Humans of Tech – Vesna Leonard

If you haven’t yet met Vesna Leonard, Co-Founder of worX4you, allow us to introduce you. Vesna leads a remote team of software testers, providing critical quality assurance solutions for start-ups and established tech companies in Canada and the US. Vesna and her husband, Mike, not only built a great services company, but did so while traveling the world with their 3 young kids.

What’s your major internal motivation for doing what you do?

I had previously struggled in a traditional office setting. I felt stressed and unfocused, like I was being taken away from what I really wanted to do. After going on mat leave, I just decided to do something completely different. I was approached by a bunch of startups in Toronto who were willing to let me work from home. It was a good place to start.

I was blown away in the first couple months by how much I poured into it. The work was flexible around my kids’ schedules. We even went to Europe as a family and still continued to work.  Eventually our name got out there and the work kept coming in.

When we came back, we saw all this McMansion nonsense and realized that wasn’t the life we wanted. We didn’t want to go back to a location-dependant lifestyle at all. We really could work literally anywhere. Within 5 months, we had sold everything that we owned. We got a tent trailer for our van and packed up the family. We haven’t looked back since January 2011.

Life is about a balance of combining and bringing out the excitement, creativity, focus, and ownership in me. I’ve found that balance in remote work. It’s given me a laser focus on clients and on producing high quality work for them. It allows me to work in spaces that make me happy.

What are your favourite aspects of what you do?

It’s hard to boil it down to just one thing. I love being able to work from anywhere in the world. I love working with a variety of great teams across industries – currently over 50 –  and I love helping testers across the world grow their own skills. We have 9 people currently located across Canada, the US, and Serbia.

What’s been the most surprising part of your journey?

I’ve been really surprised by how much I care about the work and the people that I work with. Without the distraction of an office, I can dive in deeper and focus on the people that I’m interacting with and their needs. I get to know and understand my clients and colleagues on a much deeper level. I’ve found I have to be very clear in my communications and that has had a positive impact on my relationships.

Working remotely brings in a whole other level of soft skills. Communication is the primary one – you need to be able to dive deep into the subject matter and ask questions, and not take things at face value. You need to listen for red flags and miscommunications in meetings with people and speak up when you hear a mismatch. You have to be able to take ownership of your projects. You need to act like a bit of a parent sometimes, as you’re juggling a bunch of different kids with a bunch of different needs. You need to bring forward things that need to be addressed, while caring that the quality is there as well.

What do you find the most interesting about the Waterloo/Toronto tech ecosystem?

We were gone for 6 or 7 years and as much as I still dealt with people over that time, I didn’t have a clear picture of what it was like until we got back here. It’s more homogenous and connected than it was before I left.

Even with the diversity of tech companies – it’s interesting how similar most are, particularly when it comes to the challenges they face. Their perceived problems are similar yet everyone we’ve spoken with will say something along the lines of “This is kind of a weird way of doing it but…. we do X like this.” They usually think that they’re unique in terms of the problems they face, but they’re really not. Most companies think that others in their ecosystem having testing down but they really don’t. That’s something companies in this area struggle with quite a bit.

As an example, the workflow usually lacks the testing phase found elsewhere in the world. Developers will create a product and then focus on putting out the bugs. They’re not generally focused on quality, they’re focused on getting products out quicker rather than better.  

The difference I’ve noticed working with companies here rather than with US companies is that some companies here treat testing as an afterthought rather than an integral part of their product development process. In India, testing is a huge career. People go to school for it, but there is none of that here. The companies here have the attitude of “here, test this”, instead of integrating quality into the team. Their U.S counterparts view testing in the longer term and as part of the process.

KW is a big community, but is tight knight and small at the same time. It’s similar to a lot of other smaller tech ecosystems, like Costa Rica and Serbia.

What are you most proud of professionally?

I am super proud of what Mike and I have built with the children. Everyone in the family had a part to play in building this business even as we were traveling the world. I’m proud of the team that we’ve built and I’m proud of the quality of work that our team produces.

Read More Stories Like Vesna’s.

Humans of Tech – Mike Murchison

This month we spoke to Mike Murchison, featured recently in Forbes Top 30 under 30 for Enterprise Tech and CEO of AI powered customer service startup Ada Support. We explore the story behind Ada, what keeps Mike up at night, and why he’d love to find himself secluded with only the ocean and books for company.

Tell us about Ada Support! Where did the name come from and how does the name play into your company’s directives?

Ada is named after Ada Lovelace who is widely considered the world’s first programmer. We wanted to honour that history,. It’s important to remember that the first computer engineer was a woman.

Our company Ada is an AI customer service platform. We make it easy for enterprise customer support departments to improve their customer service through AI tools. We’ve grown in the last year from a team of 15 people to about 65 and we recently hired our new Head of People with Artemis’ help.

The average person spends 43 days of their life waiting on hold for customer service. When Ada is deployed at scale across the world, we will fundamentally change the way people experience customer service. We’d have given so much time back in their day and have made the experience way more delightful for both customer service agents and consumers.

What sparked you to pursue an entrepreneurial career path?

Startups are amazing learning vehicles. I’ve worked on a few over the years and there are few things that I find more challenging than willing something into existence with a bunch of other highly motivated people.

One of the things that’s so fulfilling about Ada is that we’re learning new things all the time. One of the reasons our company is successful and will continue to be successful is because we look for people who have a similar relationship with their work. Ada people view work as an opportunity to grow personally and to level themselves up, to experience challenges head on. That’s basically my relationship with company building and why I love doing it.

Why did you start Ada, what gave you the idea?

The reason we started Ada came out of an issue we were having with the previous company I had founded. My co-founder David Hariri and I started a company called Volley and it was growing really quickly. With that growth, we were experiencing a customer support challenge where we couldn’t respond to all our customers quickly enough. We felt really bad about it because we’ve always believed that really tight communication between the business and the company is essential for any great user experience. That aspect was just breaking down with Volley.

It made us consider if what we were experiencing was also potentially a challenge for other companies. Turns out it was. To really learn about customer service challenges, we joined 7 different customer service teams as agents before we built anything for Ada. We were actually customer service agents and we processed thousands and thousands of phone calls and emails and live chat sessions. We learned first hand how challenging it is to provide customer service at scale.

We built Ada to effectively replicate many of the behaviours we were engaging in as customer service agents. We focused on making Ada easy to use because of our first hand experience – we were part of teams and had faced their struggles. We knew that in order for this technology to be deployed and be effective it needed to be something that customer service reps would actually like to use. That’s why core to Ada’s value is making AI simple and accessible. We would never have had the approach had we not been part of the status quo.

One of our companies principles is “Do it manually first”. When we face any new problem as a team, we ask ourselves how can we do this without building anything. Usually we find that when we approach something manually first you learn so much more about the problem that will influence your subsequent solution that you would’ve missed had you just tried to solve it right away.

Working in the tech industry can be very demanding, what do you do outside work to maintain energy?

I run a lot. For me that’s become something that I need to do to be my best self.

I’m always reading, I love immersing myself in books. Sometimes I dream about going on one of those 45 day transatlantic journeys on a freight container ship. You can actually get on one of these cargo ships as a passenger. I’d love to get a small room and just surround myself with books. I’d have to read!

We’re so distracted by our devices, they’re always on, and I think there’s such a premium on our attention today that sometimes I think the only way to actually experience the world is to isolate yourself from cell reception for a bit.

What advice do you have for leaders and entrepreneurs looking to hire great people and establish a strong culture?

I think it’s critical that leaders spend time understanding how a potential new team member wants to grow personally.

We ask this question at Ada “If we were to grab a coffee 12 months from now, and you were reflecting on how you grew previously over the previous year, what do you want to be able to say?” I think companies that are attuned to people’s personal ambition and are able to create an environment that supports it are the ones that really unlock disproportional productivity. Everyone is showing up because they really want to be there. They are at Ada because it is a learning vehicle for their personal growth. Our organizational growth is really just the summation of our personal growth.

How to Tackle the Tech Leadership Shortage by Embracing Stretch

Canada’s home-grown tech economy is booming. We have more startups than ever, and more scale up companies who are raising money — or better yet, growing revenues — to fuel expansion. And alongside this success we see companies like Microsoft and Uber announcing big plans to grow in Canada.

We can celebrate this growth for sure. But there is a downside.

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