Jay Jesse, president of local defense contractor Intelligent Software Solutions, was born in Denver but moved to Colorado Springs while in his early teens.
He graduated from Mitchell High School before heading off to the University of Denver, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and, further down the line, his master’s.
Just out of college, Jesse entered a stagnant job market and was unemployed for nearly a year. He flew to Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles in search of work.
“I was trying to picture what my future was going to look like, and I got a job offer from GTE Government Systems [now General Dynamics], which was about a mile from my parents’ house here in the Springs,” he said.
Jesse spoke with the Business Journal this week about attracting the best and the brightest, as well as his company’s recent merger and the creation of Polaris Alpha.
What did you want to do out of college?
I wanted to write software in an area that favored science more so than business. I always had a dream it might do with the Space Shuttle, which I thought was the coolest thing ever. … But by month seven or eight of being unemployed, I didn’t care. I just wanted a good job I could build on. GTE hired me to do defense work.
What were your thoughts when you landed in defense?
It fit, and I thought it was cool. The work we do is technically challenging but feels like it has meaning too. … It’s a pretty righteous type of work. You felt like you were either saving the lives of those in your military or making certain bad people’s lives harder. It’s a patriotic thing to do.
How did you start ISS?
In the 10 years I worked at GTE we built up a very entrepreneurial group inside the company. … There was a group of about 15 or 20 people who were going out and getting the work from the customers, but it wasn’t really moving the needle at GTE. We thought we could do better by our customers and started out on our own. We had customer relationships we could rely on through the Air Force Research Laboratory, which is a good place to start. Four of us, all software engineers, started ISS. Three were with GTE, and one was with Northrop Grumman.
We had this idealistic view that we would quickly grow to 10 people — this was during the dot.com boom [of the late 1990s]. Channel Point had hundreds, maybe thousands, working here in the Springs, and they had left the defense sector and other sectors to work in this new frontier. It was the next coolest thing and defense was in the past. … In the software world, like today, it wasn’t hard to find a job. … We figured we’d leave, start a company and work for the Air Force, but we knew there was a huge appetite for commercial work. We were going to grow into a commercial entity, and it was going to be a lot of fun.
None of that happened. We did end up working with the Air Force Research Lab, but that became our life. We never made the move into the dot.com world and after [Sept. 11, 2001], the tools we’d been building for data analytics were in the right place at the right time. A year after 9/11 we were exploding. …
It was 2002, 2003 that we started to really grow, after the dot.com bust. There were bad stories here from MCI, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems — Channel Point collapsing. We were able to cherry pick some really nice talent, including leadership that came in and became the ground floor of ISS. It grew with leadership that could lead the next generation.
What does ISS do?
It’s done a lot of things over the years. It made its name on data analytics at a time when there wasn’t a lot of that. We made it a commodity. If you’re a defense contractor, you build a lot of one-offs for the government because they want very custom stuff. We built more commoditized stuff for the military that was reusable — data analytics; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; command and control — then we became one of the biggest data analytics systems behind the efforts first in Afghanistan and then into Iraq. At our peak we had 10,000 to 15,000 users a day in theater. … Some of those users are Special Forces trying to figure out who lives in a certain neighborhood, and others are congressional staffers trying to manage staff.
And you recently merged with other companies?
In November we merged and became a much bigger company. There are two mid-sized companies, ISS and EOIR [Technologies], and two smaller intelligence community companies, Proteus and Intelisys, which built Polaris [Alpha], which didn’t exist before. A lot of people think Polaris came in and bought these companies. But the concept was built by the four companies and backed by a private equity firm in the D.C. area, Arlington Capital Partners. … The leadership that makes up Polaris Alpha is comprised of the leadership from these companies.
The purpose behind Polaris Alpha is that we are leaders in several emerging areas — to include defense within space, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum. Those are not areas heavily charted. They are evolving and we’re in a really good place to work with them.
How do you differ from other companies?
When you have special jobs, the people who fill those have choices. We try and help them understand they’re choosing a company with interesting work, and they can make a difference and be challenged, but they’re also coming into a culture that’s compatible with how they want to live their life. …
I’ve seen Colorado Springs have a huge concentration of engineering talent per capita, and they’ve moved away and come back. But there’s definitely a resurgence right now. More people are staying who have technical backgrounds and degrees, but there’s also been an influx of people. We’re on an upswing. Until recently we haven’t had trouble hiring highly talented people. There was no need to settle. But it’s gotten a little harder over the past year or two. The industry is starting to boom and there are more competitors in this space. The supply has not caught up with the demand. It will, but right now there’s a little more demand than supply.