Creating opportunities for collisions where computer science students, academia and industry can interact, share ideas and launch innovative programs is critical if Windsor is to attract and retain the best and brightest in the emerging technology workforce.
Dr. Ziad Kobti, director of the school of computer science at the University of Windsor, believes these opportunities – including spaces and programs – need to be open to the public so that potential students can determine whether the fast-growing field is part of their future.
“It can’t only be done behind closed doors between academia and industry,” said Kobti recently. “We have to create opportunities and settings where people can come and chat with someone and exchange ideas.”
Kobti believes the Windsor region needs to create these networking opportunities for students and industry so that talent can be identified, nurtured and convinced to remain in the Windsor area.
“When I think about settling down and buying a house, this is the place to be.”
Anish Desai, formerly an international student from Mumbai at the University of Windsor, graduated in early May of last year and immediately went to work for Coulter Software where he had worked part-time while attending school.
“It was an easy decision for me both professionally and personally,” said Desai of his decision to seek employment in Windsor rather then moving away and potentially joining a much larger company.
“When I think about settling down and buying a house, this is the place to be,” said Desai. “It would be impossible in Toronto for many, many years.”
And working for a small but growing company such as Coulter has given Desai access to hands-on experience with a variety of different software systems that he might not have had at a larger firm.
Coulter Software provides software applications enabling businesses and customers to more easily access and control their computer systems.
“I’ve been getting a vast range of experience at Coulter that I probably wouldn’t have had a chance to see elsewhere,” said Desai. “We provide applications for sectors ranging from transportation to agriculture and I find it fascinating and exciting.”
Coulter also works with clients seeking to improve monitoring applications for their lighting systems and others looking to streamline their employee training processes.
“In addition to getting a vast array of experience on our systems and software, I have an eight-minute commute compared to maybe an hour in the Toronto area,” added Desai.
“People within the tech sector are beginning to realize there is a wealth of talent and opportunity in this region.”
Dr. Victoria Abboud, a tech talent strategist with the WEtech Alliance, believes there can be more success stories similar to those of Coulter and Desai but it will take a concerted effort by academia, industry and government to tell those stories effectively.
“We’re starting to see some of it now and while it’s not a trend yet, I think people within the tech sector are beginning to realize there is a wealth of talent and opportunity in this region,” said Abboud, who holds bachelor of science and bachelor of arts degrees from the University of Windsor and master of arts and PhD degrees from Detroit’s Wayne State University.
“We’re not quite there yet but we have to start seeing ourselves as a collective when it comes to the tech sector,” she said. “We know we have an attractive cost of living and a great location but it can’t be all about those two advantages.”
According to Abboud’s research on behalf of WEtech, the Windsor region has a tech sector talent pool of about 6,500 workers in a variety of sectors including agriculture and greenhouses, software developers and high-tech startups as well as research and development departments at many of the area’s automotive manufacturing, tool and die and mold-making shops.
“Our mandate at WEtech is to encourage entrepreneurship in the tech sector but as an enabling organization, we are only one piece of the puzzle,” she explained. “Our research shows that 59 per cent of people who responded to a recent survey are unable to name three local companies involved in software or high-tech development.”
“We know there are many, so collectively we need to do a better job of telling our story locally,” she added.
Abboud believes there needs to be more face-to-face interaction between tech sector companies, academia and local government so “we can identify what skills are being taught, what skills are needed and how we can make the connection between jobs and the people with the skills to fill them.”
One such opportunity for those interactions is through WEtech Alliance’s successful Nerd Olympics initiative.
Now entering its 5th year, Nerd Olympics brings together 16 local tech teams to compete in a series of 6 events over a 3-month period.
It’s not just local tech companies that participate each year. The I.T. departments from the City of Windsor and St. Clair College also field teams, as does the University of Windsor, who’s team also includes students and faculty from the School of Computer Science.
“Nerd Olympics is a great opportunity to bring the tech community closer together.” says John-Marc Vachon, WEtech Alliance Director of Programs and Marketing and lead organizer of Nerd Olympics. “We’ve designed the events in a way to ensure maximum opportunities for collisions. Not only is it a great team building opportunity for companies internally, but it’s amazing for networking between teams. Students have the chance to engage directly with CEOs, owners, managers and employees of our local tech companies – their potential future employers and co-workers.”
Where do we go from here?
The Vector Institute, which is based in Toronto, has launched a government-funded program to provide scholarships for students seeking a master’s degree in artificial intelligence.
Kobti said the goal is to identify and produce as many as 1,000 artificial intelligence graduates from Ontario universities, including Windsor, over the next decade.
“Industry and local government must invest as well,” said Kobti. “It’s not a one-way street.”