Jennifer Evans is in this odd position: She’s the spokesperson for the country’s biggest IT industry trade association who used to be a luddite.
“I was a technophobe,” admits the new chairman of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), which represents IT manufacturers, software companies and consulting firms.
“I was one of those classic people who said I will adopt technology with my last dying breath. I wrote all of my papers longhand in school.
“And while I was working in Japan (in 1994 for an English-language school) they Internet-ified our office and I saw a Yahoo Web page for the first time, and it literally (hit me): ‘That is the future.’ And was determined at that point I was going to work in technology.”
Today, as CEO and chief strategist for Sequentia Environics, a digital communications consulting company now part of Environics Group, Evans speaks around the world on digital strategy.
Last month she succeeded Doug McCuaig, president of the Canadian division of CGI Group Inc., as the chair of ITAC.
Arguably best known for representing hefty names like IBM Canada, Microsoft Canada, Bell Canada and Rogers Communications, Evans says her term at ITAC will focus on broadening its membership.
“There is a really burgeoning and exciting startup culture that is emerging in Canada, particularly in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. And I would like to see those companies helping contribute to the dialogue on the national IT culture in addition to our more established members. As the entrepreneurial culture in Canada changes, ITAC membership is going to reflect that, and outreach to some of those smaller organizations is going to be a key part of what I’m going to be spending time on.”
In the short term, however, there’s work preparing for October’s World Congress of IT in Montreal, which ITAC is the host.
What worries her is what she calls the “hollowing effect” — loss of Canadian companies on the verge of critical mass and scale. “We need to make sure we are giving younger, smaller companies that could come up one day to take the places of the RIMs and the Nortels what they need in Canada in order to do that and aren’t constantly being taken out by multinationals – not that that’s always a bad thing, of course. A lot of companies obviously get a lot of momentum from that. But we do have to be conscious of the fact that if we’re going to have a thriving technology industry in the country we do need an ecosystem that’s going to support that.”
“I think a lot of the things we need to have happen are already happening. What we’ve got in Canada (is a) really energized start-up ecosystem. That is something we need to continue to nurture. That is going to be done in a number of ways—by making it possible for Canadian companies and government to be the first purchasers of products that are coming out from these new organizations, providing the partnership opportunities with larger companies, multinationals, telcos et cetera to help those companies get a foothold and understand what their customer base looks like, and then generally to support the industry.
“There’s certainly been a lot of dumping on RIM in the last little while and I think we as a country and as an industry have a responsibility to support our stars.”
(BTW, Evans is a dedicated BlackBerry user).
She admits her career has been helped by the fact that she’s single, which has meant she’s easily able to fly to her company’s San Francisco office on short notice.
As to why more women aren’t being pulled into IT, Evans calls it “the age-old question. It’s very interesting because the statistics have not changed since the ‘80s, and what this says to us is the industry has a real PR issue — although I think that the recent appointment of people like the new head of IBM [Ginni Rometty] and Melissa Mayer at Yahoo we’re starting to overcome some of that.
“But I think there’s still a perception that if you don’t understand what technology is – and I was a classic example of that – you think you’re going to be sitting in a room coding.
When in fact, “whatever your imagination dreams up there’s a way to apply it using technology, and that’s the message we need to convey” to women.
Which brings us back to that road to a technology career. In Evan’s case it took a bit of, well, let’s call it brass.
After creating a Web site for Canadian literature in 1998, she applied for a job as a firewall support engineer for Toronto entrepreneurRobert Herjavec’s Brak Systems.
“Robert called me and he said “Listen, I’m just curious why you applied for this job. Do you know what a firewall is?’ And I said no, I have no idea. And he said “Well, I can’t hire you for this job, but I see that you’ve won this Yahoo Web design award, and would you be interested in coming in and helping us figure out our Web site?