After Amazon. Tech Talent in Calgary: What Now?
In the wake of the news that Amazon’s shortlist of twenty cities for its second North American headquarters doesn’t include Calgary – and that the lack of relevantly skilled people is one of the reasons for this – there’s been a surge of talk about tech talent and the tech ecosystem in Calgary. That (and that “we’d fight a bear for you” is now a meme within Amazon) is probably the best thing that came out of our bid.
There is a new willingness (finally!) to take stock and talk honestly about the talent needed for tech companies and for building Calgary (and Alberta) as an innovation region and to (really, for real this time) diversifying our economy.
Calgary needs more tech talent. What exactly does that mean, anyway?
Let’s start at the start. So when people talk about the lack of tech talent, what exactly do they mean, anyway? Hint, it’s not just about developers…
The first thing that people think of is software developers or ‘engineers’ in the U.S. parlance, and you only have to look online at the plethora of job postings and talk to tech company leaders or recruiters to know that, unfortunately, we don’t have enough of them (back-end, front-end, full-stack, web, Python, Java, Ruby, you name it, we need ‘em!). Beyond that, there are other technical roles that are super-difficult to fill in Calgary, roles for people who are skilled in web operations engineering, IT data security, UX design and QA (quality assurance, especially QA software automation types). Folks in the hardware space (be that wearables, robots or business systems) will hasten to add we don’t have enough hardware engineers either. Sigh…
And here’s the part where we pile on (not because we’re negative but because it’s true): it’s not just about “technical” positions, it’s also about not enough people who have the relevant business experience that tech companies need. When you talk with founders and executives in the tech sector in Calgary (and the rest of Alberta) you’ll hear lots about the types of business talent that they have trouble finding. They include: people who have business development, corporate development and sales experience in the tech space. People who are product managers (not project managers, though many would say they need PMs with tech track records, too) and who have experience building and bettering tech products, particularly in the B2B space. Marketers are also in short supply (particularly product marketers, lead generation/marketing automation types and marketers with experience in software and hardware products). Finance and accounting people who have relevant sector experience, for example, an understanding and comfort with SaaS accounting, valuation, tech financings, etc., are hard to find. Tech prides itself on it’s different, innovative and iconic culture so tech companies struggle to find People & Culture (formerly known as HR) people, too. And the hardest business people for tech to find? Experienced tech Executives. VP and C-Level positions across the board (COO, CMO/VP Marketing, VP People, CRO/VP Sales, CFO) are extremely challenging to source within our amazing city. (Look around and you’ll see that many scale-up companies have imported talent from the rest of Canada and beyond, most likely, the US). The fact that we can successfully recruit people to move here is a great comment on the quality of some of the companies that are scaling and how compelling Calgary is, but it is not what we need to attract or scale tech companies in the short and medium term.
So, wow. That’s a really long list of talent that tech companies need. People in the Calgary tech sector, whether they work in startups just getting off the ground, emerging companies or growth companies that have achieved a measure of scale and success have long known that we have a serious paucity of talent. That’s why they smirk when they get yet another of “those emails” (a desperate plea for developers, product managers, B2B sales people or tech marketers). And that’s why it wasn’t a surprise to anyone in tech when we didn’t make the Amazon cut (not that we didn’t think the bear was cool – we so did!).
Ok, we need more tech talent. Got it. So now what?
So now what? Well, the bad news is that there’s no silver bullet (or giant tech company that can swoop in and solve our? problem). The good news is twofold: Calgary is an amazing city and there are definitely things we can do to ameliorate the situation and help tech companies start, grow, thrive in and relocate to, Calgary.
Calgary really is amazing: we have a friendly, can-do attitude, we have an incredible quality of life (yeah, pricey tech-friendly Vancouver and Toronto, we’re looking at you!) and we have grit. Lots of it. We can look back to times like the Calgary Flood where people came together to overcome a huge natural disaster and we can do the same thing when it comes to economic resiliency. We can galvanize as a city around diversifying our economy, including committing to growing the tech sector and equipping more people to thrive in it.
Transitioning to an economy where tech is a driver requires a commitment at every level: at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government, in education and training and especially for individuals. When we look at other jurisdictions, like Pittsburgh, where the decline of the steel industry necessitated a transition to tech, we can see that the transition took place at all of those levels, and there was a multi pronged strategy more than a silver bullet.
Zeroing in on talent: we really have three main approaches. We can import talent (hey, it’s pretty awesome to live here, right?), we can grow talent (through education and through training programs designed to accelerate the skills and experience we need) and we can retrain talent (through hands-on experience and development programs that help people transfer their existing skills to tech or through retraining people to be ready to take on completely new roles by equipping them with relevant new skills).
We need to encourage and support people to grow and retrain their skillsets since having a bigger base of technical and business tech talent is key to growing tech in Calgary. It’s critical to enable more startups, to foster and support scale ups to grow here instead of relocating. A deep talent pool is also key to attracting new tech companies to Calgary, whether it’s a head office whale or a smaller scale tech company that can open a satellite office here. There is also a cultural element of change that is required; the mindset and operating principles of software and other tech companies are likely very different than what people are used to in large, top down driven energy companies. It is not better or worse, but it is different and requires attention..
So there’s no silver bullet but there are some serious hard-work-ahead approaches that grit-heavy Calgarians can start to undertake. Together. Growing tech by growing talent? Let’s do this!