Saqib Awan

What can Canadian technology leaders learn from Silicon Valley?  A lot, according to Saqib Awan of Lightspeed Venture Partners. Lightspeed is an American venture capital firm focusing on early-stage investments in the enterprise technology and consumer space.

Awan is a transplanted Canadian who did his undergrad at the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ontario. For him, Silicon Valley represents both an opportunity and a challenge to today’s CIO. Awan is passionate about sharing the lessons he’s learned from Silicon Valley, and relating them to the greater world of information technology.

Today’s CIO has a critical role in terms of helping companies “sift through” the noise to face the most critical challenges.  In the hyper-competitive world that Awan works, “it’s innovate or die.”  And the CIO has the best seat in the house to lead that innovation, he says.

“CIOs who embrace that challenge will have a real role to play in their respective organizations,” says Awan. The ones who don’t take on the challenge risk losing their relevance and influence.

Related: Register to attend HMG Strategy’s 2018 Toronto CIO Executive Leadership Summit

While most people tend to focus on established tech giants like Google, Amazon and Salesforce.com, there are still vast opportunities for great new companies emerging from Silicon Valley.

“The cloud is only a few years old.  An enterprise technology company takes between 7 to 10 years to build,” notes Awan. “I fully expect that in the next five to seven years, you’re going to be hearing about companies and names that most folks may not be fully aware of, but are already out there.”

Innovation is the lifeblood of growth

The innovation that occurs in the Valley on a daily basis is the reason why existing companies like Walmart have made key acquisitions, and why companies like General Motors and Ford have opened their own innovation labs in Silicon Valley.”  As Awan says, “Every company has to find a way to adopt technology into their fabric.  And the ones that don’t?  They should be worried.”

According to Awan, large Canadian companies should be following that lead. “We should be engaged with Silicon Valley.  We should be engaging with more venture capitalists in the Valley — understanding what types of things they are investing in and try to be that early adopter and get that competitive edge.  It would make us much more competitive.”

Canadian companies of all sizes can learn from startups, he says. “From a startup perspective, there’s a lot of trial and error.  Learning as they go. Moving  fast and learning quickly.”

Diversify your information pipeline

According to Awan, this is just the start.  Large companies can gain some real benefits from working with startups.  But as he notes, they often make a key mistake: becoming overly reliant on analyst firms. “If you want to beat the market, getting information where everyone else is getting information from, isn’t really going to accomplish that, and you are always going to be playing catch up.”

But CIOs can also learn critical lessons from the classic mistakes of entrepreneurs.  Awan says, “If I did have to pick a mistake that tech entrepreneurs in the enterprise space can make, it would be ‘being too heads down.”  His firm encourages tech entrepreneurs to “get out and talk to customers and let them help shape the products they are making.”

According to Awan, CIOs of large companies can fall into this trap of being too internally focused.  They have their internal organization, from users to C-Suite and they have the external customer, which CIOs don’t typically think about but which is critical when you think about digital transformation whatever the size of your company.  “CIOs should also be thinking about the impact of technology and the adoption they are doing on the end customer. Once the entire organization is aligned to that user experience and customer experience and every decision is made based on that, that’s when the magic starts to happen.”

New promise with matchmaking

That magic can happen when large companies and startups come together.  Making those matches can be very rewarding.  Awan shared a real-life example from his own recent experience: “We had a large company come to us with a very specific problem. We happened to have a startup in our portfolio.  I was able to introduce this startup to the CIO.  The startup is pretty young, but well funded with a terrific team.”

With Awan’s help, the two companies have been able to connect and they are moving to a proof of concept that shows great promise.  “It’s a perfect solution in terms of solving a problem that the CIO had and has a pressing need for while also allowing a startup to work with a company that is forward thinking and that is a perfect match for the solution that they are building.”

Although he now lives in Silicon Valley, Awan is bullish on his home country. “From my perspective, I’m Canadian, I’m passionate about bringing more Canadians into the forefront of leadership in tech. That’s why I’m coming back to my hometown — so I can encourage more Canadians and let them know there are lots of opportunities out there.  And hopefully, we can encourage more Canadians to be at the forefront of innovation and of adopting technology.”

As Awan notes, “There is a ton of talent in Canada.  Even in the Valley, there’s a lot of Canadian talent here. So being able to leverage a lot of those relationships and to embrace those new technologies can bring a competitive edge. Toronto has got a budding entrepreneurship scene, Waterloo has an incredible university that’s highly respected in the Valley.  We have a lot of tech talent in Canada and we need to embrace it.”

For those Canadians who want to hear more from Awan and to start to build those connections, he will be speaking with me at HMG Strategy’s 2018 Toronto CIO Executive Leadership Summit, being held on June 7 at the Omni King Edward Hotel. The conference focuses on the theme Lead, Reimagine, Reinvent – Driving a Culture of Genius for Success.

Register now to attend