Kitchener-Waterloo

Tech industry needs more business talent in coming decade, experts say

Waterloo region is a well-known Canadian tech hub, but for it to succeed in the next decade, developing its business talent will be key — that's according to leaders and experts in the industry.
Institutions like the Quantum Nano Centre at University of Waterloo help the region develop world class researchers. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

Waterloo region is a well-known Canadian tech hub, but for it to succeed in the next decade, developing its business talent will be key — that's according to leaders and experts in the industry.

Despite it's small population, the region continues to punch above its weight when it comes to tech, according to Communitech CEO Iain Klugman. 

Communitech is an organization that promotes tech industry growth in Kitchener-Waterloo. 

"We're actually the only significant tech centre in North America that is less than one million people," he said, adding that Boulder, Colo. is the single exception.

"Everybody else is over two million people."

There's a reason why companies like Google have large offices in the region, says Vidyard CEO Michael Litt. 

"When you think about what's here, we have great engineers, best in the world," he said. 

However, that specialization has created difficulties in creating large-scale, viable tech businesses, he said.

"When it comes to commercialization, we don't have a really strong legacy of sales leaders and channel leaders and marketing leaders that are relatively available," Litt said. 

Some say the reason for the lack of business expertise is a lack of funding, while others believe that transit problems prevent the region from tapping into Toronto's talent pool. 

Litt sees it as a chicken and egg problem. 

To grow business talent, the region needs companies that grow to 250 employees, he said. However, to grow companies to that size, the region needs business talent. 

"If I was to hire sales executive 'XYZ' from a unicorn software company in Silicon Valley and try to get them to move to Waterloo, they're going to look around and say, 'Okay if I move my family to Waterloo and Vidyard fails or I fail at Vidyard, what am I going to do next?'" Litt said. 

"The question is, can we become an ecosystem that builds its own standalone organizations at large scale?" 

2020 predictions

Fakhri Karray is a research chair and professor of AI at the University of Waterloo.

He says the tech industry will see a number of changes in the next decade — and so will consumers.

He does work with virtual assistants that he says is likely to make it to the mainstream in the coming year.

"2020 is going to see a small leap in these types of systems," Karray said.

Interactions with virtual assistants today are a long way from conversational. People issue short voice commands to virtual assistants such as Siri or Alexa, and the systems comply.

Karray wants to establish conversations that are two or three levels deep, similar to a conversation that happens between two humans.

Another of his projects has to do with using weather pattern data to help grocery stores decide on a fair price for a farmer's produce.  

"The grey matter is located here," Karray said of the region's tech talent pool.

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