Confronting the ICT talent crunch: Q+A with DMZ’s Valerie Fox
By Anthony Reinhart on May 10, 2012 / Categories: Blog, Partners
Talent will be key to making Canada a digital nation by 2017, but a shortage of people with the right skills continues to plague our ICT sector.
At CDMN Canada 3.0 2012, a panel discussed national and international findings around ICT talent, and the challenges and opportunities they present as Canada builds its digital economy.
Valerie Fox, executive director of the Digital Media Zone at Toronto’s Ryerson University, brought her own perspective to the panel based on 25 years in tech, in industry as well as academia.
We had a quick chat following the breakout session, about her work at DMZ and how to address the talent crunch.
Q – Can you describe DMZ and your role there?
A – I’m the executive director for the Ryerson Digital Media Zone, and the Zone started as an experiment to really help Ryerson students and alumni explore entrepreneurship and innovation.
We really weren’t sure what this was going to be, but we knew that they really needed support and help with the new companies they were creating.
And so, we created an environment for them to grow these companies.
We have a great space; it’s right in the middle of the city – it’s in the heart of the city actually, at Dundas and Yonge – because we wanted the world to see this as it was growing, and as we were experimenting to see what we could do with this.
Within a very short period of time, we actually had a number of people apply to get in who were not part of the university; they were actually people from the University of Toronto, Waterloo, UBC, who had heard about us through the grapevine.
We also had serial entrepreneurs who said, ‘Wow, this is a great idea; we’re hearing that this is working; can we come in, too?’
Q – What happened then?
A – What ended up happening within a very short period of time is, we have a critical mass of people who are doing amazing things; great talent.
We developed criteria, of course, for people to come in and stay; we asked mentors to help; we found various avenues of funding, and the thing just exploded.
So, within two years, we’ve grown to where we’ve helped over 350 different people.
Right now we have about 180 people in the Zone, and we’ve helped create over 450 jobs and 41 companies.
When you look at it you go, ‘Wow, why is this so successful?’, and the truth is, it’s a learning environment where we’re learning how to service the very people who are learning how to be entrepreneurs.
It’s that learning and collaboration – which is a word that’s being used a lot; I’d much rather practise collaboration than use that word – but it’s a very interesting phenomenon when people of different headspaces; technical people, business people, creative people, user-experience people and various subject-matter experts come together and create extraordinary product, extraordinary innovation that is marketable and actually gets customers pretty fast.
And by sharing not only expertise but your networks, you enable them to have better distribution, better access to customers, better access to knowledge, better access to pretty well every facet that you could possibly think of in your particular business.
The businesses in there pretty well hit every sector. Digital media, a very loose term, is basically anything that’s digital. So, we hit the health and wellness sector, we hit finance, we hit communications, gaming, entertainment, retail.
It’s interesting. We didn’t set out to do anything in particular; it all just happened, which tells you that there’s a need for this, and I think that’s why we were so successful so quickly.
Q – What do you think sets DMZ apart from a more-traditional academic environment?
A – Number 1 is, it’s multidisciplinary.
In this case, it’s very informal; there’s not a formal program with it. It’s like we’re feeding ourselves as we need to be fed, so it’s just-in-time learning.
Peer-to-peer mentoring is very, very strong.
Yes, we do have various programs that people can utilize, but they need it when they need it.
So, the difference is it’s a place where we’re working on things that mean the most to you, and I think that’s quite important.
From a university perspective, we’re not a particular area, we’re not a program area, we’re not a faculty. We’re there to really accommodate any of those things, and have a place where things can really start to happen.
Q – When people leave the Zone, how are they prepared to enter the world compared to someone leaving, say, a traditional university program?
A – They have experience.
The panel session I was on [at CDMN Canada 3.0 2012] started to talk about the necessity of experience.
Even if you’re not an entrepreneur; let’s say you were in the Zone and you were working with a startup, what’s interesting is that no matter what happens, you still have had great experience.
You have now, because you’re a very small company, seen what it’s like to put your business together, seen what it’s like to look for money, seen what it’s like to get your customers, seen what it’s like to create a user experience that people actually want, seen what it’s like to put together your own team and have an organization from an HR perspective, and seen what it’s like to really hone your own skills to make yourself a better person.
So, anyone who comes out of that kind of environment and that kind of experience is only going to be better for it.
Q – So, how do we address this talent shortage that everyone is talking about? What steps can we take that we are not taking now?
A – We’re experiencing it too, and there actually is a shortage of specific types of developers.
Interestingly enough, one of the guys in the Zone is now starting to teach courses himself. It’s not like he’s going to tell a whole bunch of people about it, but people seem to find out about it, and he fills the room teaching people who want to be able to learn these types of skills themselves.
Is that enough? Absolutely not.
There’s a call now for what’s called “digital badges,” where people actually have certification for certain skills, and they’re going anywhere they can to get those extra skills.
Why? Because it’s needed, and because they need it. And so, if they can’t go and get those skills, they’ll want to learn them themselves.
I think that’s amazing, don’t you? If you need it, do it yourself.
What that’s telling us as universities and educational institutions is, we have to be listening and we have to be fast on the draw here, and put together programs and courses and certification capability to enable that.