Building success by learning how to learn

Jess Verbruggen works on her laptop in the Shopify office.
Outside-the-box thinking in the high-tech world

The personal qualities you develop at university can help open doors in unexpected places, as the many uOttawa grads from non-technical fields hired by Shopify can attest.

Anna Lambert leads a global team of more than 100 people – and graduated from uOttawa just five years ago. That says a lot about Lambert: about her belief in herself and her ability to learn, work hard, be flexible and meet challenges.

She is director of talent acquisition at Shopify, the e-commerce company that has gone from startup to global player in a dozen years. From five people working out of an Ottawa coffee shop, the tech giant now employs 3,000 people and provides services to 600,000 businesses around the world.

Studies at uOttawa played an important part in Lambert’s career path. University, she says, “was where I learned how to learn in different ways.” She studied political science and communications before entering the e-commerce world.

Lambert did in a uOttawa CO-OP placement at Shopify in 2011 when it had only 43 employees. She returned to the company the following year before joining the recruiting team in 2013.

She attributes her success to her ability to thrive on change and be resourceful, which was matched by Shopify’s willingness to see her potential as an employee, based as much on her character as anything else.

A springboard into the workplace

Lambert is not alone in using the University of Ottawa as a springboard into the workplace. No fewer than 165 uOttawa alumni work at Shopify, with almost half (77) coming from arts and social sciences. The rest are from other faculties, with engineering leading the way.

One of these is Jess Verbruggen, a Telfer School of Management graduate who also took part in the CO-OP program and describes her job at Shopify as data scientist. “I didn't have any technical background before, but I had taken several statistics, forecasting and data-mining classes as electives,” she says. “Those provided me with enough of a foundation to be able to ramp up more quickly in this new role.”

Another uOttawa alum is Rory Tanner, lead technical writer at Shopify who earned both an MA and PhD in the Department of English. “During grad school I was very lucky to work with a terrific thesis supervisor and mentor (Nicholas von Maltzahn). I learned a tremendous amount about the writing and editing process,” he says.

Finding your niche in the workplace clearly depends as much on what you do with your learning as it does on the courses you take. And, as Lambert points out, “you can be from a non-technical field at Shopify, but you have to gain experience in other ways. You have to be learning on the side.”

That’s advice worth heeding from someone centrally involved in building a top tech company’s culture of innovation. As her hiring decisions reveal, Lambert knows the value of employing outside-the-box thinkers and the best and brightest critical minds.

She has more good advice for students who want to cut it in the tech world: “Get as much diversity of experience as possible, whether that’s through travelling, education, or taking on roles you might not ‘technically’ be qualified for.”

Your support will help prepare other young alumni for jobs in the new economy.

In 2015, the University of Ottawa launched a $400 million fundraising campaign. Defy the Conventional: The Campaign for uOttawa is raising funds to support priorities in every faculty. The campaign will help uOttawa recruit and retain top talent and enrich the student experience. Donations will also support innovative capital projects.

Anna Lambert.

Three of the 165 uOttawa alumni at Shopify. Above: Anna Lambert. Main photo: Jess Verbruggen – and, below, with Rory Tanner in the Shopify office.

Jess Verbruggen and Rory Tanner chatting in the Shopify office.


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