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Something Ventured: July 6

Insight For BC Technology Entrepreneurs

By Brent Holliday

Attracting Tech Workers to BC: A First Step

"Tell me with the rapture and the reverent in the right - right.
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light, feeling pretty psyched. " - REM -
It's The End of The World As We Know It
(And I Feel Fine)

Last week, I rambled about what motivates high tech employees to work. The key message was that compensation is not the be all and end all of attracting and keeping workers. Most of the article focused on younger engineers and programmers. I did touch on senior management and the trouble of attracting the experienced leaders of young technology companies. More than a couple of responses to last week's diatribe pointed out that very fact. So, OK, here is the antithesis to last week's hypothesis: Money does matter to older folk that have families and long track records in industry.

To summarize the situation as it relates to BC:

1. We have a shortage of skilled engineers/programmers/sales people staying in BC to work or moving here from other locales

2. Salary is not the prime motivator for younger engineers/programmers. Leading edge technology, career advancement opportunities and work environment rank higher.

3. We lack a critical mass of large technology companies in BC, leading to a critical lack of experienced start-up managers

4. Due to the high cost of living and high taxes, we have trouble attracting people who value compensation more (people with homes and/or families who are, generally speaking, older with more experience)

The good news is that BC has exciting young companies working in leading edge technology. We also have world class researchers and engineers in many of our companies. It is absolutely imperative that we cut taxes and lower the cost of living in order to compete on a world stage, but these things take time and are largely out of the control of the technology community. It would also help if we had a few billion dollar companies headquartered here. Again, we'll get there, but it won't happen overnight.

I suggest that the first order of business for the BC high tech community's drive to attract and keep more talented people is promotion. Clever, targeted, thorough promotion to two groups: 1) The high school and university/college students of BC and 2) the engineers/programmers in major technology hubs in Canada, the US and around the world.

We need to teach the kids of BC that technology is the reason that they will stay here and have good job prospects the day they graduate. Taking Dad's job at the pulp mill is a pretty bleak prospect today. Get the kids excited about what a technology career is all about. Doug Coupland, authour of Generation X and Microserfs (and a new book about Lara Croft, the heroine of Tomb Raider), is a great pitch man for the younger kids trying to understand what a career as a computer programmer/artist might be like. OK, so he painted a pretty bleak picture in Microserfs, but the reality is much more fun

Get a local ad firm to tap into the energy and excitement of young engineers around PMC Sierra, Creo, QLT and Ballard. These people believe they are changing the world. Let them infect the younger kids. An organized speaking tour would help. Of course, industry needs to be supportive of this and allow a couple of tours, well orchestrated to accent the opportunity of technology. Someone recently postulated that kids are turned off of science in high school because science text books are so mundane and logical (and that the teachers are too). In order to engender excitement, science needs to be relevant. Tell it like it's a story. Bring out the characters and teach the history. But most of all, show the kids the reality of where science takes them as a career.

The Skills Now initiative and other recent gestures by the provincial government are focusing on giving kids the relevant skills to get the jobs in technology. I don't want to go off on a tangent about the problems with education. I'd rather just state that the kids need a reason to take the courses that are being offered.

In order to bring young engineers to BC from other parts of Canada, the US and around the world, the promotion has to focus on the setting and the people. We should shamelessly promote our local geniuses, like Dan Gelbart at Creo and others. And there should be booths at all recruitment shows and major technology trade shows that emphasize the opportunities and the incredible setting. There should even be an opportunistic SWAT team assembled, ready to descend on any major downsizing or layoff announcement in North America. There should have been a team parked outside of the Digital plant in Kanata last week, holding posters of Whistler, handing out job opportunities for BC companies and providing plane tickets to anyone that agreed to be interviewed.

The target audience outside of BC is young, well-educated and culturally mixed. Focus the message to them. The cosmopolitan nature of Vancouver is a real plus for this market. So are the mountains. There is a lure for the Silicon Valley engineer that is sick of living in a bedroom community where the exciting night spot is the local Chili's restaurant. It goes without saying that mountain biking, windsurfing and snowboarding are included.

Who should take on these promotion activities? A new industry group or a branch of an existing one? I suggest that it needs experienced PR, recruiting and technology people involved.

This promotion blitz probably won't attract top technology management. Let's face it, they are usually older, they actually like Chili's, and want a bedroom community to raise their kids in. Since people are harder to move when their roots grow in a community and their mortgages are tax deductible where they are (and not in BC), we should cultivate management from within our existing companies. It's like the Vancouver Grizzlies. We have to grow and build the team through the draft. We can sign a few high priced free agents now to help the younger guys/gals learn. But we won't win the championship until the youth has emerged as the leaders.

There is no quick hit here. The promotion I have outlined will just assist the BC technology community in attracting more talent as it grows. I have outlined a broad plan for all of the technology community. Each individual company needs to take note, though. Promoting your company's leading edge technology, world class researchers and developers and tremendous work setting will get you the staff you need to be more productive. Instead of announcing the second beta release of your 6th product, expend your PR efforts on getting a revealing look at your company's work setting in Fast Company.

Who should pay for all of this promotion? My tax money has been spent a lot worse, let me tell you.

Random Thoughts

It's vacation time. So you get to enjoy this column for the next three weeks. I'll be back at the end of July.

What Do You Think? Talk Back To Brent Holliday

Something Ventured
is a bi-weekly column designed to supplement the T-Net British Columbia web site with some timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the industry. I hope to share some of the perspective and trends that I see in my role as a VC. The column is always followed by feedback (if its positive or constructive. I'll keep the flames to myself, thanks).

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