Humans of Tech – Nick Oddson

Nick Oddson is the CTO at D2L, one of Canada’s leading high growth software companies focused on improving the education of millions. With Nick’s guidance, D2L has gone through some incredible transformations over the years to move to a continuous cloud delivery model and scale the platform for their continued global growth. 

Nick is known as a key leader in the region and has a unique ability to manage people, business and technology. He’s not only passionate about technology, he also plays an active role in supporting the local Arts community.

What is it about EdTech that most excites you? What does the future of education look like to you?

The exciting part about being in EdTech is that you can actually see it make a direct improvement to individuals with whom you have personal connections (my 7-year-old as an example). Education is the most significant influencer on the first two decades of people’s lives and it guides them to the subsequent decades as they continue to learn in the workforce. D2L as a company and those folks I work with really feel that through education we can make the world a better place.

Making sure we spend time focused on learning, especially in today’s climate where knowledge is seemly dismissed out of hand, we need to make sure people have learning opportunities, especially in developing regions of the world, so they can have a positive impact on their community.  It’s how the world gets better,  and technology has only just started to seriously be applied to education challenges.  I think in the next 20-40 years, we are going to see a huge increase how people value learning, share knowledge, and build off one another. I think that EdTech will be at the heart to support a lot of the change.

When it comes to the future of education there’s a lot around data being collected to determine what makes learners successful and what information helps supporting teachers achieve better results. There’s work we are doing to make learning be more personal and contextual, so you can learn in your own time and at your own pace and can excel where you excel and get support where it’s needed.  It’s already changing for those we work with, where the model of “everyone marching to the average pace of the class”, isn’t necessarily how it’s done, with many leading educators driving that future.  That individualization in education and the data around what works for people mean that we can get to a model of continuous refinement of material, sharing and collaboration on methods and better learning paths to success will result in learners being more engaged and connected to their learning.

You’re CTO at D2L – what drew you to this company and team?

It was largely because I’d just had a little boy and I wanted to impact him and his peer group. When I joined D2L he was 2, and I thought how can I help advance the technology that he will directly use in his schooling (since D2L works with many Ontario schools).  

When we’re talking about education, there isn’t anyone who isn’t touched by learning through their lives – and everyone has an opinion of how learning should have happened based on their personal experiences – so I was happy I could join a company that would be influential in that area and really work directly with educators and students to help make it better. 

When I joined, I then got exposure to the fact that it’s a pretty awesome cloud company, that is very successful in the space.  It’s doing some world leading engineering work at the forefront of cloud technology, thought leadership in analytics and standards — so all of that just added icing to the cake of the great mission. I got to learn how cloud companies work and I got to work with a world-class team of people.

You’ve been part of transformational times at both OpenText and D2L – what qualities do you think are important for a leader to have when scaling companies?

There are so many — I think one of the key ones, it’s when you are talking about scaling a company it’s important to know what levers to pull that match the maturity of the company – if you do some things too early, they stall, if you are too late, then they don’t reap the benefit effectively.  Trying to not go to big before you’re ready or be too cautious and slowing down the pace of success, it’s really a fine line and I think I am still refining my own learning about those things.  The magic of answering the question “What is the right next step for the company in this phase?”.  

The other things I think are important, is to grow or hire experts and then count on them – technical, leadership, business – whatever discipline, and have enough knowledge to be able to effectively support them in the changes they recommend. None of the successes you see in life is attributed to one person only, and how well a group of people support each other, are mindful of what matters to each other and are trying to help everyone to their best outcome possible will be a model for sustainable results. 

From a software perspective, it’s really important to understand who you’re solving problems for and making sure you’re connected to the end users. When you scale you tend to lose connections with the people who use your product and that’s where you run into trouble. Trying to keep that connection at the heart of what you do as a software company is instrumental in being successful and scaling into the next phase. We try to ensure that all of our organization understand what we are doing, for whom and what we hope to achieve by it, and how we will know that we did it well.  We’re not perfect every time at that, but we’re definitely much better than many companies I’ve seen and continue to improve it.  Not rocket science, also not quite common sense in the software industry yet, so it still takes some work.

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

A LOT of theatre. The theatre is a creative outlet and a lot of fun – I’ve been doing it for the last 25 years. I do a lot of sword fighting (come see the KWLT production of She Kills Monsters in May, it’s about D&D) and I travel and learn from experts around the world which is fun.  My wife, I and some amazing friends run the Medieval Faire ( Royal Medieval Faire) every year (for the last two decades) and that’s fun being creative.  I find a lot of tech people actually have a strong artistic outlet.

What is most exciting about the changing KW tech landscape that you’ve witnessed over the years?

Great question. There’s just so much diversity in the kinds of problems we’re trying to solve in the region, it’s incredible. The thing I like is that anybody can have an idea and get started and turn it into a company that has a significant role in the world – Blackberry did it first and it opened the floodgates to be more the expectation. 

When people start here, they think that kind of BIG, which feels like it really has gained momentum over the last twenty years.  I find that amazing – how quickly something can go from idea to working.  We’re doing something at D2L where we’re working with high school students and they’re doing things that are way beyond what I would have ever done in high school – it’s so forward thinking – it’s easier than ever for someone in a grade 12 class to change the world with an idea. 

I find the tech community landscape in the region so incredible and everyone tries to be very welcoming to people.  You can literally keep your career in the region and never work in the same field twice.  

I think that diversity of purpose that exists, also means we are better for it with all those perspectives and access to knowledge – you could say, hey, I’d like to do some HW startup, I’ll go talk to folks at Blackberry, or Thalmic or Clearpath and you can learn from them. I think we end up with more rounded-out skills for the people that stay in the region because of that.

Why Waterloo? What is it about this region that made you stay here as opposed to moving to the Valley?

Everybody has a lot of opportunities to go to the Valley, but I like our town. I think there are some things about the Waterloo region that are different from the Valley – from all the stories I’ve heard anyway. I find there’s a lot of cooperation and a lot less competition. 

Everybody who runs a company here is more than happy to support their friend who is running a different company. I think there are lots around we do support one another, how we trade software or services to help each other. Many of us take a longer-term view of employment – we care about our employees and where they’re going – sure we lose and trade employees between companies a lot but ultimately we know we’re going to work with those people again and we want to support them in their success and their career. 

I think it’s a little more aggressive and cut-throat in the US, and not quite as collaborative and people care less (I mean really care) about their companies and maybe are more “what’s the newest shiny thing” to go to.

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

Everybody’s got the gimmicks – the free lunches, the video games, the pool tables – but all those things are just things. I think the reason why people come to your company and why they ultimately leave your company is because they want to be connected to the purpose of what you’re doing.

If you can be good at talking about why what you’re doing matters and not losing sight of that you will attract the right talent. Make sure the “why” is reinforced in your communications even after they’ve been hired. Especially as you scale up as a company it’s important not to lose sight of why you’re doing what you’re doing and that the employees understand why they matter and why it’s good to care about those things. If you can’t explain it and people can’t see your vision then they aren’t going to want to work for you. 

Ultimately be the kind of company that you would want to work for and really look at it from the perspective of those you would hire. Work to be that kind of company not only when they first get hired, but their 2nd year in, their 5th year in, their 12th year in and that evolves with your employees. I’m thankful that people get why education is important.  I’ve never had someone believe that what we’re doing is not a good thing for the world, even if they ultimately didn’t take the job, I’ve never had a moment where people weren’t enthusiastic about what we’re trying to accomplish.  Thanks for listening to my ramblings.