Looking at IT from all sides

Leonard Slipp admires people who speak different languages fluently and can move comfortably between various cultures. This is one reason he gave up programming to go back to school and obtain an MBA.

Slipp, now a corporate sales engineer for Java tools with Toronto-based KL Group Inc., said differences found in distinct cultures, such as French and English, are similar to the type of differences found between technology and management groups within organizations.

“There are the same types of cultural divides sometimes, and people aren’t willing to bridge them. You see that in IT and business, and if you can be bilingual in those cultures that’s a valuable asset to have.”

Slipp learned that simple lesson over the course of many years and many jobs. Now 38, he grew up in Woodstock, N.B., a town of about 5,000 people “in the centre of the potato belt” where, in 1979 – his high-school graduating year – there were no computers at all.

“In my senior year, I knew I wanted to get into something more technical, whether it be engineering or medical school or something,” he said.

“I remember there were a series of posters [in the guidance office] showing a variety of professions, and one was computer science. I thought ‘That sounds intriguing – let’s do that.'”

In 1983, after graduating from the computer program at the University of New Brunswick, he happened to see a film that changed his whole career direction.

“In the summer of my fourth year I saw the movie Tron, with all those computer graphics. Up until then I was going to be a systems programmer, in IBM mainframes or something. But I came out of this movie saying ‘Wow, this is where I want to go.'”

Investigating his options, he discovered the computer graphics field was still in its “embryonic” stage and was peopled by an elite group. He decided to go for a masters degree. After completing that, he lectured for a year at University of New Brunswick, then in 1986 entered the PhD program at the University of Toronto.

Following three years of the PhD computer science program, Slipp had “had enough of academia” and moved back to New Brunswick to do applied programming.

He landed a job with the Ocean Mapping Group, based within the surveying and engineering department of UNB. His two-year project was to design a C-based program that would filter erroneous data collected from sonar systems of various sea vessels, in order to chart coastal conditions.

The experience gave Slipp the opportunity to travel and work in many various communities along the east coast.

“The last four months of that job, I packed up my apartment and lived on different ships on the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” he said.

When that job was completed, Slipp moved to Ottawa and worked for two years as tech support for software reseller firm Choreo Systems, then landed a job in the Toronto area as a programmer for ISG Technologies, a medical imaging company. In the three years he was there, he helped build a magnetic resonance scanner. It was during this job that Slipp first started to feel some frustration with the limitations inherent in his level of responsibility.

Slipp felt he could better contribute to the success of projects if he were in a more senior position.

“While working on one project – like many projects in the IT world – it was a bit delayed and had some problems with development. I wanted to get into more of a leadership role.”

In order to understand more of the business processes of IT, Slipp decided to go back to school and get an MBA at Queens University in Kingston, Ont. After graduating from the program, he got a job at KL Group as sales engineer – though his ultimate goal is in project management.

“While I am fairly literate with Java the language, there’s a lot of aspects of the Java industry that I want to get up to speed on. The sales position allows me to see a lot of the company.”

Slipp likes to compare the IT industry to trying to keep your balance on a moving dance floor. “It can be very valuable to take a step back, even mentally, and listen to people. A lot of problems in the industry right now, especially with the pace of it, have to do with (a lack of) communication and understanding.”

Looking back, he said he wishes he had done his MBA earlier, and had a willingness to take a leadership role a little sooner as well.

“There are a lot of times in projects where you know what the right thing to do is, but sometimes the circumstances make it difficult to take that stand and say ‘Hold it. This is what we’ve got to do. It’s going to be painful, but it’s got to be done.’ Sometimes, I admit, I didn’t have that professional courage,” he said.

“But it’s something now that I have a lot more confidence in doing.”