Creating IT and Testing Opportunities in Canada: An Interview with Denis Carignan


In this interview, Denis Carignan, the president of the Professional Aboriginal Testing Organization, explains how his team is creating new opportunities and training in the software industry—from testing to IT—for indigenous Canadians.

Jennifer Bonine: All right. We are back with another interview. It's been a fun-filled day, and we're excited to have Denis here. Now, Denis, what's interesting about what we'll talk about now is unlike some of the folks we've seen today who grew up in the world of software testing and technology, not the same background for you. Right?

Denis Carignan: No. That's right. By trade, I'm a public servant for the government of Canada.

Jennifer Bonine: Wow.

Denis Carignan: I've worked twenty-two years in aboriginal file working with indigenous Canadians, indigenous communities. I've got a lot of experience and background in that, and the company that I'm in charge of was created basically to train and employ indigenous Canadians to be software testers ...

Jennifer Bonine: Wow ...

Denis Carignan: ... and try to create careers in IT.

Jennifer Bonine: Create careers in IT. Something, again, we talked about briefly before was the term of being, what is it, under–?

Denis Carignan: Underemployed.

Jennifer Bonine: Underemployed.

Denis Carignan: Yeah. If you look at the history of Canada, Canada was a colony, of course, and the indigenous populations—of which there are multiple—have tended to suffer for various reasons, so underemployment, lower life expectancy, higher infant death mortality, higher incarceration rates, and generally less hope.

Jennifer Bonine: Right.

Denis Carignan: There's a bunch of reasons for that. We, as a company, don't want to get into the causes of all that. We're trying to deal with what we have now and trying to create opportunity and hope.

Jennifer Bonine: You said it's a social engineering company. Right? Is that ...

Denis Carignan: Social impact, yeah.

Jennifer Bonine: A social impact, yeah.

Denis Carignan: There's a history around that. As I mentioned, there's a lot of different efforts, I guess, in Canada in general to try and change the course of history for indigenous Canadians. In 2008, there was something called the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, it's called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It fostered the 4,000-page report, which documented a lot of the challenges that have existed over the last 150 years or longer and contained a number of recommendations on steps that can be taken to help change the future. One of them, recommendation number ninety two, was a call out to corporate Canada to work with government, work with communities, to try and build opportunities for education and employment.

That works generally well in certain trades, so truck drivers, electricians, things like that. IT and STEM areas is really an unknown of most indigenous Canadians because we don't get a lot of people that are graduating from computer science or engineering or things like that. Just happenstance, a gentleman by the name of Keith McIntosh, who's the founder and CEO of PQA Testing, which has been around for about twenty years in Canada, one of the larger quality assurance companies—he and I just happened to be on the same conference in the same location, had a conversation, and his question was, what can we do? I said, well, there's a lot of efforts, but this is in the world of IT.

The bulk of the work that we do, we don't do with our company because it's cost-competitive and it goes overseas. It doesn't necessarily require a degree in computer science. Maybe with some targeted education, some target training, and some infrastructure and support, we could do that work here and create opportunities for indigenous Canadians.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah. Absolutely.

Denis Carignan: My background is working with indigenous communities. His background is software testing. I said "Keith, you build that company, I'll come work for you."

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah.

Denis Carignan: That discussion happened on June 10, 2015. By January 21, 2016, the company was created with twelve employees. We've since run our course, I think, seven times. We're situated primarily in the province of New Brunswick. We also have staff on the west coast in Vancouver, and we will be at sixty full-time indigenous software testers by the end of next week.

Jennifer Bonine: Wow.

Denis Carignan: Our goal is to continue to grow. Because of the nature of what we're trying to do, we're able to get in to see a lot of C-level people at various large corporations in Canada, many of whom are very interested in the idea of this reconciliation and how to create opportunities.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah.

Denis Carignan: We know that there are thousands of jobs that are basically Canadian jobs that are moved to different parts of the world, and we'd like to grab a chunk of that. Really, a purchase decision with our company creates a job, creates a future for some family here in Canada or in Canada, and that's the model that we've chosen to follow. Interestingly enough, we see the model working in the United States as well. We see the same sort of general challenges that exist for indigenous communities here, and it's probably a model that can work here as well.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah. Interesting. Now from what you've seen, has the success rate been fairly high then? You've run this program, you said, seven times. It's an official certification course. Is the success rate and the statistics saying this is working, people are liking it? What's the feedback from the people that have been involved now?

Denis Carignan: It's been very good. And so just the general statistics, we train in groups of fifteen. We're hanging on to about twelve of every fifteen that take the course, which is very impressive, considering ...

Jennifer Bonine: It is ...

Denis Carignan: ... considering all the factors that are involved. We started the first course. I think we had advertised it. We found a training partner, somebody that actually has the network and is able to attract students, that kind of thing. For fifteen spots, we had twenty-one applicants.

Jennifer Bonine: Wow.

Denis Carignan: For the second course, we had ninety-one applicants, and for every course since then, there have been over a hundred.

Jennifer Bonine: Wow.

Denis Carignan: We've had to refine our selection process as we're looking. We set the standard at grade twelve or grade twelve equivalent, and then we interview for how curious are you, how diligent are you, and there's a lot of repetitive work, especially in manual software testing. We're looking for people that stick with it through the process, and then also communication skills, ability to document. Our course basically was designed around everything you need to be a junior software tester. After the end of our six months, we believe that our testers are probably better prepared than most testers starting out.

Jennifer Bonine: Wow.

Denis Carignan: Just because of the applied skills that we do with them.

Jennifer Bonine: Now besides when they're out there, do you pair them with anyone, or you said there's a support structure as well?

Denis Carignan: Yes, there is.

Jennifer Bonine: What does that look like?

Denis Carignan: There's multiple support structures. First of all, just on the training, we train in groups of fifteen, so that there's a readymade network so there's people to rely on. We do a two month internship where we try to place them in outside organizations and we place them in pairs, so that somebody always has someone to support them. Our company would not exist without the support of the parent company PQA. Really in essence, we're a company of junior testers.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah.

Denis Carignan: Then, the parent company has the test experience and the test expertise to do the test planning and the test leadership with any engagement that we have. Normally and engagement with PLATO testing involves partial engagement with PQA Testing and we just structure it around the business needs of the client.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah. Amazing. That's really ... Wow.

Denis Carignan: It's kind of a social innovation and it's something that really hasn't been tried, at least not in Canada.

Jennifer Bonine: Right.

Denis Carignan: The tools really did not exist, so we've built the tools and we're trying to make it work.

Jennifer Bonine: Wow. Amazing. Fun work.

Denis Carignan: Fun work, yes.

Jennifer Bonine: How has been the experience? Was this your first formal software test conference? Well, you met him at another conference. Was that at a software test conference?

Denis Carignan: No. Actually, it's called the Governor General's Canadian Leadership Conference. It was taking 250 leaders from across Canada putting them in a bus together for two weeks and seeing how we could get along, a life changing experience actually. I've been to a couple testing conferences, and so I'm just trying to get a flair for the language. I'm learning. I'm run a crash course on software testing and certainly ...

Jennifer Bonine: Right. Learning a new language.

Denis Carignan: Learning a new language and just a new form of management.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah and leadership. Great to have you. It's great to have some new faces.

Denis Carignan: Thank you.

Jennifer Bonine: I know when we do these it's fun to meet the new people we haven't talked with before and I'll be interested to see in the next year and as things progress how things are going and hopefully we'll get a chance to check in so everyone out there gets to see how it's going.

Denis Carignan: Well, I was just at a session and the speaker was talking about the imposter syndrome.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah.

Denis Carignan: I certainly felt that yesterday presenting, as I had to tell everyone I'm not a tester, but one of the other things that I notice is that there's not a lot of indigenous North American people in this field.

Jennifer Bonine: Absolutely.

Denis Carignan: I had that feeling as well. We hope to change that. I hope that in the future you'll see testers from PLATO Testing attending your conferences and that we will be a bigger presence and something part of the future of the conference.

Jennifer Bonine: That's great. Well, thank you so much ...

Denis Carignan: Thank you.

Jennifer Bonine: ... for being here with me. It's been a pleasure.

Denis Carignan: Thank you.

Jennifer Bonine: Stay tuned for our next interview after this, but thanks, Denis, I appreciated the time.

Denis Carignan: Great. Thanks.

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