In conversation with Shawn Malhotra

Toronto’s booming technology sector is promising for students and graduates

In conversation with Shawn Malhotra

Toronto’s technology sector is one of the most rapidly growing industries in North America, with a total of 212,000 employees in the field. This growth can be attributed to Canada’s overall economic growth and Toronto’s strong telecommunications presence, which includes the headquarters of Alphabet and Rogers Communications, to name a few.

Toronto also boasts a large and growing tech startup ecosystem, housing upwards of 2,500 active startups and 18 university-based incubators.

In 2016, Thomson Reuters opened the Toronto Technology Centre to leverage Canada’s highly-skilled workforce to provide customers with technology solutions using AI, cloud computing, blockchain, and more. The Toronto Technology Centre expects to create about 1,500 new jobs in Canada over time. 

Recently, The Varsity recently had the opportunity to speak with Shawn Malhotra, Vice-President of the Toronto Technology Centre and U of T alum, about the tech industry and what students can expect upon entering the field. Malhotra is a leader in deep data analysis, and previously served as Director of Software Development for the Programmable Solutions Group at Intel for 12 years.

The Varsity: You’ve been VP of the Thomson Reuters Toronto Technology Centre for over a year now. What has your experience been like so far?

Shawn Malhotra: It’s been great so far. I spent 12 years of my career at a past employer, so it was the first time in my career I had changed jobs. A big reason why I did that was I wanted to learn about new technology stacks and understand more about big data, cloud machinery, and these emerging technologies. Another big part was that I wanted to be building a new technology organization from scratch in Toronto. I’ve had a chance to do all those things and it’s been really rewarding.

TV: What initially attracted you to the field?

SM: When [Thomson Reuters] approached me, they started to describe some of the things I just mentioned, where I didn’t have a great concept of what kinds of technology problems Thomson Reuters was solving. If we apply those emerging technologies to the problems that matter to our customers, in a way you’re actually helping one of some of the most important decisions in the world get made more effectively. In the case of law, you literally have people’s freedom hanging in the balance. I just thought it would be really satisfying to learn about those things and apply them to some really important problems.

TV: How did your education shape your journey?

SM: I took advantage of a program that allowed me to do my Master of Engineering [at U of T] part-time while I was working. I worked not too far from the campus; it’s one of the advantages of being downtown in Toronto. I spent about four years doing a Master of Engineering [when] I did my coursework part-time while I was doing my studies.

I think it really helped me stay in touch with the research community and [make] sure that I was taking a wide perspective and a broad perspective to the challenges and opportunities I was seeing at work.

TV: What do you think makes the academia-industry partnership unique?

SM: Being immersed in that ecosystem, I think because we have such a breadth of problems to solve, there’s always some way for us to partner or work together. Being in those lab environments, and being in ecosystems like Communitech and institutes like the Vector Institute an academia and industry partnership around AI   has been fruitful for identifying those relationships and bringing thoughts, technologies, and business partnerships as well.

TV: Are you able to commercialize the technology that grows out of these partnerships?

SM: We call ourselves the ‘answers’ company, so we see our role as helping them effectively get to the right answer and employ technology to do that. Everything we do is finding ways to do that more effectively. Certainly, that means commercializing it and getting it that value to our customers. But absolutely, the labs are a good bridge into that academic part of the world and to figure out what we can take from there and commercialize.

Everyone in our technology industry needs to be plugged into research, thinking about emerging technologies, and thinking about how to commercialize it. And not just to make money, but to really serve our customers, which means that we’re solving these unique problems.

TV: What should recent graduates entering this field expect?

SM: I would say the one thing they should expect is the unexpected — it’s a very cliché thing to say, but technology doesn’t give one uniform experience to people. It’s been said a lot, and it’s true that basically every company in the world is becoming a technology company. [Graduates] should expect that they’re going to get choices and they’re going to be asked to learn new things.

To me, one of the most exciting parts of the field is that two years from now, we’re going to need very different skill sets than the ones we have today, because technology will have evolved. Fundamentally, what [graduates] should expect is to continually be learning new things, to be open to new experiences, to be open to different types of markets, businesses, and roles that they’re in.

TV: How can students prepare for the industry?

SM: I look back on my education, and I’m not differentiating equations at my desk, but what I was doing when I was studying calculus was learning how to master interesting, difficult subjects. I think as a student, if you see your role as learning how to learn, that’s great preparation for getting into the real world. It’s an approach of how to be practical with the knowledge you’re applying.

The thing I’d want [students] to prepare for is to turn that curiosity you have, and that ability to learn as a technologist into other parts of your company. The more you understand your customers and your business, the better you as a technologist are going to be to help identify ways to push them forward and help them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

U of T student given Most Valuable Professional award by Microsoft CEO

Sabrina Smai reflects on her tech journey and how AI can spark global change

U of T student given Most Valuable Professional award by Microsoft CEO

Inspired by a technology course she enroled in by accident, fourth-year U of T student Sabrina Smai decided to switch gears from the world of medicine to the world of technology. Smai is a philanthropist who is deeply concerned about making a positive impact on the world. She is a strong proponent of using artificial intelligence (AI) as a tool to drive change.

This year, given her involvement and dedication to the field of AI, Smai was recognized by Microsoft and was given the Most Valuable Professional award by the CEO of the company, Sataya Nedella.

According to Microsoft, the Most Valuable Professional award is given to experts in the field of technology who “bring together diverse platforms, products and solutions, to solve real world problems.”

Smai said that when she received the award in the mail and saw Nedella’s signature on it she “started freaking out.” Smai added that “there are over 10 million people in the tech community around the world and only 4000 people get the award for the MVP.” According to Smai, she is one of the younger nominees to receive the MVP award and believes it was one her most memorable achievements.

Given the significance of the award and her expertise in AI, it is perhaps surprising that Smai went into U of T with the intention of studying life sciences in hopes of one day becoming a doctor: “growing up I always wanted to impact the world in some sense. I just didn’t know how! And the obvious choice was to be a doctor because you would see [the] direct impact you have on the world by helping patients.”

Smai, left, has been working in the tech field since she came to U of T. Photo courtesy of John W.

What caused this switch? Smai said that as a doctor she would “impact one person at a time.” However, in technology she “could impact the world in [a] very, very fast way.” Smai continued saying, “I wanted to be a part of a movement, as opposed to smaller change.”

And so, a drive towards greater impact on a global scale, led Smai to pursue her career in AI. Throughout this career, Smai has participated in several hackathons particularly related to artificial intelligence. It was through these hackathons Smai was first introduced to Microsoft Student Partners. “It’s a program run by Microsoft to help students gain more knowledge in cutting edge technology and really [get] in touch with the tech community. So, I got really involved [with] that.”

While working with technology, Smai has contributed a start-up called E-Terview. E-Terview is an application that uses facial recognition to help people gain confidence in their interviews: “essentially, you record yourself answering interview prompts and through the recording and [the application] would pick up at what part you were feeling nervous and at what part were you not as confident as you were in other areas of your interview,” explained Smai. In helping students succeed and overcome potentially difficult obstacles, Smai said her work on this application was one of her highlights working with AI.

Through projects like E-Terview, Smai could transform and create many other cutting-edge AI tools. These projects were no easy task as they required Smai to work long hours and have a strong dedication to her work. Passion and grit are essential in a field that requires these long hours, and Smai says in a quest to find a job it is beneficial to focus on one’s upheld values and beliefs. Smai is a strong believer in philanthropy and ultimately knew that her “end, end goal” was to help others through technology.