Welcome to episode five of Tails of Testing! Brittany Fullerton, our Software Project Coordinator, chats with Pat Ward, our President and CEO. This is a special episode in our series as we celebrate ITS’s 25th anniversary! Do you know how ITS was started and who helped along the way? Find the answers and more below.
[Onscreen: A split-screen of Pat (left) and Brittany (right) chatting virtually.]
Hi, everyone. Welcome to another episode of Tails of Testing. My name is Brittany Fullerton. I’m a Software Project Coordinator here at Internet Testing Systems, and today I’m joined by a very special guest, Pat Ward. Hi, Pat. How’re you doing?
Good. Hi, Brittany. Glad to be here.
Can you please introduce yourself for us?
I am the President and Founder of Internet Testing Systems, or ITS.
Great. Thanks, Pat. So, we have a really exciting episode today because we’re actually celebrating ITS’s 25-year anniversary. So, Pat, I want to start by asking you what inspired you to start your own business?
Well, there were really two reasons. You have to remember, 1997 was sort of a very transformative time. The internet was just emerging. Amazon was just out over the last few years. Testing technology at that time was very antiquated: index cards to manage questions, everything was paper and pencil, everything was proprietary. There was a real opportunity to reinvent the technology for testing.
The other reason I wanted to run a company was I wanted to run a company different than the companies that I had been a part of. I had been a part of lots of startups, but everything was very focused on sort of cashing out, making money, and I thought there was a real opportunity to do something that was a little bit more long term: focusing on the customers staying, being happy, focusing on the employees staying and being happy, which gave us a long-term foundation for a business. And that actually became sort of the fundamental foundation for ITS and our culture.
That’s great. Very cool. And you can definitely feel that culture here at the company. So, in the very beginning when ITS was formed, what was the company like back then?
It was a lot of fun, actually. We were very much focused on the technology, and we didn’t really worry much about money. We had a very cool first office where we could take nice walks in a neighborhood during the day, a nice deli downstairs. The team played video games at lunch, and every day we learned and played with new technologies. I had saved about $75,000 worth of seed money, and that bought us about six months to find our first client. And we were lucky—our first deal was signed right about when the money was running out, though we had been working on it for a few months, and that provided the ongoing seed capital that allowed us to grow the business.
That is too cool, and it’s crazy to think about that because now we have over 160 employees in two different countries?
Yeah, 175 employees actually, and I think we’re in about seven countries now.
Oh, wow. That’s amazing. All right, so 25 years. That means ITS was formed in 1997, like you said. And like you were kind of saying back then, you know, access to computers was limited. Google wasn’t even launched until 1998. So, what do you think gave you that vision back then to move testing from in person to online?
Well, there was three basic things that I thought were coming out at the time. One, of course, was the internet and, you know, I thought the internet was going to be the, you know, the communications backbone for any online testing platform. But HTML was also the perfect language to describe what a test question was—you know, the text around it, the reading passages that support it. At that point, testing was mostly very simple questions, so the idea of having an interactive content on standards was extremely enticing. The last piece was related to content management. SQL database servers were becoming mainstream. Remember, everything was being paper and pencil, index cards, that sort of thing. So, the idea where we would merge from sort of simple, D-base-type, simple database systems and going to enterprise data storage was going to be really great for test content.
I don’t think I was really especially visionary for seeing this. I mean, I think if you look back on it, it feels very obvious. But we were very early in the game. We did a very good job of staying focused on the testing technology and we were cognizant of what was happening and where it was going because things continued to evolve over time, you know, mobile and things like that. So, since the time it started, we’ve got the emergence of XML and the mobile and now, recently, remote workers and remote assessments. So, things continue to evolve.
That is too cool. Yeah, it’s cool to kind of be able to see that vision ahead of time and kind of see what the trend is going to be and go for it. It really did pay off. So, starting a company and keeping it successful and growing for such a long time is not easy. So, who would you say are the people who’ve been the most helpful in getting you to where you are today?
Well, you know, success is due to so many people, both inside the company and who supported us outside the company. But I’m going to actually call out two people to start. First is Lisa, who basically co-runs the business with me and is my wife. She supported our family during the first ten years when I didn’t take a salary, and then when she joined us about four years into the life of the company, she really was key to transforming us from sort of a small dev team to a polished services company. The other person is Frank Leinbach, and Frank is a super talented and smart developer, and he’s one of the founders of the company, and what he brings is not only his technical skills but sort of a wonderful attitude where he never gets flustered, but he continues to deliver great products.
But, really, the real heroes in the 25-year journey have been the employees and I actually wanted to share a story with you. It was probably about 2002, 2003, and we were predicting a real tough year financially. You know, we didn’t know, you know, how well we would do. We were going to be challenged, and we maybe had about eight people, and a lot of these people had small families. So, this was at the beginning of the year, and I wanted to make sure that everybody knew what was coming because, you know, they were basically counting on me. You know, I was pretty protected. I was in good shape, but we had these young families that really counted on us. So, I wanted to make sure they knew what was coming and they, you know, if they needed to leave, they could, and what have you. So, I had the meeting, it all went great, and then after that meeting all eight of them came to me privately, one on one, completely without the others knowing, and basically told me that they would take a pay cut to help out. Now, over that year, things actually worked out—we ended up having a great year, we got some new business, and it all worked out. We ended up even growing, but at the time it didn’t, and it was support like that that I remembered in the tough time.
I mentioned we have 175 members now, team members. And, you know, we just wouldn’t be successful without all of those contributions. We have an amazing leadership team, and by leadership team, I’m talking about the executives, the directors, those key employees, the managers, and they make everything go on a daily basis. And what they’ve done is they’ve basically not only embraced that culture that I was talking about, they’ve extended our company culture, and our culture, you know, has moved to the point where we’re starting to see younger employees moving into those key roles within the company. And it’s actually been fun also seeing our company culture spread to other countries. So, we’ve got our subsidiary in India who are amazing in their own right, and they have basically embraced our culture over there, which is very different, and that’s doing great and growing, and we have pretty much no turnover there as well. So, it’s been a lot of fun and really we wouldn’t have made it without all those people.
That’s amazing. And it’s cool because, you know, starting here just a few months ago, over half the people that I’ve met have been here for at least 10 years. So, you can really tell that the culture is great, there’s transparency, and you’re doing something right.
It makes a really huge difference because when somebody has been here for a long time, they have all that knowledge, and most of the people in the company will tell you, you know, if they’ve had other jobs, we are their longest job ever, and, you know, that comes from basically taking care of each other and recognizing, you know, the work life balance and all those things. But it has been a lot of fun, and then kind of learning and growing and adjusting that culture over time.
That’s great. Well, congratulations, Pat, 25 years is a huge accomplishment, huge milestone. Before we go, I wanted to see if you had any piece of advice that you might give someone thinking of starting their own business.
Well, I guess I’d start with “go for it.” It’s such a great thing. It’s very rewarding, especially if you’re the type of person who basically has strong opinions and is always telling the people that you work with how to do their jobs. So, I’ve talked to lots of other entrepreneurs, and they often, you know, question me because they say the way you should do it is you should only risk other people’s money. So, funding is a big part of your decision. You know, we were self-funded, and it all worked out. We bootstrapped it. But it is risky. You have to be prepared, if you’re self-funding, to lose, you know, all the money because projects may not work out. Focus is another key part: knowing what to do and how to focus on it. But you need to have fun, and if it reaches a point where it’s not fun, then it’s probably a mistake and you need to cut your losses. But I think it’s one of the best things you can do, you know, go out and do something.
Perfect. I love that advice. Thanks, Pat. Well, thank you so much for talking with me today. I really appreciate it. Thank you everyone for watching, and we will see you next time.
Good. Thanks, Brittany.
About Our Guests
Pat founded ITS in 1997 and has over 28 years of experience in the assessment industry. He specializes in merging technology architecture and trends with traditional and new assessment concepts. He’s also passionate about exploring assessment for learning, remote proctoring, oral assessment, dynamic forms, and item banking. In 2018, Pat was honored with the Association of Test Publishers (ATP) Career Achievement Award. Outside of ITS, Pat hikes with his two dogs and spends time at his West Virginia cabin.
Brittany may be new to ITS, but she comes to the industry with years of experience in account and project management. She organizes development projects and requests, coordinates releases, and maintains communication lines between internal stakeholders for the ITS item banking system, Item Workshop. She also helps other product managers at ITS coordinate tasks and projects. If Brittany isn’t hiking with her 5-year-old hound mix, Millie, you may find her at a Baltimore Orioles baseball game!