6 Questions: One-on-One with Terry Power, president of Sapphire Technologies Canada

On the frontline of ITâ??s war for talent.

It’s no secret that Canada’s information technology (IT) sector faces a staffing challenge. The dot-com bust, along with an increase in outsourcing, has led to flat enrolment levels in IT programs. Add to that an aging workforce and a nation-wide crunch for tech talent now threatens to derail Canada’s competitiveness on the innovation front. In the middle of this war for talent is Terry Power, president of Sapphire Technologies Canada (formerly CNC Global), one of Canada’s largest IT staffing firms. Joining the company 10 years ago in Vancouver, Power in 2005 assumed the role of president. Since that time, he has overseen the creation of several new Canadian branches and has expanded the company’s number of annual placements to 4,500. Under his guidance, Sapphire has been named to Canada’s Top 5 Best Small-Medium Employers list by Hewitt Associates and Queens School of Business, and has also made Branham Group’s list of the country’s Top Professional Services Companies. Sapphire was acquired in 2006 by Vedior. We asked Power six questions.

What is the greatest challenge currently facing Sapphire and what are you doing about it?

Our greatest challenge without a doubt is trying to manage growth. The organization has been doing extremely well over the last number of years and, like most organizations in Canada, it’s tough for us to find top talent. With any service-based company, having the best people in your industry and having them engaged is what ultimately wins the day. We’ve done a pretty good job here of building our employer brand to attract the best people to our company. We’re constantly looking at ways to ensure that our staff is engaged. We do a couple of surveys each year intended to measure employee engagement. We create a very open and candid business climate where our employees always feel like their ideas and concerns get listened to. One of the things that I’ve long maintained here is that the day people are afraid to bring issues to my attention is the day that I fail.

Who else — person or company — do you feel is doing innovative work and in what way?

I think one thing that’s becoming more important in society is the role that businesses play in the community. I recently attended an IBM event where they celebrated the company’s diversity. It was such a wonderful evening. In attendance were people from the gay community, the physically challenged and visible minorities. I think in a world where it’s becoming tougher to find people, I look at something like that and I admire it. I think it shows good business sense because the companies that show innovation around diversity issues will ultimately win the battle that’s out there for top talent.

How would you describe your leadership approach/style?

I’ve always believed you have to be approachable with people, no matter who you are. People have to feel like they can talk to you. I think you also have to be kind. There are people who are quite candid about their feedback, but it becomes cruel and hurtful. I think you can still give feedback to people and make tough decisions while having a good heart about it. So I’m not afraid to make tough decisions, but I do it in a way that makes it not about the individual but about the issue, project, or result. I’m not exactly the most detail-oriented person in the world, and that creates a specific leadership style as well. I’m far more interested in other people taking on various factors of the business and giving them the confidence to run with it, as opposed to needing to know every detail and be involved in every decision. I love creating opportunities for people to step into new roles and take on new challenges and watching them flourish.

At the beginning of the decade there was a brain drain where Canada’s IT professionals were heading to the U.S. in large numbers. Is this still a big issue and, if so, how does Sapphire deal with it?

It’s certainly far less of an issue than it was. During the dot-com boom there was a huge draw of people into the Silicon Valley. People had dreams of billions of dollars worth of options because tech companies were going to be the next big thing. But then the tech bubble burst. But I do believe there is competition globally for good talent, regardless of the role. And what worries me is when countries start putting walls up around them — keeping people out is a dangerous strategy when you’re going to need to look beyond your borders for talent to be competitive. But I think Canada gets it more than the U.S. Microsoft is the most high profile example. A few months ago they announced they were opening a development centre in Vancouver. And part of why they did that is they believed Canada would do a better job of attracting global talent, purely because of some of the homeland security measures that have been put in place in the U.S.

In terms of Sapphire, when you’re looking online for IT jobs in Canada, chances are you’re going to find our web site. What we haven’t done is proactively go out and try and recruit people into the country. Though I think that’s starting to change. Eighteen months ago we were acquired by a company called Vedior, which is the third largest staffing firm in the world. What we’re now going to start to look at through our Vedior network is being more proactive in going out and bringing people here.

The I.T. world is no stranger to outsourcing, particularly to India. Recently, several child labour facilities were uncovered in India, which turned out to be making products for the GAP. The company denied any knowledge of the facility. With whom does the responsibility lie in such cases?

If you’re going to outsource you have an obligation to understand why that labour market is so much cheaper. I think what becomes a challenge is when companies turn a blind eye in the interest of cost saving. If I’m a Canadian company and I’ve decided I’m going to outsource, I think there’s an obligation to understand the work environment. Perhaps go and visit the work facility. But in general, India is a great example of the positive change that can happen from outsourcing. For a number of years labour rates were low in India and so people started to bring work there. And over time, more and more work went there as the demand for IT professionals grew. And as demand grew, so did pressure on wages. And so the wage rates of IT professionals in India have grown fairly dramatically — it’s had a positive impact on the economy over there and it’s done some wonderful things to create the expansion of the middle class. People can now do the types of things that are taken for granted in Canada, like buy a car and own a home. So I think when outsourcing is done right it has the opportunity to, over time, bring employment at fair local market rates to an economy.

You’re an avid golfer – do you mix your passion with business?

Definitely — beyond the quality time that you can spend with customers and contacts on the golf course, I think the game itself is an escape. I think we all need to take some time to get away from the things that occupy our days.