Stop Cheapening Our Tech Sector by Quoting Our “Cheap” Engineers

An Open Letter to the Ontario Tech Community: I have been torn recently. The Ontario tech community – specifically the Toronto and KW corridor – has been getting a lot of well-deserved global press. See the CBC’s article about building our very own “Silicon Valley North”. The issue is that every time I read an article, listen to an interview, or speak on a panel with fellow people in the Ontario tech scene, I inevitably hear one thing that makes me want to scream:  “Our engineering talent is 30% cheaper than San Francisco.”

To every single person who says this – please, please STOP! You’re doing nothing but devaluing the very tech ecosystem you are trying to promote. Let me tell you why: The argument I hear being made is that engineering talent here is cheaper, and frankly that’s false. I read in an article from a major publication that you can hire an engineer with 5 years experience for $70,000. After doing some quick research, I see much different stats. I’m not sure where that idea came from but personally, I don’t know of a single tech founder who is paying $70k for a software engineer with that amount of experience. Odds are if this is true, then either their engineer is not as good as they say they are, or the company is severely underpaying their staff. If you look at specialized talent in the areas of machine learning, data architecture, cloud infrastructure, etc. our market rates are on par with San Francisco. So, it just doesn’t add up to me.

There are also other variables to be considered. When you factor in the cost of living differences between Toronto and similar markets like San Fran, New York, and London – WE PAY ALMOST THE SAME. I know for a fact that some companies even pay more (hint hint: come work at Rubikloud). It’s unfortunate, but to say that engineering talent is cheaper here does nothing but hurt us in a couple of ways:

#1 – It makes engineers in other markets write off Canada as a place to consider working. If I’m a skilled, confident engineer, why would I go to a city where media and key influencers cite that I’ll take a 30% pay-cut?

#2 – It devalues the quality of our engineering talent, by implying our engineers are  satisfied with below average market rate salaries or that their talents and capabilities are indicative of that.

I’m going to take a strong stance on this. In my opinion, Waterloo is as good or better than Stanford for engineers. If you say engineering talent is cheaper here, you’re not giving the educational ecosystem enough credit. Most of our engineers are hired out of Waterloo and University of Toronto, though some other great talent comes from Western, York, and Ryerson as well. If you look specifically at programs such as Computational Math or Systems Design at Waterloo, Software Engineering at UoT or Computing and Software at McMaster, you’ll get a better idea of the talent that exists here. You have to make a real deep dive into the talent coming out of these schools in order to warrant these comments. Need proof? Take a look at the numbers regarding Canadian talent at major US tech companies. Ontario talent is top tier, and yes we can compete with other programs like Stanford. We deserve to be considered at the same level.

Finally, and most importantly, focusing on engineering talent only is a slap in the face to all of the other professionals required to build a world-class, globally competitive start-up. Think of all of the different people involved: What about the sales and marketing talent? What about the finance and operations talent? What about the client management and customer success talent? What about the senior management required to scale up the company? In my opinion,  focusing only on engineering talent as if it’s the only thing that matters at a start-up is both dangerous and ignorant. It takes a small village to raise a child and if you think about it, a start-up is nothing more than a kicking, crying, screaming baby. When you think of Canadian talent in tech, it’s easy to remember Geoffrey Hinton of Google, Yoshua Benjio of Microsoft, and Richard Sutton of UoA. They’re all pioneers in their respective machine learning fields, but there’s so much more that should be given credit.

If you need more proof of the legitimacy of Toronto as a hub for talent, remember that we’re also home to the following companies:

  • Some of the world’s largest banks by market capitalization (RBC, TD)

  • A world top 10 public stock exchange

  • The Canadian headquarters of every major CPG company and most of the major retailers

  • The home and birthplace of Aimia and Alliance Data

  • The Canadian headquarters of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, Salesforce, Adobe, CA technologies, HP, and more

We’re also the home and birthplace of Eloqua, Achievers, D2L, Open Text, RIM, Shopify, KOBO, etc. Don’t forget a number of Canadian tech companies that are disrupting and making moves on a global stage. The fact is, the companies I’m mentioning have created a mature and world-class ecosystem for talent entirely outside of engineering.

So, here’s what I want from every person in the Ontario tech ecosystem (especially those who publicly represent our city):

Stop selling the world on the idea that our talent is cheaper. One, it’s not true, and two, you’re devaluing the market for everyone. This isn’t China selling the world on cheap labour 10 years ago – It’s Canada, and our talent can not only compete, but beat any talent across the globe. This isn’t because we’re cheaper, it’s because we’re better.


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