Industry insights from top B.C. innovators

Q&A | CTO/CIO Awards winners describe “secret sauce” for tech sector success

Clockwise from top left: Colin O’Connor, chief technology officer, Precision OS; CJ Ritchie, chief information officer, Government of British Columbia; Jill Tipping, CEO, BC Tech Association; David St. Angelo, chief technology officer, Carbon Engineering | BIV

BIV celebrates the province’s standout leaders in technology and breakthrough innovation with this year’s B.C. CTO/CIO Award winners.

From carbon capture to virtual reality simulations for surgeons to the development of digital identities for British Columbians, BIV’s judges panel was captivated by the scope of talent leading the way in technology this past year.

Applicants from across the province came from an array of private, public and non-profit organizations, and BIV is pleased to announce the final selections:

•CTO of the Year: David St. Angelo, chief technology officer, Carbon Engineering;

•CIO of the Year: CJ Ritchie, chief information officer,
Government of British Columbia; and

•Startup CEO of the Year: Colin O’Connor, chief technology officer, Precision OS.

The winners talk to BIV about their careers, the evolution of the job and the promise of technology, while BC Tech Association CEO Jill Tipping offers her thoughts on these tech-centred roles.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

What is your day-to-day routine like, especially as you’re offering guidance to your team and trying to find that right business direction and right vision for Carbon Engineering?

St. Angelo: It’s two areas. One, is you’re looking at the present. And you’re trying to manage day-to-day activities with more tactical development of the technology and keeping progress moving forward on today’s ideas. But also you have to look toward the future and what opportunity opportunities exist in terms of increasing the performance of the technology.… You spend quite a bit of time working on execution, working with project teams, advising project teams, mentoring individuals, and then you also spend a lot of time trying to keep your pulse on the industry and what is going on there technologically so that you can bring new ideas and don’t get comfortable with your current situation. You always, always, always have to be learning. And you always, always have to be innovating.


What was one of your top priorities as you assumed the role of chief information officer [in 2018]?

Ritchie: One of the priorities for me was really to take an all-of-government approach to the transformation of government. I have had a bit of a mantra for a long time, about wanting to leave the public service better than I found it. And I’ve been a believer in digital government and digital transformation for a long time and really saw an opportunity with taking this role to be able to push the envelope for B.C. on the work we do inside a government and being a bit more of a modern government and delivering services in a modern way.


What is it about virtual reality that you think is just so vital now?

O’Connor: lt is a great way to be connecting people. And remote collaboration is a key component of some of the learning that’s going on right now. I think there’s been a big push for different multi-player initiatives and different ways to train and educate various users across the landscape.


And what has the uptake been like, especially when we think of the impacts that the pandemic has had on the way that we all work and the way that we all learn now?

O’Connor: It was a bit tough to begin with. As the pandemic first rolled out … a lot of our surgeries closed down. We work in the orthopedic medical space. And with a lot of the elective surgeries closed, that side of the business really slowed down. And the medical device companies that we work very closely with had a hard time getting our VR headsets out into the field and training surgeons. But then, as the landscape evolved, you know, we worked very closely with various institutions. And it became important that the residents and the fellows continue to learn and evolve. So that’s where the multi-player initiative really came on board. And we managed to get it into quite a few different universities across North America, and they’ve become used to doing remote collaboration and remote training now.


Why is that these roles can vary depending so much on an organization, whether it’s a startup versus an anchor company?

Tipping: If we think perhaps 20 years ago, a CIO within a major organization would probably be mostly focused on cost efficiencies and operational efficiencies.… Ten years ago they’d be focused on how can technology help with revenue, with customer intimacy, with understanding the market? And today they’re really focused on what can technology do to make this business be sustainable?… If you’re a startup CTO versus one that’s at an anchor company, they may have had that product in the pipeline for quite some time.… So all of these roles have one key skill, which is you need to be a technical expert, you need to understand not only what’s relevant in technology today, but what’s coming down the pipe and the next two years, the next three years, the next five years, and even the next 10 years and further. What’s going to happen? What’s evolving? You have to be the person in the company that has the crystal ball, and that can have an opinion about what’s coming next. But what’s also relevant is to make sure that you can bring a team with you. You can select the tools that … you can build the team [with], and they can build strong relationships with the business people in the organization.


What do you anticipate this pandemic really doing with regards to a lot of this digital adoption?

Ritchie: Well, there is a bit of a joke in the IT community right now: What’s driving your digital transformation? Is it the CTO, the CIO or COVID? And so there is a bit of that right with the pandemic and more people working remotely, more small businesses feeling the need to get themselves online. There is a huge opportunity for digital transformation and the change we’ve seen in the last six months is two years’ worth of work.… Early days of the pandemic, everybody was calling the helpline trying to get information on COVID and symptoms and cases, and they were overwhelmed. So we put in a chatbot to assist on the health call centre. And there’s been hundreds of thousands of calls to the chatbot, and on a regular basis [we] are tracking what questions are being asked so that we have an idea of what are the top-of-mind issues for citizens. Just the very speed at which we’re putting things out in the world and implementing is really driving our digital transformation in a way I could have only dreamed of two years ago.


You guys [Carbon Engineering] are now moving into that commercialization phase and I’m wondering what that experience is like, especially when you’re going to be making sure that this business model proves successful?

St. Angelo: One of the most exciting times in an organization is when you start to build a system that’s of commercial scale, and where we’re fortunate is that we’re able to take a step before that. We’re building an innovation centre that is going to be essentially a replica of that commercial facility here in Squamish. It’s also going to be our home for our long-term research and development.… So for an engineer or scientist or a member of a team that’s working on this, there’s nothing better than seeing your hard work become reality.


What makes someone special in this role?

Tipping: You have to be able to go in two directions. So you’ve got to be able to go deep, but you’ve also got to be able to go wide and judging which situation in particular, given the company that you’re working for – do they more need me to go deep or do they more need me to go wide? They definitely need you to do both, you have to be able to do a bit of both. So by going deep, I mean truly understanding the deep technical expertise within your domain. But going wide is keeping enough of your ears and eyes open to technology and other spheres that might have applications that you wouldn’t have thought of. So you have to be a broad reader and stay really aware of what’s happening in other spheres as well as deeply in your own sphere.


How are we at cultivating the talent we need to produce great CTOs and CIOs here on the West Coast?

Tipping: There’s a secret sauce in B.C. that sometimes we overlook, and we don’t realize how valuable it is, which is we’re relatively modest as intellectuals, as thinkers, as CEOs. And what that leaves us with is a willingness and an ability to ask the stupid question. And you know, there are no stupid questions. The key is being willing to say, “What do I not know,” and to consult with others who know more than you and to say, “Have I missed this?” Or, “Perhaps there’s something else that I can learn” – so that willingness to be open and to learn from others and to ask questions, and to be on a continuous growth journey throughout your career. That’s something that I really noticed is sort of in the water of the tech sector in B.C., and I think it sets us up really, really well to compete in this global world.


How has the learning experience been for you just in the last six months [amid the pandemic]?

Ritchie: So I would say where we see successes, what you see behind that always is people. And so it’s not just about taking cool, new, shiny tools and implementing them. It’s really about bringing teams of people together that bring a holistic perspective together.… When we had to mobilize and get a travel-screening app in place, we were able to do that in a number of days. So that [for] Canadians returning home, there was a travel-screening app that supported the public servants that were in the airports to meet those people and ensure they had isolation plans in place. It’s really always about the partnership.


How is [Vancouver] proving to be … at kind of the crossroads of all these intersecting industries and being able to develop what you guys are developing right now [virtual reality]?

O’Connor: I think it’s a very exciting time in Vancouver…. I think there’s a lot of exciting work going across the industries. We’re drawing in resources from the film industry – we’ve got film people working with us as well that are upping our visual standards. You know, pulling from the video game industry and also all the schools.… So it’s a great place to come to train and that indicates experience in these various markets. •