Ralph Dandrea founded ITX in 1997 to help clients solve complex technology problems. Now, 25 years later, he continues to apply a comprehensive world view to lead ITX, mentor its leaders, and build enduring relationships with clients. He and ITX started out as a 2-person consultancy managing telecommunications projects, but has grown into an award-winning creator of custom software with a global footprint that serves clients across a wide array of industries.
At the core of Ralph’s belief system is the notion of workability within a psychologically safe, innovative workplace culture. His leadership philosophies serve as the underpinnings for ITX’s mission, vision, and values.
When Ralph Dandrea founded ITX a quarter-century ago, the notion of product was a whole lot different than it is today. In 1997, he and other product builders thought about software through the lens of themselves as users – not of the end users who were truly using the products they built.
That thinking evolved over time, not unlike the software industry itself. “In those early days,” Ralph explains, “we weren’t thinking through all the edge cases that would be discovered out in the real world. Product thinking gives you this opportunity to look at something separate and distinct and to analyze it in a way that you really can’t if you’re just trying to substitute yourself as the user.”
In this special episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, ITX Founder and CEO Ralph Dandrea joins Sean and Paul to recognize the company’s 25-year history – from the Internet’s infancy and Y2K to the post-Covid era and beyond – but also to celebrate the people who helped create the culture of innovation that ITX enjoys today.
The attention paid to culture at ITX is not accidental. At the intersection of intentionality and culture lies an environment where not just product innovation thrives – but also the people who drive those innovations.
“That’s the foundation of our work at ITX,” Ralph says. “We’re creating this environment where we use our values, like Integrity, to create a sense of workability. We share similar beliefs; and we have expectations about how each other is going to behave,” he adds. “It makes life so much easier, makes our work so much easier. We’re lot more efficient than we would otherwise be.”
“As I reflect on these past 25 years, I feel gratitude,” Ralph concludes. “I’m very grateful to everyone who’s ever worked at ITX, many of whom are still around me, which has been fantastic. A lot of it is because of the fun we’ve been able to enjoy because the environment has been set up the right way.
“While I’m proud of where we are, I’m even more excited to see where we go next.”
Catch the entire conversation with Ralph to hear his insights on the next 25 years –
- People. The broad trend is that people will be even more at the center of what we do. As product people, we can facilitate that through the software we build by including more users with different needs and goals.
- Discovery. The fun part is discovering trends as they’re happening, experimenting to see what works, and bringing solutions to our customers as a new innovation.
- Value. We look at innovation from the value that’s created in the outcome. Everything we do to innovate is about helping people do what they want to accomplish in a way that better suits their needs.
Paul [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate, and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our community’s way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX. Along with my co-host, Sean Flaherty, and our amazing production team and occasional guest host, we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.
Paul [00:00:43] Birthdays and anniversaries are funny things. We think of anniversaries as something meant to remember a moment in the past, but this episode marks a special birthday for us. ITX turns 25 this month and we’re still learning and growing. Sean is wearing a couple of hats today. In addition to co-host, he’s also sharing his experiences as a partner alongside our guest, ITX CEO, Ralph Dandrea. One thing I’ve learned from them is that we don’t spend a lot of time reminiscing about the past. We focus on solving real-time problems and looking to the future. Sean and Ralph have been partners for much of ITX’s history, and it’s a treat for me to sit down with them today. Sean’s insights as co-host and partner are going to help us understand a bit of their story, our story, in a way that will shed light on the next 25 years.
Paul [00:01:27] Well hello and welcome to the pod. Today we are excited to be celebrating a bit of a milestone. We’re on track to celebrate 25 years as a company. The 25th birthday is right around the corner. And to mark that moment, we have our founder and CEO, Ralph Dandrea with us. Ralph founded the company in 1997 to help clients solve complex technology problems. And now, 25 years later, he continues to apply a comprehensive worldview to lead ITX, mentor its leaders, and build enduring relationships with clients. At the core of Ralph’s belief system is the notion of workability within a psychologically safe, innovative workplace culture in which every team member is empowered to contribute to in order to deliver client value. His leadership philosophies serve as the underpinnings for ITX’s mission, vision, and values. Early in his career, though, Ralph recognized technology’s limitless impact on the world and directed his energies there. He and ITX started out as a two-person consultancy managing telecommunication projects but has since evolved into an award-winning creator of software products with a global footprint that serves clients across a wide array of industries. Ralph, thanks for joining us. We’re honored to have you on the show.
Ralph [00:02:31] Oh, thanks for inviting me.
Paul [00:02:32] Absolutely. So we’re excited. We’re grateful. We’re filled with hope for the future as we celebrate this 25th birthday. So to mark this chapter, I’d love to open it up in a general way. Just to unpack some of your reflections on the mentors you’ve encountered, some of the milestones along the journey, and the mindset that’s been the glue that’s held it together. What things come to mind as you think about this moment?
Ralph [00:02:55] Well, as I reflect on hitting the 25-year milestone, I would say mostly I feel gratitude. There have been so many people involved in this founding and growing ITX. You know, I learned a lot from my family, early mentors… There was a lot of luck involved in terms of who I met, in terms of the opportunities that were given to me, relationships that I had, et cetera.
Paul [00:03:18] Yeah. I think gratitude kind of seems self-explanatory, but what do you mean by luck when you mention that word? What does luck mean to you and the role it plays in business?
Ralph [00:03:27] I mean, if you were a restaurant owner that opened a new restaurant in March of 2020, it would be bad luck, yeah? Fortunately, I started the business right before the dot com boom. We went through the bust, but then we had a great economy after that. I was lucky in terms of a lot of the people that I met. Some were introductions that my family made, were friends of family. That’s how I originally got started. Our first big projects, those were grounded a little bit in luck. Certainly, you got to take what comes at you and figure out how to turn it into something great. And I don’t minimize my actions, but you have to start with something, and that’s where luck comes in.
Sean [00:04:07] I’d say we were lucky to find each other on some of our early projects. You know, when I ran into Ralph on a Y2K project more than a couple of decades ago, it felt like a stroke of luck for me. So it’s been a fantastic partnership.
Ralph [00:04:21] Yeah, there there’s a lot of luck. I mean, I was very fortunate. I’ve had partners through the years and they’ve all been exceptional, added their own stamp on ITX, if you will. And we still have a really strong bond among us. That’s what keeps, I think, the core of the company strong.
Paul [00:04:36] Yeah. That Y2K is a great segway into some of the ways that we’ve evolved. We’ve always put our clients first, obviously, but our clients haven’t always asked for the same kind of help from us. How has it evolved over 25 years?
Ralph [00:04:50] Well, when I founded the company, there was very little activity with respect to the Internet. There were no iPhones. You know, there were very limited technology. In fact, the people doing technology didn’t have computer science degrees because there weren’t computer science degrees at a lot of universities. So we had engineers, psychologists, molecular biologists. You know, I’ve never taken a computer class in my life. You know, I was self-taught in coding when I was a kid. And I put that to work when I was 16 writing accounting software. So the people that were involved early on were in it because they really enjoyed it and wanted to do the work and wanted to do it enough that they taught themselves.
Sean [00:05:31] Yeah, you gotta remember, when we first started, the internet was still a relatively young thing. Companies were still looking at it like, “What do I do with this? Where can I go with it?” And in the early days, we actually had to pull cable and install the Internet in people’s businesses in order to build software that would help them become more efficient. And we did a lot of that.
Ralph [00:05:47] Yep.
Paul [00:05:48] Yeah. I think of a lot of the ways that we think about products today and product just rolls off the tongue. We have product conferences. This podcast is called Product Momentum. But product hasn’t always been a word that’s really commonly used as a service that we provide. What kind of things did it sound like when we first started?
Ralph [00:06:08] Well, our values haven’t really changed. We’ve changed the language we use to represent them, but they’ve been pretty consistent. I would say that the construct of product has been helpful because it’s easier for us to objectify it as opposed to standing in it. Right. When I look at something that’s separate from me, it’s easy for me to describe it and to analyze it because it’s not me. When before that, we were thinking about software, but we were thinking about ourselves as the users, not really the users that were using it. And so you had developers doing the design work and you had so many things happening by default. We didn’t have great quality control because we weren’t thinking through all the edge cases that would be discovered out in the real world. And so product thinking gives you this opportunity to look at something separate and distinct and to analyze it in a way that you really can’t if you’re just trying to substitute yourself as the owner. So that foundation of product thinking is thinking of all of the classes of users of a product, not just yourself, as a potential user of the product.
Paul [00:07:13] Yeah. And this set up what I know is a false dichotomy, but I think it makes for an interesting conversation. When do you think of market leaders, especially in VC and startup culture, a lot of times you’ll hear talk tracks about setting trends and, “you need to be the change maker.” Other people say, “wait for the first early entrance to get in and define the market, you follow the trend and build a business on that.” I know that it’s not one or the other, but how do you think of the kinds of things that the market tells us as a, what I would consider a thought leader in the product space? What kind of things can a product leader think about when they’re looking at what’s going on in business, where they sit in their organizations?
Ralph [00:07:53] It really depends on how much risk you’re willing to absorb. You know, we all inhabit a different place on that spectrum.
Sean [00:07:59] A want to take a step back because I’ve heard you say in the past, I think it’s a valuable thing for product leaders to hear. I’ve heard you say that “take a risk or not take a risk, do the predictable, do what you know works versus what might work, it shouldn’t be an either-or question, it’s a yes and problem.” It’s like, you have to take risks because we’re building product. And if we’re going to build something that doesn’t exist today, there’s no building of a product that doesn’t exist today without taking some risks. Like you have to experiment your way into it. But at the same time, you’ve got to balance that out. Like in terms of ITX, I think we’ve definitely played that line on both sides. Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad.
Ralph [00:08:35] Yeah, well, the question is how much risk can you tolerate? So in many businesses, especially startups, they want to take on as much risk as they possibly can because the return is so much higher. You know, buying a lottery ticket has a lot more potential than buying one share of Apple stock. So if you want a lottery-type return, you need to take a lot of risk. That hasn’t been our approach, taking that much risk. But we also haven’t been riskless. We have invested in new technologies and new approaches to things. What we tend to do, though, is to experiment with it, try it out, see where it creates value, and then if it’s workable, then we adopt it. If not, we don’t.
Paul [00:09:16] Yeah, and that’s a great jumping-off point into an idea that I want to explore for just a minute or two about values. We spend a lot of time exploring how values shape the culture that we’ve built. The attention and intention paid to culture here is not accidental, and it’s resulted in some powerful and unique intersections. I know there are several important ones to you specifically, and I was hoping we could explore some of those distinctions about the intersection of culture and intentionality, about what it means to build a culture where not just product but innovation can thrive.
Ralph [00:09:47] So I don’t like the word culture, but I don’t have an alternative word for it other than environment, and people don’t really like that word. So we use the values to create the ecosystem in which we operate at ITX. We use the values to create a sense of workability. So if you can have a good expectation about how other people you’re working with are going to behave, then it’s much easier to work in that environment. So what we’ve done is we’ve constructed this environment of workability where it’s not about good and bad.
Ralph [00:10:16] So our number one value is integrity, but it’s not because integrity is good. We all know people who are out of integrity and are good people, but integrity works. If I can count on you to do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it, it saves me so much time and effort and it saves conflict between us. And that’s the foundation of our work at ITX, creating this environment where we have similar beliefs, we have expectations about how each other is going to behave, and so it makes life so much easier, makes work so much easier, and it’s a lot more efficient than it otherwise would be.
Sean [00:10:51] I think one of the things that Ralph’s done an incredible job of is stewarding the important distinctions at ITX, like our values and our mission statement. We are hopefully all aligned that what ITX is about is creating products that move, touch, and inspire the world. And having those things distinguished in powerful ways gets people aligned, they can be confident in each other, and then it makes it easier for them to commit and really produce a powerful culture at the end of the day.
Paul [00:11:19] Yeah. I think one of the things that comes to mind, there are several lessons that I’ve learned as I’ve grown in my career here. I think one of the aspects of leadership that I’ve observed and I’ve taken to heart is, when you apply integrity in the way you just described, it allows for, not an accountability in the sense of blame, but a shared responsibility for making things work.
Paul [00:11:42] So this concept of workability is really the thread that holds everything together. I think one of the things that I recall hearing you say once or twice is, when people start looking for breakdowns in order to assess and calculate blame, you’re not learning, you’re not growing. It’s the best way to lose opportunities to grow. So when a leader at any level in the organization says, “it’s my fault, how can we learn?” As opposed to, “who needs to get in trouble because of this?” or “What’s the consequence?” You’re not learning. So that kind of accountability is rare. I think it’s one of the things that makes ITX unique.
Paul [00:12:19] And I know culture isn’t your favorite word, but it does help provide that context for some people who aren’t familiar or might be in organizations that aren’t that open to accountability. I think the way that we grow together and the way that we learn is unique. It does create a place where psychological safety, diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, all these things that are buzzwords actually have meaning because they’ve got soil as a group in the mindset that we have.
Ralph [00:12:47] Yeah. You know, with your example about blame, the minute you start assigning blame, you give up the opportunity to learn. So the best managers are always going to take more blame than their fair share because that’s how they learn. And they’ll examine, “what could I have done differently?” That’s a lot harder than saying, “What could you have done differently?”.
Sean [00:13:07] I want to pull on the integrity thread a little bit more because I think it’s been probably at the root of our culture. You know, we train on it, we have our formal definition of the word. Like, we’ve really taken the time as a leadership team to distinguish, “what do we mean by that word?” And I also think, by distinguishing it in such a way where we’re not assigning right or wrong, we open up a lot more possibility than you would realize because what it allows people to do is to make bigger commitments. If you make a commitment and you don’t keep it, it’s not right or wrong, good or bad. It’s just you didn’t keep it. So how do you fix it? How do you work through that? And I think giving people that permission right from the get-go when they come to ITX creates a powerful, powerful part of our culture.
Ralph [00:13:51] Right. It allows you to reach further.
Sean [00:13:53] Yeah.
Ralph [00:13:53] Like the example that I’ve always heard is about Babe Ruth, right? He would walk up to the plate and point at the fences with the bat every time. He didn’t get a home run every time. So you could see he was out of integrity a lot. In fact, he struck out more than he hit home runs. But we don’t remember him for the strikeouts. We remember him for the home runs.
Sean [00:14:11] And taking the chances.
Paul [00:14:13] That’s a great visual. I love that. I haven’t heard you describe it that way before, but I’m going to remember that. The next 25 years is something I want to spend a minute talking about. It feels like we’re at a turning point, culturally, technologically, organizationally. Not just ITX but the world, the market, the things going on feel like we’re on a bit of a turning point. And when you look ahead to the next 25 years, what do you think will still be true 25 years from now as they are today from maybe a business perspective, but more broadly, as a human looking at the way that we impact the world, what do you think will still be true 25 years from now as it is today?
Ralph [00:14:52] People will still be important. And our needs will change a bit because with automation, innovation, work becomes easier. There are more jobs that require more thinking and less jobs requiring less thinking. But that’s a process that’s been taking place for a long time. When I was a kid, I used to watch a TV show called Space 1999. It was about 1999. They would have a moon colony, and it was all about the trials and tribulations of these people living on the moon. But we still don’t have a moon colony. So I think we can imagine the future faster than it comes. And some people fret about the future that hasn’t come yet.
Ralph [00:15:35] We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 25 years. We know that in 25 years the world will be different. There will be countries that exist that don’t exist today. There will be countries that exist today that won’t exist anymore. There’s going to be professions that we don’t think of today that will exist and will thrive. Fifty years ago, there was no such thing as a computer scientist. There were people called computers back in the sixties, and we don’t have that anymore today. So it’s going to be different. The question is, how will it be different? And we don’t know. But I do think that people will be at the center of everything we do. In fact, people will be more at the center of what we do.
Ralph [00:16:11] And the broad trend is that more people will matter. In the past, you know, in the early 1900s, all that mattered were the mega barons and building their fortunes. And they used people. And, you know, you have the stories of people working in meat factories and, you know, terrible jobs and working conditions. More people have mattered over time. And I think we’re going to continue that process and we can facilitate that a lot through the products that we make, by including more and more users and more and more people with different needs and different goals. And there will be new directions of product that we haven’t even imagined yet that will support those trends. And the fun part is discovering those trends as they’re happening and trying them out and seeing what works and what doesn’t work and incorporating that and bringing that to our customers as a new innovation and way for them to behave better in the markets that they’re participating in.
Sean [00:17:06] Love that. Cool. Well, last question we usually ask our guests, so we want to give you that opportunity, is to talk about innovation. What does innovation mean to you?
Ralph [00:17:15] Well, innovation is essentially doing something new, or new to you, not necessarily new to the world. That’s invention, right? We don’t focus as much on invention. Invention is great and when it happens, it’s awesome. But most of the improvements in our lives come from innovations, not inventions. And innovation is so much easier. There’s so many different ways of thinking out there and methods for doing things. And innovation is basically looking outside and seeing how other people are doing it and combining those different methods and those different ways of looking at things to come up with something new. So that’s how I see innovation. It’s outward-looking as opposed to inward-looking. As a distinction, innovating is doing something new. Not innovating is doing the same thing you’ve been doing. And we all know that you if keep hitting your head against the wall. It’s not going to break the wall, right?
Ralph [00:18:04] There are some challenges with innovation, though. The first is, you know, what do you do with innovations that don’t work out? You’ve got to prune the tree. If you have 100 people working in a particular area and one tries to do something differently, tries to innovate, but it doesn’t work as well, or it doesn’t work well enough to mandate that the other 99 do it the same way. Then you wind up with people doing things differently and in ways they can’t understand and they can’t share knowledge. They can’t share new innovations after that. So it’s difficult pruning the tree. It’s also, you have to look at it from the value that’s created in the outcome. If there’s no additional value being created, sometimes people like the idea just because it’s their idea or it’s their way of doing things, and they won’t give that up even when there is a superior way to do it. So there are a lot of challenges with innovation. It’s not as simple as just doing something new.
Sean [00:18:55] Yeah, it’s small things. It’s small things and a lot of small things add up. And you need to be constantly thinking about innovations. Innovations not just in the products that you build and the features that you deploy, but also in the processes and the ways in which you interact inside of a firm or inside of a team. All of those things matter. All of those things count and they add up to sustainable differentiation, so to speak. Yeah?
Ralph [00:19:17] Right. And additional productivity is really what we’re after, right? Everything that we do to innovate at ITX is about us doing our work better. But the products that we create help people do what they want to accomplish in a better way, in a quicker way, in a more efficient way, in a more complete way, in a way that better suits their needs.
Paul [00:19:36] I’d love to bring us back to where we started with the idea of luck and gratitude and ending on that note. I think the concepts that I’ve heard you share and the ideas that you’ve helped teach and inspire others through are things that we should be grateful for, not to brag about, but to say thanks for giving us the opportunity to learn and grow alongside you and to take advantages of those opportunities when luck does knock on the door and take hold and grab it and have fun along the way. So any last thoughts that you want to leave our listeners with?
Ralph [00:20:10] I’ll just say that it has been a fun journey with a lot of fun people. I’m very grateful to everyone who’s ever worked at ITX. I still have a lot of those people around me, whether they’re at ITX or not, which has been fantastic. I’ve have grown to really enjoy working with a lot of our clients and there have been a lot of friendships and a lot of connections there that have endured. And a lot of it is because of the amount of fun we’ve been able to have because the environment has been set up the right way. So I’m proud of it. I’m excited to see where it goes next. But more than anything, I have gratitude for all the people that contributed to us getting here.
Paul [00:20:48] Wonderful.
Sean [00:20:48] I’ll speak on behalf of ITXers, we’re also very grateful to have you as our CEO and we all feel very lucky, Ralph.
Ralph [00:20:54] Thank you.
Paul [00:20:58] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.