You might not know him, but chances are you’ve used a product he developed.
Formerly the Director of Architecture and Innovation at BlackBerry, Gary Klassen is the mind behind inventions used by millions worldwide, most notably the popular cross-platform BlackBerry Messenger.
Klassen has a long, impressive career in tech, leading industry-changing project teams. Now, he’s continuing on from his legacy at BlackBerry to join Christie’s Kitchener office as Director of Solutions Software. Klassen will grow a development team to further expand the projection technology leader’s software capabilities.
I sat down with Klassen to chat about Waterloo Region’s tech history and culture, the similarities between Waterloo Region and Lund, Sweden, his secrets behind innovation success and what he’s most excited about for the future.
Q – You have been working in Technology in Waterloo Region for over 24 years. In terms of innovation, what were the biggest changes you saw over that time?
A – What I love most is the evolution of technology, and what’s possible now. Especially software, that’s something that intrigues me. With software, a small group of people is able to iterate, look at a problem, try, and keep trying, to build a scalable solution that impacts an incredible amount of people.
And what I love is how you see the evolution in technology — what’s now possible. It’s limitless in terms of what you’re able to do — the networking, the mobile — and the impact that’s had on our society. It’s pretty stunning.
And the other thing I love is those same elements that make software so productive — the possibility for a small group of people to build a solution that scales — now no longer only apply to software. They apply to hardware and all other solutions. And it’s wonderful for me to see all those solutions.
I came to Waterloo Region a long time ago now, and at that time it was only the University [of Waterloo], insurance and some tech. And it’s wonderful to see the way that has blossomed now. There are so many varied things that are going on, in so many industries.
Q – Some of the products and solutions you have worked on have been used by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. How does that feel?
A – Pretty amazing, actually. And what’s awesome for me is that often when you’re building something new, it doesn’t feel like you’re building something with much impact. You end up focusing on the small thing. You’ve got limited resources, so you’re only focusing on this one small thing and you’re really building it for yourself, or for a smaller vision.
And then to see that blow up, turn into something that’s used by a lot of people — and that they see value in it — is pretty awesome. You don’t often see it coming, but it’s pretty amazing when it does.
Q – You attribute a lot of your successes to the combined efforts of your team. What makes a strong team?
A – I really like the teams where there is a collaborative group of people with different skill sets and different backgrounds. Something wonderful happens when a group of people — a small or a large team — come together with varied experiences and work together towards a common goal.
So, times when I’ve most enjoyed seeing something come together that I didn’t expect: it’s when developers collaborate with designers, or people with a business perspective, and they listen to each other. They see their different perspectives and something wonderful happens.
People love that experience and they look for it again and again in their careers. If you’ve been a part of a team that’s changed the world ever so slightly, it’s addictive. You want to do it again. And one of those things I love about what’s happening is that a lot of people who have had that experience are taking the best of what they know, and their experiences and their talent, and taking that spark and looking to do it again in new industries. And that’s pretty compelling.
Q – You worked for a few years in Malmö, Sweden, and note there are many similarities between Lund and the Waterloo Region. What are they?
A – It was a wonderful experience in Sweden, I’ve got lots of friends there. I see a lot of commonalities. Both (Lund and Waterloo Region) have strong technical universities with a rich history. In the case of Sweden, Lund goes back a long way. Great universities with a great international reputation draw very talented people with diverse interests. Both of those areas have spawned new solutions and new technologies that have changed the world. And now the people who have had that experience and worked in those environments are building new companies, design consultancies, and working together in really rich collaborative environments.
Something that’s actually pretty compelling to me is how we might work together between regions that are similar; to be able to build more compelling things.
Q – How do you see that happening?
A – It would be wonderful if there were ways for people to go back and forth, share their experiences and see the way things work well in the different areas between the communities. When people work back and forth, when they work on exchanges, it builds those opportunities.
There’s a rich opportunity for companies in the area to be able to leverage the talents of the people in Sweden, and vice-versa.
Q – If you could do it all over again, this time knowing what you do now, what would you do differently, and why?
A – I love this question. Nothing.
And I mean that honestly. I’ve thought carefully about how it is exactly that I ended up growing up in Calgary, coming out to code in Waterloo; all the things that resulted in me being able to do the things, and be part of the things that I’ve had the privilege of being a part of. I can’t really pick a formula of how that happened, so I wouldn’t want to mess with it and I wouldn’t want to change it. Somebody said, ‘Most people became successful by being lucky.’ I feel like that, too.
Q – What’s your next goal, professionally or personally?
A – Right now, I’m thrilled with the opportunity to take the things that I have learned and the experiences I have had in terms of technology, innovation, technical leadership and team leadership, and apply those to new areas.
A couple of things I want to do are: taking some time to touch-base with people in the community; being more visible in the community; mentoring.
Look for more opportunities to invest what I know and what I’ve learned in different companies and environments.
Q – How important is it for you to live and work in a community that supports cultural, social, educational and collaborative activities?
A – Very important. I realize that a lot of the magic that has happened in bringing new things to life has come from people with different perspectives and skills coming together towards a common purpose. If that’s the case, you need an environment where you have different perspectives and skills, and an environment that encourages people to work together to share challenges; to share skills to leverage each other’s experiences towards bringing those things to life.
Q – What is it about Waterloo Region that makes you want to live and work here?
A – The people. The people, and the opportunity to be able to come together with people of different skills. To be able to make a difference. Challenging work that is able to have an impact on people’s lives — that’s what I’m looking for.
This week I see and hear that . . . Gilt is having its second Pop Up Night- Famous Film Foods Thursday, March 31. Stop by after 5:00 p.m. and enjoy cocktails and tapas inspired by your favourite Hollywood hits . . . Idea Exchange in Preston is holding a Friday Night Art Live Party April 1 to kick-off an interactive exhibition. The Sum consists of an anarchist-inspired, post-apocalyptic art video game set in the Great Lakes. Visitors can play the game in the gallery and bring it home for free. The free tech-centered exhibit opens at 7:00 p.m. with the artist, Hugo Nadeau, and the game’s music composers in attendance . . . The Grand River Jazz Society is presenting Chris Wallace’s Many Names Quartet, Saturday, April 2 at the Jazz Room in Uptown Waterloo. Enjoy the food and stay for the music. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the show begins at 8:30 p.m.