By Craig Daniels, Anthony Reinhart and Bill Bean

An open mind. A willingness to buck a trend. A determination to overthrow orthodoxy, ask hard questions, and push back against the status quo.

If there was an overarching theme on Thursday at the Bingemans Conference Centre for the final day of Communitech’s two-day Tech Leadership Conference 2017, surely it was that – innovation expressed by leaders in their fields, leaders who took calculated risks, who followed the data, who altered outcomes and businesses by treading paths others had not yet braved.

“These are exciting times,” said Communitech CEO Iain Klugman, marking Communitech’s 20th anniversary in his welcoming remarks to the crowd of approximately 800.

For the first time since its inception, TLC, as it’s colloquially known, unfolded over two days rather than one. And the event, as it turned out, was a swan song. Klugman closed the proceedings by announcing TLC is slated to be reborn next May as ‘Communitech151’ – what Klugman described as “a large-scale urban conference.” Further details are to follow in the coming weeks and months.

Thursday’s audience – wearing suits and hoodies, pearls and yoga pants, the livery of success and aspiration – was treated to 11 speakers on range of topics relevant to tech, including a morning keynote by Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer of Netflix, and an afternoon keynote by Billy Beane, Executive Vice-President of Major League Baseball’s Oakland A’s and the subject of the book and movie Moneyball.

demo rename_20170511_0653

Oakland A’s Executive Vice-President Billy Beane at TLC 2017. (Photo: Wayne Simpson)

McCord and Beane held the main stage rapt as they described the challenges and decisions that bucked convention and ultimately made their reputations.

“How many of you have laid people off?,” McCord asked her audience. Many hands lifted.

“How many [of you have] laid off family?” No hands lifted.

And then the zinger, as she asked how many talk about the workplace being a family. The room turned silent as the implications turned clear.

“I hate empowerment,” McCord, who spent 14 years at Netflix, said. “You know why we have to empower people? [Because] we took it all away.”

McCord said she once was in Montreal at an event with legendary Montreal Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman when she listened as Bowman described the antidote for the dreaded staple of human resources: the yearly performance review.

“I loathe the annual performance review,” she said.

Bowman, she said, described the way he would sit down with each of his players every 10 games and talk about their performance. The players would do a self evaluation. Bowman would add his input, explain how that player fit with the objectives of the team, turning the evaluation process into an ongoing, genuine discussion rather than an exercise in “shaming.”

“I’ve learned the most from [sports] coaches,” she said.

It was fitting, that given, that the day’s final speaker and afternoon keynote, also came from the world of sports.

Beane, though not a coach, is heralded in sports circles as the original disciple of Big Data, leveraging baseball’s decades-long well of statistics into a formula that netted under-valued players who allowed the A’s to compete against teams from bigger markets that spent much more money.

Beane, who was played by Brad Pitt in the 2011 film Moneyball, described the initial resistance from longtime baseball people to using data to make decisions rather than one’s ‘gut.’ But over time the data won out, the results won out, and other teams began using similar methods.

_42R9449 (1)

Ali Asaria of Tulip Retail at TLC 2017. (Photo: Wayne Simpson)

The day’s first speaker was Ali Asaria, CEO of Tulip Retail and the founder of Well.ca. Asaria, a University of Waterloo grad in computer engineering, first found fame as the inventor of the game “Brick Breaker” for BlackBerry devices.

“I once Googled myself … to see if anybody still knew what Brick Breaker was,” said Asaria. “It comes up in the urban dictionary as a euphemism for going to the bathroom. I’m so proud of it,” he said, to laughter.

Asaria’s talk, entitled “The myth of the post-job economy,” was of a far more serious nature. It addressed the widespread fears, increasingly pervasive as technology improves, that jobs for people will grow ever-more scarce, that jobs will become redundant, will be disrupted, and that people won’t find meaningful work.

Asaria thinks the opposite is true. He thinks that jobs will change, but that the net benefit will be that machines will generate the freedom to do what people can and machines can’t – be human.

He used the example of the coffee shop. Machines are able to make espresso better than many baristas, and yet the number of coffee shops only continues to grow as people seek places to engage with other people, to talk, to discuss.

Likewise, he spoke of software that is able to do a better job of making a medical diagnosis than a traditional radiologist. But it is the radiologist – the human being – with whom people want to discuss their treatment. The machine, then, will augment the human being.

“Jobs are not going away, but work is changing,” said Asaria. “By embracing robots we shed that which is most robotic.”

Likewise, GuruGanesha Khalsa, CEO of Sandler Training by Ganesh, took to the main stage and pushed back against convention, in this case in the field of sales.

Ganesh, as he’s known, described his early failures at selling point-of-sale computer terminals using traditional sales techniques based around demonstrations of his company’s technology. He drew nods of agreement from the audience at the popular perception of salespeople: “Pushy, aggressive, sleazy, demeaning.

“What’s the No. 1 most important thing in sales that’s lacking?” he asked. “Trust.”

He said it wasn’t until he began to have what he called “human-to-human conversations” during sales calls, developing trust, establishing relationships, that his sales performance improved. It improved so much he was asked by his company to help train other salespeople.

At the first of two sessions where cyber security was the theme, the overriding message to attendees was stark. “Let’s be clear. You are a target,” said Dawn Leetham, Vice-President of Customer Success and Services for Cambridge-based eSentire. Leetham and colleague Megan Eckhardt – eSentire’s Manager of Security Operations Centre (SOC) Customer Care – joined retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General and security consultant Ronnie Hawkins Jr. in delivering sobering facts about cyber attacks, and in underscoring the importance of constant vigilance, swift response and employee education to protect against them.

Cyber attacks cost the global economy an estimated $3 trillion a year, and that applies not only to the value of stolen data, but reputational damage to hacked business and lost hours of productivity due to system shutdowns and remedial work. So-called “ransomware,” which holds a victim’s data hostage until a fee is paid, is itself “a billion-dollar business,” Eckhardt said.

Hawkins called for employees to be trained in cyber safety “from the boardroom to the mailroom” and for companies to be wary of single-source solutions that promise all-encompassing security.

demo rename_20170511_0538

Jamie Woodruff, speaking on cyber security at TLC 2017. (Photo: Wayne Simpson)

After the lunch break, Jamie Woodruff had many of the same messages for attendees, particularly where employee training goes. Woodruff, one of the planet’s pre-eminent “ethical hackers,” helps companies discover their cyber vulnerabilities.

He led off the afternoon session with an entertaining – and frightening – discussion about the many ways people and companies leave themselves exposed to security breaches: Failing to ask for identification, failing to change passwords, failing to challenge why someone has gained access to a secure area, leave portals of weakness that are easily exploited. He said every business will suffer some kind of breach within the next five years.

Solutions?

“Training your employees. Making yourself educated. [That’s your} first line of defence. You can buy all the hardware in the world, it’s your employees [that matter].”

Woodruff astonished the audience by showing how much information he can gain just by listening to conversations and watching the routines of employees.

Cheryl Ainoa, Chief Operating Officer at Waterloo Region edtech firm D2L, spoke at the same time as Woodruff in a neighbouring conference room about the challenges faced by rapidly scaling companies. Ainoa, an engineer with an MBA, previously held positions at Yahoo, Intuit, Genealogy.com and a host of startups in the U.S.

She cited dilution of focus as a major threat to growth-stage companies, as their concentration shifts from simply getting established to suddenly facing dozens of opportunities. Deciding what not to do, learning to say no and taking care not to hire too quickly become key to surviving through rapid growth, Ainoa said.

She also stressed the importance of “finding and assimilating knowledge” from peers at other companies and encouraged Waterloo Region companies, in particular, to build strong networks with those who have successfully managed to scale, through “field trips,” conferences and Communitech Peer2Peer groups.

Anyone who thinks that AI (artificial intelligence) will be the solution for any business problems is in for a shock, says Tonya Custis, a research director at Thomson Reuters Labs. Custis, who leads researchers seeking applications for AI technologies, particularly in natural language understanding, kicked off the first session on Big Data.

Custis said many people think that AI “is all of the things we would like to do with computers that we can’t do now.” But, “You can’t train the computer to do anything a person can’t do.”

demo rename_20170511_0100

GuruGanesha talks sales at TLC 2017. (Photo: Wayne Simpson)

Having said that, AI is more achievable now, thanks to increases in computing power, the accessibility of data and the availability of open source tools. Recalling her days as a web-scraper, Custis said good data is hard to obtain. Companies that want to succeed in the AI sector need that data (“So many products do not leverage their own usage data.”), expertise in the domain being explored, and AI expertise.

Using data, domain expertise and AI expertise may actually help shape the legal system, according to Benjamin Alarie, professor of law at the University of Toronto and CEO of Blue J Legal, a startup that uses machine learning to predict legal outcomes.

Alarie believes that algorithms have outperformed world-class human judgment in increasingly challenging domains, everything from chess to Jeopardy to poker.

Alarie noted that while hundreds of thousands of tax returns are filed in Canada every year, only a few go to court, ultimately shaping the taxation legal system.

By inputting the facts and outcomes of historic cases, it is possible to use machine learning (AI) to find the hidden patterns in case law (“Judges are remarkably consistent in the way they map the outcomes.”). For legal firms, this would be a way of advising a client about the probable success of a case. For the courts, this could limit the “no-brainers” that would tie up courts, leaving judges with more time to consider serious cases that will affect future taxation law.

Brian Tossan, director of the Canadian Technical Centre of General Motors of Canada, told the afternoon Big Data session that data-rich, AI-based interactions derived from the automobile offer a nearly limitless potential for customer engagement.

As of this month, the GM OnStar program has close to 900,000 customers and in 2016, accounted for 4.22 petabytes of data through GM’s global data centre. “The platform of the automobile is significant,” said Tossan, and the unlocked data could change the relationship between cars and drivers, with: real-time vehicle self-diagnosis; vehicle to vehicle communication about road conditions; automation and sensing as a precursor to autonomous driving; and personalization based on customer preferences and habits, even to directing a driver to a retailer or service centre and paying without leaving the car.

Big data, said Tossan, is the foundation “of a lot of the transformation (of transportation) that you’re seeing today.”

Sponsors of  TLC 2017 include: Canon, Vidyard, Lazaridis Institute, BlackBerry, bdc, Norton Rose Fulbright, Bereskin & Parr, Phillips Lytle LLP, Whitney, Artemis, Cowan Insurance, Deloitte, Igloo, Invest Stratford, Miller Thomson, ON Semiconductor, OpenText, Stryve, TD Insurance, Unitron, University of Waterloo, the Government of Canada, and the Province of Ontario.