Conestoga College has more than 300,000 square feet of teaching space spread across two main campuses straddling Kitchener and Cambridge. It has outposts in five other southern Ontario communities, a total enrollment north of 45,000, and its grads have a reliable habit of taking up positions of relevance throughout the Region of Waterloo’s tech ecosystem.

Yet when stacked against the University of Waterloo and, to a lesser extent, Wilfrid Laurier University, it’s often overlooked as a tech talent producer, existing in a state of perpetual eclipse due to the bright lights up the road.

“The reality is University of Waterloo is one of the best universities in the world [for tech], right?” says Pejman Salehi, Chair of Engineering and Information Technology at Conestoga. “I’m a software engineer by trade, so I know that.”

It’s not that the two universities don’t deserve their sterling reputations. It’s not that Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley-based startup powerhouse, didn’t have good reason to sing UW’s praises when asked to name a go-to school for startup talent.

It’s just that, in the global race for good people who can help a startup scale, Conestoga, now celebrating its 50th year, would like to say something:

Yoo-hoo. Over here.

“We have this amazing pool of [tech] talent that seems to be unrecognized,” says Salehi. “Even people who are in tech, they don’t really know what Conestoga is all about.”

The paradox is there’s no escaping the quiet, vital role that Conestoga grads play in Waterloo Region. Clearpath Robotics. Thalmic Labs. D2L. Sortable. Vidyard. Aeryon Labs. BlackBerry. Walk through the workspace of any of those companies, and many more, and you’ll find former Conestoga students playing a key role.

So why the relegation to second fiddle?

Part of it is old-fashioned snobbery, an outgrowth of the notion that a university degree, rather than a college diploma, is somehow more advanced, relevant, coveted.

And part of it is because of the way the local tech ecosystem evolved: From the get-go, University of Waterloo embraced startup culture, tailoring programs, co-ops and infrastructure in a way that would spark new tech-based companies, allowing professors and students to retain rights to intellectual property developed at the university. University of Waterloo has a leading role in the Accelerator Centre, located at UW’s David Johnston R&T Park, where the AC’s CEO, Paul Salvini, is cross-appointed as University of Waterloo’s Associate Vice-President, Research Commercialization. The University of Waterloo’s Velocity incubator also works closely with Communitech and, like Communitech, is located in The Tannery.

“The University of Waterloo graduates brilliant engineers,” says Barb Fennessy, Conestoga’s Vice-President of Applied Research. “It’s an amazing university.”

But, she says, tech companies need more than engineers.

“They need computer programmers, they need technicians, they need technologists. They need people across many different occupations within the manufacturing and IT applications that they’re utilizing.

“That’s where the college is instrumental.”

Last year, nearly 450 of Conestoga’s co-op tech students — from electronics engineering, information technology/computer science, health information/computer science, and information technology/technical services — were hired, a number that has climbed every year for the past five years and is on track to climb again this year.

Vidyard CEO Michael Litt and software quality assurance specialist Tiffany Martindale. Martindale is a Conestoga grad.

Vidyard CEO Michael Litt with Vidyard quality assurance specialist Tiffany Martindale. Martindale is a Conestoga grad. (Communitech photo: Craig Daniels)

That’s no surprise to the likes of Vidyard CEO Michael Litt, who has Conestoga grads dotted throughout his company.

“We’re looking to hire 100 people next year,” says Litt. “We’d be stupid to ignore the fact there’s this great big school [called Conestoga] that has a lot of really awesome programs that teach people how they can apply themselves.”

Litt is a University of Waterloo systems design engineering grad, yet he’s institution-agnostic when it comes to hiring talent.

“The bigger the talent pool that we can utilize to attract people to the company, generally speaking, just on the law of numbers, the better our chances of finding individuals who can help us grow and succeed,” Litt says.

One of those Conestoga grads now at Vidyard is Tiffany Martindale. Her specialty is testing software. She has a biology degree from Laurier, went to work in a lab after university, “hated it,” and then went back to school, to Conestoga, and completed a program in health informatics. She liked the hands-on, work-oriented nature of the learning.

“I honestly wish I would have gone to college sooner,” says Martindale. “When any young people ask my advice about what to do after high school, I really push college.”

James Spere, Vice-President Product Development at D2L, is another Conestoga grad who has made his mark on the Waterloo Region tech ecosystem. Like Martindale, he’s glad he went the route he did, graduating in 2000 as a software developer. He found a job immediately after leaving school, but says it was an uphill climb to overcome the pejorative perception of college versus university.

“I struggled to really make my mark against university grads,” he says. “There was this definite stigma back then … about college versus university grads. Salaries were different. Job expectations were different. Responsibilities were different. Career paths were also different. And so you’re kind of saddled with a whole lot more work to prove yourself than a university grad.”

Spere acknowledges that perceptions are changing. Part of the reason they are is that universities are increasingly adopting college’s hands-on model, gearing programs for the job market. Likewise, colleges are increasingly offering degree programs. In short, the differentiation between college and university is narrowing.

“Something we do very well here at Conestoga is pathways,” says Ig Kolenko, the director of Conestoga’s Centre for Smart Manufacturing and, like Salehi, Chair of Engineering and Information Technology. “Our students in our diploma programs in many cases have excellent upgrade opportunities into the degrees we offer here at the college. For example, our electronics and computer engineering technology students have a pathway into the electronics engineering degree. Our mechanical diploma students again have pathways into the mechanical engineering degree.

“We are the only college in Ontario that offers fully accredited engineering degrees, just like University of Waterloo, Queen’s [University], [University of] Toronto, McMaster [University]. It’s been that way since 2010.”

Sortable’s Cory Schnurr earned a university-style degree while at Conestoga, part of the first cohort of graduates from Conestoga’s degree in public relations. Sortable helps publishers generate greater revenue from their online ads. Schnurr says the skills he gained in college “100 per cent equipped me” for the workplace. His one regret is he wishes Conestoga had more formal ties to the region’s tech community.

To that end, this fall, Conestoga will launch an ambitious partnership with Grand Innovations on its Cambridge Gaslight District project. Grand Innovations is conceived as a tech hub that focuses on research and development for industry, generating new products and processes. Conestoga is moving to the site with the aim of partnering with industry in three areas – smart manufacturing, cyber security and electronic waste – and in so doing enhance the educational and work opportunities for its students.

“Our role is to bring our faculty, our students and our research partners throughout the community to the [Cambridge] hub, to work with industry on projects [and] applied research projects,” says Fennessy, who is heading up Conestoga’s Grand Innovations initiative. “We’re doing hands-on work with them to develop products, to develop software solutions, processes, related robotic and automation applications.”

No one is more excited by the possibilities offered by the partnership with Grand Innovations than Kolenko and Salehi. Both know the benefits that will accrue from being in the space, for the programs they administer, and for their students — and for the visibility of the school itself.

“To me, one of the key components is communication,” says Salehi. He tells the story of a meeting with one large, local tech firm, who told him it would be nice if he offered a course in mobile app development. When he informed them it already exits, they replied, ‘Oh.’

“It seems there is a lot of lack of information in the community,” says Salehi. “If we overcome that barrier, it would be beneficial. That’s a first step.”