Andrew Drinkwater

20 years of wonder.

These days, I often get asked how I got the job I have now. For those who don’t know, I co-founded Plaid Analytics with Pat Lougheed back in 2016. We had some good ideas, a mix of bravery and foolishness, and a desire to help universities and colleges advance their analytics so that they could improve the learner experience, make better decisions, and provide better services.

If you asked me back in my undergrad if I was going to start a business, let alone one focused on universities and colleges… I’d likely have said no.

My undergrad degree was a transformative experience. Like my current job, the path to there wasn’t all that linear either. Back in high school, I vowed I would attend university away from home, live in a dorm, and so on.

But that isn’t what happened.

I had applied to Simon Fraser University (SFU). I also applied to UBC, BCIT, UNBC, UofA, UofC, and Waterloo. It was the peak of the dot-com era, just prior to it bursting, and I was bound and determined to get into computer engineering. I was offered admission at all but one of those institutions, but I’ll leave that part a mystery for you.

I had also decided not to apply to the Technical University of British Columbia (TechBC), in part because it was local and the campus was in a shopping mall.

Lo and behold, in 2002 a shift in government direction resulted in the closure of TechBC and it’s absorption into SFU. The Bachelor of Science in Information Technology was a perfect fit for me – a mix of computer engineering, software engineering, and management of technology. I jumped at my chance to be admitted. In those days, we had to fax SFU to tell them to switch to this new program.

And so I began my academic career in a temporary campus in a shopping mall.

Well, it turns out that this was one of the most transformative experiences of my life.

One of the peculiarities of joining a university that is being shut down and absorbed into another is that there is a lot of staff turnover. This had the unintended by-product of helping shy students like me find our voices and get involved in campus events in ways that I don’t think we would have otherwise.

In my case, I got involved with the “Unnamed Student Society” – the follow on organization to the TechBC Learner Association, and the predecessor to what has since become the Interactive Arts and Technology Student Union. At first, I got involved in planning events. I later became the president of that student union.

A big part of my role was to advocate on behalf of my fellow students and help administrators understand the implications of the changes to the curriculum that were happening. As students, we felt that the programs were shutting down before our eyes and we had better take the classes while we could. Later on I learned there was a lot more flexibility, but that’s how it felt at the time.

This role of being a bridge between the students and the administration opened up a variety of opportunities for me.

I became well connected to the program administration of the day – particularly Dr. Jane Fee and Dr. Tom Calvert, along with many others. These professors taught me the delicate art of working constructively through change while always keeping the learner in mind. These experiences also helped me connect with campus and university administration, including Dr. Joanne Curry , who is now SFU’s Vice President of External Affairs. What I learned through this process was that despite how it felt at the time, there was a supporting cast of faculty and staff who were trying their utmost to make an amazing experience for us as students.

This campus is where I met my now-business partner, Pat Lougheed.

That little campus turned 20 this week (or 23, if you want to count the pre-SFU era - Pat says we should because he started working at TechBC in 1999). Steve Dooley, the current campus executive director, wrote about this on the SFU website.

The SFU Surrey Campus, and TechBC before it, were innovators, and still are. The pandemic has introduced many of today’s faculty and students to the idea of online learning. But way back in the early 2000’s half of my classes were online, or a mixed methods. My favourite were the classes that alternated between online and face to face weeks.

Getting involved as a student on campus opened doors.

It made it possible to get part-time work as a student. I became a student recruiter, working for Matthew Grant, and honed my public speaking skills. I had the opportunity to then be a research assistant with Chantal Gibson and later a teaching assistant, building up my writing and teaching skills. These experiences made it so that when I applied for my first career track role, I had tons of valuable experience. I became the first academic advisor and student recruiter in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) in large part because of my student advocacy and my ability to help students navigate through a changing curriculum.

SIAT was also the place where I was fortunate enough to work for Lynne Jamieson. Lynne was a terrific boss who supported my development and growth.

While there are many examples, perhaps the best is Lynne supported me buying Tableau for our department way back in 2007 (version 3.0 for those who remember). I saw a demo of Tableau and I was hooked – this tool allowed me to turn what I used to do in Excel in an hour into something that could be done in minutes. It began my analytics journey, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

There are so many other people I owe thanks to for being a part of my journey that began at SFU Surrey. What an experience we all had building something new. Thanks for making it special.

Image courtesy, a historical archive of TechBC memories.