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Steven Woods is director of engineering for Google Canada. (Google Canada)
Steven Woods is director of engineering for Google Canada. (Google Canada)

Google Canada’s top engineer on how to build an innovation economy Add to ...

Steven Woods is director of engineering for Google Canada.

I’m from a small town in northern Saskatchewan, where I was raised with a passion for math, tinkering and sports. As a kid, I was obsessed with sports. I competed nationally in junior golf. I played a lot of hockey. At 15, when my parents bought me a Commodore VIC-20, one of the first software projects I wrote was a stats tracker for my high school basketball team. Later, when I followed my passion for math into a career in tech, I still found myself using sports metaphors: It’s about learning from your losses, playing to the final whistle and, most importantly, teamwork.

And Silicon Valley? Well, that was the big leagues.

When I landed in the Valley in the late 1990s, it felt like stepping onto NHL ice. I co-founded a succession of startups and had some wins and my fair share of losses. At the time, I figured if you can make it in the Valley, you can make it anywhere. Silicon Valley has a deep bench when it comes to talent and there’s enough creative energy and venture capital to make that first round of financing always feel within reach.

Back in Canada, if you were to talk to the five fastest-growing startups, they will tell you the pool of capital here is too shallow and their growth is hindered by challenges in finding and retaining top talent. Canada’s tech community is growing so rapidly that our software and engineering schools can’t keep up with the demand.

If we’re going to build an innovation economy, we need to rethink how we tackle immigration, entrepreneurship and education. We must develop and attract more talent faster. We also need to ensure that the highest-potential Canadian startups are equipped with the tools to grow with focused investment in incubators, accelerators and organizations committed to fostering innovative ideas – from Communitech to MaRS and DMZ to Notman House and CDL. And, of course, we need to nurture the next generation of Canadian technology builders. It’s time to talk seriously about integrating computer science and computational thinking into formal curriculum (98 per cent of Google engineers in Canada had some exposure to computer science before university).

These issues don’t change the fact that the talent and the energy coming out of our startup community rivals the best the Valley has to offer. In 2008, I jumped at the opportunity to return to Canada and to grow Google’s presence in Waterloo. Google recognized something special was happening up here – the entrepreneurialism, the quality of higher education and the loyalty of the talented engineers who just want to invent great things.

Canadians are instinctual team builders. We celebrate our diversity, we count our co-workers as our friends and we celebrate wins in the startup community as if they were our own. Oh, and we innovate like mad. It’s this mix of culture and talent that’s creating some of the best teams of startups you’ll find anywhere. In Montreal and Vancouver, we’re seeing ambitious startup communities coming online and thriving. And, outside Silicon Valley, the Toronto-Waterloo corridor represents the highest concentration of startups on the planet.

But there’s still one critical piece missing. And I’m afraid it’s not particularly Canadian: swagger. We need to own our success. Today, over 500 members of Canada’s startup community are in Toronto at an event Google Canada is hosting called Go North. The aim is to amplify the community’s concerns, while also taking stock and celebrating our successes. Canada needs to take pride in our billion-dollar unicorns and the entrepreneurship programs that have helped make them a reality. And whether it’s world-leading programs at universities which let students own their intellectual property, or a non-profit’s STEM outreach efforts in Canada’s Arctic, we need to celebrate the work being done to ensure future generations of Canadian innovators can build on our success.

Let Go North serve as a reminder of what makes the teams we build so great. Canada does not have a startup ecosystem – Canada has a startup community. And that sense of unity is what sets us apart from Berlin, Tel Aviv, London, and, yes, the Valley. What we have, up here in the North, is lightning in a bottle.

Listen to the real-life dramas of Canadian entrepreneurs in the new Globe and Mail podcast The Risk Takers.

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