Billion dollar boom

Tobias Romaniuk
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Gaming, mobile apps driving provincial tech sector

The technology sector in Newfoundland and Labrador contributes $1.6 billion to the provincial economy. –Photo Illustration by Robert Simon/The Telegram

When the provincial government recently went looking for a company to develop a travel guide for smartphones, it found only three companies in Canada that met its requirements - none of them in Newfoundland and Labrador.

But that finding reflects the specific needs of Newfoundland Tourism more than the capabilities of developers and software companies in the province, according to one industry professional.

In fact, the technology sector is experiencing exponential growth, said Ron Taylor, CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries (NATI). And software developers are part of that growth.

Independent game developers working on their own, large companies like Verafin, which employs more than 100 people, and ongoing developments in the ocean technology sector have all helped boost the industry at a steady eight per cent per year for the last five years, said Taylor.

All told, the technology sector contributes $1.6 billionto the provincial economy annually, according to both NATI and the province's Department of Innovation, Business and Rural Development.

Put another way, the high-tech sector accounts for six per cent of the province's GDP.

And those numbers are only going to grow, says Taylor.

"For instance, there's this booming gaming community that didn't exist four years ago. There's probably 15, 20 companies now and the great thing about that is they aren't just in St. John's. They're all over the province," he said.

Justin Butt is a programmer with Best Boy, a Mount Pearl-based company that has released apps and games for mobile devices.

A recent graduate of Memorial University's computer science program, Butt said the province has a wide variety of opportunities for computer programmers, from independent game development to working at companies like Best Boy, to opportunities in the ocean technology sector.

The problem isn't a lack of people, but rather a lack of skills in specific areas, he said.

"I think for game developers, well, I know we've had to hire outside the province for things like art. So, things like 3-D modellers and concept artists ... we had to hire from outside the province, so that's the biggest problem. It's more the art side than the programming side," he said.

Identifying the skills needed is one of the challenges facing the sector, Taylor said.

"The interesting thing when you deal with technology is that it's always a moving target, and the skills that you have today may not be the ones you require tomorrow," he said.

In trying to hit that target, Taylor said, companies such as Bluedrop, ZedIT, Verafin and others have expanded the tech industry to a point where it has matured in expertise compared to 10 or 15 years ago.

But there's still work to be done to ensure the industry continues to prosper.

"I think a big part of it is that we need to have more robust programs to encourage more students, more young entrepreneurs to start their own companies," said Taylor.

Memorial University has realized the market for mobile apps and those who make them. For the past few years, the school has offered a course in mobile application development based on Apple's iOS platform.

MUN computer science professor Adrian Fiech helped develop the program, which he said has been popular with students.

"It's really at the forefront of what's happening in application development, with quite (a) large shift toward mobile applications, so I think students who enjoy using applications for mobile devices ... enjoy developing applications for mobile devices," Fiech said.

For programmers looking to work on their own mobile apps after graduation, the problem isn't one of skill, said Justin Butt.

"For an indie, I think, just having enough money to support yourself is the biggest challenge, because it's not a steady income," he said. "You're taking a risk to go indie, but to actually develop the app, just an iOS app, is something a programmer would be able to do by themselves for the most part."


Organizations: NATI, Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries, Department of Innovation Rural Development Apple

Geographic location: Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's

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