Amazon Web Services exec touts company's investments in Vancouver

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      When tech giant Amazon announced in April last year that it would be taking over a third of the downtown Canada Post plant—a landmark building on Georgia Street set to become a new high-tech hub—reactions were mixed.

      Amazon currently employs 1,000 Vancouverites in technical roles. The addition of the new office will bring its total workers in the city to 5,000 upon completion of the building’s renovation in 2022. The prestige of those roles is hard to overstate. Having Amazon on a résumé can give a boost to developers and those in professional services, and it’s no secret that the company pays much better than most—not least important because one of Vancouver’s calling cards when bidding for Amazon’s HQ2 was its comparatively low tech-sector wages. The addition of 5,000 jobs is a gift to new B.C. graduates and current tech workers alike.

      Critics of the new development, however, point out how that huge influx of well-paying jobs could negatively impact the tech ecosystem and the city itself. Vancouver currently ranks as the top startup hub in Canada, and 15th in the world. Many of these up-and-coming companies are unable to offer the best wages—particularly compared to what developers might make in the States—but produce hugely innovative products and services. With Amazon establishing thousands of jobs in Vancouver at much higher salaries, the city’s already talent-starved startup community might lose some of its best workers to the tech giant.

      Another criticism is the potential impact on housing. Historically, when Amazon sets up shop in a new location, the price of rentals in the surrounding area increases. Although the new Canada Post development is no HQ2—slated to bring six times the number of new jobs to Arlington, Virginia—Vancouver is a small city with a low rental-vacancy rate. Attracting thousands of new workers with high salaries to the region could impact the pool of properties.

      In the view of Eric Gales, director of Amazon Web Services (AWS) in Canada, though, the benefits of the new minicampus far outweigh the negatives.

      “We don’t want to be someone who just takes,” he tells the Georgia Straight. “We want to contribute back to continuing to develop Vancouver as a great technology hub.

      “What we’ve generally found is that when we invest in cities like Vancouver, it has a positive broad effect on the ecosystem,” he continues. “Everything from encouraging people to enter the tech sector—we need more people entering the workforce, for sure—to the investments that we make with community startups, [where] we share knowledge from our developers here. We are very conscious of our responsibility to contribute to the community as a whole.”

      The former Canada Post building at the corner of West Georgia and Hamilton streets is undergoing a major makeover to accommodate thousands of new Amazon employees.
      Quadreal Property Group

      Amazon runs a number of local programs, Gales says, that directly impact the Vancouver tech ecosystem. As well as the Canada Learning Code initiative, which supports young people across the country, from kindergarten to Grade 12, with computer-science and coding classes, the company also runs a scheme called AWS Educate in association with local universities.

      “AWS Educate is intended to help more students navigate their way into an IT cloud role,” he says. “We have a program with BCIT where they graduate people who have cloud skills. Those people, in many cases, are going to work for our partners, not necessarily for Amazon. We have a partner here called Cloudreach, which has taken 12 people out of that program. When we first started here, we had a great partner called TriNimbus, which is now called Onica. Since we started investing, that’s helped them to grow tremendously, and they’ve expanded out of Vancouver to five cities. So there’s already been direct examples of the contribution that we’ve been able to make to the city. That halo effect is something we anticipate continuing to see.”

      Amazon’s new presence is a vote of confidence in the city’s potential, Gales says, and has the potential to attract other major firms to the city, legitimizing Vancouver’s tech scene on a world stage.

      “We’re really excited about the investment here and excited for Canada, frankly,” he says. “Vancouver is a great place to live. It has great universities. It’s a destination for people to move to. Vancouver already had a good reputation in terms of talent and technology, and we just think that these investments will continue to enhance that reputation.”

      Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays