Atlantic Leader Insights: Mike Johnston Discusses Tech, Talent & Global Success


A KBRS partner interviewed Mike Johnston, President and CEO of REDspace, in spring 2019, to gain insights on how high-impact Atlantic Canadian organizations are optimizing the potential of people to contribute to the region’s growth and prosperity, and to discuss how strengthening our workforce can enhance our economic outlook.

Drawing on two decades of industry experience, Johnston is leading a rapidly growing team in the development and deployment of innovative mobile, web, gaming, and video solutions for an array of global clients that include Turner, NBCUniversal, Viacom, and IBM. It is an impressive success story, one that Johnston says has been possible thanks to the advantages of being located in Atlantic Canada. He shares his thoughts on our region’s strengths, how we can build on them, and how we can compete on a global stage so that our tech companies attract top talent and achieve the kind of success that we typically associate with companies based in Silicon Valley.  

Q: As President and CEO of REDspace, you have a unique perspective on what it takes for Atlantic Canadian businesses to compete globally. What have been the economic conditions or business imperatives that have most contributed to your organization’s success?

A: For the most part, it’s the same things that benefit most businesses here. Atlantic Canada has a fantastic talent pool in part because we have so many world-class colleges and universities. They are pursuing solid research and providing hands-on training for the jobs of today and tomorrow. We also have a supportive economic environment, probably the best we have seen in years. And there is a real effort to attract and retain more immigrants and foreign students.  

Even more than this ecosystem, what I think has really helped REDspace succeed is our ability to foster trust with our clients. I think that comes down to the people and the culture of Atlantic Canada. There’s a degree of honesty, integrity, and a willingness to be collaborative in solving problems here that I don’t think you’ll find anywhere else. That’s what our clients have told us, and by earning their trust we’ve not only been able to keep them over the long haul but also been offered opportunities to take on bigger and bigger challenges. That ability to earn trust is our region’s special sauce, but I don’t think we have always realized that.

Q: You mentioned our region’s fantastic talent pool, and how you’ve benefitted from that, but how do you go about ensuring you have the right skills and expertise on your team?

A: We look at the skills people have when they come through the door, but we also look for talent with the desire to stay current and foster it. People love to challenge themselves with new learning, so we’ve implemented several internal initiatives to encourage that, such as training allowances, knowledge shares, lunch and learns. The result is a culture that values sharing knowledge and solving problems together.

As we grow, we’ve been able to expand on that learning culture. We are taking on more challenging projects and exploring new technologies that result in enhanced skills and knowledge. We are also able to offer more opportunities for advancement, which means people can gain knowledge in more senior roles, such as technology leads, team leads, managers, directors, and account managers.

Another way we are keeping our skills current is through our recruitment efforts. Some of that is through new graduates. We recently brought in six Nova Scotia Community College students for internships, which we typically do each year. They bring experience with new programming languages and relevant knowledge in focused, topical areas like big data, machine learning, and cyber security as well as innovative ways of working that anticipate the trends of tomorrow. At the same time, we’re hiring mid- and senior-level folks from all over the world. Approximately 80 per cent of our recruitment success recently has been international. These are people who are attracted by Canada’s brand and they want to bring their skills and families here to be part of our country and our region.

In short, we’re investing in learning, fostering diversity, and recruiting senior-level expertise in specialized areas, and we are encouraging knowledge sharing and collaboration to ensure everyone benefits from that.

Approximately 80% of our recruitment success in recent years has been international. These are people who are attracted by Canada's brand and they want to bring their skills and families here to be part of our country and region.

Q: Your success in international recruitment is impressive, especially given the skills gap that many technology companies are currently facing. How much of a challenge has that been for you?

A: It’s by far our biggest challenge. We are seeing a global shortage of IT talent. Every industry needs programmers and this demand continues to grow.

As it is, we continue to work tirelessly to attract top talent. We have made 35 new hires since January of this year, and we are still actively recruiting. I think it is more acute for us now than it has ever been in our 19-year history. It helps that there are many people across Canada who want to try and come back to Nova Scotia. There is a work-life balance we enjoy here that appeals to candidates, and that has helped us to some extent.

It also helps that we are chasing industries that are in the midst of a huge shift. People are moving from traditional linear cable TV to streaming video platforms. We build a lot of that technology for television networks, and we are constantly experimenting with new ways to deliver content across every device from TVs to smartphones to millions of users around the world. That means we can offer people the kind of challenging work they are looking for to ensure their skills and knowledge remain relevant. Moreover, we offer the opportunity to work on projects they can be proud of, something they can tell their friends and families about. As a result, we have been able to remain competitive when attracting talent.

Q: Overall, what have been your most effective tactics when attracting and retaining talent?

A: It always starts with the fundamentals. We strive to be a reputable company with great a compensation package. We’re attracting talent from around the world, so we need to be on the same level as the top companies in our industry.

But in some ways, that’s just the base – a great office environment, free snacks, a training allowance, and benefits. I think the real magic is the fact we offer world-class projects, with opportunities to solve problems that haven’t been solved. That’s what gets people excited to be part of our brand – the knowledge that they can contribute to projects that win Emmy Awards, or work on business technology that their parents know or use. That’s how we set ourselves apart: by telling talent they can be part of a conversation that helps shape an entire industry and impacts everyday life.

One tactic that I think will become more important is to tell the story about the work-life balance in our region. Atlantic Canada’s always had a reputation as a lovely place to live and raise a family, but people have told us they’re worried they’d have to sacrifice their career prospects to achieve the life they want here. I think there’s been a fundamental shift on that front in recent years. Certainly, it’s true here at REDspace, and I can see it happening with the technology investments and initiatives such as the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship and Canada’s Ocean Supercluster. It has reached the point where we no longer have to convince people there is no sacrifice because they can see that for themselves. I’ll give you an example. We interviewed a candidate who had moved out west after graduating. She has worked on several world-class projects but was looking for a reason to come back. She is thrilled to know that there are opportunities here to continue doing the calibre of work she is doing and advance along her career path. That’s the kind of story we’re happy to share.

Q: Having toured your offices, I know you’ve made significant investments in your work environment. Why is that important to you from an attraction and retention standpoint?

A: We used to have a more traditional office space, but it didn’t speak to the kind of game-changing solutions we are developing for our clients. It said ‘let’s do things the way they’ve always been done’ and we needed a space that said ‘let’s do things in a new way.’

In theory, it shouldn’t matter because all of our clients are remote and we could serve them with a remote workforce. In fact, we do have staff who work for us from locations around the world. But we determined it was important to have a nexus of people in one office who can learn from each other.

To enable that, we have invested in a work environment that balances innovation with functionality, so we have an open concept, but with sound abatement and breakout areas, plus a mix of traditional and standing desks. We’ve also invested in a fireplace lounge, a slide, and an outdoor patio area, which may seem silly to some, but it demonstrates that we do things differently here. After all, we are working at the level of a company in Silicon Valley and we are solving global problems for major clients in Manhattan, so why shouldn’t we present ourselves as their equals in every way?

Ultimately, the investments we make in our space help us tell a story about working here so we can attract talent. We want parents to encourage their kids to take a look at us and universities to tell their students to check us out. If our workspace helps us build a brand that garners us recognition and has a multiplier effect, then it is doing its job.

Q: Based on these experiences, what should we be doing as a region to continue to compete for talent on a global scale?  

A: For one, we need to focus on immigrant and international student retention. By that I mean finding ways to encourage people to come and stay. Although we’re fortunate to have an outstanding talent pool here, we need more people from outside the region who want to want to work here and share our quality of life.

We also need to brag more. We are a humble region. We are reluctant to brag about how good we are, or the projects and the research we are doing in Atlantic Canada. We all need to work together to do a better job at telling the world our story—that Atlantic Canada is a place where anyone can do exciting, groundbreaking work that advances their careers while still being able afford a lovely home, and find plenty of opportunities to go kayaking on the weekend.

We are a humble region. We are reluctant to brag about how good we are, or the projects and the research we are doing in Atlantic Canada.

Q: What do you predict will be the defining change in our region’s workforce across all industries over the next five to 10 years?

A: Increased diversity in every way you could possibly define that.  We are going to see more youth engaged in the workforce, more international workers, and more women in STEM careers. We are starting to see that shift in male-to-female STEM ratio already based on the intern, entry-level, and senior candidates we are talking to. There was a time when we saw few female candidates, not because of a lack of skills, but because the numbers weren’t there. But we recently brought on five senior programmers and four of them were women. So that suggests to me that we are going to see more diversity in our workforce, and it will be much stronger as a result.

I also expect to see more specialization as our talent base grows. That’s certainly true at REDspace. When we were smaller, we hired generalists – people who could dabble in programming, design, testing, and project management. Now that we have 185 employees, we can hire the best specialists in the world and can dedicate themselves to their field of expertise, taking on projects that result in deep insights that they can apply to the next project.  I think the same thing is happening at companies across our region. The result is that we will bring the best people here from around the world and put them to work on new technologies and research. And when you bring that level of talent together, that’s when the magic happens.


About Atlantic Leader Insights

Atlantic Canada’s economy is fueled by a diverse array of private and public sector entities that employ thousands of people and contribute to our region’s growth and prosperity. But how are these organizations optimizing the potential of their people, and what insights have they gained about the future of our economy from their innovative initiatives?

KBRS recognizes the critical importance of attracting, developing, and retaining inspiring leaders and top talent within Atlantic Canada. We sat down with leaders at several high-impact Atlantic Canadian organizations to talk about our region’s opportunities and challenges. This article is one in a series that aims to collect these leaders’ insights on how we can enhance our economic outlook by strengthening our workforce.

Mike Johnston
Mike Johnston

President & CEO, REDspace