When Vancouver software developer Brent Benton started to look for a new job at the beginning of the year, he was in the fortunate position of having plenty of opportunities to explore.
“There was quite a few different things that I was able to look at, everything from a dizzying number of startups to obviously the largest companies in software development,” said Benton, a tech industry veteran and project manager who has been working in software since 2000.
Among the options was a position at Amazon, which was expanding its presence in Canada. Last December, the online retailer announced plans to add 600 jobs to the 800 it already has in Toronto. And earlier in the year, it said Vancouver numbers would go from 2,000 to 5,000 by 2020.
Meanwhile, a proposal called Sidewalk Labs by another massive U.S. tech giant, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, estimates it will eventually employ another 44,000 full-time people in Toronto.
Hiring managers at Canadian tech companies say they’re facing tough competition from companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook in the effort to hire, and retain, in-demand tech workers.
But while those homegrown companies may not be able to offer the same name recognition and long list of perks — free lunches and in-office massage therapy, for instance — they’re finding success by selling candidates on the benefits of working for smaller companies.
During his search, Benton spent a day in interviews with Amazon. “I knew fairly quickly into that day that it wasn’t a good cultural fit,” he said.
Benton worked for IBM for 10 years, after the small software company he worked for was bought by the tech giant. As a result, he experienced the evolution of the organization from a tight-knit group where everyone was fairly close, to a larger corporate structure. He found he preferred the connections, camaraderie and trust of a smaller firm.
Benton zeroed his search in on companies ranging in size from 50 to several hundred employees — big enough to be past the risky early startup stages, but small enough to access mentorship from company leaders. In the end, he landed a role as research and development manager at Galvanize, a security and risk-management software company founded in 2012 that now has 463 employees globally.
“With a smaller company, you feel that much more tangibly,” he said. “You can talk to customers, you can talk to anybody in the organization. I’ve bumped into our CEO a few times in the building here, which would of course never happen at IBM or any other multinational place.”
As vice-president of talent for Galvanize, Kathy Enros hired Benton. The race for talent has really heated up over the 13 years she’s been in human resources for the tech industry, she said. “It’s definitely getting more and more competitive.”
While large U.S. companies haven’t veered far from Vancouver’s market rates on salary, their perks are tough for smaller companies to match. It’s been hard to compete with big tech’s generous funds for professional development, for example, said Enros.
“Things as little as free snacks all day — those little things add up and can be quite expensive for smaller companies. But it’s sometimes a staple at a larger companies,” she said.
Selling candidates on impact and opportunity
But what they lack in funds for executive education and kombucha, they try to make up for in opportunity. “We really focus on the fact that we’re small and that you can have more of an impact when you’re small,” Enros said.
Their recruitment marketing efforts play up the fact that Galvanize is a high-growth company with new projects that allow hires to shine. And a program for emerging leaders gives high-potential staff one-on-one mentoring with CEO Laurie Schultz, money for professional development and access to quarterly strategy sessions where they have input.
Benton is one of the new hires invited to participate, and that kind of access is what convinced him the company was a good fit. “At Galvanize, I could see myself being mentored by the other leaders here,” he said.
Keren Moynihan, co-founder of Toronto startup Boss Insights, said their hiring strategy also hinges around being able to offer young workers opportunities that tap into the millennial generation’s desire for personal growth. The company uses data and machine learning to improve fund returns in the financial industry and currently employs seven people.
Yes, they sometimes lose talent to bigger companies with more name recognition and bigger salaries. But they’ve also had success selling themselves as a place that offers a professional environment without the red tape of a big corporation.
If you work for a big company, the chances that you’ll end up representing your employer at key events and meetings within the first couple of years are slim, said Moynihan. (She previously worked for the TSX and RBC, and her co-founder worked for Amazon.)
“But if you’re at a small company, every person counts. You are irreplaceable,” she said.
If a new staffer is motivated, engaged and solving problems for the founder, startups like hers will find out what motivates them and do everything they can to pave an engaging career path.
“We are fitting a role to a person, not a person to a role. A large company can’t do that.”
That’s the right approach for smaller firms looking to hire and retain these coveted workers, according to Leah Nord, director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
Startups are promoting the opportunity they can present to work on a breadth of tasks and projects. “The type of work you’re going to be able to experience and work on, it’s dynamic, it’s engaging, it’s exciting,” said Nord.
The Chamber does lobby the federal government to preserve and expand support offered to entrepreneurs who are essentially acting as “incubators for homegrown talent.” Some programs provide funding for interns, either in salary, tax incentives or a break on employment insurance premiums.
But in order to keep up with rising demand, both government and industry need to work together to explore shortening the time horizon for getting tech workers trained, some of whom could be trained with a series of shorter courses, rather than a full degree.
Although competition for workers may be stiff, Enros said there are some positives to having a greater presence of companies like Microsoft, Slack, Facebook and Amazon in Vancouver. In some cases, they’re able to entice tech workers to come up from the U.S., which helps establish the area as its own tech hub.
“They’re training talent really well, too; it’s an ecosystem like anywhere. People do tend to do a bit of a rotation, and they’re developing people and their skills are going to give back to the tech community as a whole,” said Enros.
But she acknowledges that it’s common for tech workers to cycle in and out of jobs, seeking experience at companies both big and small.
“You know that sometimes you’re just going to trade staff and that’s just the reality of that,” she said. “Let’s embrace that and train our staff up so they’re going to the next job upskilled and hopefully speaking really well about your company. And maybe they’ll come back.”