It’s impossible to draw the line between Research In Motion’s campus and the University of Waterloo’s. The cool-blue RIM logo is everywhere.
What’s no longer cool at UW, however, is working for RIM.
When Alex Marian started his computer science degree at the university in 2007, everyone in his class wanted to work at the BlackBerry maker.
“It was a cool company,” Mr. Marian said Friday, as he made his way to the math building to hand in an assignment.
Within a few years, however, things began to change.
“It seemed like they got to the top and were just relaxing … waiting for the money to come in and not caring about making better products,” Mr. Marian said.
The money came in, but then it went away.
Late Thursday, RIM reported a half-billion-dollar loss and announced plans to slash 5,000 jobs, many expected to be in its hometown.
As RIM shrinks, the question is whether the Waterloo technology sector that it spawned can pick up the slack and flourish on its own.
RIM’s free fall is leaving a vacuum in the Canadian tech scene, once populated with a healthy number of sizable public companies. Most have either failed or been bought.
For new tech leaders to emerge, the many startups and small companies must tap into the expertise that RIM nurtured.
Adam Belsher, who left RIM after 13 years last September to found JADSoftware Inc., a computer forensics firm, said there is hope to be found in the Waterloo region’s startup sector.
“RIM has brought a lot of key talent here,” noted Mr. Belsher, whose company now has 15 employees.
RIM’s lucrative employee benefits may have kept big talent from moving to smaller businesses, but hundreds of companies in the area can provide worthwhile work.
The tech giant’s rapid growth gave birth to a tech hub in Waterloo, with more than 500 companies opening in the region in the past three years.
There may not be 5,000 instant jobs, but there is a community looking for RIM employees’ skill sets.
Mike Rossi, co-founder of Sweet Tooth, an online store-loyalty company based in Waterloo, said the creative nature of the tech industry will help those who lose their jobs.
“What’s softening the blow is that a huge amount of innovation is happening in Waterloo,” he said. “People will go on to innovate and build.”
They don’t all have to join companies, he added: They can start their own.
“If you see a lot of startups, you’re more encouraged to start your own,” Mr. Rossi said.
Waterloo’s tech future isn’t tied to startups and small firms. Content management company OpenText, with more than 1,000 employees in the town, recently opened a new building, effectively doubling its space.
Gordon Robson, a personal injury lawyer who has lived in Waterloo for more than 30 years, said there are many other jobs for ex-RIM employees.
“The industry here is diverse enough that they can find good employment,” he said.
The region is also home to a bustling insurance industry, two major universities and a college.
“This is not a one-industry town,” said Mark Dorfman, an urban planning consultant who has lived in the region since the 1970s. Even if RIM were to close completely, he’s confident the tech industry would remain strong.
But he doesn’t think RIM is going to shutter any time soon.
“It may very well be transformed into a smaller organization, but it won’t disappear completely,” Mr. Dorman said.
“I think there will be a different RIM in this community.”
Mr. Robson acknowledged the layoffs will be a blow to the region. “It’s a tampering of the rabid optimism that we’ve had. But as hurtful as it will be, it won’t be a disaster.”
At UW, students are eager to find the next big thing, now that RIM is in retreat from its glory days.
“It’s not the same as it was before,” said Harshil Valand, a management engineering student.
“At the time, they were a big shot. All the co-op students wanted to work for them. … Now students don’t want to work there.”