Waterloo, Part 2: The Tech Scene

Waterloo loves thinking of itself as some sort of Canadian version of Silicon Valley. To do this it usually starts off with the University of Waterloo and the several large technology companies, and then makes the lists bigger by adding neighbouring areas sometimes as far as Guelph and including companies that merely use technology like insurance companies.
That, of course, is my cynical view of their PR-speak, but there is a decent technology community in Waterloo, and, especially in the web realm that interest me, it has been improving over the last couple of years.

The chief group touting the Canadian Silicon Valley idea is Canada’s Technology Triangle. I’m amused by the map on their homepage, which seems to imply that Waterloo is the centre of the universe ;-). Their favourite proof is that the Intelligent Community Forum rated Waterloo in the top seven intelligent communities in 2006, and number one in 2007.

So what technology community is there? Well, in many ways it starts at the University of Waterloo, which graduates a lot of people in Math, Computer Science, and Engineering, among other things. Since the 1970s, the school has also had an intellectual property policy allowing researches to own their IP. Although the vast majority of graduates leave Waterloo, some do stay, and Waterloo is increasingly seen as an a place where one can stay to work for a large technology company or start up their own (see Waterloo Tech Jobs. The theoretical (and sometimes actual?) Waterloo start-up is created when brilliant engineers and programmers from the University of Waterloo meet up with some business-savvy graduates from Wilfred Laurier University, which is literally on the same street as UW.

One of the reasons cited as a possible reason for less start-ups in Waterloo than there might otherwise be is that a lot of the best graduates that stay in Waterloo do so to work at one of the large companies, primarily Research In Motion. Also Open Text, Sandvine, and others. RIM is practically overbearing in Waterloo. Their buildings almost literally surround the UW campus, and they employ, I believe, more UW co-op students than anyone else other than the university itself. I’d link to those stats if I could remember where I’d read them…

There are startups, though (see list. It’s not really a startup any more, but I find Desire2Learn interesting. ProductWiki is neat. SemaCode is as well, but I wonder about competition with similar technology used by larger companies, such as Google. AideRSS seems to have been getting a lot of press lately, and I don’t just mean in the within-Waterloo sense.

Speaking of all these companies, several now reside in the recently-launched Research and Technology Park, in the UW-owned land just north of main campus. This includes the new Google Waterloo office, as well as the Accelerator Centre. While not a fan of most UW-led initiatives, the Park seems like a decent idea, and the Accelerator Centre as an incubator for new tech start-ups may actually be a really good idea. I certainly believe that it makes sense for multiple small companies to share resources like a fax machine.

Beyond the Technology Triangle website, if you want to read up more on the UW tech scene, Gary Will has that covered. He writes the Waterloo Tech Digest (including a list of local high-tech companies), works with Communitech (the Waterloo region technology association) and WatStart. As the WatStart website says, they “will help you launch your company.” Waterloo also now has its own Venture Capital firm, Tech Capital Partners.

This leads on to the tech scene that interests me. Both WatStart and Tech Capital are or have been sponsors of BarCampWaterloo and StartupCampWaterloo. Started by Jesse Rodgers and also run by Simon Woodside. Simon started SemaCode, which is in the Accelerator Centre, now host to BarCamps. These events are more my style, free, open to anyone, and largely web-centric. Not to mention being close to UW campus and generally including food. I’ve attended all of those ones occurring when I’ve been in Waterloo, and presented at several of them. There’s also now a User Experience Group of Waterloo Region with events every month or so.

My main complaint is that for all the tech events I go to, I am often the only student, or one of not that many. There are tons of brilliant people at UW, each working on their own websites or tools, almost entirely unaware of any of the rest of them. One set of events that are entirely student-attended, however, are information sessions run through the co-op department. Essentially companies describe why you should work there, and then get flooded with resumes. They can be quite interesting though, and sometimes are really just tech talks, such as a few months ago when Rasmus Lerdorf, PHP creator and UW alumni came.

Anyhow, partly to solve the fact that UW web developers don’t even know each other, let alone talk to each other, and partly to solve the problem of lots of people asking me how to do web stuff, I fought my laziness tendencies enough to establish the Web Clinic. Of course, I’ve still been too lazy to really promote it much, so it isn’t particularly well-known or attended yet, but it’s a start. The Web Clinic is a weekly time for people of all skill levels and experiences to work on their websites and get help from each other. As per my general attitude, there is no formality or anything, people just show up and do whatever they want. Even though it’s only been around since September or so, I’ve already learned some things, met a good bunch of smart people, helped some people learn new things, and even facilitate some transactions like finding someone a job. The Web Clinic is within the also-new UW Website Designers club, which is also doing other good stuff.

I send out a reminder email every week about the Web Clinic, which I’ve evolved into a sort of newsletter about all the tech stuff going on that relates to events in the area and other interesting relevant information. I should probably switch to sending these out somewhere public, rather than within Facebook, now that a few of the small number of receivers have been saying how useful it is. I have been vaguely considering putting up some sort of job board, since I am continually and increasingly being asked for people by those looking for jobs and by companies looking for hire. The idea has been welcomed by some, although I don’t want to step on the toes of the job site I listed earlier.

I’ll be leaving Waterloo in April, but fortunately it looks like there may be sufficient people to keep the clinic running. Fortunately some of the smart regular attendees are still in their first year of university. Although I’ll be moving far from Waterloo, I hope to still maintain some degree of contact with the tech scene, which I hope will continue to improve. It is no Silicon Valley, but there with so many great people around, there definitely is a technology community, and I know that it has the potential to be a lot more vibrant and active than it is today. The trick is getting more students involved as soon as they start school, and better connecting the various groups in the area.

In a later post, I will explain how I am able to keep abreast of the Waterloo tech scene, among other things.

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2 Responses to Waterloo, Part 2: The Tech Scene

  1. Mattt says:

    I’m still looking at this map and trying to figure out how they think lines drawn through some random dots makes a triangle, even they’ve clearly drawn a triangle-maple leaf hybrid out of only a few points which lack any pattern whatsoever.

  2. mfagan says:

    if you mean the tech triangle, then I think it’s because guelph was originally in it before they decided to stop funding it

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