The Quiet Giant

There’s a funny thing about the place where you grow up; it tends to call you back.

Several years after that particular moment in Ottawa history that everyone is acutely aware of, I was offered a promotion to the bright lights of the big city of Toronto. Even though the bubble had burst, paper millionaires were broke, and the biggest employers were laying off people, there was work if you were driven enough to earn it.

Working in Toronto, for both established firms and a start-up, gave me that experience that can only be bought with long hours and grinding through the phone calls. All that time, working for someone else, built that drive to build my own business, and guess what… I did.

As with many of those who push forward, time seems to pass quickly. Ten years had flown by and the call of home started to ring. I had been following the progress of the city and decided it was time come back. Maybe help out some old companies and develop some new relationships. Ottawa has grown into the giant it once was and its smaller companies are its driving force.

The Industries are Here, Just Smaller

In my previous Ottawa life, Ottawa’s tech and innovation were supported by the big companies. With heavy infrastructure and deep pockets, companies like Nortel and JDS Uniphase, among many others, became the anchors that kept things stable. Driven by the information revolution and the need to connect everybody to the world wide web, they were the behemoths that hired and trained so many people. Maybe I am bragging a little, but the skill in Ottawa was among the best in the world.

Then the bubble burst. Some of those companies went bust and others went elsewhere, leaving that talent in the wind. Those large, anchoring companies were gone.

It would be fair to think that would have been the swan song of the industry in the city. And for a time, maybe that was true. But it isn’t any more.

Take a look at the numbers and see how many people are employed by the technology sector and how much money it makes for the area. Ripped from the headlines; Ottawa tech sector hits all-time employment high. Here is the tl;dr, 68,000 people employed at 1700 companies.

Something has to give and we need more people here. If I weren’t already invested in my own plans, I might consider retraining in the tech field just so I can take advantage of this opportunity. I certainly know people outside of the city who would surely benefit from relocating to Ottawa.

Of the 1700 companies, 1430 employ fewer than fifty people. Of course, there are both pros and cons to working for a small company. However, the stability of the larger, established companies turned out to be built on sand. With fewer people, companies can remain agile and respond to the market changes. Even, on those necessary occasions, make that ever important pivot.

The New Wave of Innovation

But all the sexy, bleeding edge innovation is happening elsewhere, right? If you want to get the best jobs in software or innovation, head to Kitchener-Waterloo. The answer to all that is you have options! I have written before on what the K-W region is doing and just how well they are doing it. They are making amazing products and the work there is excellent.

Although reports don’t even mention Ottawa as a high tech space, there is a secret if we just dig a little deeper. Quietly, Ottawa has received more venture capital funding than Waterloo since 2013 (for the IT industry).

But is it merely doing what it did well in the 90s, providing B2B support around the world? Sure, Ottawa is still doing that, but that is not all though. According to Invest Ottawa, here are the leading employers for high tech;

  • Aerospace, Security & Defense
  • Cleantech
  • Digital Media
  • Life Science
  • Communications Technologies
  • Software

Remember those people that were lost in the shuffle? They are part of the new guard that has bootstrapped itself and created smaller and capable businesses. And there are some brilliant success stories that have come out of the city in the past ten years. There is still the magic here.

The Talent Shortage

I asked a friend of mine who owns a small business about what he feels would help tech in Ottawa. He tells me there is a shortage of the talent required to help grow an industry where there is a lot of opportunity. In fact, there is such a talent shortage, companies are poaching from each other.

With the number of people graduating, or even being retrained, in the tech sector, it seems like it is just a matter of reaching out to those people to get them into the Ottawa jobs. Ontario alone produces more than 1300 post secondary grads in science, math, engineering, and computer science a year. Yet, many firms are having to outsource work to companies overseas.

Not only are we producing the graduates to fill the jobs, but we have the opportunity to attract amazing talent from people who have found their situation abruptly uncertain. Political affiliations aside, there are many people who are from far flung regions of the world and have the skillsets we need. Perhaps serendipitously, Canada has rolled out new measures to make hiring talent from beyond our borders easier. We can never know who is going to make the next Shopify, right?

No place like home!

There was a time when it looked like it was all over for the the boom days of Ottawa, but we know better now. The big companies have been replaced with many, smaller firms that are taking on the role of innovation and service leaders. Let’s bring in people from around the world to make Ottawa great. We can take the innovation, technology, engineering, skilled trades, and IT staffing levels to a whole new realm! My ol’ stomping grounds are the place to be and my feet are firmly rooted in the Ottawa area.

-Paul Bergsma