An American in Kitchener

Head of our Product Practice, Heidi Ram, recently sat down with Jay Judkowitz, VP of Product at Otto Motors, to discuss relocation to Canada from the point of view of an American. 

Otto Motors is a tech startup that builds self-driving robots for material handling in warehouses, distribution centers, and factories. As Jay describes it, “basically think of Waymo cars, they drive on the street on their own; our cars do that, but indoors. They do it to move things from one point to another to increase automation and manufacturing, and make supply chains more affordable in high labour countries.”

Here is Jay’s relocation journey and advice for fellow Americans looking to make the leap to the great white north. 

What prompted you to start thinking about coming to Canada?

Honestly, it was the quality of life for my family. There are differences between the US and Canada; certainly legal differences, but also social construct and social safety net differences, human rights differences, the pace of life, and attitudes towards vacation.

There are a lot of different things that make it more pleasant to live here. For my family (I have two children), I felt like many of the Canadian differences I referred to provide a better starting point if you are young and inexperienced.

Even the idea of relocating can feel like a daunting process - how did you make the transition?

It helps if you're working for a multinational. At the time, I was working for Google - I had been there four years in the Mountain View office, and Google facilitated that move. I applied for a lateral transfer into the Kitchener office, and the Google legal team did all the paperwork. I then worked in the Google Kitchener office for two and a half years before joining Otto Motors.

What is your experience adjusting to life in Canada?

A lot of it's the same professionally - if you're a Product Manager, you're doing product work. There is a lot of tech in Canada with the Waterloo to Toronto corridor. I wouldn't say it's Silicon Valley, but it's trying to do a lot of the same things, and people are trying to follow a lot of the same patterns, so it's not too difficult to transition. 

There are specific differences; Canadian companies are often a little more conservative in how they try to do their growth. In Silicon Valley, you'll see people try to get as much funding as possible and blow through it, trying to get as big as possible as quickly as possible and then hope the exit works out. In Canada, people try to get some success, build on that success, and manage their growth. 

There are also different attitudes toward quality of life. People actually take their vacation in Canada, whereas in the US, you'll see people hoard that forever. Canadian companies tend to care more about work-life balance, and they care about your family. 

Now you can't generalize too much. Obviously, there are a lot of American companies that do as well and probably some Canadian companies that don't. However, in my experience, it's not so much about the different privileges because tech is tech, but it's the attitude towards people when they take those privileges that I think is somewhat different.

What differences have you noticed between the Product Management communities?

In Canada, people are still trying to figure out Product Management because the Canadian tech scene is newer and because product management is one of the last things to evolve. So you'll see people transitioning product management by necessity. A company will need somebody to fill that gap, but they're not always able to hire someone that's been doing it for ten years like you would be able to find in Silicon Valley

So in Canada, you've got many people sort of feeling it out. It is more of a tight-knit community - there are a lot of support groups, Slack channels, and stuff like that, so you'll see the ecosystem trying to bootstrap itself and everybody helping each other figure it out. In Canada, you can be within a couple of degrees of separation from almost any PM in the area. Whereas, in the valley, it's not like that at all.

What would you say is the best part of living in Canada?

I would say that the differences between what's going on in the US and what's going on in Canada translate to a quality of life difference for my children, who are always my number one concern. 

There are a number of individual things, any one of which probably wouldn't be enough to get up and leave your country for, but in total, I just find myself much more happy and secure in Canada. 

What advice do you have for American PMs thinking about moving to Canada?

There are certain decisions in your life you can never really be prepared for, like being a first-time parent or moving to a new country. Of course, you're not ready and you have no idea what you're about to get into, but you can’t wait for every single question to be answered before a major life change - if you did, you’d never do it. 

So you have to say to yourself, what are the P-0 requirements? What are the P-1 requirements? What are the P-2 requirements? What are the things that make me happy? What are the things that make my family happy? Get enough of the P0s answered, then take a risk on the rest. You can always move back if maybe the things that you thought were P2 were really P0 for you.

It's just about ruthless prioritization of your own happiness, so figure out what matters to you, and if Canada checks those boxes, then don't wait; just go do it.

What is your advice for Canadians looking to move to the US? 

For those at Fortune100 or FAANG companies they have the benefit of being international. Sometimes there is no substitute for working at headquarters, and if that's what you want to do, if that's your idea of adventure, my advice is to do it while you're young and mobile.

There are a lot of wonderful things about the US and Silicon Valley. There are also lots of wonderful things about American companies. So try it out, but also think about the long term. 

Look beyond the immediate things like salary - measure the total cost:

  • Taxes
  • Cost of living 
  • Cost of housing 
  • Cost of health care
  • What happens if there's an economic downturn and you're unemployed - what are the different safety structures? 
  • If you have kids, what is the cost of education?

It’s all about risk tolerance and risk management. If everything's going well, you can expect this, but if everything is going badly, where do you have the better prospects of getting back on your feet?

As an American living in Kitchener, Jay has been able to experience the product management world from both sides of the border - both countries' pros and cons. He closed up our conversation by mentioning, if any Americans are looking to move to Canada, he is happy to delve into more of his journey and to connect with him on LinkedIn. 

Check out our blog for more Product Management and career progression advice.