What recruitment looks like if you’re Shopify

COO Harley Finkelstein shares the Ottawa e-commerce giant’s recruitment philosophies and strategies
Shopify chief operating officer Harley Finkelstein. File photo.

Finding strong talent is a challenge for most Ottawa businesses, but being the city’s golden child comes with a unique perspective.

That’s what Shopify chief operating officer Harley Finkelstein shared with RBC senior vice-president John Stackhouse on a recent episode of the RBCDisruptors podcast.

While Finkelstein noted that Canada in general needs to work on its brand to stand out as a destination for international workers – the word “swagger” was thrown around more than once – he said Shopify hasn’t had a problem in that department.

Finkelstein said that since 2016, Shopify has relocated 200 people to Ottawa from 50 countries. He added that the company has had more international engineers relocate to work in Canada in recent months than it had in the decade before.

Global brands aren’t built overnight, though, and the e-commerce giant drew a sizeable spotlight with its successful IPO and the growth that followed. Finkelstein says the international attention has helped, but what’s convinced talent to move to Ottawa in the middle of February has been selling them on Shopify’s mission to democratize entrepreneurship.

“We’ve created a very compelling story as to why this is such a great place to work,” he said.

That echoes sentiments from Shopify’s senior vice-president of engineering Jean-Michel Lemieux during last week’s Techopia Live panel on attracting talent to Ottawa. He said that selling prospective talent on a problem to be solved – rather than a particular city or salary – will go a long way.

Though Finkelstein believes Shopify’s swagger extends to startups in Ottawa’s downtown, he contrasts today’s tech boom with the Nortel days, when the tech community was largely clustered around Kanata companies. Part of what helps Shopify attract millennial talent is the culture and walkability of the downtown core, a distinct challenge facing Kanata-based firms.

“All of the growth is happening inside the city,” he said.

Jeffrey Dale, the former president of Invest Ottawa-precursor OCRI, recently wrote an op-ed in OBJ about the need for Kanata companies to overcome transit and culture issues to diversify their veteran tech teams with young talent.

Finkelstein also shared a few of the offbeat ways Shopify is looking for talent. When it comes to “dream candidates,” he says he’ll often make trips to cities such as Seattle to grab coffee with an executive, planting the seeds of an eventual Shopify jump. It may not always work, but the long-term game can pay dividends if it pulls in the right fish.

“I’m happy to invest a couple hours a year for a candidate who may eventually give me the call and say, ‘I’m ready to make the move to Canada, I’m ready to make the move to Shopify,’ and that makes it all worthwhile,” he said.

That move might not always be available to startups struggling to stay afloat, but Finkelstein also suggested a more cost-effective way to grow your team: look beyond typical tech backgrounds.

When Shopify was just starting off, Finkelstein says it couldn’t actually afford top-tier talent, and that forced it to look beyond engineering departments for its early hires, a practice that the company often continues today.

He suggested that if companies only look for university-educated engineers in their recruitment processes, they’ll miss out on candidates like Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke and Finkelstein himself – Lütke never attended post-secondary school and Finkelstein first moved to Ottawa to pursue a law degree.

“There are wonderful candidates who are not in the traditional programs that you would think,” he said.

In the absence of technical talent, look at a prospect’s motivations, Finkelstein suggested. If people have an entrepreneurial mindset and really want to solve problems, they’ve probably got a role waiting for them at Shopify.