When Adam Howatson graduated high school in 2000, his first thought was to take a year off and go backpacking – but when his friend asked him to come and work for a small Waterloo, Ont.-based started called OpenText, plans changed.
Howatson didn’t go on that backpacking trip, nor did he ever go on to complete a post-secondary education. Instead, he served in various roles at the enterprise software firm as it grew to become one of Canada’s leading technology firms, including in product management, engineering, IT, the office of the president, and mergers and acquisitions. Two years ago, he took on the role of chief marketing officer, and he says he appreciates the path that brought him here.
“It’s been an interesting evolution, but I think there’s some strength today in having a strong technological background for a marketing role,” he says. “I’ll have a conversation with one of our heads of engineering and we can talk roadmap, or AI integration, or machine to machine learning… it’s great to not just be party to the conversation but participate in the conversation.”
Especially for a technology company, having a fundamental understanding of the infrastructure gives you a leg up, Howatson says. It’s an advantage that means other companies in the industry will start requiring the same for the role of CMO.
“The role of the marketing technologist, who’s there just to explain technology to the CMO, is a fleeting one,” he says.
On the heels of its Release 16 and Cloud 16, the most recent of its major platform updates, and ahead of its annual conference Enterprise World slated to take place in Nashville, Tn. July 11-14, we had a chance to talk to Howatson about his last two years at OpenText.
Editors’ note: the below is not an interview transcription, but reflects the conversation held.
ITBusiness.ca: When I talk to my friends about the biggest tech brands to come out of Canada, everyone knows about BlackBerry, but few have heard about OpenText. Do you feel like your brand should be a more a part of the Canadian tech success story?
Adam Howatson: We’re Canada’s largest software company and this year we’re celebrating our 25 year anniversary. That’s an outstanding achievement. So yes, we should be in the narrative of interest to Canadians and hopefully we’re seen as a standout in how we take Canadian technology to the rest of the world. But we don’t desire to be a household name because we don’t sell consumer solutions.
But we don’t desire to be a household name because we don’t sell consumer solutions. I want to target the heads of large enterprises, the heads of governments, and large NGOs. We’re a financially prudent organization that focuses on profitability. Other tech firms don’t mind losing money, so long as they are growing. That’s not the OpenText tact.
Will we embark on throwing millions out the door to make general awareness of the company? No. Will we continue to market ourselves in the Fortune 10,000? Absolutely.
ITB: In 2014, OpenText made a deal with the Ontario government to create new jobs in the province for a $120 million investment. Did striking a deal for public funds bring more scrutiny to your company or otherwise affect you in your role as CMO?
AH: No it hasn’t. There are times when people pile on to things around a political point without understanding the context around it. We can put people into India, into the Philippines, or into other lower cost centres. The government offered a program that would make Ontario fully competitive with other regions around the world. We’re a Canadian company and we’re very proud of it and will always be headquartered in Ontario. We want to grow and we want to be cost effective, so if we can come together in a mutually benefitial agreement, I think that’s great. Marketing is not a factor.
ITB: OpenText recently saw some media attention when it announced it would be laying off 450 employees worldwide. These sort of corporate restructurings are bound to happen from time to time, but how do you cope with these hard times?
AH: That change was completed about 11 months ago now. It helps that we have a beautiful culture at OpenText. We’re not a hierarchical organization. Personally, I try to call at least 60 different people at OpenText twice a year. As a company, we engage quarterly to do an all-hands call with the executive and there’s games rooms in our facilities. The key to making it through is to have an awesome culture and it will survive those moments.
I work to directly engage with employees all over the world. I did 300,000 miles by air to go to different offices around the world last year – Japan, England, the Netherlands, locations in the U.S. and Canada. A good culture comes from being present and going out to meet with people. It can be as simple as going for a team lunch, or bigger events like when we rented out a theatre for the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens last year. The key is to not do it once and walk away, but to make it part of the fabric of everyone’s daily life.
ITB: On a more positive note, your CEO Mark Barrenechea recently won an award for being the results-oriented CEO of the year in the CEO World Awards. What’s the significance of that and how can you leverage it?
AH: We like to get Mark out there and put him on stage. He publishes a regular blog and promotes it socially and he’s a profilific author that publishes books. Putting Mark forward is just a natural course of our busienss and the award doesn’t change that. Whether or not he won an award, he has an intellect that’s worthy of thought leadership in the technology industry.