There’s a lot of entrepreneurial energy in the Prairies, but is there enough talent to turn that energy into successful companies? We spoke with five players in the Prairie tech ecosystem doing interesting work in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba for their take on the tech talent gap, who’s responsible for addressing it, and how to fill it.
Meet the leaders from across the Prairies
Jeff Christie is the Chief Revenue Officer for Boast.AI. They’ve doubled revenue every year since 2012, now “boast” 55 employees, and recently secured a $100 million credit facility from Brevet Capital. Boast.AI has offices in Canada and the U.S. with a presence in Calgary. It offers a managed software solution for claiming R&D tax credits in Canada and the U.S.
Dallas Price is the Marketing Lead for Co.Labs. Co.Labs is a tech incubator in Saskatchewan that works with individual startups and the ecosystem in general through a number of programs to help train future founders, incubate ideas, and build teams and companies to successfully reach Series A funding.
Lora Bucsis is the Manager of Digital Adoption Training for the School for Advanced Digital Technology (SADT) and DX Talent Hub at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). SAIT works with industry to understand what companies need, create programs, and educate students in the skills required for the workplace.
Sara Cooper is the Chief People Officer for Jobber, which provides business management software for small home service businesses and is used in 47 countries. The Edmonton-based startup recently raised $76 million CAD in growth funding and has plans to hire 200 people across Canada over the next 12 months.
Joseph King and Sean Fynn are the Chief Product Officer and CTO of StellarAlgo, a company with a Canadian and U.S. presence and headquartered in Calgary. StellarAlgo delivers a customer data platform that helps live audience businesses in the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS understand their fan base and connect fans to the experiences and products they want. They started the company over 4 years ago with 3 people and have since grown to nearly 50 employees with plans to hit 100 people by early 2022.
What’s the main cause of the technical skill gap?
The Overall Message: It’s not just about finding enough developers. It’s about pivoting from a familiar Prairie playbook (read: one that’s reliant on natural resources instead of technological innovation) and embracing a new method of business thinking at the leadership level. Developing and attracting the right kind of leadership will attract talent from other ecosystems in turn.
Jeff, Boast.AI: In the Prairies, we’ve become very good at operations, building massive projects, getting them in on budget, and bringing them in on time. We’re world-class at that. But we didn't need to develop pure skills to answer questions like, “How do I better frame my product?” “How do I talk about it to the consumer?” That’s where I think the gap begins. We generally don't produce the people who think in that way.
Dallas, Co.Labs: The main issue is a time problem. The prairie ecosystem just hasn’t had the time to develop. This lack of time means we haven’t had those high-profile exits that you’re seeing in Toronto or Silicon Valley on a weekly basis. Normally, some subset of that company becomes angel investors, some go on to become VPs or Directors at other organizations, and usually those organizations have so much more capital to invest in training that you can upskill a whole community a lot quicker when you have several of those high growth, high profile organizations.
Joseph, StellarAlgo: In my opinion, the gap is largely caused by a product/startup ecosystem that’s still getting on its feet. A good ecosystem has lots of peers and professionals who’ve been through the struggle and can connect founders to the knowledge and resources to understand how to acquire customers and build products to satisfy them. At the other end of the spectrum, if your company is really starting to get traction, your leaders start needing to specialize and focus, which means you need more senior talent to help scale. These big gaps have a few root causes, but one stands out: we don’t attract or train enough tech talent in product discovery, product delivery or data and data operations.
Sean, StellarAlgo: A career in software seems to have been long overshadowed by other sectors like oil and gas. When software engineering is in the spotlight, it’s often in Eastern Canada or in the U.S. I believe this messaging has resulted in less undergraduates either pursuing this career path or leaving the Prairies because they don’t fully understand their options.
Sara, Jobber: When we think of software engineers, for example, a few years ago many of them didn’t think there was an opportunity to either build something themselves or work for a company like Jobber or another growing tech company in the Prairies. They often felt they had to move to Toronto or Vancouver if they wanted to work in tech. This migration resulted in a smaller talent pool. It’s also been a challenge to find more senior leaders or folks with specialized skill sets who have experience with scaling tech companies. That’s due to the stage of the ecosystem and the migration of talent to cities with more developed ecosystems.
Who do you think is responsible for addressing the technical skills gap?
The Overall Message: While government funding would be nice, a true ecosystem enjoys contributions from all areas. Corporations have to step up and invest energy earlier in the talent pipeline while accelerators and incubators focus on facilitating connections not just between “big name” CEOs but niche operational talent as well.
Joseph, StellarAlgo: All of us. Government has a role to play in learning from other jurisdictions who support early-stage and late-stage innovation with assistance to manage investment risks. Training institutions have a role to play in providing great tech curriculums that are practical and relevant to the needs of different stages of businesses from discovery to product delivery. The business community has a role to play in connecting and supporting leaders at all levels with access to good experience and insight. Businesses have a role to play in building successful startups that attract capital and people, as well as investing in our people.
Jeff, Boast.AI: One of the challenges that we have is that most of the networking groups and the attention lies within founder and co-founder titles. Generally speaking, they’re the only people talking and connecting. Why isn’t there a networking group specifically around operations? Around doing customer success better? Around doing demand generation better?
Lora, SAIT: Unicorns don’t just magically appear! Leaders in this space work with the ecosystem to strategically build their talent pipelines. The reality is that no isolated training incident is going to get anyone to senior level expertise, and learning never should stop. The most effective talent pipelines we see is through a blend of work experience, mentoring, and formal and informal training. Digital and technical programs that mimic apprenticeships, where the ecosystem comes together to provide a series of project-based learning as well as work integrated learning opportunities, are the most effective to fast track people into their careers, and get companies the talent they need to be successful.
Startups already have a hard time hiring talent and tech startups have an even harder time competing with cushy salaries, benefits, and the name recognition of bigger corporations. So how has your company addressed this challenge?
The Overall Message: A startup’s employee value proposition is growth, transparency, and autonomy. Successful startups market and follow through on this promise through their programs and culture.
Sean, StellarAlgo: Education and transparency. We educate our candidates on the value to their career path that is gained by being part of a startup/early-stage company like StellarAlgo. I say, "We will grow your resume every week. You will see this, feel this, and become more valuable." StellarAlgo spends an enormous amount of time giving structured autonomy which fosters learning, feedback cycles, and mentorship.
Sara, Jobber: Our recruiting team does quite a bit of direct sourcing using various online tools. We also look to post-secondary institutions for our early career hires. Looking specifically at Alberta, we have the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute and the fantastic programs at the University of Alberta and MacEwan. Since COVID, we’ve also moved towards expanding our talent pool by offering remote work on a permanent basis. Prior to COVID, you had to either live in Edmonton or Toronto (where our second office is located) or want to move to one of those cities to work with us. Now we’re hiring across Canada. If a company has the right infrastructure in place, they shouldn’t be afraid of remote as it opens up the talent pool considerably.
What is your overall recruitment strategy?
The Overall Message: Know your audience. Whether it has to do with your values or the specific city you’re recruiting from, understanding what’s important and relevant to your candidate pool is essential.
Sara, Jobber: Our overall goals are always to hire the best talent for Jobber and to ensure that our company reflects the cities in which we work. In the coming year, our Talent Attraction team will be exploring partnerships with groups to help us reach an even more diverse candidate pool including those from underserved communities and people with non-traditional career paths. We want to ensure that as the spotlight starts to really turn on the Prairies, we continue to be creative in looking for those still untapped talent pools.
Jeff, Boast.AI: I always say that you're selling to four different groups. You're selling to your customers. You're selling to either current and or future investors. You're selling to your current employees. And you're selling to your potential employees. And what people miss is that they take their sales message that they're pitching to their customer, and then they pitch the same message to the other three groups. This is not what you want. So you actually have to go through a messaging exercise for your audience of potential employees and ask, “What's the value proposition?” “Why might it resonate with them?” “What's the best way to actually communicate it to them in order to try and actually make those things come to life?”
How do you recommend other companies address and overcome the Prairie tech skills gap?
The Overall Message: Understand what makes working for a startup unique – autonomy, decision-making capabilities, immediate customer impact from efforts – and ensure that actually exists within your company.
Dallas, Co.Labs: Focus on the unique value that your startup offers. If someone is working for one of those mainstays in tech, they’re working on some aspect of some product that’s kind of, possibly, doing something. If you’re working at one of the Co.Labs startups, you see your code go into action and help customers. There’s a certain type of person who thrives in that environment. That’s the person you need to find.
Joseph, StellarAlgo: Making your people successful will make you successful. Hire people who have the right attitudes like curiosity and conscientiousness, focus less on the hard skills if you heavily weigh those, and nurture them to learn while unleashing them on wicked and well defined problems.
Sean, StellarAlgo: Our strategy is to hire passionate people and put them in roles they’re passionate about.
Sara, Jobber: Invest in building a talent brand. Consider what sets you apart from other companies and target talent that your unique selling points will appeal to. A strong recruiter is worth their weight in gold, because they’ll be able to find the talent and then sell them on your company. Over the long term, explore partnerships with community organizations, schools, and other groups that will develop the talent you want to eventually hire. This is an investment in time, but it does pay off. Finally, don’t be constrained by geography. If you are able to support remote work then think about how to grow your talent brand in other parts of Canada or the world.
The flip side of recruitment is retention. How have you developed and maintained your talent to ensure your people stick with you?
The Overall Message: Create a transparent, information-rich work environment where employees understand the value of their contributions and have opportunities to build on their skills.
Jeff, Boast.AI: We are a performance-based company. We’ve never cared about “time in chair”. We care about output. We hire smart people, give them the right tools, and get out of their way. We’re also focused on being open and transparent. All of our employees have access to a dashboard where they can see everything about the business minus the expenses. They can see the number of clients we signed, what the value was, the number of tax credits we received for companies, what our invoices were. If they want, they can fully immerse themselves in the business. Sometimes when people get too “siloed” and think, “This is all I do, and I don’t know how it impacts everything” they lose all motivation.
Sara, Jobber: We provide an environment that supports personal and professional growth. We communicate that you’re going to do really interesting work on a product that matters, and you’ll feel a connection to our customers. These are all things that our team experiences with us and this is ultimately what keeps people around for the long term. We also invest heavily in professional development. The average tech employee leaves their company every two years, not because they dislike the company but because they feel they are not progressing in their careers. We have a Coaching and Development team that provides people with the tools and resources they need to develop their careers their way. Our people know that they don’t have to leave Jobber to take the next step in their careers.
The Main Takeaways
- It’s time to share an updated Prairie playbook that focuses less on natural resources and more on technological innovation in order to convince multidisciplinary tech talent to stay – and new tech talent to arrive.
- To become a true ecosystem, the responsibility for filling the talent gap must come from all areas including government, educational leaders, and businesses.
- Startups need to double down on their unique value propositions which are growth, transparency, and autonomy when competing against big name companies for talent.
- Startups must craft marketing messages specifically tailored for a candidate audience instead of recycling the value propositions they present to customers or current employees.
- Ensure your recruitment messaging is a reflection of your actual company values. If you’re marketing autonomy and transparency, make sure there is a culture of trust, idea sharing, and professional development.
To learn more about how Harvest can help grow and scale your business with talent management strategy and recruitment services, especially for hard to fill roles, check out our Growth Program.