In this series, I will continue to write one post per week of meaningful length. I don’t do much in terms of social media (other than some light twitter) as I find it’s detrimental to my personal goals, so this is where you’ll be able to find most of my ramblings going forward. You may also want to check out my business where I am attempting to throw the real estate community (in Ontario) on its head by applying #Artificial Intelligence techniques to the mass amounts of #data that I’ve amassed in aggregate from being a #realty broker.
Expect the following topics over the coming weeks as reasons for why the time is only now for #Canada:
- #Tech (for me) over the last 20 years (this post)
- The Canadian brain drain
- How cheap is too cheap – yes #Toronto, I mean you
- The lack of venture capital money in Canada
- The lack of visionary #technology leaders in Toronto
- The lack of major exits
- University of Waterloo and University of Toronto students’ obsession with the valley
- The rise of incubators and accelerators
- The godfather of AI – Geoffrey Hinton
- Canada’s Liberal government sets the national focus correctly!
- What the future may hold for us
Canada, and more specifically Toronto, belongs at the top
Yes, that’s right, Canada does indeed belong at the top. This has been a long time coming and the fact that we are now at a a time in history where Canada’s government, policy and talent all culminate to make it a way better place to live than in the USA (in general); Canada, and specifically Toronto, belongs at the top.
Being an engineer, I will try to work through this in a methodical way and then bring it all back to my central thesis – that Canada does indeed belong at the top.
So the top… Well, top of what? My thought is that Canada belongs at the top of the world, the technology game, the #engineering game, and, largely based on my current, largest project and undertaking, Canada, and specifically Toronto, belongs at the top of the Artificial Intelligence game. And we’re doing well! But I’m here to take you through the journey that has been my career thus far and how we reached here and how we might stay at the top (which I believe we currently occupy).
This all struck me a few years ago (and is the reason for my writing this post) when Toronto was named the World’s most livable city (in 2015). I was gleefully proud of our achievements as a city, even with the poor state of the TTC (including funding) and all its issues with having a customer first focus, to our former Mayor, Rob Ford being a laughing stock of the world:
So let’s start this journey!
Tech (for me) over the last 20 years
I implore you to check out the links below, many are such wonderful relics of the Internet's past...
Education of a burgeoning CTO
I really had a bit of an odd beginning to my career. Like so many teens (and young adults) I really did not know what I wanted to do entering University, but I did have the grades to basically do anything I wanted. I had also been an avid athlete and had nearly scored a scholarship based on athletic prowess, but that was not in the cards. But alas, I ended up following a very much more pragmatic path, something likely dictated by an upbringing where my parents were recent immigrants and had struggled to make a better life for my sister and I, and succeeded immensely! I chose to go to UofT Engineering as it felt like the right type of career to pursue and I also felt that it would make my father proudest.
This was at a time when the web was becoming more predominant in our lives and markup languages like HTML were becoming all the rage, especially with the new entrant to the browser market – Microsoft (look below for a relic of the past; an internet explorer commercial from 1995 that I remember vividly) which was going to bring the browser to every desktop and to the masses.
At this point in my burgeoning tech life, I was an avid Sun Microsystems fan as my high school had their terminals and we of course used Netscape as a result (which lost the browser wars but was acquired by AOL and later ended up being piece-meal sold off to Microsoft anyway). Moving forward a few years, I found myself at UofT where, once again, we were using Sun terminals in their CS labs (this may have been one of the reasons I became a huge *nix nerd years later and why I ended up working for Sun prior to the Oracle buy-out).
Nortel Networks and the move to Computer Science
I kind of floundered a little bit during my time at UofT and ended up, luckily enough, at PwC within Nortel Networks as a Systems Analyst in their payroll and benefits department, with a mandate to create software for mergers and acquisitions. This would later become one of the key pieces of software used to divest Nortel of a huge percentage of its staff, including me.
At the time that I was coming out of school (UofT) the major focus, at least for me and my friends, was simply to do what we had heard from our parents, which was to find a nice cushy job in the tech world (tech because I was finishing up a technical undergrad) and make sure that you don’t rock the boat much. As such, my Professional Experience Year (PEY – which is akin to a Co-Op term for UofT, but obviously around one year in length and offered primarily to Engineers and Computer Scientists) was where I started to get my feet wet in real tech at ATI Technologies.
First real tech (Unix) job – ATI Technologies
I really loved working there, it was a great place to be, a lot of extremely smart people and a lot of #Unix work. I was in heaven, for a time. This was also the time at which Google came calling to interview me, which I found kind of cool – knowing what they were up to and being an avid user of their search (which was only just starting to take over ALL of search). I unfortunately did not make the move to #Google, as the position was in New York and the pay was just not sufficient enough to warrant moving there.
Nearly rich! Could’ve been at Google…
Looking back now, I would have obviously made sense in 2003 to go there (just imagine those stock options!!!):
Telecommunications and more hardware; SUN and Telus
At that point, I sort of got the itch to move on from ATI to greener pastures (and to ditch my hour-long commute to Markham, Ontario from where I lived – Brampton, Ontario). This is when I made the move to Sun Microsystems that I previously mentioned – while at the same point in my life making a (housing and geographical) move to Toronto with a roommate. This reduced my overall commute by more than half and allowed me to focus on being an urbanite, which had been a personal goal growing up in mostly major urban centres, only to end up in Brampton due to my father’s work at Canadian Airlines and Air Canada.
The client that I was placed into (as Sun’s model was to have engineers embedded in their clients’ staff – much like the model for many product and services companies still is) was Telus. They had recently acquired Clearnet and began making headway in the east-coast of Canada with their mobility offerings, which was the group that I was a part of.
During this time I honed in on my Unix skills and developed a lot of new #hardware skills. I tended to Telus’ data centres all throughout Toronto, keenly interested in everything data warehouse related and being the first to have my hands on crazy hardware (at the time) such as the M8000, M9000 and Sun’s blade server technology. This was a fun time, engineering wise, for me! And lucrative too, there was so much overtime to be had at Telus that I made a salary there that I would not match for nearly a full decade elsewhere.
Shaping my future – learning to “Business”
This part of my life was very educational, as I had to learn how to navigate the waters of being self-employed, having your own corporation, tracking expenses, paying yourself using dividends rather than salary, etc… This laid a lot of the groundwork for projects a few years later and removed all anxiety regarding being able to do any of these things.
Transition into and out of Telus
Eventually, the managers of the groups for which I worked saw such good work coming from me that they forced my hand into a full-time position, which I accepted after being made aware that Telus’ policies dictated that I either flip full-time or they let me go as a contractor (as it had been more then 2 years). I ended up staying with Telus for a further 2 years after this, however it felt different and was no longer quite the exciting job that it had been prior to this. In 2007, Telus went through a large re-org (these things are terrible and just speak to mismanagement, bad hiring practices and lack of hiring foresight) and I was laid off, and given a very hefty package!
This was incredible, as I had been itching to leave anyway and now had all the reasons to do so.
Making moves – to the startup world
This is the crux in my career and right around when I turned 30. It was a nice clean break to leave the Enterprise world and move to smaller companies where I would really start to mesh with wonderful like-minded people. This is the part that my parents would not have known of and had no context to tell me about, but has become my absolute most favourite part of my career – making the move to startups and growing their businesses.
As I left Telus (or was ushered out), I used the package they gave me to buy yet another property. I now had 3 in total, providing me with minuscule returns, but giving me a really good education property management, leasing and, yet again, business acumen (as I treated each of the properties as its own business). I also reached out to my network and found a really cool (at the time) job with an upstart in Toronto – Syncapse.
Learning from Syncapse
This was my first foray in the startup world. I remember starting as employee number 69 (I vividly remember this because one of my first tasks was to set up my building pass) and then seeing the company grow super rapidly to over 150 within months. I was really impressed by the growth and did not realize how and why they were growing at this pace. I also, at the time, really did not realize what the core business at Syncapse had been – simply put, they were a marketing agency posing as a product company with one major client, Research in Motion (RIM; most notable for Blackberry).
Right after having started at Syncapse, my 30th birthday was to occur and I went on a Mexican vacation with friends to Cabo.
Tim Ferriss and Internet Marketing
During several mornings prior to my friends being awake, I got up and red Tim Ferriss’ book the 4 Hour Work Week. This would be the start of my journey toward more interest in the overall marketing, #internet marketing and understanding the tactics with which online owners try to get their visitors to perform some desired action.
The next few months of my life were spent deeplly examining how I could do some of the things that Tim Ferriss had done himself as well as learning as much about internet marketing as possible. This all translated really well to work, as I also began to understand that most of Syncapse’s value was offering clients the same kind of services that internet marketers would, on a larger scale.
This time in my career had many things coming together at just exactly the right time. The internet marketing thing was in full flow and I had been learning and honing my skills on cloud providers such as Peer 1 Hosting, Rackspace and eventually Amazon Web Services (AWS / EC2). Not only was I able to write code now, I could put it onto inexpensive cloud servers and run any program I desired. What a time to be alive!
The itch to start-up
Now that I had the tools, or so I thought, to be a successful internet marketer, and knew how to set up hardware and cloud infrastructure, I figured the time is now to try my hand at something. While at Syncapse, I had been discussing many of the consultant business expense spreadsheets that I had created while employed at Telus (through Sun) and one very opportunistic peer of mine thought it would be smart to try to build that into an application.
This sounded great! Not only would I be able to use my skills as a dev (and devops), but I would also learn to flex some business and marketing muscle (two muscles which had not seen any considerable work up until now). So down the path of trying to build a solution for the business consultant in mind, something that would allow them to submit expenses on their Blackberry (the smartest of smartphones at the time; with the largest adoption) and have Optical Character Recognition (OCR) pick up the particulars about the expense.
It was a good idea, a good app and we obviously did not follow through very well on it.
This is where I began to learn about people’s motivation levels (or lack thereof) and thought that this could only work, if I were to try it again, with a friend, not a strict peer, but someone that I had history with.
It was only shortly after this that I began to notice how poor the experience at Syncapse had become and how having gone from 70 to 150 killed their culture and the rapid growth led to poor hiring practices (at time) that in turn led to a lot of re-orgs / layoffs, which again was poor for morale. Several months thereafter, the writing was on the wall for my time at Syncapse and I decided to part ways with the company as they re-organized once again and let many key people in my department go and placed a friend of the founder as our boss and manager, someone who had no clue about development or development operations.
This was to become a recurring theme later on.
Upon leaving Syncapse, I was beginning to tire of the tech world and likely had a quarter-life crisis (not mid-life) of sorts. At this point, my real estate investing had been doing well and I noticed how easy it truly was to do what realtors did (by partnering with a realty salesperson on past deals and having her educate me on all the things she did). I thought to myself, this is such an easy job, let me get my license and see if I can make a go of it.
That was a completely juvenile and unfocused thing to think at the time, “let me have a go at it”.
I was able to, within 2 months, acquire my Ontario Real Estate license through OREA College and their programs. At this point, the required education was very easy; 3 courses with a total of 6 weeks in-class. The curriculum itself was rather easy, so much so in fact that all the classes were simply the teachers going over the material in the text book.
I figured I would enter this industry and kill it! These were not “smart” people, they had nothing on me, or so I thought.
It’s all about drive… Hustle. And being a go-getter!
I would learn that later.
iWords (and friends)
At the same time, and likely as a reason why neither worked out well, I was attempting idea number 2 of an application. I mean, I was so smart, what could go wrong…
This time, my partner would be one of my long time friends, someone that I trusted implicitly, but also someone who was geographically separated from me. We decided to take a similar approach and slight pivot from the idea that I had prior (the expense app) and turn it into an advertising platform that alerted customers of nearby deal.
The app itself was called GPDeals (a play on GPS Deals) and was built for both Android and iPhone (which both had overtaken Blackberry at this point and were much easier to develop for). Just like a hoarder, I don’t think I’ll ever let go of that code, the websites or any of the assets we built up during this time.
During this time, I personally spent all the money that I had in savings and was still not making any meaningful money from realty commissions, so I had to go back to (regular) work.
Telco once more! My time at Shaw
With a mortgage and a new girlfriend, as well as attempting the aforementioned business, I had been very fiscally irresponsible and now had to go find work and find it fast. Luckily, I have never had an issue finding new work and within 2 weeks, I was gainfully employed at Shaw Communications, which had recently made its move to Toronto from the West coast. I was to be a systems administrator for their online presence (all of their banners lived on AWS).
This was the first time I was administering Windows servers and I really did not like it. I found that GUIs were nowhere near as powerful as the Unix (or Linux) servers that I had been used to and I could see how much more expensive they were.
By month 3 at Shaw, I told my boss that I was unhappy and would be looking for other work. I also promised him that I would be exemplary while I was searching and would help him find and train my replacement when the time came. It was an adult move, but one that I feared a bit as he could have let me go right away, but didn’t.
More learning about poor practices – Viafoura
Around 3 months thereafter I found a nice landing spot at Viafoura, an upstart that was being housed in the Ryerson DMZ and had a neat founder story that inspired me. Again, this was a learning experience that a good story teller can truly inspire followers and the CEO of this company did indeed tell a good story.
Viafoura itself was a fine business and had a likely nice future as it was the publishing platform of choice for many of Toronto’s major online publishers (and could have had many more clients if there was a focused sales and marketing effort).
Big Data week, meetups
Right around this time, I had started attending many meetups in and around Toronto. I loved the platform and absolutely adored that it was built around people sharing knowledge and teaching each other new things. What a world!!!
One fateful day, the organizer of one of the meetups that I was a member of decided to step away from organizing and asked the members if anyone would like to step up. I took this opportunity immediately and ran with it.
I had been developing for (on the side) Apache Cassandra at the time and was really starting to see how the columnar data store might be a radical departure from the monolithic data stores that most people used and how it would empower developers and businesses to house and mine through much larger data sets. As I was getting quite good at using and administering Cassandra, this would be the topic of conversation at my new meetup.
As the weeks and months went on, I forged many industry (mostly non-technical) relationships. Another opportunity presented itself where the guy that had launched Big Data Week (BDW) reached out to me via Twitter to see if I’d be interested in hosting it in Toronto.
Of course I was! So I got the help from Viafoura to launch this and was myself the face of it all in Toronto. I would run this event for 2 years (with the help and funding from Viafoura) and then let them fall by the wayside as Viafoura management made a decision to no longer invest in such things.
It was after the (original BDW) #BDW13 events that I met Joy Robson. Joy later pitched me on the idea of an altruistic organization that would help not for profits (NFPs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) navigate the landscape of data science and be the catalyst for data practices adopted in those sectors.
Data for Good
So there we were. Launching Data for Good, a wonderful idea and super thing to do. There was no doubt in my mind that my expertise in running these type of events would manifest itself well with the launch of DfG.
And the success was grand! During this hyper motivated time of my career, I was able to host all the DfG meetups (monthly) and the Cassandra meetups (also monthly) while being one of their only speakers and organizer / operations. This shot me up in perceived importance in Toronto, specifically in the data science ranks, where I was one of the more pragmatic practitioners.
DfG grew to around 1,000 volunteers within one year and we were off to the races.
Yet more notches on the education belt of what not to do; Ficstar
As previously mentioned, things at Viafoura had become less inspiring and I was constantly questioning why I wanted to be there (other than my staff and friends who worked there). Once one of my staff left for as a #big data developer and told me how much he would be making at his new position, I also decided that it was time to leave.
It was time to get out from under the extremely cheap thumb of Viafoura management, who had asked me to take a proverbial haircut while joining, had benefited immensely from my employment and extra-curriculars while there and had also received a sizable investment from me (in cash) and yet never adjusted my pay or title to something that was commensurate with what I did.
Once William He came calling and decided to woo me away from Viafoura, the writing was on the wall that I would leave.
The old adage of the “grass is always greener” really applies here. Yes, they pay was astronomically (and comically) better here, however the mission that Ficstar had and its business (and leadership) were not ready for growth (or visionary enough to push for it).
After nearly 2 years at Ficstar, and what seemed like a stalling of my career and ambitions during that time, I got wind of another upstart that was looking for someone to lead their development effort, in the very hot field of #Machine Learning, #deep learning and Artificial Intelligence.
Finally a good one, the AI Company of the Year for 2017 – DeepLearni.ng
After interviewing with them several times, I did make a decision to move over to DeepLearni.ng (DL). This was going to once again, cost me dearly in the pocketbook, but it was a conversation that I had with my long time girlfriend and we agreed that it was the right decision to make.
Surely enough, as luck would have it, we kick ass at DL and we scaled from 6 total staff to around 30 in less than 18 months (with real growth occurring from months 6-18, where we actually went from 6 to 30). Finally, a company where I was instrumental in forming and guiding the conversation was winning, and in an industry that was both hot and real. What a breath of fresh air.
Late in 2017 we were nominated for AI Company of the Year and won. Here I am after accepting the award:
Toronto’s best Tech Manager 2017
Not to be lost in all the other stuff is my winning of Toronto’s Best Tech Manager 2017, a Timmy (Tech in Motion) award presented by Google, Microsoft and locals BrainStation and CORP Agency. This was an award for which peers voted me in, so I am extremely proud of the achievement and will continue to honour the spirit of the award at DL.
In my next post, I will examine a phenomenon that occurred during my formative (and first) years out of university, the Canadian Brain Drain, as well as How cheap is too cheap – yes Toronto, I mean you and The lack of venture capital money in Canada, and what the government of Canada seems to be doing (in this age of AI) to help combat it. See you here next week, right around the same time.