Key Takeaways

  • Altair began as a consulting business and gradually developed its software products, primarily in computer simulation. One of their successful products is HyperMesh, which Jim took internationally and reinvested the success to introduce new products.
  • The company’s culture is built on four key value points: envisioning the future, honesty in communication, broad communication to involve employees, and a focus on new technology, business models, and experimentation.
  • Altair is committed to diversity and inclusion in terms of international representation and gender diversity. They aspire to have a workforce that is 50% female, including at the C-suite and board levels.
  • Trust is a vital aspect of Jim’s leadership approach. While he generally trusts his employees and provides them with the freedom to innovate, he takes firm action when trust is violated.
  • Adaptation and maintaining core values are required for any company that wants to grow in the long run.

Executive Summary

Hello everyone; we appreciate your presence on an exciting new installment of The Leader Show with Lou Carter. Our guest today is Jim Scapa, the CEO and founder of Altair. This American multinational technology company offers software and cloud-based solutions catering to simulation, IoT, data analytics, and artificial intelligence. 

Jim discusses his journey as a founder of Altair. He also highlights the importance of bringing great people on board, nurturing a positive company culture, and focusing on his company’s key values. Now, without any further delay, let’s get straight to the good stuff. 

From Engineer to Entrepreneur: Jim’s Journey to Building Altair and Cultivating a Lasting Company Culture

Lou begins the conversation by asking Jim about his journey as a founder of Altair and how he succeeded with his idea. Jim shares his story from growing up in New York City and attending Columbia University. He then moved to Michigan and worked as an engineer in the auto industry but realized he had an entrepreneurial spirit. 

Jim pursued an MBA at night and initially planned to work in a venture capital firm in the East. However, he saw an opportunity in computer simulation and decided to start his company with a meager $1,500 startup capital.

Altair began as a consulting business and gradually developed its own software products, primarily in the field of computer simulation. Jim mentions experiencing failure and success in his journey, with one particularly successful product called HyperMesh. He took the product internationally and reinvested the success to introduce new products.

Additionally, Jim emphasizes the importance of bringing great people on board and nurturing a positive company culture. On that note, he reflects on the loyalty of his team members and how people tend to stay with the company for a long time, making it a pleasant experience over the years.

Fostering Loyalty through Vision, Honesty, Communication, and Innovation

After that, Lou asks Jim why people stay at Altair and what contributes to their loyalty. Jim explains that Altair’s culture is built on four key value points that have been consistent for many years.

The first value point is envisioning the future and making decisions that would help the company in the long run. Altair constantly looks ahead, which Jim believes is exciting and engaging for employees.

The second value point is honesty. Jim mentions that the company greatly values open and honest communication, both internally among team members and externally with customers.

Jim then discusses the importance of broad communications. He shares his experience in larger companies where politics and selective information sharing occur. At Altair, Jim actively fights against this by promoting broad communication through email groups and international channels. Altair shares successes, challenges, and market issues transparently and inclusively, making employees feel involved and valued.

The third value point focuses on new technology, business models, and experimentation. Altair actively seeks innovation and encourages employees to take risks and experiment with new ideas.

Lastly, Jim highlights the significance of diversity. Altair has a diverse leadership team and embraces diversity in its culture, both in terms of international representation and gender diversity.

Embracing Diversity: Altair’s Commitment to Inclusion and Gender Equality in Tech

Moving on, Lou expresses admiration for Altair’s emphasis on broad and transparent communications and the importance of diversity beyond geographical factors. He specifically mentions the inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures. Furthermore, he brings up Altair’s aspiration to have a workforce that is 50% female, including at the C-suite and board levels, and expresses awe at this goal.

Jim responds by emphasizing the significance of diversity and its power to an organization. He mentions that diversity of thinking has historically been a strength of the United States, and having women as part of that diversity is crucial. 

Jim highlights that top technical universities already have a significant percentage of female students. However, there is a need for representation at all levels, from professors to leadership positions, to create an inclusive environment and inspire aspiring women in the field. 

Learning from Mistakes and Embracing Active Listening

Next, Lou seeks to understand what mistakes an employee should avoid when working in his company and what lessons Jim could impart to help others.

The latter humbly acknowledges that he himself makes numerous mistakes but emphasizes the importance of quickly admitting and openly discussing those mistakes. He highlights the significance of learning from mistakes and moving forward. 

Jim mentions that he doesn’t have a definitive list of things one should never do but emphasizes the need for active listening. He states that active listening involves truly hearing others and not being preoccupied with one’s thoughts.

Lou appreciates Jim for having cited active listening and highlights the mutual understanding and respect that comes from this type of communication. He also emphasizes the importance of apologizing and taking responsibility for one’s mistakes as a display of leadership. 

Navigating Trust and Learning from Mistakes

On a similar note, Lou asks Jim about his biggest mistake as a founder and how he rectified it. Jim mentions that he has made countless mistakes due to his experimental nature and willingness to reorganize and try new approaches. 

He discusses that some mistakes revolved around people, particularly when opening offices in different countries. There were instances where individuals betrayed the company’s trust, leading to corrective actions.

Additionally, he emphasizes the importance of trust in his leadership approach. While he generally trusts his employees and believes in giving them the freedom to innovate and be creative, he acknowledges that when trust is violated, he takes firm action. Jim doesn’t want to spend time policing people but prefers to trust them and provide the necessary tools for success.

Lou resonates with Jim’s answer and highlights the challenge of finding the right people, trusting them, and dealing with situations where that trust is broken. They discuss the difficulty of assessing people’s behaviors, particularly in larger organizations, and emphasize the value of trusted advisors to gain insight into blind spots.

Evolving Leadership: Jim’s Journey from Small Team to Public Company at Altair

Finally, Jim reflects on his journey of growth as a leader, starting with a small team and expanding to a publicly traded company. He mentions the need for both the business and himself as a leader to adapt and change at every stage. Jim shares that despite some advice against taking the business public, he enjoyed the challenge and appreciates the opportunity to do things differently while still maintaining the company’s core values.

He mentions that when Altair went public, he distributed equity to around 800 people, which has had a transformative impact on their lives. Jim’s very happy seeing those who supported him during the early years rewarded and becoming rich. He also mentions his controlling interest in the company, allowing him to balance the long-term vision with the needs of shareholders.

Lou and Jim go into much greater detail throughout this conversation.

Thank you for listening!


Louis Carter : It's great to be here with Jim Scapa here. He's the CEO and founder of Altair. And what a pleasure it is to be here with you today. Wow. A founder of Altair, the Founder. Nice to see you, Jim.

Jim Scapa : Nice to see you as well. You just got quieter than you were before, so now I have to make you louder. [laugh].

LC : Well, I can get really loud, but for different reasons. 

JS : Uh oh. [Laughs]

LC : [laugh]. So, well, this is, no, we have to keep emotional regulation, which is exactly what we were just talking about. And Jim and I were talking a little about, about being founders and keeping our emotional regulation and how we can enable that Most Loved Workplace, really, and how being at a Most Loved Workplace and leading in a Most Loved Workplace is one and the same, really. Right? We're in it and we're leading it. And as a founder, Jim, I'd love to hear more about your story as a founder of Altair. How did it start? How did you get to that level of success where you founded and you had that idea and it germinated and became really truth?

Lessons From Failure And Success: The Story Of Altair [01:42]

JS : It sounds very exciting, but it's more prosaic, [laugh] that, but let me give you my story a little bit. So, I grew up in New York City. I went to Columbia, came out to Michigan, as an engineer, in the auto industry, and pretty quickly saw, I'm not a really big company guy. Very entrepreneurial and got an MBA at Michigan mostly at night. and then, I thought I'd go back east to work in a venture capital firm. I had these notions. I was very young, and saw the opportunity. I was involved with a new area of computer simulation, and so an opportunity to start a company. Started a business, $1,500 of startup capital. So nothing like what you see these days, [laugh], especially on the West Coast. And, primarily as a consulting business in the beginning, very quickly was developing some of our own software.

I've always been kinda on the software side and, had a big, had some failure, really important. And then, had a very big success with one product called HyperMesh. And I began to take that internationally and continue to reinvest, through the success of that product as I went international as well, and continued to bring some new products out. 

So, that's really the story of Altair, you know, little by little, I think I've just brought a lot of great people on the team. It's a culture that I think. We just closed on a very small acquihire this morning, tiny company in India. 17 people, almost no revenue. But I had brought my C-team on the call this morning and very, very early this morning just to meet the new people that are coming in. And, you know, listening to my own team members, you know, talking about how long they've been with the company and how people don't really leave that often. You know, it is just been a very, very nice ride for many years.

LC : So, you mentioned that people don’t leave. That’s huge. Tell me more about what leads people not to leave, why do they stay?

Diversity As A Strength: Cultivating An International And Inclusive Environment At Altair [04:04]

JS : So, I've had kind of the same four key points to, or key value points, if you will, to our culture for many, many years. And the first one is, you know, we're thinking about the future. I say we envision the future, and then we make our decisions in the context of that longer future, you know, step by step. So I think we're always looking out there, and I think that's exciting and fun for people. The second one, you know, I think is that, everyone talks about being honest and, you know, you got to have an honest culture, and we are very honest with each other and with customers as well.

But one of the things that I really push hard is this idea of broad communications and what that means to me. I've worked in some big companies very early and, and politics kind of creeps into a company when you have, you know, this, you know, Louis decides, "I've got some information, I want to share it with Jim, but Amy doesn't need to know that, so I'll leave her out."

And, you know, "Gil, I don't know if she needs to know it." And I really fight that. So I have these broad email groups. We try and really communicate broadly internationally as well about what we're doing wrong, about what we're doing right. We cheerlead a little bit broadly as well. We talk about the challenges that we have in the market, all of that in a very broad way. And I think it makes people feel included in what's happening. And, so I think that's a very powerful idea as well.

We're always looking for new technology and new business models, and we're experimenting a lot. And then the last thing I think in Altair, that's pretty powerful, is this idea of diversity. Everyone talks about diversity today, but I you know, from, I'm telling you it's over 30 years. I've had the same, points to the culture. it's to really embrace diversity. I was on several calls just in the last day or two, and even I'm amazed, I'm looking at the leadership of my team, and it's, you know, there's a guy from Germany, a guy from Italy, a guy from France, a guy from India, a guy from China, a guy from Japan.

And this is just the solver team leaders, you know, on the tech team. And so we're so broad and international, we're so diverse, and it's throughout, it's top-down really. And, I think that is super powerful. We weren't as good on the gender side. And I've been, I have all daughters, by the way. Two are engineers, one's a lab animal vet. and so I really have pushed this gender, aspect of diversity as well in the last 10 years. And I think it's really taking root. And so diversity is big. And then finally, we just take risks. I like to experiment. I'm always reorganizing [laugh]. I'm always, you know, trying. And there's a lot of resistance internally, very often. and sometimes it's quite a failure, but very often these things we learn from them and just quickly pivot, and move on.

So that's in a nutshell, what I think are my key reasons why this business works. And why people tend to stay. Not everybody stays. And by the way, we kick people out too. [laugh], if, you know, we are not afraid if someone isn't fitting or isn't measuring up. It's a very, very, very high caliber group of people. But we're really nice about it, even though we're kicking somebody out. You want to treat people with respect and it, you know, it wasn't a fit for them, but we're not afraid to do that either. We recognize that we have to do that if people aren't fitting right. So, it's all that, so probably more than you wanted to hear [laugh],

LC : I love all three concepts. The idea of broad communications, transparent communications, giving people the idea that they can, not just the idea that they can be honest and open, and you can help them to know if it's not the right place for them. And the diversity as well that you're describing, not just geographic, but also culture and background, ethnicity, communication, so many different factors come along with diversity.

And you aspire to have a workforce of 50% female, including c-suite and board. Tell us more about that. That's incredible.

From Top Universities To The Workplace: Nurturing Women's Success [08:30]

JS : Yeah. I just think it's part of the whole diversity element. You really want the perspectives. To some extent, I see it as the power of the US. My parents were immigrants from Greece in the early fifties. You know, I see the power of the US historically as this idea of diversity, actually, I think, you know, some people are fighting against it now and whatever, but, you know, that is the historical difference. You know, if you go to Japan and it's, you know, fairly monocultural if you will, of course that's changing too. But that diversity of thinking is very important. And having women in that mix is just so important, I think, and not just tokenized. There's so many amazing, if you go to the very top technical universities, Columbia, where I came out of and I'm very active with, but most of the really top technical universities are 50% women at this point.

And as you go down, it's less so, actually, believe it or not. And as you go down, you see women entering us in freshman year, dropping out after a year or two, because what's important is that they see the professors, you know, there's the people to aspire to need to be women as well, which is why you need the top down, bottom up. And so yes, I'm a huge believer in that gender diversity.

LC : And that's really what you've aspired to here it's c-suite and board. It's both

JS : And board.

LC : Like you said, top down and, the competencies, the behaviors that you have now are inclusive. And that's what you're creating to be a Most Loved Workplace is an inclusive culture. And, that respect that you also spoke so much about is such a critical, keystone, really. Capstone and keystone, feature of being a Most Loved Workplace.

JS : Thank you.

LC : Tell me more. I always like to know from, especially from founders, you know, sort of how is it that, sort of, you know, there are things I'm sure you could teach people right now and me as well, you know, as a founder, and I'd love to know, sort, you know, what sort of, what are their things that you would sort of never do, right? And why? What are those things to, so to help people, to know really what should they not do and why is it that they shouldn't do it? Right?

Creating A Culture Of Respect And Understanding In Conversations And Communication [11:06]

JS : I'm not sure I know exactly what you should never do, and I'm quite certain that, I'm super far from, I make so many mistakes. It's crazy. but I think you, you want to certainly, when you do make a mistake, you want to be very quick to admit it, to you know, talk about it in an open way. and to just move on from that and to learn from that.

So, I don't know about what you should never do. I think you need to be listening a lot to people and listening actively. You know, a lot of people listen, but their own ideas are like rumbling around so fast that they're not really actively listening. And I think it's, it's super important. People want to be heard. you really have to very actively listen. And you're obviously terrific at that. That's what, you know, that's what makes you good at what you do.

LC : I like what you say about active listening, right? And, how we're hearing each other and we're responding really right to the nature, and the sensibility, and this is what we're feeling as well from what you said, right? And, you know, I heard the respect for what I do as well. I'm hearing, and understanding too, how you are saying that we need to hear and we need to also be mindful that we sometimes need to apologize. Say I'm sorry. Yeah. And say that was, I take responsibility for that and that shows leadership, and then next time I will do this better. Here's what I can do and follow through on that really, and saying, this is what I can do, will do. And then that accountability, that trust, that respect forms even more next time.

JS : Yep.

LC : Here's another one that I love asking, this is one I love asking, which is, you know, what is that biggest mistake you made? And how and how did you correct it? These are not easy questions, by the way. They're hard. And, but people really want to know about it because they, you know, you can really connect to somebody who says, I get it. I've been there, I've done it. I want to know how to do it better. Especially from people as successful as you are. Do you have that sort of biggest mistake you made? And how did you correct it? Because mistakes are welcome, aren't they? Right? They're things that help us get better to improve next time.

Navigating The Complexities Of Building International Teams Through Experiences and Trust [13:36]

I don’t know that I want to pick a specific one out. I've made, so I've made more mistakes than you can imagine, [laugh], because I really am an experimentalist. I've reorganized a hundred different ways. And, you know, one of the things that I've found is, you know, something that doesn't work today, very often, you know, we all tend to say, well, I've had that experience because we're products of our experience. I did that. That didn't work. That'll never work. [laugh], right? Actually, very often, something that's not working today, you need to like, take it back out again and look at it again and decide, because in this sort of change set of circumstances further down the road, that idea actually may have legs now.

And so I think that's super important. I mean the most of the mistakes that I've made are around people, you know, quite honestly, I've opened offices in 26 or 27 countries, and I personally, I used to travel, you know, visit each market, each country, spend a good deal of time there, meet a lot of people, customers and resellers and others. And then I would identify who I wanted to lead that market for me, and I would recruit them and bring them in, and raise that whole thing. And I've made some mistakes on some of those [laugh] and had to correct those. I've had people who stole and cheated us and, you know, we grew up as a private company and maybe there were some fewer controls and I've had to remove those people and, you know, in some cases. but in general, I, first of all, I think I'm a pretty good judge of people, but not always.

And, people change as well. But in general, I think you really, I believe I have to trust the people who work for me a lot, and I do. And I trust them with a lot. And I think if you trust people, they give back way more than that. when they violate that trust, I'm pretty firm about it, [laugh]. I'm not good with people who violate that trust, but I don't want to spend my life policing people in any way at all. I'd rather trust them, give them the tools, you know, the, the power to get out there and innovate and be creative. And usually they just return that in such great ways. So I don't know if that's the answer to your question. It's not, but sorry, [laugh],

LC : It's a great answer to the question. And I hear this so many times, from founders especially, you know, we have to find the right people and then when we do find the right people, we believe they are, and we give them the trust, and then they take away that belief that we can trust them. What do we do now? What do we do now? And, we've lost, they've lost. and, it's a lose-lose situation. And I really like what you said. it's important to be firm, important to be firm.

And, perhaps, you know, I would say a mistake I've made in the past too, is the firmness and the inability to, or my inability, I'd say for myself to say, that's not the right person for this, to not know it was coming. And not know the nuances of their behavior. Because we, we can have people that we knew maybe, you know, for you Columbia, back in your days, right? You knew, you had your friends and people you knew and you went to class with, and you know how they behave by and large, and right [laugh], or you had your, you know, Friday nights, Thursday nights when you all went out together and you, you got to know them at the, so at this, when you're with 3000 people and you have a board and you have people all around you. You can't see around the corners as well. It's hard to see around the corners. And having trusted advisors, people who can poll and see what's around you, when you can't, is essential, sounding boards. and, you know, so important. Right? Right Jimmy? Isn't that really what we're talking about here.

JS : Of course.

LC : Yeah. It's not easy and easy place to be. And, it's great to hear and see your success. it's wonderful. Success does not come without a price, does not come without a price, without the change that you've gone through personally, professionally, deep change. And I don't think a lot of people understand that. They just think, oh, he is the founder. He is done incredibly well, he's successful. Oh, you know, great job they're jealous in some way. No, Jim worked really hard for this. He worked on himself, he worked on understanding others. He, at times was unable to trust people, because they didn't earn it. Right? It's not easy to succeed. It is not easy. It is a painful process.

Unconventional Strategies: Patents, Platforms, And Lessons Learned In the Tech Industry [18:40]

JS : Well, that is very, very true. You know, I've had to change, you know, started basically with a couple of people and we've grown to a pretty large business, publicly traded. And I personally have had to morph from being, you know, a leader in my twenties, [laugh] us of a very small team, and, you know, up to 50 people then to a 100 people, then to 500 people.

And at every stage along the way, the business needs to change and I need to change as a leader. And then, you know, I had a lot of people tell me, don't take the business public, Jim, you'll hate it, you know, all of that. But, you know, I enjoyed that challenge and I enjoy that challenge because I love change and I, you know, I actually enjoy the aspect that I have to do things differently, and trying to keep as much the same, but still respecting the new rules of being a public company.

So, yeah, absolutely. I'm a really fortunate person though. You know, I mean, I have amazing family. I have five daughters and five granddaughters, and we're very close family and the business is so successful. And, the culture in the business is very, very warm, even at our size. You know, I think would surprise a lot of people. Of course, thank you for the award. Somebody noticed, but, yeah I feel very fortunate.

LC : That's important too, to have gratitude for our situation, to have gratitude for who we are and where we're at and our family and to know that we can help others as well in that process, to pay it forward in many ways. And to be, to create that culture for others so they themselves can prosper. That's a recipe for success.

JS : Yeah. Within Altair, when we IPOd, we had about 800 people who had equity in the business. A lot of founders will hold onto all the equity, but I really distributed a lot, and we continue to do that. and it was super gratifying to me. I mean, there's many, many millionaires and multimillionaires who have come out of this. And for me, it's such a pleasure that these people who supported me during those years have really been rewarded. And I've had so many tell me it's transformed their lives. and, you know, it's a really, really nice feeling. And I am a very fortunate public company because I have controlling interest still, which is not usual in a public company, but it gives me the ability to balance correctly, the long view, you know, making decisions sort of in the context of that, envisioning the future, and not just the short term, but also balancing it against what the shareholders, you know, these new shareholders need. And I think I've been doing that fairly really well.

LC : Ok, so you have controlling interest and you're on Nasdaq. It's incredible. A lot of founders, you know, with control interest. You could do a lot with that [laugh], there's Twitter, there's social media, right? and it sounds like you're a very responsible CEO, right? And you have social responsibility. You think about your constituents, your shareholders, and that means a lot. It makes a big difference in how people perceive you and how people perceive your company.

JS : Yeah. Well, I'm not, you know, I'm not as famous as some other tech founder, leader, for sure. You know, I've been an experimentalist and I had a lot of patents around business models, and one of them covered consumer digital content, and it's a model that I used to sell my software very successfully, but I built a platform that was music, books, podcasts, all of that. We called it ‘Wave’ an amazing piece of technology with a lot of machine learning, to create playlists and all that. And we had about 15,000 monthly active users and we shut it down. But had I been the guy, you know, Twitter, you know, using Twitter and social media very actively, if I was, let's say Elon Musk, that thing would've been killer [laugh]. So maybe I'm doing some things wrong, maybe I need to be much more out there and visible. But for me, this is my personality and you know, it's worked successfully for me, [laugh].

LC : Like you said, there's always room for change if you want it. It's always, there's a cost and benefit to change, right? So just depends upon, I think, wishes and choices at that point, right? Especially where at the level you're at. Jim Scapa there, really nice to meet you, really great to interview you. Congratulations on being a most loved workplace. Really great. Great to talk with you.

JS : Louis, thank you very much. Appreciate the interest in speaking with me and really appreciate the award.