Bill Tam, Co-Founder of Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster based in Vancouver BC, joined Cascadia Report to share his wealth of experience in the tech sector in Canada, and provide insights and advice for those leading businesses in 2020 and beyond.
Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster aims to unlock the potential of innovative Canadian enterprises by bringing together leading organizations to develop solutions for some of our biggest global programs. It brings together small medium enterprises, multi-national organizations, large companies, research organizations and post-secondary institutions to provide co-investment to selected, collaborative digital technology projects that will transform local industries, fuel economic opportunities, and position Canada as a leader in digital innovation.
He also currently lends his expertise as an industry advisor for BCNet, Simon Fraser University, and the University of British Columbia, and volunteers his time supporting students and aspiring entrepreneurs. Bill holds an MBA from the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, and a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering from McGill University.
Past President and CEO of BC Tech, Bill Tam has been actively involved in guiding the success of entrepreneurial companies as a founder, executive, investor, advisor, and board member for the past 20 years. He first joined BC Tech as a CEO-in-Residence with the Centre4Growth program, advising over 30 companies from start-ups to mid-stage technology firms. Before BC Tech, Bill was the CEO of EQO Communications, a mobile start-up that created the first mobile Skype application. Bill has held senior executive positions at AT&T, Rogers, Jones Cable, Infowave Software, and Bell Canada.
The Digital Technology Supercluster launched to the public in mid-2018, but Tam was quick to tell me that he had been working on the initiative as early as 2016. It’s a hugely ambitious project, which in conjunction with five business-led innovation superclusters in Canada, is energizing the economy by fostering new partnerships and collaboration. I started by asking Tam how it started, and what he enjoys about his current role with the organization.
“The culture of collaboration in British Columbia amplified in response to the downturn in 2008. As we grew a tech community that started to believe it could deliver, we started reaching out to the business community to say, how ‘can we build something special here in British Columbia?’
Our conversations with the Business Council of BC and other members of the business community galvanized around 2016. The Supercluster became a vehicle to build these cross-sectoral collaborations between the tech and innovation and broader business communities.
What I love about my job is a realization of what we were intending to do all along. It really is a statement of what the spirit is here in British Columbia and Vancouver. I think our colleagues across Canada would say that they're seeing it first-hand when it comes to responding to issues like COVID, and how the Canadian spirit is really alive and well in these collaborations.”
Connecting the tech community in BC with the rest of Canada and building those bridges required for real collaboration may seem like a huge task but Tam has a wealth of experience building those networks. With an impressive resume including well-known national and international brands, I asked him about his career progression so far and what he would attribute his success to, “I'd say nothing is ever planned” says Tam.
“For those of us that have been entrepreneurs throughout our lives, we find opportunities as they arrive, and we make decisions at the point in time. I started out as an engineering graduate; my first job was in Telecom Engineering because that's what I studied at McGill. And at the time, in the nineties, it was all about telecom, primarily Nortel and Bell Canada. I worked in the research arm of Bell Canada, advising on new product development.
It was a glimpse into the exciting new areas of business. We were experimenting with stuff that nowadays we take for granted, like, video-on-demand services and how two-way high-speed internet might work. It was pre-internet. All those technologies that are now in place were only on the lab floor 25 years ago when I was starting out.
My experience at Bell gave me the entrepreneur bug, and I continued in the business and product development areas. I was a product manager for a while at Bell Canada then I moved to a division that was looking at full-service networks, which later became the backbone of the US internet. This was before the at-home networks came along. When I came back to Canada, we helped build the internet networks for Rogers.”
It’s at this point in the story that he left Bell Canada to become a founding executive and Chief Marketing Officer for Metronet, a company that was focused on providing fiber-optic networks for small and medium-sized businesses. As start-ups go this one was set to rocket into the stratosphere, and Tam says he never looked back.
“Timing is everything in the start-up world. Fortunately, we timed it right and grew to be quite a substantial national telecom and internet Company. It was acquired by AT&T for about $7 billion. That experience reinforced my belief that if you work with great people on a great business concept and idea, you can actually do a lot to affect change.
After that, I dabbled in venture capital for a little while, and then I did two or three more start-ups. About eight or nine years ago, I got involved in the BC Tech Association by mentoring some companies. On the backs of all the things that I've been able to benefit from the entrepreneurial side of the equation, it felt timely to find an avenue to pay it forward. The BC Tech Association experience was my first exposure to providing mentorship support to aspiring entrepreneurs. Through this I found a will to bring this community together to help support each other and work together to build on the growth. Really, to realize the dream of being one of the top ecosystems in the world.
That's the quest that I've been on for the last eight or nine years. The Supercluster is an expression of intent around solidifying our place in that and building bridges in domains that aren't traditionally around technology and innovation, but more around the adoption side. I continue to do lots of mentorship and support for companies, and I love it. There's lots of inspiring new grads, especially in this era, who just need a little bit of guidance and a little reassurance that the career path that all of us have been through isn't a straight line and that the journey is more important than the destination. And I've been fortunate to have had quite a great journey along the way.”
Back to the present day, the Digital Technology Supercluster has taken a leading role in Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March they committed $60 million to support Canadian companies and organizations' response to fighting the virus. I asked Tam to explain a bit about what the response has been like from the Canadian tech community and the Cascadia Innovation Corridor Region as a whole.
“The battle cry for what our nation needs to do to pull together during this unprecedented situation meant that there was a galvanization around particular entities and organizations that could unite towards a common cause. We were fortunate in that when we designed the Digital Supercluster, we had a focus on healthcare, and we're the only Supercluster that has a focus on that. That meant that we were well-positioned with both our Members and our community that we’d built up, to see what we could do to enact Canadian-made solutions in response to the pandemic.
We worked closely with the government of Canada to design the program, and in about a week and a half the COVID-19 Program was created.. Our team worked exceptionally hard to launch the Program within this time frame, and we're thankful that our colleagues at the Government of Canada were very responsive. We ended up with five focus areas; the health system response, how we can provide for safe communities, vaccine development and therapeutic development, and emergency response measures that would need to be put in place. ”
In coordinating the community’s response to the pandemic, the Digital Supercluster team themselves had to adapt how they worked, and like many of us, they quickly embraced virtual meetings and the ability to extend their network beyond the Pacific Northwest.
“Although it was a $60 million fund we put together, we ended up receiving well over 500 collaborations and project submissions. There was a real response, not only from British Columbia but across the country. I think one of the benefits of COVID which we now take for granted, is how it lowered the barriers for participation in many respects. Because it meant that everything was virtual, it didn’t matter if people were across the street, or across the country. Itmade people lean in even more.
Those 500 or more submissions were probably close to a billion and a half dollars’ worth of project investments. Our model is about co-investments between us and the industry. So, you can imagine that with those proposals, you're talking about industry proponents that would seek to invest their own money, resources, and time into this.
It's not just about receiving dollars or co-investment dollars from us, it's quite an investment on their side too. We ended up selecting over 30 projects and running through our full allocation of $60 million within about three months. We wish we had access to more because some fantastic ideas that weren’t invested in, but we're fortunate now to be running another call for projects and some of those projects are re-emerging there now. We're hopeful that that will be something that people can take advantage of as we go forward.”
The benefits of having such a successful and varied career - from national success stories to innovative start-ups, Tam brings a wider perspective as to the discussion around what it means to transform a business. I asked what impact he’d seen on individuals and businesses in the tech industry now that working from home has become a new normal, and what advice he could give business leaders in this unprecedented situation.
“We're living it every day. I know that each of us has very different circumstances at home and people often talk about the benefits and the perils of working from home -. you may have more concentrated time working from home, but that's traded off against the blurring of the lines between work and home life. Initially, there was a whole boon towards the productivity movement of what working from home does. As a product manager for Teleworking back in the nineties, it’s been amazing to see it happen and happen at such a velocity. Yet, one of the key elements we were trying to design for, even back then, is what you need to make it truly effective. Essentially, how to approximate the human interaction that we all seek to have.
That's the trade-off right now. As we enter month nine of this pandemic, employers are more aware of this. The fatigue set in probably about two months ago. I think people are generally tired and they've worked longer hours than they otherwise might have. The blurring of the lines is impacting their family life. So, the reset, I think, is something that most employers are thinking about. How to do that meaningfully and in a way that ensures that you're not completely throwing out all the benefits that you saw at the front end of it while allowing people to engage in a more humanistic way.
I think that the big shift was when you have a set of tasks around COVID response, it's almost militaristic in terms of your execution. It's important that you get things done on a timely basis, but as with any sprint, sprints can't last forever. As we look at pacing, that is really a shift from doing a 100-meter dash into closer to a 5,000 meter. You need to change the way that you train and how you operate in that scenario. And I think the most important aspect of this is how do you still build within these conversations? Like we're having today, to move away from a very transactional framework into something that would be the equivalent of how we used to socialize. And I don't think we're there yet.”
Always an advocate for the tech sector and wider business community in the Pacific Northwest, Tam has been vocal about what he believes needs to happen for the region to truly establish itself as a leader on the global stage. He writes on his website that: ‘our education system must adapt to ensure that we're providing students with the tools and skills to succeed in the digital economy’, I asked Tam what progress he has seen in education providing local talent for the tech industry, and what more can be done to address the talent shortage in the region.
“Talent shortage is a global phenomenon as we've shifted to a new economy and economic structure. The evidence that we are fully immersed in a digital economy is evident every day, and the shortages are not just in the tech industry. They’re found in every industry, and increasingly so as these industries seek to transform themselves to have much more digital relevance. As we began our process of inviting projects in early 2018, we started our Capacity Building Program. We selected eight projects within that to pilot the concept of rapid scaling to explore how we could build for stronger cohorts of capabilities in specialized digital areas and how we could tackle the issues of increased diversity and inclusion of underrepresented groups; women, Indigenous peoples, and more and more racialized minorities.
We have a program specifically around AI, targeted at recruiting women. We have programs looking at re-skilling technicians that might've been doing their work in a particular way before, but now we're looking at autonomy systems. We have programs designed to help female entrepreneurs in the spectrum of how they can do start-ups, get the right mentorship, and capital support for the things that they're seeking to do. We have training programs to provide exposure for Indigenous students in work settings with larger technology companies so they can get a flavour for what that looks like. These are all pilot projects with the idea that we can provide a bridge between industry and the education systems to make it more meaningful when people complete educational pieces.
We tried to take the concept of work-integrated learning one step further to have an immersion in real-world circumstances. We think it is really important to have industry investments in this because that signals a real desire and a commitment on the part of the industry to further this. For far too long, the responsibility for education or training especially on a workforce level fell to the government, and I don't think that it necessarily must be that way. In fact, I see lots of room for public-private partnerships because we have a massive transformation of the workforce and the education system before us over the next decade.”
Speaking to Tam, I get the distinct impression that he would happily talk about the tech industry and his work with the Digital Technology Supercluster for hours. But there’s more to life than our resume, and I noticed that he volunteers his time for the YMCA’s Regional Cabinet. I asked Tam what he enjoyed about working with the YMCA, and whether taking time for charitable causes was a key part of his career or an entirely different part of his life.
“Each of us has many personalities, we certainly have our work and career personalities and the things that we do in that context, but we're also citizens of the communities in which we live. It’s that we all take the opportunities to participate in things that mean something to us. I grew up in an immigrant family and our source of entertainment and social connection was the YMCA that was local to us. So, 40 years later I have an opportunity to give back and help a very worthwhile cause: To help the YMCA reach its goals for the expansion in the programs that they deliver. They have a tremendous impact on the local community with demographics that span the entire range. They are one of the largest providers of day-care services in the province and provide support for youth mental health and all sorts of programs that benefit the community. So, it was important to me that I find a way to help there.
I'm also quite involved in the Chinatown Foundation and the work that's being done to ensure that we've got lasting memories of the things that have built this city. I'm quite privileged and honoured to be part of these organizations. These other things matter, it is not only about building a baseline for technology and innovation, but it's also about ensuring that we have a great societal foundation by which to build that on top.”
It is noticeable how Tam is equally passionate, almost more so about the work he does with non-profits in the region. Separating the two as distinct things in his life with a clear purpose and meaning behind each works for him but what about the expectations placed on him with his background in the tech industry in Canada. While there might not be a direct crossover in the work he would be involved in, there’s no denying that his reputation often enters rooms before him.
“It's really interesting because people expect that I will bring certain elements to the conversation. One of the things that we've seen over and over again is that the freshness of new ideas comes not when you keep looking in the same place, but when you bring people from different experiences and walks of life into the conversation, it can expand the range of possibilities. My hope when I get involved in things like this is that I can add another dimension to it, and vice versa. I benefit tremendously from the points of view from people that are in different segments of the community, the economy, society, and that's what keeps things fresh for the things that we do on a day-to-day basis.”
It’s an honest and heartfelt answer to the question, which belies a man who is truly comfortable in his own skin and has a clarity of purpose that is hard not to envy. It’s at this point in the interview that I like to ask a business leader about their leadership style. It’s a difficult question, ‘I think you'd almost have to ask other people what my leadership style is’, says Tam.
“My leadership philosophy on just about everything is that, especially in the tech world, it's evident that what wins the day in any company, or industry, or pursuit, is a combination of speed, agility, and determination. The leadership markers for me are about ensuring that you've got the people who believe in what you believe and that if they're armed with the tools and the authority to do it, then let them run it. As with most entrepreneurs, you're going to find times when things don't work so well, but those are tremendous learning opportunities in every situation. My leadership philosophy is that you want to give people the opportunity to show what they can do. The framework for leaders is really just to make sure that they have an avenue to get the mentorship and support that they need to succeed.”
Before we closed off the Zoom call, I was keen to learn from Tam what three key takeaways he could give us from his journey so far. He paused for a moment before delivering some pearls of wisdom for both our professional and personal lives.
1. The first lesson is for folks that are new grads or early in their career. I’m fortunate to have a long arc of experience on this, but to maintain the perspective, that it's a long game. One of the key lessons that we often talk about with people that are coming through, is the anxiety that they might have about making the right choice from day one in terms of what job they take or what company they choose to start with. The reality is that is one of many steps that they're going to have along the way and not to sweat that decision too much.
2. Sometimes people have a penchant for taking themselves a little too seriously. The reality is that, whether it's work or life, you must come at it knowing that you can't take yourself that seriously. The idea is that you're here to contribute as much as you can to be part of something. It's important to recognize that giving back and taking from is a balance, so every time that it's about you it takes away from the fact that there's another side to the coin.
3. No matter where you are in your stage of life there is so much more still yet to be had. I look at that every day, the philosophy by which I try to operate is that life is a series of chapters and the book is s still only half-written. Put yourself in a position where you are open to new things, and it will reward you in the subsequent chapters, you're going to write in your own story.
Learn more about the Digital Technology Supercluster here: https://www.digitalsupercluster.ca/