Five industries where Alberta’s software developers are making their mark
What Alberta's software development sector lacks in size it makes up for in stature
by Geoffrey Morgan and Alix Kemp
As a percentage of the province’s overall economy, Alberta’s software development sector is relatively small. However, some of Alberta’s largest companies depend vitally on the products and services offered by the companies in the sector. From applications that are used to manage forest fires to small-business accounting programs, software development companies have stepped up to meet the needs of five key industries in the province. Here’s how they’re doing it.
Oil and Gas
Alberta’s oil industry requires a wide variety of software applications designed to track production, plan and maintain pipelines, monitor environmental impact and reduce risk. Zedi, one of Alberta’s many oil and gas software companies, got its start in the Edmonton Research Park in 1987 with a grant and the idea to produce a new down-hole probe recorder.
Zedi specializes in production operations management, which in layman’s terms means it helps customers access their production data from both specific wells and their entire field from anywhere in the world through an Internet connection. “You could call us one of the original cloud-based computing models specializing in oil and gas, because our equipment has always been tied to a network service,” says Larry Spagnolo, vice-president of market and customer solutions. These days, cloud-based and mobile technology is a central part of the oil and gas software sector, as producers expect instant access to real-time data. The company also provides software to automate certain elements of the production process, and has recently branched out into consulting.
The changing scenery in the oil sector presents some major challenges for oil and gas software developers. Spagnolo says mergers and acquisitions require the development of software that plays well with other systems and can be easily interfaced with new applications. Given the complexity of the software, that’s not a simple task. There’s also the need to keep up with changing technology and regulations so that automated systems are at their best. “The challenge in this sector is always anticipating where the market’s going,” says Spagnolo. “In a cloud-based computing model, you always have to stay ahead of the game.”
Until recently, small businesses and consulting companies have been responsible for much of the local software development in Alberta’s agriculture sector. That started to change in 2010, when Calgary-based fertilizer giant Agrium purchased a major stake in the worldwide agri-business software development industry.
The acquisition was a footnote in Agrium’s purchase of the Australian Wheat Board’s retail business, a chain of agricultural stores named Landmark. In turn, Landmark owned a 50 per cent stake in one of Australia’s leading agri-software developer, ITS Global.
The timing of Agrium’s acquisition couldn’t have been better for ITS Global, which has a suite of software products used in livestock production in Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia and had been trying to enter the North American market for two years. In 2008, ITS Global began its expansion into North America by purchasing a small software developer in Okotoks. The company would go on to to purchase another small player in rural Alberta and one in Lexington, Kentucky.
David Moss, ITS Global’s North American CEO, says the company’s product offerings are different than what is currently available in North America. “We’re fully commercial,” he says. “We’re not just in one of the pilot or beta-type settings.”
The company has eight software programs, each designed for a different part of the beef industry’s supply chain, including feedlot management and cattle traceability programs. Moss says that with Agrium’s financial backing and its enormous chain of retail outlets across North America, ITS Global’s products could soon be available across the continent. “Right now, we’re not a very big company,” Moss says. “We’re 15 employees in North America but, worldwide, we’re 200 employees.”
And he’s positioning his company to sell its products to a specific demographic: younger farmers and ranchers. “As we get the next generation in,” he says, “their fear of technology is zero and their expectations are exponentially higher.”
Believe it or not, Alberta’s foresters were using tablet computers long before iPads had become popular tools in business meetings and corporate presentations.
Albertan consulting companies have been developing software applications for the forestry industry since the 1980s, and it started with early tablet computers. Chris Lang, senior manager of business development for Edmonton-based Silvacom Group, says his company first started developing data-collection applications for devices called Husky Hunters, which he describes as “prehistoric iPads.”
Today, Silvacom and its competitor, the Forestry Corp., develop web-based software applications that work on modern tablet computers. Foresters can now enter geographic information system (GIS) pinpointed data from the field, and the modern tablets will upload that information as soon as the tablet is within range of a mobile network. “It was really GIS that turned the corner in the software management tools for the forestry industry,” says Grant Burkell, managing partner at the Forestry Corp.
The rise of GIS technologies has allowed Alberta’s software developers to create programs that help forestry companies map and plan cut blocks, schedule operations and bill oil and gas companies that drill within their forest management areas.
Burkell says GIS technologies have also helped his company develop a software program that a government in the territories use to respond to forest fires. A set of events are triggered whenever a fire is reported, and throughout the process, Burkell says, “All of the resources are catalogued – every drum of fuel, every crew member, everything.”
If you know anything about video games made in Alberta, the company that probably comes to mind is BioWare, the blockbuster game studio that was bought by Electronic Arts in 2007. But the province is home to a handful of other homegrown game companies, and they’re occupying some unexpected niches in the market.
Among them is Rocketfuel Games, an Edmonton-based game studio. While a large portion of the gaming industry is focused on producing consumer products, Rocketfuel focuses on the business market, producing games that double as marketing tools. In 2010, the company partnered with Discovery Kids, the American television channel and web portal, to produce an educational game about science and history for kids called Seek Your Own Proof. “That’s really what kicked everything off,” says Rocketfuel CEO and creative director Jason Suriano. For Seek Your Own Proof, Rocketfuel created an innovative multi-platform game that allowed kids to play at their computer, on a phone or by going to one of the game’s partner museums to complete in-person “missions.”
That integration between online, mobile and real world interaction has become a hallmark of Rocketfuel’s other games, including one the company produced for Careers: The Next Generation. That game, Find Your Future, won two awards from the Ad Club of Edmonton in 2012. Other clients include Atco, Syncrude, Northlands and Alberta Finance, and Suriano says he’s in talks with companies in the oil and gas sector to produce engaging training modules for their employees.
The company’s focus on marketing-oriented games puts it in the minority, with most game developers focusing on producing games for consumers. Suriano says that can be a mixed blessing. “Because there’s not a lot of competition, it makes it a little bit easier at times, and a little bit more difficult, because you have to sell yourself more.”
Where we once had typewriters, businesses now have software for every need, from human resources to accounting, and most of us would be lost if we ever had to give up those technological solutions. Barb Anderson, the global offering leader of Intuit Canada’s QuickBooks online, says that’s the trick to creating business software. “We try to build solutions so great that people can’t imagine going back to the way they did things before.”
Intuit Canada is one of the country’s best-known software producers. During tax season, you can pick up their flagship product, TurboTax, just about anywhere. What many people don’t realize is that the company got its start in Edmonton in 1992 as WINTAX, Canada’s first tax preparation application for Windows. In 1993, the company was acquired by Chipsoft, which merged with Intuit later that year. Intuit Canada, which is still based in Edmonton, creates financial management software for consumers and small businesses.
The key to the company’s success, Anderson says, is its ability to make managing finances simple both for business owners and consumers. “If you think about small businesses and why they get into doing what they’re doing, whether it’s a flower shop or a machine shop, they get into these things because they love doing it or they see an opportunity,” she says. “The complexity of dealing with finances is not why people get into business.”