Talent fuels Victoria tech sector’s growth

Source: Times Colonist
Author: Andrew Duffy

People come to Victoria for many reasons: temperate climate, west coast air and lifestyle, the small-town feel of the city and a spectrum of cultures that mix around the edges. But for young technology firms looking for a place to establish themselves and grow, or mature tech companies looking for an outpost, it’s not the craft beer, festival culture or green-tinged lifestyle that hooks them.

It’s the talent.

And Victoria appears to have plenty of it.

Clayton Stark, who runs gaming studio Kixeye, said the chance to get truly great talent is one of the reasons the California-based company established its Victoria location in 2012.

“Not all creative and technical people are created equal and because we have less competition for the A-players here it is within the realm of possibility that you could get an A-player,” Stark said.

He noted top-flight engineers and developers in a place like Silicon Valley can cost a company millions of dollars. “The value of emerging talent in emerging markets like ours can be so much higher.”

But landing that talent is tough when a company is competing with the likes of Google or Apple, which have immense resources.

Change.org, the San Francisco-based site that provides a tool to help campaigns attract attention and support, saw the possibility to tap into Victoria’s wealth of engineering talent when it opened its office in August 2014.

“They were looking to expand in Silicon Valley, but there’s a lot of competition for engineers,” said Chris Campbell, who runs Change’s Victoria office, made up almost entirely of engineers.

“We said why not consider a Victoria office? We know a team of guys we could probably get to come as a group.”

And they did. Last year Change started with six and it has grown steadily to 18, and could be 25 people by the end of the year.

“Talent is what led to the office here for sure. We’ve had a lot of success in recruiting and management finds that very encouraging and is looking at doubling down its efforts to recruit in Victoria,” Campbell said. He added the lower overhead cost of office space compared with Silicon Valley and a competitive dollar don’t hurt, either.

Some of the talent comes from the schools. The University of Victoria, Royal Roads and Camosun College combine to bring just under 40,000 students here at any given time. But some of the talent simply finds its way to the Island.

Dan Gunn, chief executive of the Victoria Advanced Technology Council (VIATEC), said after 10 years of getting the light to shine on the Victoria tech scene, people in the big cities are starting to take notice.

“We are starting to get some of that momentum,” he said.

Gunn said technology has grown into to a $4-billion industry in Greater Victoria, employing more than 15,000 people directly,

Gunn said he is now seeing people come to Victoria based on its lifestyle, climate and livability and worrying about what they’ll do once they’re settled. “They have chosen the life they want and then they’ll find the living,” he said. “A lot of people just move and then plug in to the city, and see what’s available or going on.”

Lifestyle was a key consideration for Vecima Networks, which moved its headquarters, executives and research and development department to Victoria in 1997, while leaving its manufacturing division in Saskatchewan.

“Our culture has always placed a high emphasis on work-life balance. Victoria offers excellent opportunities to our people in that regard and our strategy in locating here has been by and large very successful,” said chief executive Sumit Kumar. “Talent retention has been an area of strength for Vecima. We view being situated here as contributing greatly to leveraging that strength to build teams of highly engaged and productive people.”

For Silkstart, a four-year-old Vancouver-based firm that develops websites for associations to improve their service to members, the move to Victoria 18 months ago was both for lifestyle and a chance to grow using the local talent.

Shaun Jamieson, the firm’s chief executive, said after years working for Abebooks/Amazon, he wanted to build the company here. “It’s hard to find good people, but there are really good people that are here for a lifestyle reason. They want a place to raise kids or they are into the outdoors,” he said. “I felt I could build a good company here.”

The company, which recently completed a round of financing for more than $500,000, will soon hire its eighth employee, and the plan is to grow here. “The lifestyle here is totally different than Vancouver,” said Jamieson, noting short commutes, cost of living and down-to-Earth people make all the difference.

“There are people who want to move to Victoria and the only thing preventing them is getting a job, so if there is a tech shop that can hire a tonne of developers people will move here from Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver,” he said.

Gunn said VIATEC has started actively attracting small firms.

Gunn estimates VIATEC fields 60 calls a year from small firms thinking of relocating to the city.