It Happened to Me Toronto (a.k.a. Accordion City)

Power Breakfast

This morning, I attended a Technology Innovators Breakfast session at the Toronto Board of Trade as a guest of Alicia Bulwik, Project Manager of ICT Toronto. It’s a suit-y affair, held at the Toronto Board of Trade’s dining room, deep in the heart of suitland: First Canadian Place at the corner of Bay and King Streets, the centre of the Canadian financial universe.

This breakfast gathering is one of a new series in which interested parties can “hear Toronto’s industry leaders expound on their own personal success stories – why Toronto is their company’s chosen location to expand their business, and what their forecast is for the next wave of technology.” Today’s speakers were:

  • Alizabeth Calder, Executive Vice President, National Accounts for Brainhunter, doing a short preliminary presentation
  • Dan Fortin, President and CEO of IBM Canada doing the main presentation.

By my count, the event was attended by about 100 people, with a good number of IBMers in attendance, and the major banks well-represented. I sat at the ICT Toronto table, joined by a number of the ICT Toronto regulars, including my TorCamp brain trust compatriot Jay Goldman.

I found the event useful — it’s good to break out of the nerd world every now and again and see what the suits — particularly the big players like IBM, Accenture and the major financial institutions — are up to. After all, tech centres thrive when nerds meet rich people. I’d be more than happy to attend another one of these breakfast sessions and learn more.

The following is a transcription of the notes I took during the presentations. If you attended the breakfast and I missed anything in these notes or made a mistake, let me know in the comments!

And before I begin, I’d like to extend my most heartfelt thanks to Alicia Bulwik for inviting us to join the ICT Toronto table at the event. I know that I’ve been critical of ICT Toronto’s early efforts, but I look forward to assisting them reach their goal of making Toronto a world-class centre for high tech.

Host (Could somebody tell me his name?)

  • We have a problem: a lack of commercialization of

    our technical know-how

  • Of the $3 billion spent by angel investors in Ontario last year,

    only $10 million went to information and communication

    technologies firms.

  • The number of Ontario universities teaching a marketing course

    specifically for technology: 0

  • His suggestions:
    • Create programs to encourage entrepreneurship
    • Provide tax incentives for tech companies
    • Support small startups: they’re the “secret sauce

      of the ICT community”

Alizabeth Calder, Brainhunter

  • There are three trends in the Toronto area:
    1. It’s an employee’s market.

      Even Brainhunter’s “B- and C-caliber candidates” are getting

      multiple offers.

    2. Good people want more.

      For them, merely getting a paycheque isn’t enough;

      they want interesting, challenging work.

      On the hiring side, there’s a high level of specificity

      in what companies want: specific skills, experience and


    3. The vagaries of doing contract work are no longer

      an obstacle.

      Finding clients used to be a chore for contractors 10

      years ago; now it’s a matter of calling up your favourite

      recruiters. Companies like BrainHunter also help contractors

      with the matter of getting paid — their HireSafe program

      managed $30 million in salaries this past month. Contract working

      is now a safe, viable option.

Dan Fortin, IBM

  • A brief history of IBM Canada:
    • IBM opened its first Toronto office in 1917.
    • The IBM Toronto office was the first branch to use the name

      “International Business Machines” and the “IBM” acronym.

    • There are 20,000 IBM employees in Canada; 11,000 of them

      are in the Toronto area.

    • Toronto is home to IBM’s Toronto Software Lab,

      Canada’s largest software development facility, with

      2,500 people and $350 million in R&D spending.

    • IBM Toronto is IBM’s largest outbound sales centre.
    • IBM has an innovation centre located downtown.
  • There’s been a transformation in the industry — some signs:
    • Formerly thought of as a hardware company, IBM has had

      to transition to become a services company.

    • Where once people wanted proprietary software built on

      proprietary standards, they now want open solutions

      built on open standards.

    • “Computing is no longer coming just from computers.”

      Think of RFID tags, home appliances, shipping containers,


  • It’s an online world! There are:
    • 1 billion people online
    • 1 trillion devices online
  • The networked world allows distance working.
  • Other factors transforming the industry:
    • The advent of free trade agreements
    • Emerging economies (such as the BRIC — that’s

      Brazil/Russia/India/China — countries)

  • Competition from emerging economies:
    • Companies outsource to reduce costs.
    • Reduced cost is not the only factor —

      if it were, we’d see everything in tech being commoditized

      and work flowing in one direction only.

    • Work flows in this direction because of innovation.
  • We need to foster skills
  • We need to make use of open systems and open approaches:
    • They stimulate competition, collaboration and innovation.
    • It means more competition, even between companies in totally

      different channels, even totally different industries!

    • But it also means new opportunities.
  • We need to innovate
    • Note that the number of articles around the term “innovation”

      doubled in the last year.

    • Innovation isn’t merely invention alone, but invention

      coupled with business insight.

  • How do we innovate to make Toronto stand out?
    • The best way is to focus on the expertise that’s available

      right here:

      • Toronto has an incredible base of skills
      • Canada has some of the most highly-educated

        people in the world, and a large portion of

        them are here

      • Toronto’s multicultural nature is an asset:

        we have many immigrants with post-secondary


    • We need to track and retain expertise, and to do this, we need to:
      • Build relationships with universities
      • Start internship programs to help

        students get started

      • Encourage mentoring programs to ensure

        that knowledge and experience don’t get lost when

        people retire

      • Embrace diversity. When you gather people with different

        ideas and points of view, creativity flourishes.

      • Be flexible. For example, look at roles in your

        organization: do they all always have to be

        physically located within your office?

    • We need to realize that collaboration is key:
      • In a global economy, we all wear many hats —

        it’s possible to simultaneously be partners, competitors,

        clients and suppliers.

      • In a recent global survey of 750 CEOs, a large number

        of them said that the majority of ideas for innovation

        came from outside their companies.

      • Financial performance is tied to collaboration.
  • Toronto is “very well-positioned” to become a world-leading city,

    and a strong ICT community is key:

    • We have the skills, expertise, diversity and experience.
    • What we need is to make deliberate choices, be willing to

      do some risk-taking and risk-sharing, and collaborate.

Q & A Session

Q [RBC Innovation person] How can the little guys — the 100-man,

200-man shops — “plug and play”, or participate in the ICT sector?

A [Dan Fortin]:

  • It might be the large coporations that will face more difficulties;

    they’re the ones who’ll have more trouble adjusting to a more

    collaborative environment, especially if their corporate culture

    doesn’t favour collaboration.

  • The ability to collaborate will extend a small company’s reach
  • IBM has an entire program devoted to seeking out smaller firms

    to collaborate with.

Q [Power Logic person]: Regarding the earlier statement on how little

angel money is being spent on tech — what can leaders do to change

this situation and increase angel investment? We need that, because

it’s those “skunk works” projects that are the sources of change.

A [Dan Fortin]:

  • Some good ideas appear in the current issue of Macleans

    the How to Fix Canada cover story

  • The TRRA has been working on the problems of how to attract

    research and development and how to help government understand

    the funding requirements for ICT

A [Alizabeth Calder]:

  • I’ve talked to a lot of VCs, and a common link among all of them

    is the “fear factor”: they feel held to ransom by the techies

    they invest in.

  • Investors need to understand technical decision as business decisions.
  • We need technical people who can explain technical decisions and factors

    in a way that business people can understand.

(Commenter: We also need tax incentives to reduce the “fear factor” of

angel investors.)

Q [Person from Ottawa]: How do we get investors past what seems to

be their fixation — that of the “early exit”, where they want to invest in a

technology just to make some quick money and then bail? There seems to be

a low level of interest in actual commercialization, and as a result, the

attention is moving away from technology out of frustration.

A [Dan Fortin]:

  • One reason people haven’t been interested in taking an idea

    through to commercialization is that there are so many stories

    about terrific opportunities that eventually don’t pan out.

  • “It’s like a bad ‘Deal or No Deal’ game — you could’ve taken

    the $250,000 briefcase, but you held out and walked away with

    a $45 one.”

A [Alizabeth Calder]:

  • It’s situations like that that led us to invest in RIM — they

    had principals that we could look in the eye.

Q [Dave Craig, PricewaterhouseCoopers]: What’s ingredients

is Toronto missing for ICT success?

A [Dan Fortin]:

  • “I thought these were supposed to be easy questions!”
  • We could leave it to governments to figure it out for us,

    but I strongly recommend against that. Take the example of

    the problem with the Detroit/Windsor corridor, through which

    35% of the goods between the US and Canada flow. They did

    a 4-year study of the problems, and the end result is

    a task force with a 5-year window to make recommendations!

    This story was being told by a Canadian Pacific Railway

    exec who reminded the audience that once upon a time,

    “it took us only 4 years to build a friggin’ railway

    across the country!”

  • This is a task that the Toronto ICT community needs to

    take on themselves.

A [Alizabeth Calder]:

  • We need to focus on collaboration.
  • We need more openness, to be able to have conversations with each other

    without worrying whether or not they’re proprietary.

  • We need more gatherings for members of the Toronto

    ICT community to meet each other.

Q [Host]: What do you think of the idea to close the Gardiner?

A [Dan Fortin]:

  • “Thanks goodness I don’t have to drive it every day!”
  • “I think it’s a terrible idea.”

4 replies on “Power Breakfast”

First of all, thanks, Joey, for an excellent summary of this morning’s event! I’m going to link to it from our blog at for the benefit of people who missed the breakfast.

I’m glad that you found the event so useful and interesting. We started this series and formed an ICT Advisory Committee to help bring everyone together — buyers and sellers, innovators and technologists, ICT and corporate leaders, big and small players.

Our hope is to create a home for networking and collaboration for the ICT community across the Toronto region. We’ve been really pleased with the reaction and the involvement in our Committee.

FYI, just a couple of points about your post: the host you were wondering about is Dave Dobbin, President of Toronto Hydro Telecom and Chair of our ICT Advisory Committee … interesting that you found it ‘suit-y’ because we’re bringing in a ‘no ties required’ rule for these events … and the turn-out was 170 people, including many CIO’s.

Anyway, thanks again for a comprehensive posting. Hope to see you at our next Technology Innovators Breakfast on January 31 with Bill Morris of Accenture Canada.

– Grant Humes, Interim President, Toronto Board of Trade

It seems like it was an interesting event. I only have one question, it sounds like there may be something wrong with wearing a suit or with working on King and Bay. Is that the tone you wanted to give to the introduction, and if so, what is wrong with wearing a suit?

It may well be true that “tech centres thrive when nerds meet rich people”, but I doubt that many rich people were at this event. In this context, “rich people” are those who made millions from selling a startup and are now angel investors. Not people who work for IBM and Accenture and the big banks.

The Brainhunter EVP’s comments about the “employee’s market” can easily mislead some into thinking that there is a vibrant market for technology innovators. The truth is revealed by your other take-away that “there’s a high level of specificity in what companies want: specific skills, experience and expertise.” Which means “just code up the following specs using the following designated tools.” Brainhunter, like most tech recruiting firms, finds candidates for an opening via a database search for requirements such as “2 or more years of JavaScript”. How else could they deal with the “750,000 job seekers in our database”?

Toronto is not “home to IBM’s Toronto Software Lab, Canada’s largest software development facility”. It’s in Markham. Yes, the “Toronto” Software Lab.

I thought the event was good as well. Great summary you’ve covered everything they both said yesterday.
BOT has a blog, who would have guessed it…

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