Growing up in Waynesville, N.C., Troy Tolle ’98 wasn’t a big computer person. He didn’t have the opportunity to use a computer until the end of high school, and even then it was just to write papers and complete other assignments. So it may come as a surprise that Tolle is co-founder and chief technology officer of a successful company, DigitalChalk, that provides online education and cloud computing technology.
“In high school, I loved math but I was very artistic,” Tolle says. “I told my guidance counselor that I wanted to do special effects in movies and she said I would have to go into computer science. Well, that wasn’t the right advice, but I went into it and fell in love.”
Studying computer science and design at NC State, Tolle enjoyed the ability to innovate and create something that had never existed. “There’s a real art form to how you design your code and that’s what really drew me in,” Tolle says. “I love solving problems, and with computer science I get to do that.”
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 1998 and his master’s in 2000, Tolle remained at NC State as an adjunct professor of computer science while also pursuing a career in consulting for the Raleigh-based company CrossLogic. Serving companies like Sprint and Wachovia, Tolle helped design scalable software solutions and architect systems. But his passion for education and teaching was also growing.
In 2006, with the help of an enthusiastic investor who saw the potential of Tolle’s idea, Tolle launched his own company, DigitalChalk, an online training platform to which users can upload videos and presentations for continuing and corporate education programs.
“The first couple of years were just really hard,” Tolle says. “We were just trying to build the thing and build it faster than anyone else.”
With YouTube barely off the ground at the time, Tolle says people didn’t grasp the concept of uploading video to the Internet to deliver content. “Getting over that barrier was easy for us — it made sense to us because we’re tech guys,” he says. “But the market wasn’t quite ready for it and we had to educate people that this was the future of technology.”
Now Tolle says there is a staggering amount of money funneled into online education programs. “Companies like ours are being acquired left and right,” he says. “The education market for software is just exploding.”
The basis of the DigitalChalk product, cloud computing technology, didn’t exist when Tolle began developing his ideas for the company. At the time, Amazon had just introduced a product called the elastic compute cloud, a beta product that could launch a server for just 10 cents an hour. “It was very under the radar but I got turned on to it and just really dived in and embraced it,” Tolle says.
Now considered an expert in the field, Tolle travels to places like Chicago, San Francisco and even Egypt to present his experiences and ideas on cloud computing. “It really neat to do those things and help other people move on top of this technology,” he says. “I love how fast paced it is – everything changes weekly and I’m able to be a part of that and push the envelope.”
Six years later, Tolle says DigitalChalk is evolving constantly to meet the needs of its customers. “We’re releasing new features every two months for our software,” he says. “I love that we’re not stagnant. We don’t want to just match other companies feature for feature; we want to be on the forefront.”
Based in Asheville, N.C. — far outside the hub of technology in the Triangle — Tolle is looking beyond DigitalChalk for other ways to increase western North Carolina’s technology footprint.
In collaboration with Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Tolle has launched a technology accelerator which will fund ten burgeoning tech companies with $18,000 each to create their product and pitch their ideas to venture capitalists. At NC State, Tolle serves as vice chairman of the computer science department’s strategic advisory board.
“I got to sit in on that board as a student and listen to industry leaders from around the country, and now I get to be one of the people on that board,” Tolle says. “I’m extremely honored to be asked to be a part of that. At the end of the day I’m just having a lot of fun and using the talents given to me to help in any way that I can.”