John Tennant keeps an eye on the IT industry from an unusual perch. He’s chief executive officer of Canada’s Technology Triangle, a public-private sector agency charged with helping bring business and investment from around the world to one of the country’s biggest technology centres, the southern Ontario region surrounding the cities of Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge. Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge.
With a population of just under 500,000, it boasts leading tech companies such as Research In Motion as well as several universities and colleges that emphasize IT.
A member of the foreign service for 30 years, Tennant moved to the private sector three years ago. He recently spoke to Computing Canada about that transition,encouraging more investment in technology and who he thinks is the smartest person working in the sector today.
COMPUTING CANADA: What’s the primary difference between being a diplomat and representing a group of municipalities?
John Tennant: Diplomat is a phrase you chose. In essence the job within the Canadian foreign service is to represent the country over a broad spectrum of activities. A good portion of my career was in terms of outreach to business, including attracting investment. In a sense our task at Canada’s Technology Triangle Inc. in marketing the Waterloo region is analogous at a different level to some of what is done as a Canadian representative
I was very interested to have the opportunity with Canada’s Technology Triangle Inc. because I believe rather profoundly that the key competitive factors involved in economic development are brought together today at the regional level. We’ve had a very significant reduction of barriers in national boundaries, (along with) growth — the attractive features that will entice business to look seriously at an area. The Waterloo region has always been exciting in terms of bringing together quite a vibrant and diverse economy with outstanding post-secondary institutions. That is close to quite a number of the factors that promote business growth.
CC: What challenges does the area face?
JT: The area is blessed with a diverse economy. Manufacturing remains very important, but with higher Canadian dollars, competition from China, issues of seamless crossing into the United States, the sector is one that will be subject to adjustments.
Another area of challenge is future growth. It has been one of the top three regional economies in Canada in terms of economic importance. The Conference Board expects that Waterloo will be among the top performers to 2008.
CC: Were you at the recent “Canada Day” picnic in Silicon Valley?
JT: Yes, together with the technology association Communitec and the University of Waterloo. It provides access to a number of Canadians, or people with close affiliations with Canada, who have been successful both on their own and with major companies in Silicon Valley who understand or have been receptive to the message about the opportunities to establish in our area, particularly for research and development operations.
CC: You were there to entice Canadians back?
JT: Certainly that was part of the agenda, also to have Canadians either who have their own firms or are with other firms updated on the value equation of having a significant presence in the Waterloo region.
CC: What’s your sense of American interest in investing in Canada’s IT industry?
JT: The U.S. IT industry is very receptive to the very favourable story we’re able to tell them. Are they widely aware of the advantages of doing business in Canada? No. That’s why it is extremely important to get in front of them to be able to make the case for Canada’s competitiveness, notably where research, development and design are involved. We’ve been successful in attracting two important companies in the last year, McAfee, putting in a 50-person unit, and Nuvation Engineering.
CC: What do you see is Canada’s biggest obstacle in getting IT investment?
JT: The most needed thing is that our attractiveness become more widely and better known. That will always be the case. This is why I support our working together to make it better known. Once people look, they see we have an attractive and compelling story to tell, even where offshore activities in India and China or other places may be a consideration.
CC: Who’s the smartest person you ever met?
JT: One person I have very high degree of respect for is Mike Lazaridis, founder and co-CEO of Research In Motion. What I admire greatly about Mike — and it was evident when he and a small group of us were in Pittsburgh in early June — is he makes sure he has thought things through sufficiently to distill the wisdom he imparts down to the essence.
CC: What’s most important lesson you’ve learned in being a leader?
JT: Transparency, and with it goes honesty and genuineness. (Said another way), successful leaders do not posture or play games.