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EPISODE # 25 Testing the Limits of Diversity in Tech - Keith McIntosh


Keith McIntosh has always thrived on testing limits and pushing boundaries.

I was delighted to have him as my guest on episode 25 of the TechTalks Podcast. We talk about his path from growing up in Carleton Country to founder of PLATO, the world’s first Aboriginal-led and staffed software testing company, and president and CEO of PQA, one of New Brunswick’s first software testing companies.

We cover a lot of ground, from his evolution as an entrepreneur to his goal of simultaneously solving two pressing problems–Canada’s shortage of technology professionals and high unemployment among Indigenous youth.

We started in his early days on a farm in Glassville, NB, which Keith says was a great training ground for his future career path. “It taught me a lot about hard work and about managing your money and entrepreneurship.”

And the small-town spirit of helping your neighbours has never left him.

“You understood that you weren’t on your own,” he says. “And that, as much as anything, reflects in what I've done with PQA and PLATO.” 

Getting to Testing

After high school, Keith took some computer science courses at UNB, then worked GIS-related roles at Irving and CARIS, where he got his first exposure to testing, which suited him better than programming. 

“My mother would have said I’m a born tester; I was always finding a boundary to push,” Keith quips. The job is all about finding the weaknesses in a piece of software or product glitches.

“I see testers as advocates for the customer,” Keith says, working between the end-user and the developers to build the best product. The role requires equal measures of technical savvy and diplomacy.   

In the mid-90s, he founded Professional Quality Assurance (PQA). It was an auspicious time, with New Brunswick riding high from the heady McKenna-era growth of the contact industry and related tech sectors. Plus, the Y2K scare approaching with the turn of the century was driving business in testing.

Keith tells how PQA grew from hiring friends to expanding to what is today a team of 100-plus software testing specialists across Canada that help clients speed up release cycles and reduce critical bugs. In 2004, they landed a contract with Apple, which was launching new software and hardware. Keith’s team would receive unmarked gray boxes from Apple with no labels or markings that they opened in a secure room.  

In the 2010s, they grew west, acquiring rallyQA in Vancouver and expanding to Calgary.

The Seeds of PLATO

In 2015, Keith took part in the Governor General's Canadian Leadership Conference. The two-week tour brings together a diverse group of 250 people from across Canada.

“The only thing they have in common is their type-A personalities,” Keith says.

The tour included a visit to a First Nation in sight of the Montreal skyline, where the stench of the water was overwhelming.

“As a Canadian, as a human being, that's just wrong,” Keith says. “So, we were talking about how do we fix it?”

It was the same year that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report was released.

“The report was saying businesses have to help with reconciliation,” he says. “At the same time in New Brunswick, we were talking about an aging, migrating population.”

Keith connected the two, realizing he could do something about it. He saw a “perfect union” between his industry, which was hungry for talent, his province that needed to grow its population and economy, and Aboriginal people who needed opportunities.

“Why don’t we just hire them?” he thought.

And PLATO Testing was born.

Training AND Jobs

Keith quickly learned that it’s not that simple. Without training, Indigenous people weren’t ready for roles as software testers because they didn’t have the skills. So PLATO came up with a plan to build a training course in software testing.

From an idea in June, by September 2015, he’d launched the first class.

“I was so lucky, so shouldn't you give that back?” he says. “Why am I lucky? It's because somebody took care of me or did something for me. PLATO is my chance to do something, to change lives.”

As PLATO’s grown, Keith and his team have learned it can’t be a one-size-fits-all program. 

“Each First Nation is unique. It has its own challenges, history and desires,” he says. And the people that come into his program are not homogenous, he says. “They have individual challenges, individual problems. And so you need to be small enough and nimble enough to deal with each community.”

Beyond training, PLATO is focused on connecting people to jobs. From the beginning of PLATO, Keith was also thinking about attracting people to work for PQA.

“Because we're a testing company, and nobody goes to school to be a tester,” he says.

For people in marginalized communities, it’s not enough just to provide skills. They may need additional support to succeed.

“It's opening that first door,” Keith says, “and sometimes taking them by the hand and pulling them through the door.”

So PLATO acts as a bridge to corporate Canada, helping employers make the necessary adjustments.

“You can't just change somebody; you also have to change the work environment,” he says. “You can't say, ‘I'm going to take a square peg and fit into a round hole.’ Sure, I can shave some of the edges off of the square peg. But maybe I have to widen the hole a little bit, too. So it's both sides.”

At the core of PLATO’s values is diversity.

“It's important to have diversity everywhere, but especially in technology, because different viewpoints matter,” he says. “People have different skillsets and upbringings and ways of looking at things. It just makes the world better.”

It’s those organizations that diversify their teams that will prevail. And there’s the critical social justice element, as well. As Keith says, “Companies are either going to be on the right side of history, or they're going to be history.”

The Future Looks Bright

PQA and PLATO combined have over 170 employees, providing diverse software testing solutions to clients throughout North America, and Keith sees an opportunity to grow to 500 or even 1,000 employees.

He also sees potential to expand the train-and-incubate model beyond testing to development, network support and more.

Now, with locations in eight cities across Canada, PLATO is looking to grow beyond urban centres, taking its program to rural communities, so people don’t have to leave home for work and communities don’t lose leaders and talent.

“Technology is the one thing that we can take anywhere,” Keith says. He believes that along with clean drinking water, universal broadband access should be a top priority for all First Nations.

“Not only does it bring opportunities to these communities, but it also brings learning, it broadens horizons.”

I am so inspired by the work Keith is doing to grow our industry, increase its diversity and broaden the horizons of Aboriginal youth.

To check out our entire conversation, click here to listen. 

Keith McIntosh.png

Here's a peek at some of the highlights from this episode:

  • [02:28]: We start by talking about Keith’s early days, growing up on a farm in Carleton County.

  • [11:18]: Keith describes the tester’s role in software development.

  • [25:23]: Keith shares his experience of racism and how that’s shaped him.

  • [30:02]: We chart PLATO’s growth trajectory across Canada.

  • [42:21]: Keith on why we need to keep “peeling the onion” of identifying problems and solutions.


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