Ottawa tech 2019 roundtable: Talent and the impact of LRT on business

Roundtable
A dozen executives from Ottawa's tech sector and related businesses gathered at the offices of Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall to share their perspectives on the past year in Ottawa tech. Photo by Nicole Bell

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 issues such as access to talent and the frustrations brought on by light-rail transit. We asked about how Ottawa tech firms are overcoming a tight talent market and whether the LRT has had any tangible impact on business in the first few rocky months.

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 such as access to capital, the impact of Shopify on Ottawa businesses and challenges in the year ahead will be published in the coming weeks.

Talent

Are you able to find the talent you need to grow?

Keira Torkko, VP of employee experience, Assent Compliance: I joined (Assent) in April 2018. And as of today, between April 2018, and today, we've hired 400 new additions to the organization. So that's one new team member every day.

I think our relatively large financing in late 2018 helped give us some profile.

Most of our customers that are US based or European based, so we're not a household name (in Ottawa). So people don't think about Assent Compliance. But our financing last year really put us on the map. And so we did see an increase in applicants this year.

Compliance isn't an area that people just inherently know and come from a background in. So we do need to think about, you know, retraining. So we upped our training resources and the number of people on our training team to be able to bring in comparable skill sets and help people to do that.

Are you finding that students are graduating with the skills they need to enter the workforce?

Thusha Agampodi, engineering manager, Magnet Forensics: What I tell most of our students that come in, we're not expecting them to come in knowing everything, really we're looking for the potential to learn. We can teach them a lot of the skills they need to know but as long as they have the fundamentals and the ability to learn quickly...

Tech is changing so quickly all the time anyway.

thusha
Magnet Forensics engineering manager Thusha Agampodi. File photo

Does anyone else have a successful strategies that they used to attract women, especially female technical talent, to their companies?

Allan Wille, co-founder, Klipfolio: I think starting having some women on staff. There's nothing worse than bringing somebody through the engineering department, and it’s all men.

Keira: I like what Allan said. I really believe in the phrase, you can't be what you can't see.

We've actually started technology employee resource groups. And team members are able to openly discuss challenges they might be having and they can filter some of that up to other people in the organization. So we can address any gaps or challenges they might be facing.

To Melike Erol-Kantarci, associate professor, University of Ottawa: Are your students finding jobs after university? How are you preparing them for the workforce?

Melike: It's very hard to give all the experience that they need a job within four years of education. Our curriculums are constantly upgraded according to new languages that are coming out, new architectures, that all has to be there. But there are things that they learn on the job. And that's mostly through the co-op program.

Universities are mostly seen as pipelines for providing talent, but at the same time, we are also trying to attract talent to our graduate programs. For us, too, it's a big problem when our bachelor students apply for a job in Toronto because they want to do a Masters with us and they find a job there and they can’t do it. So what happens is, when you guys hire from other places like Toronto and Montreal and Kingston, they come and do their degrees with us, which is good for us. We get more diverse students.

To Elizabeth Audette-Bourdeau, CEO, Welbi: What’s the recruitment strategy for a new startup, when you don’t have an established brand to lean on?

Allan: Don’t sell their brand short, they’ve got a wicked Ottawa brand!

Elizabeth: We haven't had that much trouble recruiting. I think the fact that it's a female-led company also helps us a lot. But I think in the end, what helps us the most to recruit talent that are ready to take a huge pay cut to join our team is the value that we have at our company.

Everybody's experienced problems taking care of a loved one. So I think, more and more, the generation that is coming in, the new trend is, “I don't really care about the money.” Or, “I care about the money but what I care the most about is having an impact.”

"More and more, the generation that is coming in, the new trend is, 'I don't really care about the money.'"

Michael Armbruster, TD Commercial Bank: To your point, on the pay cut, is the culture of the business what trumps the compensation?

Elizabeth: For now, we’re a very small team. So everybody feels like they've got hands on in decisions, so it's easier for them to feel like okay, "I'm potentially taking a pay cut but I'm taking a risk because I know that if Welbi succeeds, I'm going to succeed."

Allan: I think there's a curve, right? If you're paying too low, saving lives won’t matter! (Laughter from the room)

But I do think mission, vision, core values, the employer brand, are so incredibly vital, right? Because if your employees buy into that, they're going to spread that to other employees. The word of mouth and the trust that comes with that will then attract other people.

Light-rail transit

To Vicki Iverson, CTO, Iversoft: You just moved to a new office close to an LRT station. What impact did that have on your decision-making process for your relocation?

Vicki: Yeah, that's a good question. I think when we moved, you know, the LRT was still this dream. It hadn’t launched, it hadn’t had the issues it’s having. It wasn't our only deciding factor; it was kind of a nice-to-have.

A lot of our employees, who maybe bussed in or even who drove, wanted to start using public transit.

Unfortunately, (the recent breakdowns and service interruptions) are frustrating them a lot. I feel like it's causing them a lot of extra stress. I think people have been reverting back to how they used to get to work.

Elizabeth: Our employees are, on average, saving three to four hours per week of transportation, which is very, very significant for us.

I think a big thing, initially, was to get adapted to the fact that they might get stuck on a train and they won’t attend the stand-up meeting in the morning, but we let them join via phone and stuff. We had to try to remove as much friction as possible.

Allan: I think we all really, really want it to work. We're practically on top of one of the LRT stations at the World Exchange Plaza, but I don't think it's actually benefited (us) yet.

When we asked around about parking spots in the building, there's only five employees that wanted a spot. 

Keira: Out of how many?

Allan: We've got about 75 right now. It's amazing. We really encourage walking, biking, taking public transit, so clearly the employees downtown actually don't want their car, which is fantastic. But yeah, we need to get over these hurdles. And I'm a big believer of this. So let's keep pouring money into it for a little bit and make sure that it does get working.

Allan
Klipfolio co-founder Allan Wille. File photo

I'm interested in what Martin from KRP Properties has to say about a potential Phase 3 out to Kanata North.

Martin Vandewouw, president, KRP Properties: I would say – of course – yes (it should be a priority).

But I think to anybody that lives anywhere in the city – whether it's east, north, south, west – infrastructure in the city's been neglected as a result of the investment in LRT over the last five years. And the city is budgeting a little bit more for it, but ... I'm not sure if they're ever going to catch up.

There are 500 companies right now in Kanata that are frustrated that it's going to be 10 years before there's LRT to the largest employment note outside the greenbelt. And the frustration there is, why did the city not prioritize that begin with?

And how close will it get to KRP?

Martin: It won’t. I know they're trying their best and it's a huge investment. But there's certainly a level of frustration in the west end.

Thusha: Working in Kanata North, the traffic just keeps getting worse and worse as the companies grow. So, definitely, with LRT not going that way, I do think the city will have to do something to solve that.

"(The federal government) funds a third of (the construction costs of) LRT. I think they're going to come to the table and say this current route up the Queensway doesn't cut it for us."

Martin: Politically, I think there are going to be a number of people working to revisit the current route to pick up Kanata North. The federal government now has a huge node at Carling, and they're about to have a secondary node along Carling at Shirley's Bay.

They fund a third of (the construction costs of) LRT. I think they're going to come to the table and say this current route up the Queensway doesn't cut it for us. You're gonna have to run it up Carling, maybe into Kanata. We'll see.