Building Calgary’s applied AI talent pool

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The AltaML Applied AI Lab is off to a roaring start, bolstering Alberta’s AI advantage. 

Alberta is growing into a global AI powerhouse, building on talent developed here that is scarce in most other geographies. Alberta’s two major cities, Edmonton and Calgary, are developing strong ecosystems around applied AI, creating new opportunities for forward thinking companies to find solutions to problems previously out of reach. 

The AltaML backstory.

Talent attracts talent, and top students from around the world study in the University of Alberta’s Department of Computer Science consistently ranked top 10 in the world for its excellence in AI research. Until a few years ago, Alberta was missing the potential upside of this expertise as most graduates would leave to pursue lucrative commercial opportunities in larger ecosystems like Silicon Valley or Toronto. Determined to reverse this trend, Nicole Janssen and A100 member Cory Janssen launched AltaML in 2018 and promptly expanded to Calgary. 

What was the spark for the Applied AI Lab?

Edmonton and Calgary have different strengths, and different recruitment strategies were needed to grow AltaML. The data science talent pool is smaller in Calgary, and it was foreseeable that AltaML would soon be competing for talent with large corporates and startups–which could quickly burn bridges. Siloing AI in Edmonton with only a business arm in Calgary was never an option, so the question was: what could be done to grow the local talent capacity? Perhaps a consortium involving major industry players and other partners was the solution. 

“It was a big, ambitious idea with so many potential wins,” says Cory Janssen, AltaML Co-CEO. “The concept resonated across stakeholders groups: industry, academia and government, and as it got traction, we came to realize what a game changer the Applied AI Lab would be in accelerating talent capacity while creating value in tackling problems faced by Alberta companies.”  

It gets real. 

Following extensive ecosystem engagement, AltaML pitched the concept to the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund (OCIF) and was awarded up to $3.25 million to operate a paid internship program delivered in 3-month cohorts, upskilling 240 individuals in applied AI over three years.  The Applied AI Lab (“The Lab”) launched in October 2020 with Suncor, ATB Financial, Spartan Controls and TransAlta as industry partners and AltaML providing mentorship in Applied AI as well as program management.

AltaML took a “little bets” approach to rolling out The Lab, with a pilot cohort of eight, corresponding to two interns (known as “Associates”) per industry partner, to nail down processes. The program has now ramped up to cohorts of 20 (five Associates per partner). Going into the first cohort, there was nervous anticipation on the part of AltaML around whether the program could attract enough supply from the local ecosystem. 

Eight months and three cohorts later, the team has an answer to that question: a resounding YES! The Lab has received more than 1000 applications from across North America for its first 40 Associate postings, thus creating opportunities for Calgarians and attracting top talent to the City. Associates are of diverse backgrounds, including new graduates as well as mid-career professionals looking to sharpen their skills in applied AI. 

We’ve received applications from across Canada including top schools like Waterloo, McGill and UBC,” says Danielle Gifford, Senior Manager of the Applied AI Lab. “There are many training programs out there that help build technical ML fluency, but none that offer hands-on experience and mentorship where you are working directly with clients in their environments. We focus on adoption and building ML solutions, that’s what makes The Lab unique.” 

A Win-Win-Win for Associates, Industry Partners, and the Community.

The Applied AI Lab leverages dynamic industry partnerships to secure real-world use cases, data, mentorship, and AI talent incubation that helps drive AI integration in business. For participating Associates, The Lab has helped them obtain the practical skills and portfolio they require to jumpstart their careers in AI. A key value proposition is the exposure Associates get to the business context of AI development from day one. Hands-on data science training from AltaML’s skilled data science professionals shows Associates how to identify machine learning use cases and define core AI and business problems. Associates are also routinely expected to communicate their findings, both internally to other team members and in external client presentations. This allows them to develop valuable business communication skills as they have to effectively communicate technical information from data science teams to senior leadership at organizations. 

“The importance of data storytelling was emphasized right from our initial interview. Working with AI learning techniques allowed us to quickly develop technical competency in many areas, but it was the commitment to improving our communication that made this program so unique. By receiving ongoing coaching from our mentors and presenting weekly to our clients, the Applied AI Lab allowed me to hone my storytelling abilities and gave the confidence to communicate with stakeholders at all levels of the business.”Travis Kirker, Cohort 2 – AltaML Applied AI Lab 

Most importantly, The Lab is supplying the Calgary ecosystem with needed talent—all eight of the Associates from the first cohort have been hired by Calgary-based companies, with 7/8 (87 per cent) hired within the first 60 days. Associates have been hired across several intermediate and senior level roles with titles like Data Analyst, Machine Learning Developer, Data Analytics Associate, Software Developer, and Team Lead, with salaries ranging from $70-$100K. Over three years, The Lab will build critical AI capacity to help organizations unlock opportunities from their data.

Thinking about Adoption and Business Operations in AI

Another core element of The Lab is to move beyond technical accuracy and focus on how models are driving business value. For Associates, it’s not enough to deliver a great technical model – they must think through how the end user will interact with the model, whether the model addresses a core business problem, and how it fits into the bigger picture of a company’s operations

Dealing with a real-world business scenario has given me lots of opportunities to learn about different aspects of a problem. Adopting the iterative process of answering “what”, “why”, and “how” in every single step helped me to solve the problem. Starting from a technical model, followed by a practical solution, to resulting in  business value for the actual end user of a model.” – Maryam Vahdat Pour, Cohort 2 – AltaML Applied AI Lab

The Lab has also been received with great enthusiasm by industry partners, who’ve raved about the access to talent and strategic value The Lab provides.

“The AI Lab will help Suncor tackle some of our near-term value opportunities whilst building a talent pipeline for the company in the key areas of Data Science, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. This initiative emphasizes Suncor’s ambition as a leader, not only in AI and ML, but in its commitment to the digital transformation of our company, our city and our industry.” – Bruno Francoeur, Chief Transformation Officer, Suncor.

What’s next for The Lab? 

With 10 more cohorts and 200+ Associates to go, The Lab is just scratching the surface of its potential as an Applied AI talent pipeline that will ultimately benefit the province—and contribute to the A100’s BHAG of 75,000 tech jobs in Alberta by 2031. As a result, the Lab is constantly looking for forward-thinking partners across business, philanthropy, and government to transform the future of Applied AI. 

AltaML is also building its network of hiring partners to streamline Associates directly into corporate and startup data science teams. 

If you are growing or scaling your data science and analytics teams and are interested in partnering with AltaML or hiring from The Lab’s Associate pool, please contact: 

Danielle Gifford, Senior Manager, Applied AI Lab