Kitchener-Waterloo Turkey drive: Every family deserves a Christmas dinner

The following is my public service post of the season…

The Kitchener Conestoga Rotary Club believes every family should have a special Christmas Dinner, including a turkey. Five years ago, the Club decided to help make that a reality and has since raised $732,000 in support House of Friendship’s Christmas Hamper Program, which shares the gift of food with local families in need at Christmas time.

What are the facts?

This Christmas, House of Friendship anticipates the need for turkeys and Christmas Hampers will increase – that means 3,500 turkeys and 4,000 food hampers to feed over 10,000 people!

What will that cost?

The Kitchener Conestoga Rotary Club’s 2011 Turkey Drive goal is $275,000 to purchase turkeys and food products. We know this is a big goal, but we believe if we all pitch in a little, we will reach this goal, and more importantly reach thousands of local families. For as little as $20 you can sponsor a turkey. Or you may choose to sponsor a food hamper with a turkey for $80. All donations over $20 will receive an official income tax receipt. How many turkeys and hampers will you sponsor?

How can YOU help?

You can sponsor turkeys and food hampers rather than Christmas or corporate gifts; honour your clients with a donation to the Turkey Drive. Sponsor turkeys and food hampers and encourage your family and friends to do the same. Better yet, ask them to volunteer with you to pack or deliver hampers and turkeys.

How can I talk turkey?

Donate securely online at or drop me an email to jrodgers at

The Daily Bulletin Editor that changed the University of Waterloo web

On Tuesday November 8th, 2011, Chris Redmond let everyone know (at the bottom) he is no longer the editor of the University of Waterloo’s daily news publication — the Daily Bulletin. He covers some the history of the Bulletin:

I have been editing the Daily Bulletin through more than 4,500 issues now since it was created in the spring of 1993. Originally the Daily Bulletin was distributed by “gopher”. In the spring of 1995 the first Web versions of the Daily Bulletin were tried out. In 1998, the “Link of the Day” was introduced; in 1999, the use of photos became a regular occurrence. The “When and Where” events listings began in 2003, and the present graphic design dates mostly from 2006.

What he leaves out is the role that he, along with Roger Watt and Carol Vogt, played with getting “UWinfo” online and to the staff, students, and faculty at the University of Waterloo.

When I started at the University of Waterloo in 2001, hired as the campus’ first Web Developer, I was interviewed in Chris’s office atop Needles Hall. That was the first time I actually met him. I heard about this UWinfo group that was two techies and a writer that learned HTML. That writer provided the content that grew into a very rich University of Waterloo web space.

Every business day Chris published an editorial on what is happening on campus. It was easily one of the first blogs in the world, never mind campus. The difference was that before there were commenting systems the uw.general newsgroup is where the ‘discussions’ happened about stories in the Bulletin. This engaged people in the publication at an early time. This is long before they were called blogs and sure comments never found their way into the Bulletin but I don’t think that is a negative thing.

Chris’s work on the Bulletin and what became the University of Waterloo ‘home page’ (something he “edited” daily until sometime after 2007) gave the University of Waterloo a template of content rich web pages. I believe everyone emulated his content focus in the early days and still influences how the web presence will evolve in the future. He saw the value of the web early and worked to use it for good to the best of his ability.

With Carol Vogt retiring a few years back (and sadly passed away shortly thereafter), Roger Watt retiring, the last of Waterloo’s web content pioneers has left his publication that defines the university web space for so many. It’s a big deal in my mind. Yes there are a few other folks that shaped those early days still around but to me the “UWinfo” group was the web… and if I missed anyone that deserves credit for that, sorry. I can update the post.

Good luck in retirement Chris (which isn’t for a few months at least), I look forward to all the content you have yet to create!

Edit: Hat tip to @garywill — almost forgot about Simon the troll

Why I think Higher Education should experiment with an incubator model

In Canada the rise of the incubator choices is quite noticeable. The success of the Y-Combinator (YC) model is hard to ignore, it seems to be the accepted way to grow young tech companies at the moment. However, it isn’t clear if the model works anywhere but YC and TechStars, these programs cost a lot of money to run so does the math hold up for everyone?

How many companies make it a big enough exit (assuming you need a $30 million exit per incubator) and in what time frame? In Canada there is a trend that shows some crazy growth in exits but how many are in that ‘big enough’ range or more that haven’t been around for 5-10 years or more? I think one maybe two. It isn’t just Canada though, how many exists are there in a year for any tech startup anywhere? Likely not enough to sustain the current number of incubators globally.

The talent pool is half empty

The limits on size, depth, and overall health of the talent pool is a problem for incubators if you assume that they simply tap the current talent base and help them be successful faster. If the number of exits isn’t currently there then you have to look at ratio of incubators to exits and figure out how many companies it takes to fill the gap (what is the current market and what do you have to create? Yup, it is basically a product you are creating). At a guess, the current level of incubators needs to create a lot of brand new entrepreneurs from those that would normally go work for someone.

There is talent out there but they aren’t being developed in any sort of formal educational process. A VC backed/run incubator might not be the best place for young guys and gals to receive this education for the first time. Not saying it couldn’t work, I think Y-Combinator was initially successful not because of the money or location but because an educator runs the program. In 2008, Mashable was claiming that “Y Combinator is the premier university of Internet startups.” I agree. What motivates YC though? Paul Graham’s comment on my post in StartupNorth offers a bit of insight as well (also with a bit more on why in his Why YC post).

When we started YC, the returns seemed completely unpredictable. (They still do actually.) What allowed us to do it was that we didn’t care if we made money.

An incubator that is about educated the ‘student’ is a lot like higher education and should not be about profit. That might be a values based statement but it is something I believe. If you are measured by the success of the student and not by the profit margin, the student has a better chance at success.

Herein lies the opportunity for Higher Education. Not unlike engineers or scientists, there is a demand for entrepreneurs (or if you are Richard Branson you want intrapreneurs). It isn’t good enough that students have the technical chops, they need to be creative and look at solutions to problems in a way that is willing to take more risks. This is soft skill development we are talking about — you can’t engineer an entrepreneurial process. Being entrepreneurial pretty much requires you laugh at the limitations or restrictions and find a way to succeed. You can engineer an education process that offers some perspective on that but that requires some entrepreneurial thinking to design and implement.

Higher Education needs to look outside of courses and modules, entrepreneurs shouldn’t be measured

Traditionally to address a skills gap in a student a course would be created and the student would receive a credit. This just increases the cost of education for students and if you have been paying attention, there is a bit of higher education bubble according to Peter Thiel. What I have seen from students is that they absolutely are against another course that is outside their specific discipline for various reasons. Enter the incubator model in higher education (or in VeloCity’s case the dormcubator).

Create an environment where innovation, networking, competition, and experience is shared as well as celebrated. Create it  outside of the traditional academic course model. Support it institutionally so the quality and knowledge is passed on (doesn’t disappear when students graduate). Then try to connect it back into the classroom. Leverage institutional Alumni networks for mentors and other forms of support. Don’t be afraid to fail a few times.

There is no set way to execute on this model but you need to try, iterate, and keep going. My belief that in order for higher education to remain relevant it needs to experiment with these different ways of learning. Students will not only appreciate it, I bet they will have a better experience and years later the institution will benefit by having them re-engaged.

Footnote: the incubator model

For those unfamiliar with an incubator or accelerator model, the easiest way to explain it: an incubator is where a group or individual provides resources (money, mentorship, space to work, expert services, a network of people) to an early stage company in exchange for equity or another arrangement. Generally it is always equity but in Canada we have publicly backed models (the Accelerator Centre for example) that charge rent for services or in the case of VeloCity you pay what you pay anyway to live in residence and it is a service offered to students.

The entire explanation of the VeloCity model is another post.

More on incubator in Higher Ed: To Be or Not To Be: University Incubators

Director of Student Innovation and VeloCity at the University of Waterloo

It is now official, I can drop the “interim” part of my job and take on a new and exciting title of Director of Student Innovation at the University of Waterloo. I am really excited about all the positive change that is happening at the University of Waterloo and especially the Student Success Office lead by Sean Van Koughnett. Sean started VeloCity with just a crazy idea and a mandate to do something good for students. In only a year it had it first residents and less than three years later a 23-year-old donated $1 Million back to the program. That is success.

Now under the Student Success office with the mandate of “Student Innovation” I feel like the bar just got raised some more. There is a lot to do in regards to first identifying current innovation (which includes VeloCity) and doing the right (or best guess) things to help interesting things happen more often. We will start this fall, it will be a lot of fun.

I am really excited by the team Sean has put together and double excited to work again with Virginia Young who was once an Associate Director with me at VeloCity. She is taking over the Communications and Research role under Student Success. Pam Charbonneau is going to lead Student Experience and Heather Westmorland is leading Learning Services. It won’t be a quiet summer. More in the Daily Bulletin.

An insane young startup guy handed me a cheque for $1 million USD and…

…life in Waterloo just got a lot more interesting. StartupNorth calls Ted insane in the best sort of way and I agree. He managed to build a great little startup, attracting some top tier VCs and then orchestrates a brilliant deal to not alienate some great investors. Then he does something nuts to pretty much everyone, he empties a big part of his bank account and asks me (and VeloCity) to do something awesome with it. I am blown away.

Talking with people today was really interesting. Students had a hard time getting their heads around the fact that Ted has no influence over that money once that cheque is cashed. He doesn’t get equity, we aren’t naming a room after him or a building, he doesn’t gain in any way that people seemed to think he would. He does, however, hope that what we can do at VeloCity is help fill a big gap in Waterloo (and Canada) for support, education, and risk taking funding to support young people as they really go for it.

Besides the cash part I think the most important thing here is that students get an entrepreneur to look up to that is:

  • just ahead of them in age
  • thinking really big, $1 million isn’t cool enough
  • a really nice guy willing to open up his newly established networks to his fellow Waterloo students

Over the next few weeks some big plans for VeloCity will start to take shape. So very exciting. Thanks Ted.

The road trip: San Francisco and Austin (sxswi) notes

For a week in March I did my first big road trip in many years and headed to San Francisco on my way to Austin for SXSWi. With only 3 days in SF and 4 days in Austin I was expecting a pretty intense trip, I wasn’t let down. The goal? In SF it was to meet up with VeloCity alumni (there are around 14 of them I know of there) and find out if there is more VeloCity can do for our students. In Austin it was to purely network and take in all that SXSWi circus has to offer. Every type of marketing strategy is being executed at once by hundreds of different companies; from traditional brands trying new things to crazy useless apps trying to get my attention using the more traditional (but not so classy) booth babe strategy.

San Francisco and the valley

Oh my. I forget how sexy the city of San Francisco is for the entrepreneurial minded. Sure people fall out of love once they get to know it (or think they know it) but if you are wanting to bounce ideas around that is the place. You can meet dozens of different people in a day that will give you dozens of new ways to think about a problem. The weather there is like May in Waterloo without the crazy chance of snow storm so you can walk around comfortably dressed and spend a lot of time outside.

I met up with 10 VeloCity alumni (they have lived in VeloCity before) working for different startups or doing their own thing. Some are very well connected already as they are highly skilled and know their worth. Others are taking notes and plotting their own move. It was great to see them and it was even better to hear their perspectives in the context of the environment we were in.

Austin and SXSWi

What a circus. I booked in late January and the best hotel I could get was the Hampton out at the airport. Thankfully a friend offered up a room downtown which made my experience that much better. Getting around is a nightmare if you aren’t located downtown and you will be tempted to bring your laptop around with you. There is no point in doing that, the internet doesn’t work during the day — far too many people.

What you have in Austin is a great event for networking but don’t go for the talks unless you are there for a few specific ones and you can actually find them on time. I am entirely not sure if the marketing works for all the apps pushing hyper-local services but it is hugely entertaining for those of us there to observe and see all the different things that people try to gain attention. The conversations with people are priceless as well, the event attracts so many leading edge folks. If you are a new startup looking for some validation on what you are building that is the place to be. For more established brands or products like GM, they put on a great show. They even let me drive a Corvette.

It was very cool seeing Kik there as well — they have the most useful chat app but the network suck-age hurt them. I was a bit disappointed because there were a ton more people I wanted to meet and chat with but the best ‘twitter friend I had yet to meet in real life’ moment was bumping into Jonathan Snook in the elevator at the Hampton. How unlikely is that?

A short list of knowledge

The key bits of wisdom sticking in my head:

  • The Canadian Angel scene is totally messed up (not news to many) — there are some good angel investors but not nearly enough are spending the time to build relationships with entrepreneurs in Canada or willing to take risks. This is really clear to me now.
  • Better connections are needed in the valley for students — not to drive them down there, more to demystify the place and provide them with some solid connections. This could be accomplished through their peers or a group like the C100.
  • You never have to eat alone in San Francisco.
  • Austin is an awesome city that is totally overwhelmed by SXSW and you will love it.
  • If you have any dream to be a community manager or be in marketing you have to participate in the madness at least once but do not plan anything there unless you have been there already.
  • Waterloo students are everywhere. Randomly ran into Holden of CS Club fame playing foursquare at the foursquare location, talked with a returning VeloCity resident who is currently working for Foursquare as well.
  • VeloCity/Waterloo needs to do more relatively simple things to help our students — even use SXSW as a way to find new and exciting employers for our students on co-op. We can’t stay in Waterloo waiting for people to come to us.

As I plan to sit down over the next few months and pull together a grand strategy for the next little while at VeloCity I am full of crazy ideas. This is good!

What happened to the new co-op system at uwaterloo?

On Friday the University of Waterloo made public the cancellation of the project that was working on the replacement to a PeopleSoft based system the University uses for co-operative education job matching. There is no doubt student media will have some colourful words for the whole thing in the coming weeks although my favorite student voice (OMG UW) has been rather tame. It could be just because the real trolls are off coding somewhere during reading week.

To students, I will say this again in this post, thank the CECS staff you come into contact with for the top quality jobs and the pay scale averages they hold employers too. Jobmine might be a hassle but you wouldn’t have the opportunity to dislike it so much if they weren’t doing a few things amazingly well.

What killed it?

It was 4+ years of work, it had an excellent report and detailed research driving it, and it did have a capable team (Disclaimer: I was on it, I left it, but those that replaced the original team were certainly more than capable). Co-op students and staff that worked on it will have their opinions about specific situations or personalities but I am going to try and take a higher level view.  I have thought about this for a long time but writing it down helps me think it through… so my gut feeling still is that…

Software development was placed in the leadership role of large scale organizational and cultural change.

No one decided to do it this way, not sure anyone realized that is what was happening until it was too far along, but given the report on Co-op and the large scale change that will take years (5+) to implement, the desire to do something now with a software system that is difficult to use (but works) must have seemed like the easiest thing to do quickly. The problem with that, software projects in committee laden environments are really easy to slow down and frustrate. When you toss in impending large scale change the anxiety of the change is directed at the one project that represents it.

My view is that WaterlooWorks is a victim of the process in an atmosphere of large scale change. It was a project that hit head on the cultural issues facing all of higher education and one issue the University of Waterloo is working hard to tackle (at all levels). It was too much change too early. Only in November 2010 was the organizational change in CECS announced, I am certain it was hoped the change would come earlier but I think if you consider what is happening on campus as a whole it took the time it took so it could be successul. The software project started in 2007 but staff knew then change was coming and WaterlooWorks was the first sign of that change.

In the end was the software problematic? Yes, the memo says it was. But it was a product of the process and no one can be blamed for that, we must learn from it as an institution and move on.

Student time is not real world time (4 months = 1 year)

Why the push for software? A theory of mine is that the software project was driven by student time, show changes to Co-op quickly so that the current student FEDs President can see change in the few months that they are actually leading FEDs. Understandably, as students lives change so much every four months at uwaterloo they start to expect big things from themselves and the world they are in a similar time span. That is a good and a bad thing. There are many things that can be done in short time frames but when you are moving an organization the size of uwaterloo it just isn’t realistic. It should be, it will be, but not right now.

I find myself falling into that time warp at VeloCity — a lot changes in four months — so this is something I have only recently come to truly understand or appreciate. As I enter my third year there I gain a lot of perspective though and that time warp starts to develop patterns. I am just now figuring how to take advantage of that and I think it could work with software projects as well.

Building reliable software is hard

The automatic reaction from many that can build web apps will be: “well I could have built that in a term.”

Go for it. At its core the application is just a dating site — it takes resume’s and a light profile, arranges meetings, and lets both employers and employees rank one another. Then an algorithm runs (maybe less complex than eharmony), everyone is hooked up, and students go to work for four months.

What you don’t know is all of the stuff that goes on in the background. For example, each faculty and department has requirements or exceptions that aren’t the same. That requires a rules engine. Once you dig down you find you need a heck of a rules engine. Again not impossible. Start peeling away more and more of the process though and what is a simple application becomes a very large code base.

Build a new jobmine

I say this not to discourage students, please build it. Show people how simple you see the process working, experiment, learn. Take the ‘Apple’ approach and offer only the features needed for the process to work and see what you have. It could be better. My observation is that the complicated process is being simplified by employers anyway (startups — usually run by uwaterloo alumni — recruiting at their own events, collecting resumes, offering on the spot). This works when honest employers do it but it could hurt students as well. Keep in mind, there are a lot of shady folks out there looking for free talent with really crappy jobs. CECS does an amazing job ensuring the quality and pay levels of student jobs.

Rather than get all crazy with disappointment try and understand the circumstances and do what you can do to try and help. Also, you may find the co-op process annoying but take a moment to thank the folks at CECS as those pay scale averages you enjoy as students are 100% the result of the things the staff do extremely well. Maybe software projects aren’t their thing at the moment but what matters more to students — the quality of the jobs or the few days of swearing fits at a dated interface?

…all that said. I am sad it didn’t work. I hope everyone involved reflects on what was right and what was wrong then gives it another shot. I fear that taking so long to go through a process to get to a pilot too much was invested to feel anything but a deep loss.

What is the hot topic in Canadian Higher Education?

I have the pleasure of working with Melissa on her amazing PSEWEB conference in the roll of being an email instigator. Recently a discussion has been going around the advisory group on the keynote and in true committee fashion we are throwing some great thoughts out there but not helping get things done 😉 My latest ramble (slightly edited) was the following list:

  • Distance education and part-time masters are only now coming to fruition (in established academic/research schools)
  • Student experience sucks, focus on ‘student success’ and overall student experience is becoming more intentional — example, creation of the Student Success office at the University of Waterloo
  • Other than uwaterloo and maybe some colleges (that have a little potential budget surplus), most schools budgets are in bad shape (are there some that aren’t? Please comment)
  • Canadian’s time spent online is higher than the US yet we don’t engage our students that way very well (or do we?)
  • Entrepreneurship is the buzz word of our Federal government and looking to education and commercial partnerships is important to all levels of government
  • A University President just became Governor General of Canada
  • Very little cuts to Canadian research and education when compared to the rest of the G20 countries
  • Grade schools are full (to busting) with kids… at least in soem parts of southern ontario, however demographics say student numbers coming from Canada may slow down (some schools have seen that) which means more focus on international recruitment. Can we even predict this?
  • Branding madness… sweet f is it irrational. A unified brand across something as diverse as a University seems to be a crusade on a visual level that runs on 5-10 yr cycles when what I think all we really need is a raised level of professionalism across all marketing and communications.

I certainly don’t claim any of those is steadfastly factual besides the Governor General being David Johnston. Any of those points above is a blog post explaining the problem in detail and a lot of them are where a raised awareness of branding and marketing in Canada’s business culture has spilled over into Post-Secondary education. From my perspective as a Past-President of one of the larger staff groups in Post-Secondary education and someone that entered the workforce right as Canadian institutions in Ontario welcomed a ‘double cohort’ of younger first year students with less high school education, I see a (one of at least a few) fundamental challenge in Higher Ed as the following:

The demands for professional organizational management and productivity along with the increasingly specialized focus of academics, renewed expectations placed on academic research being tied to commercialization, along with a long standing (but ignored) issue surrounding student experience in Canada points to Canadian (and maybe global in some respects) Post-Secondary Education being at a crossroads.

I see the marketing and web technology solutions being caught up in the turmoil but it is a big part of the solution. If an institution can deploy a strategy effectively it likely has organizational issues either sorted out or in check. I personally look to startup culture for some solutions and I see many things we could try in higher ed.

What are the hot topics though? Is it measuring the effectiveness of marketing (measuring anything in higher ed is a new thing)? Is it using marketing communications as part of a larger effort to enhance student experience? Is it international branding? Do I even have a grasp on reality with what I see as a (one of many) fundamental challenges in higher ed?

Just to throw this out there was well… I see the University of Waterloo as being in a position to be a major disruptor and really shake up Higher Ed in Canada like it did in its first 25 years with co-op, Math, Engineering, etc. We are getting the right people in the right places across both staff and faculty, all I think we need is the right President that won’t just walk in David Johnston’s foot prints but help lead us down the path that David showed us exists.

Startup thinking featuring the 7cubedproject

Tomorrow is the University of Waterloo IT conference, WatItis. I had planned on doing a talk on Startup thinking and how it relates to higher education using examples out of VeloCity but I had a conflict so decided to feature the best example of that thinking in the residence currently, the 7cubedproject. Why them? I think they are a perfect example of what I was going to talk about — build stuff quickly, get people to use it, move on to something else, be sure to be as open as you can with the process from end to end. That way people know what you are working on and why but also both yourself and those paying attention will learn from your experience.

How that could work in an institutional setting? That depends but to know you can build something and get it out their in a day should certainly work to change the current thinking/process that leaves things to committees that can take years to get something out the door.

On the final day of the 7cubedproject they found themselves on the front page of the local newspaper as well as giving a demo of their stuff to the Provincial Minister of Research and Innovation, Glen Murray. If you are curious as to why he thought he should sneak away from his announcement function at the Tannery in the Desire2Learn space to come talk to a bunch of University of Waterloo students come to the presentation tomorrow.

It will be in RCH 309 at 2:30pm, December 7.

The 7cubed project at the Hub

During this week in November a team of seven University of Waterloo students (six live in VeloCity) are hacking away at building seven applications in seven days. They call themselves the 7cubedproject. To me, this is the most exciting thing to happen at the University of Waterloo since VeloCity was announced… why? Because seven students got together and planned out everything themselves. No company approached them, no one set their agenda, this is just pure passion for building stuff and on top of that they are even skipping classes for a week.

It isn’t that U of Waterloo students have done awesome things on the side that make this special in my mind, it is that they have built a bit of a public relations machine around their coding and thought to do that. They have reached out to companies like Facebook and Google for support, built a blog, video blog, live stream, IRC channel, tweeting, etc. They are conscious of the fact that people might find what they are doing to be interesting enough to watch with their market being schools in the US where they have connections (friends).

Is it a marvel to say uni students know how to use social media? Nope. Countless *experts* have raved about that for 10 years or more. What is remarkable is how well these folks work together and special to see Waterloo students broadcast this off campus experience to the world while beaming a little University of Waterloo pride in the process. For a school in Canada and particularly a school like Waterloo this is special as it isn’t students rallying against a logo or something else, its students building stuff and having fun that is pulling connections together.

It certainly inspires me to work away at more things and keep pushing VeloCity to do even more to build community.