More than four decades before marking a recent milestone as co-founder of a billion-dollar software startup, a teenaged Andrew Waitman designed and built himself a personal computer.

Waitman is still so proud of that old high school project, a layout of its motherboard has a framed place of honour in his office at Assent Compliance,Andrew Waitman where he is chief executive officer overseeing a global workforce of more than 840 people.

At the time, growing up in tough circumstances as an adopted teenager in a poor family in the Ottawa area, he was hooked by the “elegance, the beauty of truth, that you find in computers – there is no faking.”

Andrew Waitman is a co-founder and CEO of Assent Compliance, a software startup that achieved unicorn status with a new funding round in January.

And when he decided to pursue his passion after graduation from a vocational school, Waitman (BASc ’87, electrical engineering) set his sights on the best university he knew of, submitting his computer design as part of the application.

“Waterloo represented the pinnacle of engineering education in Canada – and a ticket out of poverty,” he recalls. “It was tough to get in and I really struggled in my first year, but that’s why I went there. I wanted to go to the top computer/technical school.”

Waitman paid for his first year with $3,000 in savings from a paper route and a $500 credit card available to new students, and asked to do his first co-op work term as soon as possible to make ends meet.

Transformative experience

By the time he graduated in 1987 with a degree in electrical engineering, he had climbed from the bottom of his 167-member class to the top, put together a resume that included jobs at the Department of National Defence and Bell Northern Research, and acquired the confidence to take on a string of big challenges.

“Not to be overly nostalgic, but it was five of the best years of my life,” recalls Waitman, whose son, Rian Maclean, is now a computer engineering student at Waterloo.

“It was just a great, great growing, maturing experience. It was transformative for me, both educationally and just in terms of living life.”

Set up for success

Looking back, Waitman says the work ethic and determination needed to get through the engineering program at Waterloo made it relatively easy as he went on to earn an MBA and credentials as a chartered financial analyst.

In addition to allowing him to pay his way through school, his co-op jobs – including an early assignment building a database from scratch and presenting it at a big industry conference – also set him up for success in business.

“The thing that got me through Waterloo, and is one of the things that has built my character, is the idea that no matter how hard something is, you just don’t give up,” Waitman says.

A career as a financial analyst and venture capitalist eventually led to a position as CEO at Pythian, a professional services firm Waitman helped build into a US $50-million business in less than five years.

He later started offering advice to three young entrepreneurs at fledgling Assent in exchange for an office, then agreed to serve as CEO in 2015 with an understanding that they shoot high and aim to “put a dent in the universe.”

'Forged in Waterloo'

Based in Ottawa, the software-as-a-service company has since secured US $500 million in funding, including a US $350-million round in January thatAssent design made it a unicorn with a valuation of over US $1-billion.

Waitman says the new backing gives Assent - which helps manufacturers bring responsible products to market by ensuring the raw materials and parts in their supply chains comply with complex environmental and ethical regulations – the footing to become a world leader.

The layout for the motherboard of a computer Waitman designed and built in high school is on prominent display in his office at Assent.

And although there is a lot of work ahead to get there, he expects to lean on a key lesson learned as an undergraduate to get the job done one more time.

“I was forged in Waterloo – no question – and part of that is the recognition that anything worth doing is often hard,” Waitman says. “You’ve just got to grit and get through it.”