Coder at the cutting edge
By Mike Foster
Entering Shopify’s headquarters on Elgin Street in Ottawa is like walking into the pages of a glossy architectural design magazine. On one wall of Jean-Michel Lemieux’s 10th-floor office, a video screen shows a dashboard of numbers highlighted in glowing greens and warm oranges. Another wall has low-tech algebraic scribbles and doodled diagrams.
Lemieux likes to visualize ideas by getting his team to draw in red ink on the walls, which are essentially one giant whiteboard. Meanwhile, video screens allow everyone in the company to see code changes happening at Shopify in real-time. The screens ensure what he calls “innovation cadence” — aligning efforts and talents toward common goals. The “27” highlighted in green on the video dashboard refers to the number of new features and updates the company has shipped that day, he explains.
“We want to make sure we stay fast as we scale,” says Lemieux. “Last week we released a feature called Timeline, which allows merchants to collaborate, helping them figure out who has fulfilled what orders. In a world where your product is in the cloud, you get your features and your updates almost instantaneously.”
For the past year, Lemieux (BSc [Computer Science] ʼ96) has been senior vice-president of engineering at Shopify, the runaway success story that provides e-commerce solutions to running a business online. Every month, around 100 million unique users click on a Shopify feature, and $1 billion of stuff is sold through one of its platforms.
“Shopify is about making commerce happen everywhere as easily as possible,” Lemieux says. “There are so many entrepreneurs out there with great ideas but our society puts so many barriers in their way. Like, how do you get money if you have an idea? How do you sell online and build your brand?
“We have taken on this humongous challenge of digitizing commerce on the Internet. We are trying to take all of these antique ways of doing business, put them on the Internet and make them cheap.” His crack team of engineers and coders are up for this huge technological challenge, Lemieux says, and he is “maniacally focused” on making sure that they have an awesome environment in which to write code.
Lemieux’s computing career began in his early teens. As a musician, he composed and sequenced his high school musical with an Atari ST keyboard and laptop. He then followed a guidance counsellor’s advice to study computer science.
Hard to believe today, but for the first two years he was at the Faculty of Engineering in the early 1990s, the Internet had yet to revolutionize our lives.
“At university, I was like a kid in a candy store: Wow, I can learn about computers and do this full time!” he says. “I had a lot of fun and learned so much. I have almost modelled my life to keep learning at that pace forever.”
A placement through the University’s CO-OP program led to his first job, at Hewlett Packard, during Ottawa’s heyday as Silicon Valley North. Much of the infrastructure that built the Internet — the telephony, protocols and software — had its roots in Ottawa, Lemieux says. He was part of that world, and spent 10 years writing code for a couple of dot-com startups.
Software on Mars
In 2005, he co-wrote a computer science book, The Eclipse Rich Client Platform, about a software platform that he and a team had developed while working at Object Technology International, a subsidiary of IBM Ottawa. The platform, which made it easier for developers to create software tools, was used on thousands of products, including NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission.
The flexible platform gave software engineers and scientists at NASA an easy interface with which to create and schedule experiments while the two Rovers were on Mars, he says.
“We built the infrastructure to build all of these types of applications without software teams having to reinvent the wheel. It was really almost like the foundational pillars for how to make a very easy application.”
Lemieux then set his sights on an up-and-coming Australian company, Atlassian, which develops workplace collaboration software. He downloaded their software, found ways to improve it and emailed the company his suggestions.
The result: He was hired as vice-president of engineering and moved with his family to Sydney in March 2011. Lemieux hired hundreds of software engineers at Atlassian, which grew from 150 to around 1,500 employees while he was there.
Now back in Ottawa with Shopify, Lemieux took time to reflect on his career at an Innovate Your Future panel in March organized by the Faculty of Engineering to celebrate National Engineering Month. Camille Taylor (BASc [Chemical Engineering] ʼ03), senior air quality engineer at Golder Associates, was also on hand to share her experiences with students.
Lemieux says software engineering and computer science are becoming creative endeavours in an increasingly complex environment that requires experimentation. He believes his natural curiosity has played a bigger role than smarts in his own career and it is this kind of creativity that he looks for in employees.
“I always ask people to explain a problem, not just verbally, but to draw a picture of it,” he says, adding that he often asks job applicants to teach him something new.
“If you can teach someone what you know, it makes you way better at understanding the problem.”
Jean-Michel Lemieux in front of the video screen that helps him keep track of Shopify’s coding updates and new features. Photo: Robert Lacombe.