In a time when technological innovation is more important than ever, a Canadian e-commerce giant isn’t losing focus on its most important asset: its people.
A global leader in the e-commerce industry, Shopify Inc. encourages innovation from its employees, including University of Waterloo co-op students, to enable the growth and success of their company.
Through programs like Hack Days and Startify, Shopify continues to innovate and improve their product. (In fact, Shop Pay, an accelerated checkout for return customers, started as a Hack Day idea.)
The multinational organization looks to employ a diverse workforce of students, from first-year students to those approaching graduation.
“Whether it’s through internships, club experience, hackathons, or just being around campus, Waterloo students seem to have just such a breadth of experience that really shines in our workplace in different ways,” says AJ Thompson, intern experience specialist with Shopify.
“Waterloo students always seem to have great experiences from a vast variety of places, which really helps Shopify.”
A global leader in its industry, Shopify is the first-ever winner of the Impact in Innovation award, which is being presented as part of the Waterloo Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) Employer Impact Awards.
“Employers like Shopify create unique experiences that inspire innovation and entrepreneurship among a new generation of talent,” says Norah McRae, associate provost of CEE. “Enabling our students to be adaptable, resilient critical thinkers and problem solvers helps organizations thrive as they face rapid change, uncertainty and complexity in the workforce.”
“We try to encourage all our interns to think innovatively, to think about commerce and entrepreneurship in a lot of different ways,” says Thompson.
Shopify, headquartered in Ottawa, was founded in 2006 to help entrepreneurs thrive in a world where competition occurs on a global scale and large players dominate markets through innovation.
Shopify’s e-commerce platform offers online retailers a suite of services including payments, marketing, shipping, and customer engagement tools to simplify running an online store for small merchants.
The platform powers more than 1 million businesses in over 175 countries.
Due to COVID-19, Shopify announced a “Digital by Default” model, which will result in most employees working from home, even after pandemic restrictions are lifted. The organization’s offices are closed officially until at least 2021. When the offices do reopen, they will look much different, with spaces configured for remote meetings and physical distancing.
Partners in innovation
Shopify and the University of Waterloo have also partnered to help students sharpen their e-commerce skills through a free online course, offered as part of the Digital Skills Fundamental courses launched in June.
These courses were developed in response to COVID-19 when many organizations have had to pivot their businesses to an online model. It helps students build technical and digital skills needed to do this work. (Learn more about this online course for students)
Hack Days and Startify
“Shopify has been my most satisfying co-op so far,” says Azfaar Qureshi, an Honours Computer Engineering student. “Great workplace culture and benefits aside, what makes this an amazing place to intern at is the opportunity to work on industry-leading problems and challenges. Working on these projects gives you the opportunity to apply and build upon what you are learning at school.
From its Hack Days to Startify, Shopify is a standout in empowering its students and providing a lasting impact for their future endeavors.
“(Our interns) do real things, they have to think creatively, they have to think innovatively to solve these problems,” Thompson explains. “We’re not just going to give them random busy work – they actually get to do real things that are going to affect our millions of merchants, which is really incredible.”
Shopify puts a focus on diversity by hiring co-op students and team members with a wide range of academic backgrounds and work experiences, believing that people who think differently from one another can approach problems in more unique and innovative ways.
Meanwhile, as part of its student program, Shopify ensures strong mentorship opportunities, where weekly one-on-one sessions are held, and “lightning talks” take place where innovative ideas are shared, and students are encouraged to participate.
Kartiki Sharma, an Honours Computer Science graduate, mentions that the most rewarding experience at Shopify was the mentorship received.
“With their encouragement, I stepped out of my comfort zone and participated in public speaking activities such as weekly demos and lightning talks,” Sharma says.
“It’s a company that’s becoming a lot bigger in terms of size, and it maintains a lot of that startup culture, including the fast-paced work,” says fellow Honours Computer Science student, Saumya Gupta. “Being able to work on many different projects prototyping (leads to) a lot of innovation.”
That innovation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, has become key for Shopify.
“We saw it months ago when COVID-19 hit and the world flipped on its head,” Thompson adds. “Stores didn’t know how they could function or what they could do. New merchants were just launching stores, (and they now) must come up with a whole new game plan. Without being innovative, without finding a way to conquer these problems daily, we’ll never succeed.”
"Shed new light"
While Shopify provides profound impact on its students, Waterloo students bring it a wide variety of skills to the table for the company.
“Waterloo’s standout students ‘shed new light’ on better ways of doing things, provide new ways of thinking, and help prepare Shopify for the future,” Thompson says. He says Shopify loves hiring students full-time afterwards as well.
Q & A session with AJ Thompson, intern experience specialist
How do Waterloo co-op students make Shopify Inc. more innovative or future-proof?
In a lot of ways! The largest overarching way is bringing in new ideas, new insights, and new ways of thinking. By being new to Shopify, they bring in all these things we may have never thought of, challenge the way we do things, and shed new light on better ways of doing things.
One of the things we love to see is our interns ship real projects that affect the real world and affect our merchants or Shopifolk. By shipping high-quality projects and doing things that make Shopify better, they’re preparing Shopify for the future and setting us up for success so we can be a 100-year company and keep doing amazing things.
Why does Shopify come to Waterloo to hire co-op students?
Whether it’s through internships, club experience, hackathons or just being around the campus, Waterloo students seem to have just such a breadth of experience that really shines in our workplace in different ways.
It’s great to have that kind of diversity of thought come in and have people talk about different things [or] have different experiences. Waterloo students always seem to have great experiences from a vast variety of places, which really helps shape Shopify.
Why is innovation so important to Shopify’s vision?
Innovation is crucial to Shopify’s success for a lot of reasons. The first being that in a commerce world, which is where Shopify is built, things change all the time. We saw it months ago when COVID-19 hit, and the world was flipped on its head. Stores didn’t know how they could function or what they could do. New merchants were just launching stores and now must come up with a whole new game plan.
Without being innovative, without finding a way to conquer these problems daily, we’ll never succeed. Shopify’s entire mantra is to make commerce better for everyone. Without being innovative, without growing, without changing, without constantly doing things better than we did them yesterday, we’re never [going to] make commerce better for everyone.
How does Shopify encourage co-op students to be innovative and entrepreneurial thinkers?
We try to encourage all our interns to think innovatively – to think about commerce and entrepreneurship in a lot of different ways.
One of the ways we encourage our interns to grow and be innovative and to think entrepreneurially is by allowing them to ship real work and allowing them to work on real projects. All our interns are full- time employees. They do real things, they must think creatively, they must think innovatively to solve these problems. We’re not just going to give them random busy work; they get to do real things that are going to affect our millions of merchants, which is incredible.
How does Shopify encourage diversity within its organization?
One of the ways we try to encourage diversity of thought throughout Shopify is by having all our interns being full members of teams. It’s a really great way to just let everyone’s voices be heard. You’re allowed to bring your different ideas and different viewpoints forward and they’re all going to be taken seriously.
One of the other ways is Hack Days. Hack Days really allows for diversity of thought and diversity throughout the organization. Now you’re no longer working on a given project, you’re no longer working on something that Shopify’s given to you, you’re tackling anything you want to tackle.
One of the last ways we really try to encourage diversity of thought is through hiring of different disciplines and our lack of requirements when applying. We’re never going to look at a resume and say, “Oh…they’re only a first year. We’ll hire them in three years,” or “Oh, they don’t have a degree in this field. We’re going to come back to them later.” We want to hire anyone from any field, if they’re the right fit for Shopify.
What role does mentorship play to co-op students at Shopify?
Across Shopify as a whole, we ensure that everyone has proper mentorship, proper guidance and proper leadership. One of the ways we do that is through our one-on-one sessions. Every week, our interns meet with their mentor and have a meeting to talk about things, whether it’s giving feedback; whether it’s to talk about projects that they’re shipping; whether it’s to talk about things they’re interested in working on.
We have teams who meet every single day. They do a ‘stand up’ at the start of the day, where people can talk about what they’re working on, or if they need help with anything. One of the other great things about the mentorship at Shopify is our lightning talks and our sharing of ideas. All our interns are encouraged to [participate] in our lightning talks which is a chance to get up and talk about the things you’re working on. So, our interns will get up and share their projects, what their teams are shipping [and] what’s next. This allows all the interns to get together and talk about things, like “Hey that project sounds really cool, I’d love to be a part of it! Can you show me what you’re doing?”
We heard Shopify has gone Digital by Default. What does that mean for your office space in the future?
Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, Shopify has closed all offices until at least 2021. Shopify also announced that even after Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted we will be moving to "Digital by Default" which means that Shopify will be taking a digital-first way of thinking, working, and operating. This means that even when our offices reopen in the future, the majority of Shopifolk will be working from home, and any Shopifolk who do return to an office will be returning to something that looks and feels very different. Spaces will be reconfigured for remote meetings, physical distancing and redesigned with more safety protocols in place. Our offices will exist but they will be used very differently than a typical office.
While our offices were a special part of the Shopify experience, our culture is not defined by the things we have. It’s defined by the humans of Shopify and the foundations we’ve built together from the very beginning. There have been many teams and a lot of time spent ensuring our amazing company culture remains world class to ensure working at Shopify is the best experience it can be.