It all started with a protest.
Sep Seyedi, CEO of digital marketing firm Plastic Mobile Inc., remembers one of his company’s developers rising up during a celebration of its marketing team’s achievements – including one who was named to Marketing magazine (now Strategy)’s Top 30 Under 30 – and asking, “Why don’t we get an award?”
Less than a year later, Seyedi has answered his employee’s question by creating one: Held in Toronto on April 27 and sponsored by Plastic Mobile and its parent company, advertising and public relations firm Havas Canada, the inaugural Developer 30 Under 30 honoured 30 of the country’s top developers, who were selected from a pool of more than 350 candidates by 21 judges, the majority of them CIOs or CTOs from such well-known companies as Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Sun Life Financial Inc., and Rogers Communications Inc.
“[The Plastic Mobile employee speaking up] really sparked something in us,” Seyedi tells IT World Canada. “In this age that everyone’s calling a tech revolution, with everything becoming software-driven, we’re not putting enough focus on the architects, the engineers, the builders, the testers – the developers who actually make all of this amazing stuff happen.”
Seyedi says that while Canada’s recent ascendance in the tech world is inspiring, the country as a whole remains too modest about its achievements – a leading reason, he thinks, that some 300,000 Canadians have left the country for Silicon Valley.
“As we push ahead with amazing initiatives like U of T’s new AI institute, the Lazaridis Institute, and Ladies Learning Code, I think we need to remember that if we want to keep our best developers in Canada, working for amazing Canadian companies, recognizing our best and brightest needs to be part of the equation,” he says.
Three of the 30 Under 30
RBC Research junior research developer Amy Xiao (top image) exemplifies the type of young, ambitious developer Seyedi is most eager to honour: At 22, she’s not only one of the award’s youngest winners, but is scheduled to begin her last year of study at the University of Toronto in September.
By the time she receives her computer science degree Xiao’s resume will not only include eight months of full-time work with RBC, but four-month stints with Amazon.com Inc. and eBay Inc.’s free classifieds division, Kijiji.
“I’m really interested in helping advance science in some way, so I thought [the position] would be the perfect opportunity to get in that research aspect while improving as a software developer,” she tells IT World Canada. “I’ve been really thankful for the experience.”
As a junior researcher, Xiao helps RBC’s research division identify ways it can apply machine learning and other novel methods to the financial services industry. The division itself, she notes, is essentially divided into two parts: the researchers who experiment with machine learning, and the research developers – such as Xiao – who build applications demonstrating the potential of the division’s research.
“Our most recent project is a topic modelling algorithm, where you upload a set of documents, and in a supervised way it’s able discern the topics mentioned in the document,” she says, noting that her own roles have included an attempt to apply call centre data to machine-learning-driven client support, and creating a script that would detect misleading “junk topics” triggered by the overuse of certain unrelated words or phrases.
“There’s a lot of noise in our everyday language that doesn’t contribute to the meaning of a topic,” Xiao says. “Researchers often have to go back and do that manual pruning, so I spent some time creating a script to essentially semi-automate that process.”
In the Developer 30 Under 30 program, Xiao’s Kijiji colleague Daniel Sadavoy told organizers that she has “that rare mix of deep coding skills and prophetic future vision” that is “probably going to change the world, but without making a big deal about it.”
Speaking to her, it’s easy to imagine that being the case: while Xiao intends to keep working part-time with RBC during the school year, in May she’ll be starting a four-month internship with Amazon.
“I’ve really tried to become a generalist, because I don’t want to be siloed into technology,” she says. “Technology is really just a set of tools, and without a domain to apply them to, it doesn’t really do anything.”
Plastic Mobile’s Seyedi says that in choosing the awards’ winners, he and the other judges focused on several qualities, including technical skills and their impact on workplace innovation, with Xiao a textbook example. Leadership roles outside of work were another consideration, as was diversity (six of the winning developers are women, and 13 – including two female winners – are visible minorities).
“A lot of these devs are basically coding day and night,” Seyedi says. “They’re not only building stuff for their employers, they’re building stuff for other companies, they’re building stuff for themselves at night – they’re super passionate about this stuff. Those are the kinds of devs that we’re looking for, that make things happen.”
How good a developer is Sumeet Gill? His former employer, BlackBerry Ltd., praised him in the Developer 30 Under 30 program despite laying him off a month ago.
“To see a young person with such passion and drive is inspiring to be around,” BlackBerry software development support specialist Mike Ferguson is quoted as saying. “It really elevates the atmosphere.”
For his part Gill, who was born in Kitchener and graduated from the city’s Conestoga College, isn’t worried about finding another position, telling IT World Canada that while he values his 19 months with BlackBerry, he’s eager to work in a startup environment next.
“I try and do the best possible job wherever I am,” he says. “But I’m happiest in best practices development, where I can find ways to help make the application run better, or streamline the process. Things like that. And that’s what startups do – they’re always trying to find something better.”
Before his arrival there, Gill also worked at HockeyTech Inc., a Waterloo firm where he helped develop an application hockey scouts use to rate players they’re observing, and RDM Corp., which develops white-label solutions for U.S. banks.
Madeline Carson, lead software engineer for interface design firm MetaLab Ltd., was flown from Victoria, B.C. to Toronto so she could attend Developer Top 30 Under 30 – and in case that wasn’t enough, her employer also took out a full-page ad in the program.
“Congrats Madeline, we’re so lucky to have you as #oneofus,” the ad reads. “With love from your MetaLab family.”
Carson, who is currently approaching her three-year “Metaversary,” tells IT World Canada that she mainly works as a back-end developer, relishing the chance to create algorithm-based solutions to complex problems such as building a queueing service for a service provider app.
“Anything back-end or algorithmic that I can make more efficient is my jam,” she says.
Meanwhile, her road to software development was more twisted than many of her peers: growing up near Surrey, B.C., Carson “didn’t even know what software development was.”
After focusing on visual art and drama in high school, she earned an electrical engineering degree from the University of Victoria with a specialty in communications – a field that, after graduating, she realized she didn’t want to pursue.
“I realized that all of the codes for cellphones had been optimized in the 80s, and thought, ‘well, I can’t make any new codes – so that’s not very interesting,” Carson says. Instead, she pursued co-ops in technology “by mistake,” and found it interesting.
“I got to work for these really cool companies with lots of other people who think like me, and we got to bounce solutions off each other,” she says. “You get to be really collaborative on back-end technical solutions. It feels good.”
“It feels better when people actually use the stuff that you build, but to be honest, I’d do it anyways even if people didn’t use it.”
Up next: A “bigger and better” event in 2018
Seyedi says while he’s proud of this year’s inaugural winners (a full list can be found here), he looks forward to welcoming an even more accomplished crowd to an even larger celebration next year.
“We want to increase the number of nominees, increase the number of judges, increase the number of amazing partners like IT World Canada that we collaborate with to spread the message,” Seyedi says. “We want as many people as possible added to the mix so we can make this event even bigger and better next year.”
Full disclosure: IT World Canada is a media sponsor of the Developer 30 Under 30.