Ottawa tech 2019 roundtable: Challenges facing the local sector

roudntable
Representatives from Ottawa tech and adjacent sectors gathered at the offices of Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall for a candid discussion on the state of the local industry. Photo via Nicole Bell

* A last-minute change in plans prevented Jim Roche from attending the 2019 editorial roundtable. Techopia followed up with him a few days later to solicit his thoughts on the questions we discussed in person.

Techopia recently gathered a diverse swath of leaders in tech and related businesses, as well as representatives from our Techopia champions, to discuss a series of issues affecting Ottawa’s startups and established tech companies alike.

The roundtable gave honest feedback on the challenges facing the local tech ecosystem. We asked about what problems Ottawa executives are facing in growing their tech companies and what, if anything, is holding the sector back.

What follows is part of an edited transcript of our two-hour discussion reflecting on the year – and decade – that was in Ottawa tech. Additional topics covering Ottawa’s talent pool, the availability of capital, the impact of Shopify on the local ecosystem and more have been posted here.

What are the challenges facing your company in the coming year?

Vicki Iverson, CTO of Iversoft: I'd say probably talent acquisition. In addition to obviously developers, actually our biggest pain point has been project managers. We can't find project managers who have software experience. Project management is such a broad term that you know, you talk to someone who says they are project manager, they're certified, all that kind of stuff: "Well, can you do this technical stuff?" "No." So it's like, how do we find that magical person?

Melike Erol-Kantarci, associate professor, University of Ottawa: For us, one of the biggest challenges is growth, actually. We’re having lots of new students in a short amount of time, so University of Ottawa is expanding a lot.

I actually moved away for two years, I was a professor in the U.S., and when I came back, almost all the buildings on Rideau Street had the brand of uOttawa. So they keep buying the buildings but it's obvious that our growth dimension, of both graduate and undergraduate programs, and our campus being limited and downtown is that some something hard for us to cope with. We're expanding to Kanata North that reason and to be closer to tech companies.

Keira Torkko, VP of employee experience at Assent Compliance: Growth at scale creates inefficiencies. Because you're used to doing something one way and you're growing at 60 and 70 per cent. And the front end of the funnel is keeping up with all of that, but all of the stuff and systems and the practices behind, are those keeping up? Or are those lagging behind in the interest of growth? So, (it’s about) being proactive about making sure that you're scaling in an efficient way. I think there will be very few people in Ottawa who may have scaled a company at that speed, at that size. So being able to figure out how to do that is going to be really fun.

We don't say challenges, we said puzzles. This would be a big puzzle.

Michael Armbruster, relationship manager at TD Bank: The challenges we face are around finding strong employees that have a mixture of soft skills and hard analytic skills. It’s very hard to come by that mixture in every space.

What’s holding back Ottawa’s tech sector, if anything?

Susan Richards, managing partner of numbercrunch and co-chair of Invest Ottawa: For me, it's gender diversity and moving the dial dramatically on diversity as a whole. I'm completely jazzed about potential for what the products will look like when we have equal numbers of men and women at the table designing, coding, testing, leading the organizations, the boardrooms.

But I'm also acutely aware of the systemic barriers that exist today and why it hasn't changed in 30-40 years. So I think the biggest challenge is working together to move that dial. But I think the answer to most of our challenges will come to us from the great minds synergizing when we have diversity in the discussions.

Allan Wille, co-founder of Klipfolio: I don't think entrepreneurs, managers, leaders are taking risks. And I think everybody's doing little incremental improvements on things. And risks are often shunned or killed early on. I think that really impacts our world moving forward. I think there's so much that we can do if we can really push ourselves and you have the space to actually incubate some of these wild ideas. That's one thing that I want to see more of in Ottawa, more of in Canada, and more of all over the world.

Elizabeth Audette-Bourdeau, CEO of Welbi: I think as a community, especially out of Invest Ottawa, I've seen a lot of – I never know what to use as a word – but it's kind of a big wave of distraction that can easily happen. People will be like, "Yeah, if you raise money, you definitely have a good business, if you've got 20 employees, you definitely have a very good business.”

And I think that we're forgetting very quickly what the fundamentals are: Get a client, generate revenue out of that client and then start building. I think we've got to get out of that big wave and just focus on the business. And then, once you're you figured it out, then jump back, but I think there's a lot of work that needs to be done as a community.

For us initially, we were in the big wave: "Yeah, we're in the news. Yeah, we're raising money," but we didn't even have a client. And that's when we got out and really focused. I think as a community we need to communicate that it's not easy. There's a good time to put fuel on the fire, but you’ve got to make sure that it's the right time.

Jim Roche*, president and CEO of Stratford Managers: There's nothing that I feel is standing in our way of taking advantage of the opportunities we have before us and you’re seeing that with the growth and with the excitement in the tech sector that we see today.

I had the pleasure of living through the dot-com bubble in the late 90s and at that time, it felt like Ottawa was almost the centre of the universe in the tech industry. But at that time, it was even to me, and I think to everybody, it was really "frothy." Meaning, the growth was there, the opportunities were there, but the sheer rate of growth just didn't seem sustainable – and ultimately wasn't.

In contrast, what we're experiencing today seems very grounded and very sustainable, which is really encouraging. That’s not to say that there won't be market corrections ever again. It's possible. It's just this period today feels less “frothy.”