Breaking the mould: bold and eager to innovate, Vancouver is burgeoning as a tech hub

BCIC and three major tech firms share just why our city is the right place at the right time 

Vancouver’s global technology presence is growing, as one tech executive puts it, like a giant wave. Right now there are about 109,000 ICT jobs in British Columbia, predicted to increase by 15,000 in Vancouver, 21,000 in B.C. overall, in five years. Information and Communications Technology contributes $8.9 billion to British Columbia’s GDP. And globally recognized tech brands are setting up offices here, not just for development or training, but with the management and executive functions of regional or head offices.

How to explain this tech tsunami? Greg Caws, President and CEO of the BC Innovation Council, cites our three favourable T’s: time zone, taxes and talent. In the Pacific time zone, a company can talk with both Asia and Europe in one day, Caws explains. “And they don’t necessarily pay enormous corporate taxes like they would in the United States, for example. Then they have an ecosystem of talent, of people that they can always call on.”

So, Vancouver fits companies like ACL, Microsoft and SAP to a T. But maybe a fourth T figures in, as well: the willingness to tear apart; to reinvent and renew. It’s a theme explored in the BCIC-Vancouver Economic Commission 2015 video Break Something—and a character trait of our city that three leading tech firms here, different as their origins are, all agree on.

Home-grown ACL, which makes software for auditors, has its roots 30 years ago in UBC Professor Hart Will’s basement. Will created an algorithm that interrogated data, discovered anomalies. To this day ACL recognizes that where there’s a will there’s a way; that breaks can lead to breakthroughs. “We look for employees that have this DNA to create a future that otherwise would not happen. We call them change agents,” says ACL President and CEO Laurie Schultz. And to capitalize on the diverse available talent, ACL has chosen to keep its global headquarters in Vancouver, recently opening its brand new, state-of-the-art downtown LEED–certified space.

“That’s the beginning of the formula. You don’t pass go, you don’t collect $200 if you don’t have amazing people. We’ve tried to create an environment where people feel comfortable being vulnerable. That is the essence, that kind of cultural system.

ACL’s software for auditors “helps mitigate, reduce and eliminate fraud, corruption and waste,” a high ethical standard that appeals to millennials, Schultz finds. In a downtown office designed with hero themes—e.g., Terry Fox, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks—employees know that their work matters; they’re making the world better.

Vancouver’s halo effect

Like the space arm, Vancouver’s technology roots stretch far, says Caws. “We’ve had a tech presence for a very long time. Companies like MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates  have been here since the ‘60s. There’s always sort of a halo effect that goes out and affects other organizations, so we’ve got a world-renowned presence for gaming, for visual effects, for electronics.”  Arising from those early successes are the anchor firms that are the building blocks of today’s cluster.  And it’s not just production: it’s design, development, and delivery across a dizzying new array of applications and platforms.

Among the international firms feeling the halo rays is Microsoft. In 2014 the technology giant announced plans for its new Global Development Center here. “We already had a strong video game development presence in the city and based on its success, were able to seed other businesses here to take advantage of the diverse population and proximity to top Canadian universities,” says Edoardo De Martin, Director of the Microsoft Canada Excellence Centre (MCEC).

“The Centre will more than double Microsoft’s development staff in Vancouver from approximately 300 to over 700. This expansion in developer talent enables us to significantly broaden the type of development work we are doing here beyond high-end gaming to include leading applications such as Skype, OneNote, and applications for the Microsoft Band and HoloLens.” In addition to more than doubling its development talent, the MCEC in Vancouver also represents a regional HQ – the newest of only six Global Development Centers operated by Microsoft around the world.  Despite proximity to its global headquarters in Redmond, Washington, De Martin notes that he and his team are responsible for a distinct identity, product mix and set of functions unique to the Vancouver MCEC.

Like ACL, Microsoft encourages different thinking. The two-floor, 142,000-square-foot space downtown includes a “maker lab” for employees to experiment in.  And forget Dilbert-like cubicles that inhibit communication. “Workspaces follow a neighbourhood concept that brings teams together and provides them with a diverse assortment of group and private meeting space,” says De Martin. “There’s a great deal of collaboration that happens in software and video game development, and an open plan workspace is ideal for that.” De Martin also points to the cultural diversity of tech talent in BC, a competitive advantage for the Vancouver Centre.

Outside the office, Vancouver makes tech types feel at home through “sheer osmotic leakage,” says Caws. “When you’re proximate to other companies that are big like yours, when you’ve got a critical mass of people, it breeds a better tech environment for everybody. That’s why you’ve got more and more companies showing up here. We’re the right place at the right time.”

But there’s more to it, says Kirsten Sutton, Vice President and Managing Director, SAP Labs Canada. “I can guarantee you, having sat in hundreds of meetings with my SAP colleagues across the world, they all say the same thing we do: they have great talent, the pipeline for early talent; they’re in a strong hub with many tech companies, a great environment and community. What is it that’s different for investing in Vancouver?”

So what makes us different?

Sutton knows what compelling answer to give for justifying the current “giant wave of recruiting” here – almost 200 new hires in less than a year. She has to. She’s grown and survived through five acquisitions—and remained.

“We are not the centre of the country. But we have a spirit here that continues to be really infectious and something that’s very hard to get rid of. I think we get under people’s skin and they love us and on top of that we deliver good-quality work because we’re talented.”  She adds that critical mass matters, noting that SAP acquired a core, talented team already in place – big enough that it was hard to wind down or move.  

And, because SAP isn’t afraid of breaking the mold it created. Says Sutton, “We’ve changed over the years to help businesses run better, to help the world run better. We’ve gone from just programming process and business process to getting into the hands of the consumer and making their day-to-day lives improve.”  That “break” is reflected in SAP’s current video snippets, for which the Vancouver SAP Lab team created the digital boardroom featured in the videos.

“Now our products don’t just make sure you can do your financials more efficiently, or run your shop floor better, or other things you might originally associate with SAP. Now our software is helping doctors diagnose cancer faster and helping kids with autism learn to read. It makes sure that crane operators do not have collisions, which is one of the biggest safety issues for sites with dual cranes. We’re able to do things that one would not have expected when we got together in 1972 in a little house in Germany.”

Grown-up tech firms like Microsoft and SAP are facing a common element: their Vancouver executive teams compete globally within their own companies. They compete for investment and top management talent, while carving out their own identities with cutting-edge products, thereby expanding the Vancouver technology and head office ecosystem they see as so promising.

Tech leaders like Sutton, De Martin and Schultz are united in their view that homegrown British Columbia talent will underpin the further growth of their companies, and the cluster at large. And as Caws notes, school-age coding training and mandated co-op terms are among the priorities identified in the BC Tech Strategy. With tools like these and a strong corporate presence by anchor firms, local talent is not only riding the present wave of tech companies in Vancouver, it will also be founding and leading the next wave.

HQ Vancouver’s Conversation Series is produced in partnership with the SFU Beedie School of Business.