John Baker (BASc ’00) remembered exactly where he was when he had a eureka moment that would not only change his life, but the lives of more than 15.5 million people worldwide. It happened in the late 1990s when Baker was walking to his systems design engineering class.
As he booked it across campus, Baker wrestled with a question that had been percolating for months: What was the most important problem he could solve that would have the biggest impact on the world?
“And it hit me. I couldn’t think of anything bigger than transforming the way the world learns,” Baker said recently. “Learning has this wonderful ripple effect. It really is the foundation upon which we make progress.”
Fast forward to 2023. Baker’s global online learning company D2L has more than 1,100 employees, millions of users and offices in Australia, Brazil, Singapore and the U.S., yet retains a head office in Kitchener. And for good reason, said Baker. The University supported him as an undergraduate, even when he took a co-op term off to start the company — something that was unheard of back then.
“The cool thing about Waterloo is they never said ‘no.’ They just said, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do this,’” he said.
D2L’s origin story is just one of hundreds that have become lore since Waterloo, a university that sprung up in the middle of muddy southwestern Ontario farm country in 1957, evolved to become an inspiring springboard of technological innovation drawing students and innovators from around the world.
Think BlackBerry, which put instant communication in the palm of our hands. Think OpenText, which went from helping create the first online Oxford English Dictionary to becoming a leader in enterprise information management software. And don’t forget Maplesoft, with its user-friendly platform that crunched algebra and calculus for more efficient, accurate data.
Tom Lee (BASc ’88, MASc ’90, PhD ’96), remembers the early days of technology and software development on campus, back when math, engineering, tech and science students came together to simply build, as he called it, “weird stuff.” Forget Silicon Valley career dreams, stock options and mega bonuses. Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, it was about bringing cool ideas to life, not building companies or getting rich.
“When you look at the very successful companies, none of them came out of some orthodox business analysis of markets. It was a bunch of people who knew how to cobble together interesting, advanced things that were fun to make,” said Lee, who started his Maplesoft career in 1989 and eventually earned the title “chief evangelist.”
“It was a bunch of people who knew how to cobble together interesting, advanced things that were fun to make.”
Since then, an incubation framework has emerged in the region that includes Velocity, Communitech and the Master of Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology (MBET) program, which has produced more than 750 MBET alumni in 150 countries. The real shift from Waterloo’s scrappy beginnings to tech startup and commercialization mecca might never have happened, however, without the University’s Intellectual Property (IP) Rights policy, which grants ownership to the inventor.
That’s what David Yach (BMath ’83) believes. He once worked for University spinoff software company WATCOM, run by Wes Graham, widely regarded as the “father of computing” at Waterloo.
“I worked for his startup except I don't think the word had been invented yet,” Yach quipped, explaining he was one of the few graduates who worked for a software company at the time. Most tech grads found positions at banks or utility IT departments. “I felt very privileged and thrilled to actually get a salary for writing code!”
That was before Yach joined BlackBerry (then Research in Motion) in 1998. He worked there until 2012, but when he arrived, he had no idea what a BlackBerry device was. By then, Waterloo’s reputation for encouraging IT and commerce was taking form and the University drew some of the best talent from across Canada and beyond. Momentum grew as companies such as BlackBerry matured.
Although BlackBerry has since shrunk in size, Yach described its influence as a dandelion blowing in the wind.
“You know, the seeds are planted everywhere,” he said. When he now talks to local tech leaders, they’ll often bring up their former BlackBerry devices. “BlackBerry is having, interestingly, a huge long-term impact on the tech community here because of the people we brought to the area.”
Waterloo is a thriving hub of innovation, and with its myriad of tech startup support and co-op opportunities, the University is evolving to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world.
That means students and professionals from other disciplines are building careers in technology, too. Take Mandy Lam (BA ’05, MA ’07), strategic communications director at D2L who also spent 14 years at OpenText. The former English major remembers how Waterloo’s spirit of innovation spread to every student, no matter their discipline. It didn’t hurt that the area’s tech industry was but a few streets away.
“It informed a lot of those decisions I made as an Arts student. ‘Hey, maybe I should learn how to build websites. Hey, maybe I should take those tech courses,’” she said. “It’s just part of the culture at UWaterloo — to generate employees of the future.”
Anna-Maria Brokalakis (BA in progress), a third-year English major, agreed that the University — and its renowned co-op program — helped her shape a potential career path in technology. Although she did well in math and science in high school, she chose a path as an Arts student, but still wanted to explore her inquisitive and pragmatic side. Technical writing fit the bill.
“I realized that it’s essentially back-door access to the tech industry as a non-tech person,” she said.
That decision paid off. Despite having no professional technical writing experience, BlackBerry hired her as a co-op student. It turned out her hiring manager was an Arts grad from Waterloo, too, and knew her education gave her what she needed to be up to the task. This spring she’ll be completing a third work term with the company.
This next generation of risk-takers and technology enthusiasts will continue what Waterloo’s alumni started.
“I think the genius of Waterloo is it loves innovators,” said D2L’s Baker. “If you bring in smart students who want to change the world, and you sprinkle other entrepreneurs into that ecosystem, it’s going to be very fertile ground for a generation of new ideas that lead to great companies.”
I think the genius of Waterloo is it loves innovators … If you bring in smart students who want to change the world, and you sprinkle other entrepreneurs into that ecosystem, it’s going to be very fertile ground for a generation of new ideas that lead to great companies.