We need an IT industry association

I read up a bit on that group in Maine that is trying to get the government to set up a VC fund for technology firms. As I reflected on this, I once again felt the level of my frustration increase.

Did you know that for all the wild rhetoric about our IT sector in New Brunswick and how it will be a catalyst for the self-sufficiency agenda, we are the only province in Canada that doesn’t even have an IT/technology industry association? Our government officials go off wildly about attracting billions in investment and they can’t even get the basics right.

I know about KIRA (and the 50% failure rate of its winners) and I know about the e-Learning association – if it is still active. That is not what I am talking about. Cripes, don’t we have enough IT companies in New Brunswick to each pay a grand to have an actual association lobbying on its behalf? Studying talent pool issues? Looking at VC issues?

I think there have been at least two aborted attempts to get a provincial association going but I think this is tragic. If our IT industry is so small and meaningless that we can’t even cobble together an industry association (PEI’s has 47 members in a province with 1/4 the population of New Brunswick), how can we ever expect it to be a ‘catalyst’ for self-sufficiency?

Maybe we need Geeks on Ice to take over the province. They seem to be interested. I don’t care. They can wear skates to their annual meeting and force the board of directors to wear jock straps. Whatever.

We need to stop all this crap about “worst to first” and “envy of north america”. How about moving the ball slightly down the field for once. For the IT sector, an industry association would be a good first step.

By the way, when I say “industry association” I of course mean something that adds real value to the industry. Not just an annual ‘golf tournament’ or ‘meet and greet’ sessions where poor IT firms get together and try to sell each other. I am talking about an effective voice for the industry pushing out profiles, research, lobbying governments, attraction R&D, supporting infrastructure development, organizing trade missions, etc. If you want another golf tournament, I have invitations to at least 10 per year you can have.

Links:
Innovation and Technology Association of PEI
Information Technology Association of Nova Scotia
Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries
Saskatchewan Advanced Technology Association

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0 Responses to We need an IT industry association

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think st. john has one, which is why so much has been headed that way.

  2. Trevor says:

    You are refering to propelSJ? As David knows I wrote my university project last year on the absence of a ICT association in this province. My conclusion was that because we have 30,000 employees working in a provincial sector that contributes to over $2 Billion in GDP annually, we needed an advocate to promote the sector to the public, all levels of government and act as our ambassador for the global marketplace. Having such an organization would enhance proffesional development, promote mentorship, encourage university enrollment, raise the VC profile for the area and aid in recruitment of ex-pats.

    Not my best work, but you can read it here: Report

    Since I wrote the report I have gained a greater perspective in our sector’s situation in to forming an association. I gained this through my conversation with peers at ThinkNB, Geeks on Ice, Rising Stars, propelSJ, this blog and workplace. There is an acknowledgement for an association once people discover that we are the only province in Canada without one. In fact, startups are craving this type of structure for mentorship. The problem is leadership fatigue or absence of leadership.

    Many peers have said they would participate if someone else championed the cause, but they did not feel comfortable taking the lead because of work/personal commitments or involved in other initiatives. Unfortunately for the Premier for this to really work it needs to be driven by the sector, not government.

    One potential solution is to leverage the Propel model and make it provincial. The issue I have encountered, and some have willingly ackgnowledged this, is that regional rivalries are roadblocks to moving forward since people see propel as a “Saint-John” solution not a provincial one. All I know is that it works and pride/branding aside it should be considered as a viable structure.

    As for Geeks, part of our mantra to eliminate the digital divide in our community(New Brunswick) is to promote the region and get organizations to collaborate off the ice, while still being able to showcase their regional/organizationsl “superiority” on the ice in a constructive way! I have a wonderfull group of volunteers willing to help our goal of global domination of IT hockey, but without my passion and drive the event would die.

    That’s why our sector needs a champion to drive this initiative, but who inside or outside of our province will answer the call?

  3. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Trevor, we need an IT assoc. and it has been tried in the past. In the mid 90s, EDT sponsored a group, but as Trevor mentions, there are issues that are unique to NB. We have three main centres and the Eng/Fr aspect to consider. It is more of a challenge than it would be in Halifax for example.

    Government in general do not like to fund core funding for multi-year commitment.

    As far as KIRA is concerned, I would beg to differ with David “glass half-full” assesment. He should attend this year’s tenth anniversary. It is one of the best province-wide industry led event in the province where IT and government types can kick back and have a good time. The 50% failure rate is greatly exagerated. Many of David’s favourite have received awards.

  4. David Campbell says:

    Sorry for the KIRA swipe – I do admire many of the winners but I stick by my 50% failure rate of small IT business KIRA winners:

    1999 – Learnstream and NVision gone
    2000 – CrescentStudio.com gone
    2001 – Content Alive/Provinent, VisionMD gone
    2003 – Engage Interactive gone
    2004 – Ensemble Collaboration? gone? Mathis Instruments Ltd gone

    The big firms – OAO, CGI and others survive but my point here is not to slag KIRA but to point out that it is a tough go to start up and establish a successful, long term small IT biz in New Brunswick. That is not a criticism of KIRA – but of the IT ecosystem in New Brunswick. Some will say that the attrition rate in New Brunswick for IT firms – even the KIRA winners – is normal. That may be true but I remain convinced that there is something wrong at a systemic level when you can wipe out a whole industry – say the e-Learning industry – without a mention of why. In the late 1990s, some were saying that e-Learning was to be the next call centre industry in New Brunswick. BKM, LearnStream, ContentAlive, Provinent, JOT, eCOM, and a number of others were to lead the way – now they are all gone. There are a couple left – but I read in Skillsoft’s SEC filing that their Freddy facility does no content development – just customer service.

    An industry association won’t address this but it certainly is one venue that has been used by other jurisdictions to bring voice to the issues.

  5. mikel says:

    There is perhaps yet another reason for its absence. From what I’ve heard since its a small market and many of the company leaders are well connected, that like other industries, the companies already get whatever they need and have no need of an industry to lobby for them.

    Most have recieved generous govenrment payouts or had contracts exclusively with the government. New Brunswick is such a ‘business friendly’ environment that industry lobbying isn’t essential. After all, much IT work is contract, I know of people who bounce around one St. John company to another as various contracts become available.

    What exactly would a lobby group or industry group be proposing to government? If there is no need for one, then I’m not surprised nobody takes it on. You saw with FatKat that as soon as they ‘put their foot down’ then the government came running, now the liberals are bragging about their handouts to Fatkat. So why would Fatkat need a lobby association? A lobby by definition exists because its members want a need that is currently not being filled. What would that be? In other provinces there are other interests which vie with government in competition with them, hence the association.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “That may be true but I remain convinced that there is something wrong at a systemic level when you can wipe out a whole industry – say the e-Learning industry – without a mention of why.”

    I think the answer lies in your statement ” wipe out an industry”. What industry? Where were the customers?

    Seems it was an interesting idea and a good fit for NB but without a demand from a paying client, there is no industry.

    Unfortunately, many of the KIRA winners, and the organizations and individuals that funded them, discovered the hard way that you need paying customers no matter how good your idea may be.

  7. Trevor says:

    Every major organization started @ zero… HP, IBM, Google, Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, TaTa all started as a small organizations with no clients and no revenue. The biggest difference I have observed between these examples and our ICT ecosystem is that they were in markets where they built key relationships which lead to sales. The key to sales is having a relationship with the market you sell into. Don’t beleive me watch this:

    The History of Sun

    Founders Panel

    Unfortunately, because of geography past companies have had trouble getting sales because they had to work far more harder at accessing stakeholders inside organizations who can benefit from your product. I see an association as a way to help NB based organizations build key relationships and partnerships with companies who have a contact list not to mention gain from others experineces. I truly beleive that is why Whitehill has been a success. Most of our sales force is US based with an existing history with our target market. We were buying the salesperson’s contact list. The other strategy that worked well for us is finding the right partner that can resell your product into their existing client base.

    Unfortunately, many start-ups and smaller ICT organizations do not have the capital to hire “top guns” to build a client base. Those who have are seeing upwards momentum in the marketplace. Some might get upset that I am advocating for outsourcing your sales team, but you have to look at the benefit here. We have to decide what is our niche? For Whitehill all development, proffesional services and technical support remain in the province and those are very good high paying jobs with opportunity for proffesional development.

    My $0.02…

  8. David Campbell says:

    Again, these are the issues that an industry association, in theory at least, should deal with. I have said that New Brunswick should have physical offices in key markets around the world to promote the province for investment. Maybe these offices could also act as a support tool for New Brunswick’s IT firms. I know from personal experience that it is extremely hard to build global sales from New Brunswick. But if you have good sales guys in key markets, where the actual development and back office activity is not that relevant. In fact, I would encourage firms to set up offices in key sales market when they achieve the scale to do it.

  9. Anonymous says:

    “I have said that New Brunswick should have physical offices in key markets around the world to promote the province for investment.”

    I totally agree we need to penetrate key market, be involved with clients and pro actively identify and anticipate opportunities.

    However, similar to the qualification you placed on the IT industry association, I think you need to qualify the NB offices for investment. It is too easy to open an office, allocate an entertainment budget and appoint a partisan buddy to wine and dine the locals.

    There needs to be a hot shot in these offices with a get it done attitude and clear, measurable goals that are reviewed regularly and the person changed out if they re not delivering.

    Unless this happens, we would be better off hiring an energetic, connected, McKenna-like contractor, giving him/her the provincial plane for a year and sending them on the road.

  10. David Campbell says:

    Couldn’t agree more. There’s a line in a cheesy movie that I liked called Switching Channels where the guy running for mayor says “Tell him, if I win the election, I’ll put his whole family on the payroll”. And the response is “Even the kid?”. And he says “I’ll put him in charge of parking tickets”. If you got to give your friends some nice patronage appointments, find them anywhere but in economic development jobs.