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Software testing firm creating opportunities for Indigenous workers

Sault Ste. Marie's PLATO Testing launching second training cohort this November

Before landing a job with PLATO Testing, Candice Tangie would often find herself working 13-hour days, balancing two or three part-time retail jobs at a time, just to make ends meet.

So, when she came across a post on a job site seeking candidates willing to be trained in the IT sector – and guaranteed a full-time job offer upon graduation – her interest was piqued.

“I just applied,” said Tangie, a member of the Michipicoten First Nation who lives and works in Sault Ste. Marie. “I had always had an interest in the IT field, and I just went for it.”

That decision has paid off.

Tangie is one of the first 11 graduates from the Sault Ste. Marie PLATO Testing program that teaches Indigenous students how to become software testers.

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On an average day, it’s her job to run through the various functions within a program to work out any bugs, ensuring the software is running smoothly before it’s put into operation.

During her internship, for example, she verified the scanning function was working properly on new lottery terminals for Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG), and she’s checked websites for spelling mistakes and missing links.

“Right now I’m working on an app for credit unions, and I test the app to make sure that it functions properly,” Tangie explained.

More than a year after graduating, Tangie is seeing a palpable impact from her new role.

Having a stable, Monday-to-Friday job with a steady paycheque has allowed her to plan for the future and consider new opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible in the past.

“Before this, I wasn’t even able to consider buying things like a house or a car, and now I’m able to do so,” she said.

Creating purposeful change

That’s the type of purposeful change founder Keith McIntosh wanted to effect when he came up with the idea for PLATO in 2015.

The president and CEO had already been successfully operating Professional Quality Assurance (PQA) Testing for close to two decades when a revelatory experience learning about the Truth and Reconciliation process for Indigenous Peoples convinced McIntosh to launch the spinoff.

PLATO presented an opportunity to provide meaningful work for Indigenous Peoples, while simultaneously filling a gap for IT professionals.

Today, PLATO has branches in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. McIntosh’s ultimate goal is to employ 1,000 Indigenous software testers at 20 offices across Canada.

The Sault Ste. Marie division, which specializes in lottery and gaming expertise, opened in 2019.

Since graduating its first cohort a little over a year ago, six of the 11 graduates have remained with the company, said Jennifer Rushton, vice-president of lottery and gaming for PQA Testing and PLATO Testing.

Those employees are thriving, building on their skills and developing the unique, in-demand expertise required for software testing. The impact of their work is felt across the globe.

“We are working on a number of different projects with companies that are literally around the world,” she said.

“We’re delivering to clients right now that are in London, England, Calgary, Alberta, and everywhere in between.”

As with other companies, the arrival of COVID-19 last winter has left its mark on PLATO, biting into revenue and pushing employees to adapt to a new way of working.

But after a few difficult months, the year is getting back on track, Rushton said.

“We have been recovering, and we’re finally headed in the right direction,” she said.

“We are confident that our fiscal 2021 will be a good year, and things are optimistically stable.”

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Training to start Nov. 16

That means that the next training cohort, originally slated to kick off in May, can now move forward.

On Nov. 16, another nine students will undergo the five-month program, with COVID-19 and social distancing protocols in place.

After their training is complete, graduates will spend three months on an internship with local companies. During the first cohort, interns found placements with OLG, Algoma Steel, the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre, and InsightWorks.

But the influence of PLATO's work in the city is just beginning to be felt.

“We remain committed to creating 60-plus jobs here in Sault Ste. Marie,” Rushton said.

“We’ve done a pretty good job of not only developing talent, but also attracting talent and providing repatriation opportunities for individuals who used to live in the Sault and wanted to return home.”

On the PQA side of the business, Rushton said, two existing PQA staff members have relocated from other parts of the country to Sault Ste. Marie, while others have been hired from outside the Sault and have either relocated or will be shortly.

Recruitment for experienced software testers is ongoing.

Program creating new opportunities

Jesse Forrester is one PLATO employee who didn’t have to look far from home for the opportunity.

A member of the Batchewana First Nation, Forrester had just been laid off from his previous job when his employment counsellor suggested the program.

“It was more of wanting to find a career that wasn’t physically demanding,” Forrester said of his decision to apply.

“I’ve been in industry most of my life, so it’s been pretty hard on my body, and I’m not a spring chicken anymore.

“This seemed like a very good opportunity to get into a career that is less physically demanding, and it’s actually fairly safe compared to some of the places I’ve worked.”

With little knowledge of the IT sector beyond the basics of running a computer, Forrester said the learning curve was steep, and there were days that the challenge of developing new skills ended in frustration.

But support and encouragement, from both his instructors and his fellow classmates, made a huge difference in helping him complete the course, said Forrester, who views his colleagues as family. 

He now feels he can live a healthier lifestyle and maybe even remain in the workforce longer, because of the lowered impact to his body and the injuries he sustained from his previous work experience.

"Even with some of the difficulties I've had, for the most part, I've completed and succeeded in all my challenges," he said.

"The growth and development that I feel that I have – and I'm pretty sure that others have seen it, too – is just the success that PLATO has provided me in the training and developmental side of it."