interface built. It was critical to the training experience. Suddenly, I found myself with offices in Pakistan and LATAM as we looked for the skills. It’s been quite an experience for a small company of around 40 people to have three offices worldwide.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh my goodness, there are so many. I’d say that the funniest one of all was my initial scoping of how long it takes to get good products out. When I started, I thought we would have our new EdTech software and product out within three months. 2 years later, it finally happened.
It was interesting because I had been a software architect responsible for fixing much big company’s software issues affecting rollouts. However, what I failed to account for was that I didn’t have that sort of budget. We started with beginning junior skillsets in every position and definitely had our growing pains.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I’d say the pandemic was the most challenging moment for us, but not for the usual reasons. Demand actually went up a lot. The problem was that we had just started an office in Pakistan and started expanding Latin America. We lost so much time with just team building. Assembling teams is so important, and the experience happens ten times faster when you can travel. Otherwise, you must have solid project management practices and KPIs to get efficient production. These are things that most startups don’t have.
We had so many moments due to timezone and communication drops. I remember staying up till 1 and 2 AM every morning and getting up at 8 AM to work seven days a week. I thought about giving up, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Eventually, after grinding at it, we got our product out. It received excellent reviews from Microsoft and many students.
I think that for any entrepreneur, the drive to succeed only comes from one’s own desire to see their dream make it. And most founders are tested to see how badly they really want it. I just couldn’t see myself finish without achieving this product.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My wife. I worked seven days a week and did not attend one social gathering with her. Furthermore, I self-funded and gave up my entire salary for the company. It was difficult for us, but she never lost faith in me and sacrificed so much.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I think it was Stevie Wonder who said that when you’re moving in the positive, your destination is brilliancy. Although it might sound tacky, for me is a reminder that you’re capable of anything you wish for as long as you work hard and put your efforts into it. In a way, I see it as believing everyone deserves to fulfill their deepest dreams — as long as they use this desire as a push for work and discipline. I think that quote is something that defines me, also in my professional life.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
That’s a good question. In my opinion, it has a lot to do with social media. Many more things are in public view than before, forcing us to confront some hard realities. Social media can be used in both good and bad ways. We’ve seen cases of both with some of the new crises lately.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Many business people don’t consider this, I believe, but it’s something that I learned. You cannot compete in today’s global economy without a diverse team that understands different perspectives. Only 60% of my customers are from the U.S. A considerable percentage of them come from Asia and Europe. And my customers from the U.S. are incredibly diverse. I’ve learned to rely on people that speak English, Spanish, Arabic, French, and Polish to satisfy our customer base.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
This has really been a bad problem. Many Black men lose confidence, and customers are often shocked to see Black men in leadership positions. I think that seeing more Black men in successful leadership positions is necessary. I know plenty of Black men that are brilliant developers, for example, but you never see them covered anymore. I had personally gained a reputation for solving complicated programming issues. Still, nothing on T.V. ever highlighted the accomplishments of this group.
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
The most significant pain point is for professionals needing to gain access to high-end skillsets in a short amount of time. Most of our courses can be completed in as little as one to two weeks, but they pack a lot of hands-on lab experience. For many companies, having these skill sets is critical to compete in today’s global world. Likewise, for many individuals, the training just isn’t available at a reasonable price.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It’s the hands-on experience we provide. You have many interfaces, but we go out of our way to combine lectures, videos, quizzes, support, and practical experience. For example, take the Microsoft Business Application Developer Line. We took what was 20 hours of labs and tripled it to 60 hours of labs. We also have rollouts with all sorts of enhancements to keep the information current. Professionals with this skillset have an average income of over 100K dollars, and Microsoft featured our learning products. We’ve had all sorts of positive feedback about it, with several students getting certified.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Oh yes. Once we got through the first product, aka MVP, we really got our processes down. We are in the process of releasing 12 new courses now within the next two months. Things are just really speeding up, and it’s fantastic to see it happening after working so hard through the growing pains.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Innovate and adapt. My case was a little different because I started with an SME scaleup where I had a lot of experience in the industry but had to figure out how to scale. I had won awards for tech skill teaching and enjoyed it. But to really get the company going has required a lot of adapting and innovating. You have to be honest with yourself when your product doesn’t match the market or don’t have the resources to create it. Then, figure out how to get it out in a version where you can afford to finish it and still make people very happy.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Indeed, it’s all about the salespeople getting knowledge of the industry and really learning that niche’s language. In software, we have it for various disciplines. That allows them to identify customer pain points more quickly, and that is the key.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
I’d say identifying the target audience and making sure that your product meets their needs. And to revise your product until it is practical. The biggest thing with the EdTech industry is that customers are usually skeptical that you provide quality hands-on training.
In Edtech, people will say anything. You have to focus marketing and sales on proving that you meet that pain point. The demand is already there, so you don’t have to do much to create it.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Customer service is huge and expensive. First, you have to instill a good customer service culture in your organization by hiring people who care. If they care about the company and the quality, people will see it.
Second, consider the hours that you offer. It took us a while to get customer service over 8 hours a day. Shoot, it took us time to get to 8 hours a day. But it did happen. There is nothing wrong with restraining hours as your budget goes up.
Third, be prepared to do some of the training yourself. Even today, if there are times where I will call a customer myself to ensure that we have quality.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
In EdTech, getting out your product matters the most first. However, updating it with the 2-year cycle before your content becomes largely obsolete is just as important. Having strong customer service with relevant content is the best way to do it. Take reviews from customers and review them. We ran a beta and received all sorts of helpful feedback. It took us three months to address all the issues.
However, I will tell you that when we officially went live, we had 100% positive feedback. The number was much worse in beta. Listening to our customers was the easiest way to really reduce churn, from what I found.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Stay true to your idea. Software is still a representation of an idea, and there will be many changes as it becomes practical. You have to know what you want so that you will always achieve what you wish to once it goes through all the different transformations and forms.
- Be the hardest on yourself. Don’t ask your employees to stay up weekends and late nights if you cannot do it. The hardest worker on my team works 70% as hard as I do, but I have some very hard workers. People on the outside are often impressed.
- Believe in people. Try to see what others see. By the time that everyone in Tech wants someone, they are too expensive, and the probability of getting them is low for a startup. You have to find the “diamonds in the rough” and be committed to their development. This has driven our success more than anything else. I didn’t say it was easy always to survive the growing pains, but it is worth it when they start rewarding you with all-star skillsets.
- Be prepared to accept that you will be wrong. This is the biggest issue that many founders have. We have to be stubborn by believing that we can start a successful business when the odds are overwhelmingly against us. This makes most founders determined, which can be a good trait. However, it can go too far. Sometimes, it’s far more critical just to admit that you are wrong and learn from it.
- Focus on the product. Product equals money — and as better the product, the more money. I made a mistake early on of not understanding how I really needed to think about the product. I could do things three times faster now if I started over, but that is every Tech founder. I would have told myself to focus on the product.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have a passion for wanting to teach children with autism one day. Having experience with some personal family members, it’s something that I really believe can improve. After this company finishes its growth cycle, maybe one day I’ll be able to help create something like that.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
This is hard because there are so many. I’d have to say that it would be Satya Nadella. He is an “O.G.” software developer turned CEO and has been my idol for many years. I’ve read nearly every autobiography that I could find on developers who started their own successful tech business. However, I really like the way that he leads Microsoft.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!