What’s the population of Edmonton’s downtown? Depends on the time of day.

Revitalizing our downtown is constantly in the news lately thanks to the proposed arena project. I’m glad that the issue is top-of-mind for so many people at the moment, and I hope we can keep that interest going. I think everyone agrees that Edmonton’s downtown does not currently represent our city as well as it should.

There are lots of factors that go into revitalizing an area. Probably even more that go into revitalizing a downtown. But there’s one factor in particular that for me stands out above all others. Residents.

I think if you really want to revitalize an area, you need to get more people living there. We’ve already seen this play out in Edmonton to a certain extent. Here’s what our downtown population growth has looked like since 1986:

Keep in mind the population has really only slightly more than doubled in that time. Not what you would call really significant growth. And yet look at all of the positive changes we have seen downtown in that time! This article by Lawrence Herzog from 2003 covers some of the changes up to that point quite nicely. People regularly point to 104 Street as a positive example of change downtown. It’s why Sharon and I bought here.

The factor that most often comes up as vital to revitalization however, is the number of people working downtown. Sometimes the argument made is quite compelling too. Whenever I hear that argument, I think of this graph:

It’s incredible how widely the population varies from the weekend to a weekday. And this doesn’t even take into account students and all of the other groups of people that might be downtown on a weekday. Is our downtown population 12,000 or 68,000? It absolutely depends on the time of day!

Why does nearly everything downtown close so early on weekdays? Why is almost nothing open downtown on Sundays? Why isn’t downtown changing as fast as we’d like it to? I think that graph tells a very significant part of the story (see below for an explanation and sources).

The numbers are certainly not encouraging:

  • As of 2009, downtown Edmonton’s population was 11,572. That’s just 1.5% of our total population.
  • As of 2010, downtown Edmonton’s workforce was roughly 67,700. That’s just over 10% of our total labour force.
  • Current plans call for the addition of just 12,200 new residents residential units over the next 35 years, and an increase in residents to 24,000 by 2030. We more than doubled the population in 23 years, why are we slowing down for the next 35 years? That’s about the same pace as we have seen over the last 20 years.
  • According to the Downtown Business Association’s most recent employee survey (PDF), just 6% of people who work downtown also live downtown. This despite downtown being one of our two biggest employment centres (the other being the University of Alberta, which is just a short LRT ride away).

So I don’t buy the argument that we need more people working downtown. If anything, we need more of the people who work downtown to choose to live there also. We need to want to make the changes downtown needs, and we need to make decisions that support that. If we want to meaningfully revitalize downtown, this picture has to change!

There’s a lot more to this discussion of course, but I find this to be a useful way to remind myself of the importance of residents. What do you think?

Sources: Municipal Census 2009, 2010 Downtown Resident Survey (PDF), 2010 Downtown Employee Survey (PDF), 2010 Business Recruitment Resource (PDF). The surveys come from the Downtown Business Association, and I used them to calculate the numbers in the graph. The times, 6am to 7pm, come from the Employee Survey. On weekdays, the green portion is essentially the number of people who both live and work downtown, which is an average of the 6% of employees who say they live downtown and the 29% of residents who say they work downtown. There are a bunch of assumptions made, of course, such as the assumption that if you’re a downtown resident and you don’t work downtown, you work and are somewhere else between 6am and 7pm.

What do you do in your spare time?

A post at the Canadian Developer Connection blog last week caught my eye. Joey deVilla posted about something he had read at the Harvard Business blog related to interview questions. In both posts you learn about Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who safely made an emergency landing in the Hudson river last month. What does “Sully” do in his spare time? Anything and everything related to aviation, apparently. As a result, both posts argue that the most important interview question to ask, is:

“What do you do in your spare time?”

I couldn’t agree more. People who are excellent at their jobs are probably passionate about what they do, and spend more time and energy on things related to their area of expertise/interest than the average person. My experience with software development definitely backs this up. The best developers are usually the ones who go home and work on a hobby project after they’re done with the “day job”. There are exceptions, of course, but as a general rule I think you need to practice your craft outside of work to be good at it.

I’m currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and right near the beginning of the book he argues the same point. Practice makes perfect. He estimates you need to spend 10,000 hours practicing something to truly master it. Gladwell uses The Beatles, Bill Joy, and Bill Gates as examples, and argues that in addition to their hard work it was a series of fortunate events that made it possible for them to spend about 10,000 hours practicing, and that’s what truly made them successful.

Every time I look at a resume, I look for the “extra” stuff. In the case of a developer, I look for programming competitions, contributions to open source projects, anything outside of school and work. It’s amazing how few mention anything like that.

I want to see passion, and by extension, practice!

More on co-working

coworking A couple weeks ago I posted about WorkSpace in Vancouver, and suggested it would be good to have something similar in Edmonton. Clearly I’m not the only one, as there were quite a few comments on both that post and Twitter. Cam posted a link to Edmonton’s Beans and Boardrooms, which while not quite the same concept, looks interesting.

Last week Sharon sent me this Globe and Mail article on Citizen Space in San Francisco:

Sebastien Provencher takes the bus into San Francisco for another day at the office. At the third-floor loft of Citizen Space, he sits at a desk, fires up his laptop and gets to work.

This type of service, known as co-working, lets travellers like Provencher rent a desk in a communal setting. Once mainly the province of tech-oriented freelancers, co-working centres are attracting a broader spectrum of consultants and small-business people in search of space to work – and network – on the road.

Citizen Space and WorkSpace sound very similar. The most interesting part of the article is found near the end:

Today, there are co-working sites across the country that welcome out-of-town visitors, including others in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Thunder Bay; others in Calgary, Guelph, Ont., and Halifax are in various stages of development.

And not surprisingly, given their appeal to jet setters, co-working sites are establishing global connections. The Hub, which is scheduled to open this fall in Halifax, will be linked to 13 sites worldwide including space in London, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv and Sao Paulo. Members of one site will get privileges at the other spaces.

You can check out The Hub Halifax here (and their excellent links page here). Being connected to other sites around the world would be good for travellers, but I think WorkSpace and The Hub probably have very different clientele for the most part.

Apparently WorkSpace and Citizen Space are trying to form a similar network. I think that makes sense. As more and more similar spaces crop up, those connections will become really valuable.

I’m curious to know what’s going on Calgary – anyone have any information?

Who knows if or when something will get going here in Edmonton, but at least we know there are existing resources and people to tap into for help.

Edmonton could use a place like WorkSpace

A few years ago I started reading about shared workspaces. In particular, I was interested in what Boris Mann started calling The Innovation Commons – a place for “creatives” to gather and feed off one another. These are physical places, with tables and chairs and Internet connections. They are perfect for programmers, designers, mobile workers, and others who don’t necessarily need office space of their own. I love the concept, and I am happy to see it catching on in a number of places. In Toronto, there’s the Centre for Social Innovation and in Vancouver, there’s WorkSpace. I took some time to visit WorkSpace when I was there a couple weeks ago.


Located at 21 Water Street in Gastown, WorkSpace is in a historic and unique area of Vancouver. It’s fourth floor view of the harbour is quite impressive. Sharon and I met Dane Brown, who gave us a quick tour and let us explore the place for a bit. There are small offices that can be used for breakout rooms, a larger meeting room, and lots of open space with tables and chairs. There are also private offices available, and a small cafe at the front. WorkSpace is even equipped with a shower!

Instead of renting space as you would in a traditional office building environment, WorkSpace is membership-based. For $95 per month, you can use the space after 4:30pm on weekdays and all day Saturday and Sunday. The rates go up from there. Full-time access costs $495 per month, and the private desks cost $595 per month. There are also drop-in prices available, starting at $25 for half a day. WorkSpace currently has about 70 members.

I think Edmonton could definitely use something like WorkSpace. Dickson and I originally got an office for Paramagnus because we knew that being in the same room together often has a really positive effect. We ended up getting rid of the office because we didn’t need it all the time, and it got to be too expensive. WorkSpace would have given us the best of both worlds.

There are lots of interesting, creative people in Edmonton working from their bedrooms and basements. Opportunities to connect are somewhat rare though, limited to events like BarCamp. I can’t even begin to imagine how positive something like WorkSpace would be!

I know I’d be a paying member if we had something like WorkSpace in Edmonton. What do you think? Would you find such a facility useful?

Pros and cons of telecommuting

telecommuting The company I work for, Questionmark, is a big believer in telecommuting. As a result, I work from home usually two days a week. We were talking about it in the office this week, and this article in the New York Times made me think about it again recently:

Gasoline has become the new workplace perk, as employers scramble to help workers cut its use and cost. A dollar a gallon ago, things like telecommuting, shortened workweeks and Internet subsidies were ways of saving time and providing workers with a little more balance in their lives. Now they have become ways to save money and to keep workers from, well, walking.

Saving money on gas is definitely a good thing about telecommuting. Not everything about it is positive though. Here are some pros and cons for me.


  • I save money on gas, likely extend the life of my vehicle, and get to avoid traffic headaches.
  • Rolling out of bed and turning on the computer is great. No need to rush around and get ready! This also helps with really early morning meetings.
  • If I need to run a quick errand, it’s easy to do so.
  • Often there are less distractions, and I can really focus on something.


  • It’s really easy to eat too much. With the kitchen a few steps away, I find myself snacking more than I would in the office.
  • No air conditioning in my apartment…when it’s 30 degrees outside, the A/C in the office is definitely nice.
  • Sometimes to solve a problem you simply need to talk to someone else in person.
  • Technology isn’t perfect, and sometimes the VOIP phones fail or for whatever reason I can’t connect to something I need.

You can read more about telecommuting at Wikipedia.

Another popular trend is the shortened work week, where you work four ten hour days instead of five. That would definitely save money on the commute too, but again would have pros and cons.

Seems to me that the standard 9 to 5, five day work week is becoming a bit antiquated. At the very least, more and more organizations are comfortable experimenting with alternate schedules and ways of working.

Why the Facebook ban will be lifted within two years

Post ImageAccording to the Globe and Mail, government employees in Ontario have been banned from accessing Facebook. Kristen at Mashable points out that YouTube, online poker, and various other sites are also banned. And Mark Evans points to this story about TD Bank banning Facebook during business hours. There are undoubtedly many other major organizations that have banned access to Facebook and other social networking sites.

I think these bans are ridiculous. And Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty makes it easy to understand why:

“I think Facebook is predominantly a social network. It has its value, but we just don’t really see how it adds value to work that you do in the workplace.”

You sir, Mr. McGuinty, are an idiot.

When you don’t understand something, the correct course of action is to learn about it. Admit you don’t know something, and then find out what it is that you don’t know!

The idea that work exists only between the hours of 9 to 5, and only in your place of business, is dead. Welcome to the 21st century. Human behaviour has changed, and it’s time that the workplace caught up.

I am reminded of something Leonard Brody said yesterday (I am paraphrasing here):

People often say “oh email, instant messaging, there’s too much information, I can’t take it!” Well, you’re all liars. You thrive on more.

It’s true. Employees today can be incredibly productive, so long as their employers make it possible. Banning them from something like Facebook isn’t going to help. There are no doubt many people working for the Ontario government who are part of an older generation, one that isn’t trained to be connected all the time. Perhaps banning Facebook won’t affect them much.

The ban sets a dangerous precedent, however. The next generation of workers the government hires simply won’t stand for it. They are fundamentally different, wired to be connected 24/7. To them, Facebook is both entertainment and work. It’s a tool, not a time-waster. They’ll use it to connect with friends, and they’ll use it to connect with colleagues. Banning Facebook for these workers will definitely hinder their productivity.

Don’t be surprised to read about the Ontario government reversing this decision sometime in the next two years. I don’t think they’ll have any other choice.

Read: Mashable

Simple advice for acting on your software ideas

Post ImageJustice decided to play the “hypothetical situation” game today, with a post asking what you should do if a great idea hits you. I started out writing a comment, but it got ridiculously long, so here’s a post instead. First, I’ll answer the questions Justice included in his post, then I’ll suggest some of my own questions. Not that you need to be reminded, but I’ll say it anyway – I’m not an expert on these matters, so take this advice with a grain (or jug) of salt!

Okay, so you’ve got a great world-changing idea for a software application/business. What now?

Do you even tell *anyone*?
Yes! This is the easiest of the questions to answer. I think you have to tell someone, preferrably many people. You might think your idea is amazing, and maybe it is, but you won’t know until you get someone else’s opinion. Be prepared though, an honest opinion from someone can have you hitting the ground hard.

If/when this occurs to you, what do you do?
Well, tell someone first. Get another opinion. After that, decide if you really want to proceed. I don’t like doing things half-assed, and I’m sure you don’t either, so this is really an “am I all in or not” kind of decision. It’s not quite the point of no return, but once you commit, you had better follow through.

How do you get started?
In the case of software (or most things of a technical nature), you need to help people visualize your idea. That means getting a prototype or mockup or something going as quickly as possible. It’ll help you refine the idea, and it’ll make it easier to attract help later on. If you don’t know any programming languages, I guess you should learn one of those first 😉

Do you quit your job immediately and begin laboring intensely to bring this to fruition?
This is a difficult question to answer. It comes down to opportunity cost I suppose. It really depends on your individual situation. If you can quit your job and still manage to keep a roof over your head and coke, er, food on the table while working on your idea, I say go for it. Be prepared to give up any social life you might have however!

One caveat is to make sure you have something else going on in your life. If all you do is work on your idea, you’re going to burn out. You need to be able to take a break every now and then.

Do you immediately rush out and try to gather every talented and qualified person you know to begin building what you understand will eventually end up altering the world for the better?
In short, no. First, get that prototype/mockup going. Once that’s done, you can think about adding to the team. Here are some of the things you need to consider:

  • A large team can actually slow you down!
  • Waiting too long to bring in other developers may mean they spend all their time learning what you’ve already done before they can become productive.
  • Make sure you’re ready to share the glory if you decide not to go it alone.
  • A small number of people with specialized, complementary skills can be excellent for development.
  • How will you pay everyone?

What other questions should you be asking?
Well, there’s a bunch. Here are some that came to mind for me:

  • What problem am I solving? This one you need to be able to answer right away.
  • Do I want to be rich or do I want to change the world? This will have an impact on how you decide to pursue the idea. If you’re lucky, you’ll get both.
  • If you decide to go for it, will you get a Pareto efficient outcome? Of course it won’t be perfectly Pareto optimal, but that should be the goal. If your family has to suffer greatly for this to work, maybe reconsider.
  • How much is this going to cost me? In dollars, time, etc.
  • Are you prepared to hear “no”? Because you will, a lot.
  • Do you value sleep? You’ll get less and less if you go after your idea.
  • If this becomes a real business, are you ready to give up control one day? You’ll likely need to bring in outside help, investors, etc.

There’s dozens of other potential questions you could ask. Most of them don’t need to be asked right away, however.

So, what now?
I really believe you need to do two things: create a visualization of your idea, and get as many opinions as you can. After you’ve done those two things, you’ll have a better handle on the idea, and you’ll be in a much better position to answer any questions.

Read: Gray’s Matter

Off to California

Post ImageIt used to be that an all-nighter was a rare event, something that only happened once in a while and only when absolutely necessary. Lately though it seems like every night is an all-nighter! Dickson and I have been working like crazy lately, but I think it will all be worth it. I guess we’ll find out this weekend in any case!

We’re off to Calgary now, which is where our flight for Ontario, California departs. We’ll be at the Podcast & Portable Media Expo this weekend, so stay tuned to my blog and the Paramagnus blog for news and updates. Thanks to everyone who has wished us luck!

Have a great weekend!