Sun worshippers might shun Canada because of its chilly winds and subzero temperatures. But IT professionals will tell you that the Great White North is a land of warm and inviting corporate climates.

From promising up-and-comers to deep-pocketed industry stalwarts, Canada boasts an endless roster of homegrown businesses that have successfully attracted and retained world-class talent.

It’s a lofty achievement, given the nation’s proximity to the U.S. – home of lower capital gains tax rates, wealthier venture capital communities and higher temperatures. But the battle against brain drain has only prompted Canadian employers of IT professionals to create incentives that rival those of its neighbour.

Access to groundbreaking technologies, a healthy balance between work and play, progressive corporate cultures and financial stability are the main enticements that have enabled Canadian companies to offset the appeal of heading south.

Just ask Mike Lapenna, chief technology officer at CollectiveBid Systems Inc. in Toronto. Lapenna says he has managed to lure IT talent to the 2-year-old start-up from multinational corporations, including Bank of Montreal, Merrill Lynch Canada Inc., Deloitte & Touche LLP and Nortel Networks Corp.

It’s easy to see why. CollectiveBid Systems’ flagship product, BondMatch, promises to make North America’s multitrillion-dollar bond market as popular as the world’s stock exchanges by overhauling the way bonds are bought and sold. Telephone-based bond-buying negotiations between investors and brokers can be lengthy; instead, the customized software grants investors, brokers, institutional traders and dealers alike real-time access to bond prices.

“Often, IT professionals are working on a huge system that has been around for quite some time, so they’re basically just a small cog in the wheel,” Lapenna says. “Our IT professionals, on the other hand, aren’t working on an existing system. They’re building brand-new software from the ground up, which provides them with an enormous sense of ownership and motivation.”

Offering employees the chance to develop groundbreaking technology has also enabled Advanced Information Technologies Corp. (AIT) to strengthen its IT ranks. Ottawa-based AIT develops products to authenticate individuals, passports and other travel documents.

Although the company has long offered perks such as the weekly distribution of chocolates and on-site power-napping rooms, it’s AIT’s potential to help curb airborne terrorism that renders the company an employer with a worthy agenda.

“Since Sept. 11, with the world’s attention on travel and border security, there’s an increased sense of company pride because we know we can help. It’s a real motivator for our employees to be part of a team working on real solutions for real problems,” says Alan Boate, CTO at AIT.

Alin Dan, a database manager at AIT, agrees. “Knowing that our products can be deployed at different borders to catch bad guys is a source of company pride – knowing that we could help avoid problems,” says Dan.

Easing Drive Time

That’s not to suggest that emerging technology is the only ace up the sleeve of Canada’s IT employers. In the U.S., IT hot spots have typically cropped up in densely populated urban centres, especially in areas such as California’s Silicon Valley, the greater Boston area, Dallas and Atlanta, to name a few. In Canada, the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., area, with a metropolitan population of less than 400,000, is home to nearly 400 high-tech companies, the nationally acclaimed University of Waterloo and a technology community whose origins can be traced to the early 1900s.

It’s a small-town/big-business coupling that has enabled imaging chip maker Dalsa Corp. to recruit techies who have grown tired of spending more time on a subway than at the family dinner table.

Says Martin Hynd, vice-president of corporate manufacturing at Dalsa, “Waterloo is a city where a family can choose the location of their home to service their individual family needs and still be within a 15- to 20-minute, nonstressful drive to work.”

And while networking opportunities in urban centres typically revolve around late-night bar-hopping, Dalsa’s social events include pig roasts staged at an employee’s farm, where children can go for horse rides and engineers can be found churning out blues tunes.

“If people are willing to spend a good chunk of their weekend with co-workers, it just shows that they enjoy what they do and the people they work with,” says Brian Doody, president of Dalsa.

It’s true that the company that plays together stays together, but there’s no discounting the importance of a healthy corporate culture. It’s for this reason that Sierra Systems Group Inc., a Vancouver-based management consulting and systems integration firm, has gone to great lengths to abolish any signs of bureaucracy.

The company’s business cards don’t feature job titles. The CEO’s cell phone number is in the hands of senior managers and entry-level employees alike. And it’s not uncommon to find a new hire supervising a project team of industry veterans.

“Our basic management philosophy is, ‘Hire good people, make sure they know what to do and then get out of their way’ – no peering over their shoulders or micromanagement,” says David Smithers, director of knowledge management at Sierra Systems.

Paycheque Still Matters

But for every IT professional wishing to exchange red tape for unlimited freedom, personal accountability and a sense of ownership, there’s a job candidate intent on finding financial stability in these days of economic uncertainty.

It’s a reality that has greatly benefited Montage-DMC eBusiness Services in Edmonton. Following acquisitions in June 2000 and May 2001, the e-business service provider now forms the flagship e-business arm of Toronto-based AT&T Canada Inc., one of the country’s largest national broadband business services providers and local exchange carriers. And in today’s marketplace, having an 800-pound gorilla as a parent company is a huge draw for IT professionals whose start-up stock option packages proved fruitless.

“With the turmoil that has shaken the IT world over the past 18 months, employees are looking for organizations that offer both reliability and stability,” says Peter Lui-Hing, CTO at Montage-DMC. “Our affiliation with AT&T Canada certainly enhances our ability to provide these characteristics.”

Nor can Montage-DMC be accused of being a stodgy industry stalwart. Unlike its by-the-book competitors, Montage-DMC fosters a sense of family, thanks to its beer fridge, casino nights, skiing trips and games rooms.

“Knowing that you can shoot a game of pool with a beer in hand while discussing your professional development plans with the VP of marketing certainly gives me a sense of innate belonging,” says Ian Lancelotte, an IT consultant manager at Montage-DMC.

The chance to partake in the overhaul of time-tested financial systems, access to technology that promises to ensure public safety, the promise of work/life balance, a hierarchy that allows for advancement, the backing of an industry behemoth – they are all distinguishing features of top employers.

However, there are no free rides in today’s tough labour market. Thanks to Canada’s decreased productivity levels, massive layoffs, weak currency and corporate restructuring efforts, tickets to the top of the corporate ladder are now earned through hard work, long hours and unwavering dedication.

IT professionals would be wise to enrol in courses that allow for the upgrading of skill sets and industry certification – a route that is often subsidized, at least partially, by most Canadian corporations, albeit on a smaller scale in today’s soft economy.

While there’s no discounting the importance of being a self-starter, allowing a colleague with superior skills and experience to serve as a mentor promises immediate access to sound advice and professional wisdom. And in today’s softening economy, an increasing number of companies are placing equal value on business acumen and technical prowess.

“Anyone who can participate on both the technical and business side of the fence has an easy route to the top,” says CollectiveBid’s Lapenna.

Cindy Waxer is a Toronto-based freelance journalist. She can be reached at[email protected].

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