Five Questions with Shinydocs CEO Jason W.D. Cassidy

September 12, 2023

Shinydocs is a Kitchener, Ont.-based data management company on a mission to allow organizations to better understand their data and make better decisions.

CEO Jason W.D. Cassidy recently sat down with CCI President Benjamin Bergen to talk about their business, and the work that Shinydocs is doing with the Ontario government. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Benjamin Bergen: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Jason. Let’s start with the backstory of Shinydocs. How did the idea come about, and how have you grown the company?

Jason W.D. Cassidy: Thanks for having me, Benjamin. My journey began with OpenText where I worked until 2004. In 2005, I started my own consulting firm focused on information management and governance. I’ve always believed every piece of information should have a well-defined lifecycle and be accessible when needed.

But I noticed a trend. Many vendors were more interested in storing information than making it accessible. They created storage solutions where information often got lost. This approach led to data becoming hidden.

That’s why I started Shinydocs. We didn’t want to create another storage solution. Our goal was to change how information is accessed and used. We aimed to ensure no files, documents or records were hidden in an organization. Our focus was on making information easily found and utilized.

BB: Interesting. Given the current surge in artificial intelligence technology, how has that shaped the way you’re building and managing ShinyDocs?

JC: The current AI trend reminds me of the initial excitement around the World Wide Web. I started using the web in 1993, though I’d been on the internet for about five or six years by then. The web was a fresh way to visualize and utilize information. However, it wasn’t until around 2006 or 2007 that people became comfortable making online purchases or integrating it into their daily work.

In the context of AI, we’ve had impressive hardware and software advancements. At Shinydocs, we’ve been working with AI for over five years, assisting customers in data prediction and analysis. But it’s only recently that there’s been a broader understanding and appreciation of AI’s potential. For instance, we recently hosted a workshop on using AI to classify documents and extract specific information. The overwhelming response to this workshop, with hundreds signing up overnight, is something we wouldn’t have seen five years ago.

Being in the information management space now is timely and crucial. It’s nearly impossible to process a petabyte of data, or a billion files, without AI’s assistance. While we’ve always utilized AI at Shinydocs, it’s only now that we can truly highlight its significance. It’s an exciting time for us.

We aim to empower information professionals to be more than just AI admirers. They should be actively involved in its creation and design. The primary focus should be on enhancing business operations using information.

We’re steering our clients towards practical applications of AI, rather than getting bogged down in debates about its ethics. While we acknowledge the importance of ethical considerations, our tools can guide users in making ethical decisions, ensuring data compliance, and avoiding copyright infringements.

I’ve noticed many have formed opinions on AI without truly understanding or experimenting with it. It’s reminiscent of the early internet days when people were hesitant due to perceived threats as they waited for seven to eight years before jumping onto the internet. We don’t want businesses to wait nearly a decade before embracing AI’s potential.

BB: I like that approach with historical context. And I’ve heard about your collaboration with the Ontario government. Could you shed some light on that?

JC: Certainly. About a decade ago, the Ontario government was working in the same way as most other organizations, then they recognized the need to modernize their file management systems. Like many organizations, they were concerned about the vulnerabilities of file sharing systems, such as susceptibility to ransomware attacks and the challenges in locating specific files.

However, the challenge arose when considering the vast number of documents in all sorts of different locations. Our collaboration with the province has primarily centred on addressing this challenge. The goal isn’t always to implement something entirely new, but to enhance and align what’s already in place with newer systems. This approach has been the crux of our successful partnership with the Ontario government over the past four to five years.

BB: A significant focus at CCI is on government procurement, especially when it comes to domestic technology. While it’s an excellent way for governments to support local businesses and boost the economy, many of our member companies find it challenging to sell to the government. How has Shinydocs navigated the procurement process?

JC: Our experience in procurement interestingly aligns with the challenges we address with our software for the government. They often gravitate towards newer solutions, directing their budget towards them. For instance, platforms like Microsoft 365 and OpenText are popular choices. While these systems are effective, there’s a tendency to overlook the broader data ecosystem. They might prioritize the 10 per cent of their data in these new systems, neglecting the remaining 90 per cent.

The essential lesson that guides Shinydocs is that the introduction of new and innovative solutions doesn’t negate the importance of existing systems. We operate within an ecosystem, and ignoring older components can be detrimental. A humorous analogy I often use is that if a modern data specialist were put in charge of fisheries, they might want all the fish in a lake next to their building for easier management. But that’s not how ecosystems function. Recognizing and respecting the entirety of our data landscape is crucial.

Before our collaboration with Supply Ontario and its recent leadership changes, there were some skewed spending perspectives. For example, there are all sorts of spending thresholds that mean the government is more comfortable spending more money on physical infrastructure projects than software projects. This disparity is baffling and completely backwards, especially when you consider that only 6 per cent of every Canadian dollar is invested in high-tech, compared to 27 per cent in the U.S. It’s perplexing to see physical infrastructure prioritized over intellectual property and innovative software solutions. I hope we can shift this perspective in the future.

BB: Your perspective aligns well with Mariana Mazzucato’s views on the importance of government investments in domestic companies, enabling them to go global. Do you have any advice for the ecosystem regarding engagement with the government, especially on procurement? Are there strategies that have worked well for Shinydocs?

JC: While we’ve built a positive relationship with the Ontario and federal governments, I must admit there have been challenges. Interestingly, we’ve had more success selling in Australia than in Canada. Their independent work style and time zone differences seem to facilitate smoother transactions. Being honest, it’s much easier to sell to different governments in the world rather than to our own. I think it’s because of noticeable conservatism when it comes to government purchasing. Often, if you’re an established player, you’re prioritized, which can stifle innovation.

It’s concerning to think that a ground-breaking company from Kitchener, Ottawa, or London, Ontario might develop a revolutionary product but struggle to sell it domestically. We risk losing these innovators if they can’t secure a foothold in their home market. We need to foster a culture where innovation is celebrated, and occasional failures are seen as part of the journey. While I’ve noticed positive shifts in leadership and some promising signs, there’s still a significant bureaucratic hurdle to overcome. We have work ahead to truly embed an innovation mindset.

The Council of Canadian Innovators is a national business council of more than 150 scale-up technology companies headquartered in Canada. Our members are job-creators, philanthropists and leading commercialization experts in the 21st century digital economy.

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