Shopify Scoops up Carleton Grads

By Dan Rubinstein

More than five dozen Carleton alumni work at Shopify, and despite their range of roles within the booming Ottawa-based e-commerce business, two common experiences stand out.

A job at Shopify allows you to follow your interests and make an impact. And the best thing about the company, beyond the funky and fun Silicon Valley-style offices and perks such as free gourmet lunches every day and an on-site massage room, are your co-workers.

The company’s entrepreneurship podcast is called TGIM: Thank God It’s Monday.

“Too many people work from Monday to Friday to make enough money to enjoy their weekends,” says Shopify’s Director of Communications, Mark Hayes, who came up with the name for the podcast. “That’s no way to live. You spend most of your waking hours at work; why not enjoy it?”

Hayes, who graduated from Carleton in 2007 with a BA in English and History, works out of the company’s downtown Toronto office, which has changed locations five times in the last two and a half years because they keep outgrowing their space.

When he started in 2010 after an enjoyable but not overly stable stint juggling freelance journalism and contract work, Shopify’s sole office was above an all-you-can-eat buffet in the ByWard Market. There were 25 or so employees. Now he has more than 1,200 colleagues.

“I walked in and saw Tobi [CEO and founder Tobias Lütke] in his socks and a hoodie,” recalls Hayes, “and I thought: ‘OK, there’s something special here.’ It turned out to be a really amazing opportunity.”

To grow fast and prosper

Shopify’s stratospheric success has been well documented. When the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange in May 2015, it was valued at well over $1 billion. Lütke became Report on Business Magazine’s Canadian CEO of the Year in 2014.

The head office at 150 Elgin Street, which opened in 2014, has also received a lot of attention: six floors, each with a different design theme, including Urban Street and Cottage Retreat, and features such as a mini go-kart track with banked curves, a slide, pinball machines, hammock chairs, and dozens of comfortable nooks (many with sweeping views of downtown Ottawa) for getting work done alone or in teams.

But you get used to these amenities pretty quickly, says Gail Carmichael, Shopify’s manager of external education programs, and it’s the company’s culture — especially its focus on well-being — that keeps staff engaged and inspired.

Carmichael, who has both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in Computer Science from Carleton and is three-quarters of the way through her PhD, suggested to a Shopify recruiter last year that the company had grown large enough to hire somebody to promote diversity and outreach. Somebody to encourage more women and other under-represented groups to consider tech careers.

Initially, she was brought aboard as a developer but quickly shifted to her current custom-made role. There are myriad learning opportunities within Shopify; she is focused on people who don’t work for the company.

Developing talent at home

“Companies like Shopify are super-starved for talent,” says Carmichael, who believes changing immigration rules may be a short-term fix, but developing domestic talent and addressing the brain drain will serve Canada’s economy better in the long run.

“We want to help make learning computer science better for everyone. We’re the kind of company that’s not just in it for us.”

Carmichael credits the dozen or so years she spent at Carleton, including a couple as a term instructor, with providing the experience she needs to do her job. From co-op placements to co-founding Carleton’s Women in Science and Engineering group, as well as her PhD research on storytelling in video games, she has many applicable skills.

John Duff, who has a bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering from Carleton, thought his future would revolve around coding when he started at Shopify as a developer five years ago.

After a day-long job interview, during which he met with several different teams and talked to a soon-to-be colleague for an hour about their approaches to solving problems, he saw that the company’s approach “mapped so perfectly to the way that I wanted to do things.”

But one year later, he took on the responsibility of leading a small team, and as the company continued to grow, his role expanded to include more mentoring, hiring and project stewardship. Before the end of year two, he had become Shopify’s director of engineering, a title he still holds.

“I used to be focused on coding and solving hard problems,” says Duff, “but building a useable large-scale software product has so much to do with people – with collaborating and teaching and helping to develop talent.”

Putting teamwork into tech

Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Duff says that his experience as a student at Carleton — working with a tight-knit group of classmates on assignments, sharing information and ideas — paved the path for what he’s doing now.

“You have to make it happen,” he says about opportunities within Shopify, “but it’s up to you to determine how you want to drive yourself forward. The only limiting factor is your willingness to take on challenges.”

His favourite thing about his job is working with the “best and brightest” software engineers that he knows. And the company’s relationship to Carleton helps attract a steady stream of smart young people, which is a valuable way to remain up to date in the rapidly changing high-tech world.

Graduates from other programs at Carleton are also drawn to Shopify. Alumni from the Sprott School of Business work in HR and finance, including Vice-President of Human Relations, Brittany Forsyth, and CFO Russ Jones. Faculty of Public Affairs grads work in marketing. And the list keeps getting longer.

Whenever he comes to the Ottawa office, Mark Hayes meets a few — and sometimes a few dozen — new hires.

Carleton helped prepare him for his communications leadership post, he says, because it’s such a multi-cultural diverse environment.

While the essays he wrote as a student in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences don’t have a direct bearing on his work, Carleton gave him the ability to solve problems and make compelling arguments.

“University is a place to explore new things and figure out who you are and what you’re good at,” says Hayes. “It also teaches you how to work with other people, which may be the most important thing of all.”

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