In Conversation with Queen's Engineering Alumnus Andrew Norris

Posted on August 15, 2019


Technology entrepreneur and Queen’s alumnus Andrew Norris (BSc ’07) has taken his engineering degree to the tech world, co-founding Taplytics in 2011, a company that provides product optimization and marketing solutions to help companies build better products and improve digital customer experiences.

  • TRANSCRIPT:

    Technology entrepreneur in Queen's alumnus Andrew Norris has taken his engineering degree to the the tech world, co-founding Taplytics in 2011 a company that provides product optimization and marketing solutions to help companies build better products and improve digital customer experiences. Today, the company he founded with three other Queen's alumni, including his brother Jonathan, has an impressive list of clients with a technology platform that helps deliver great customer experiences to the APPS and websites you may use. Welcome Andrew.

    Hi Nancy. Thanks for having me today.

    Oh, thank you for joining us. I'd like to start by asking you a little bit about your family. I know you just mentioned that, your brother Jonathan, helped to co-found, Taplytics with you, but your family has other ties to Queen's. You tell me a bit about that.

    Yeah, my, father was also a Queen's engineer back in the day. And so Queen's was always a very positive presence in my early education. I spent a number of trips to Kingston to see the campus to get a feel for what it means to be a Queen's engineer.

    Can you tell me what you studied and maybe a little bit about what it was like being on campus?

    I was in mechanical engineer didn't know that that was what I was going to be going in. I participated in my high school robotics team. It's actually where I met and started working with, the three other Queen's alumni who I ended up founding Taplytics with.

    The opportunity to sort of try and Queen's, engineering, as a mechanical engineer was really about what is the most broad understanding that I can get about engineering and see what direction that takes the cause considering you have to understand both the physics of things, how airflow and fluids work, but also how systems and software has to interact with that. So to me, that was a great foundation for not knowing specifically what direction I wanted to go.

    Were you involved in any clubs or teams?

    Yes, I was involved in the aerospace team and competed in sort of how to build a lightweight glider and compete against other universities which was really good experience.

    Queen's was sort of a mixture for me of getting a feel for what it meant to be an engineer, but also sort of what are the broad types of problems that we can when, when we leave Queen's and go into our career.

    Yeah, I think one of the key things that makes Queen's engineer's successful is the fact that they can interact in the real world and the experience through the club programs volunteer opportunities through Queen's. Engineering's a great foundation for that.

    Tell me a little bit about the road from graduation to where you are now.

    Yeah, so I actually figured out after my third year I spent a number of summers doing  summer internship placements, ads, engineering firms which was eye opening for me in that one. Being able to apply what I was doing with classroom real world right away was, was, was very interesting. But I really just need constant change and constant challenge.

    So for me, I actually in my fourth year type of a bit of a different path where I went and actually financial analysts for Shaw communications at Shaw West Calgary for the summer. And that's placement went well that I ended up joining them full time and for five years after, after I graduated and it was sort of applying the problem solving. And the strategy and how do you understand how to build new and new business lines that allowed me to be successful in that role and was a great foundation for me to eventually do something entrepreneurial and small.

    So that sounds like it's a career path that you wouldn't have expected when you were in your first couple of years.

    No, not at all. It was a, it came organically out of sort of getting involved with clubs and the challenge to say, okay, we'll do something completely different and go after another passion of mine, which is media and technology and spends time figuring out how to this, the fundamentals of these types of businesses work.

    For me it was once a allowed me to go on a path and saying, yes, I'm going to shift from being an engineer to being actually a financial analyst and eventually help build a new line of business while I was at Shaw, which was a great experience for me.

     So tell me about Taplytics. What's the company about? How did it come together?

    Yeah, so we, after being in the corporate world for about five years I realized I had an opportunity and both important in life and with the people around me, with my brother who had just graduated from Queen's two friends of ours, Aaron Glaser and Coby Druxman, both Queen's alumni who were, were all interested in technology.

    At the time the iPhone had come out about a year, a year and a half earlier changed the way that we lived our lives having a full computer in your pocket and realize that there's a massive opportunity in the world of mobile apps and that eventually mobile apps could basically feed every part of the consumer facing industries that we interact with on a day to day basis from finance to entertainment, to social, to news. And we saw that very early and so we, together we came together to actually build products for ourselves, for products that we would use on a day to day basis.

    Things like, how do you keep and share photos and memories with both the general public and with your close friends and family. How do you discover new music tastes and share those with your friends? These were early problems that we identified in our own day to day that we saw that there was a general market for it.

    So we actually literally opened up soft hard textbooks and learned ios development one-on-one really led by my, my brother Jonathan. So the process of doing that took us about a year, year and a half of just learning the fundamentals of how to build a product, market it, sell it. But out of that, we had great learnings around what were the challenges that the whole industry was facing and if we use a small developer facing them, how could we help the rest of the industry?

    So one of the big challenges was we were building these products, but we had no way to understand what impact they were having for customers. So, what we ended up doing was really building an underlying platform for our own problem which was how do we, how do we actually put out optimization efforts of our products and, and try different experiences with different groups of users and measuring the impact of it. It's commonly called A/B testing, which is where we started. This allowed us to understand really what was working, what was not in our products. And then we shared that with friends and other businesses in the Toronto area that were also building apps at the time and realized this was a much wider problem.

    So for us that led us down a path of saying there's an actual product here beyond just a tool for our own needs. And so we shifted from building consumer facing products to building the topics platform for all the potentially hundreds of thousands of apps have now come along since then. And so that was a big shift for us and put us down a path that we continue beyond today.

    That's great. And of course the mobile apps have exploded considerably and now people can't be without their phones.

    What you would say were sort of the top skills that you learned at Queen's that, that and learned in engineering that, that led to your ability to, to co-found this company today.

    Really engineering comes down to, how do you approach solving problems and how do you look at, you know, I face, even today as a, you know, we're, we're 50 plus people here in Toronto growing quickly. I face new challenges on new problems that we've never faced before and I'd be able to.

    And so that strategic framework of how do you break down a problem into its smaller components, understands, how you could come up with a solution to solve it, tested, iterated and be able to move quickly on during that, having the experience of learning how to take what seemingly an impossible problem, or something that you've never faced before and approach it in a systematic way that gets you to an actionable results. That's something that as an engineer, even at school, you're having to do on a daily basis.

    And so it feels like it's never really stopped. For me, it's just different problems of different complexity.

    That's great. So what advice would you give to students today?

    I think the reality of the industry that engineers are facing today, and to some degree they're going to have to build sort of the career that they want. Engineers are uniquely positioned to take an entrepreneurship role. And I think Queen's engineers specifically because they've been mixed of both the technical and the soft skills, from the exposure that they have to build and solve problems that they want so early, even at Queen's and soon after Queen's.

    My advice is to experiment and find teams that in groups of people that you like working with and go in and after it and trying to solve problems.

    And, and you may not hit on a business right away, but you may hit on a problem that you have.

    As an employer now, we look at people who have gone and solved problems for themselves or solve problems for others more so than just the academics of what your grades were.

    Being able to use examples of things that you've built, things that you, you're proud of, things that, problems that you are involved with. That shows that, that really speaks more to what the market goes forward today.

    And then the other one I would say is, there's a growing technology industry here in Canada that is desperate for new talents and for engineers who can bring their, their experience thought process and care, not just to the engineering side of things, but some of the best salespeople we've hired, some of the best account managers we've hired are engineers by training, because they can think through very technical, strategic problems.

    Everyone who's goes to Queen's is a unique position to take a risk. So what I've gone through the things that you're passionate about or that really you think would challenge you and allow you to grow. A lot of your learning is going to happen in your first few years of your career. Put yourself in position to be challenged, to learn as much as you can in that period of time.

    That's wonderful advice. And finally, Andrew, I wonder if you can tell me what's your favorite part of the day?

    We as a founding team of four - it's been seven, eight years almost now. The reason we still get up everyday is because we love solving problems.

    We love looking at the customers that we worked for: RBC, Ticketmaster, the Crate and Barrels of the world. That has real-world business challenges with the customers. How they face a new challenging digital future. And our platforms can help them do that. So being able to look and understand what these different industries are facing, and work through with them, have actually come up with solutions and experiments to try with our users, and really think about what is the future of their customer experience and how did they become great customer experience, competence and long term.

    Those are the super rewarding activities for us to do. And the fun part now is we have to build a team around us of amazing people who share that same passion and have that opportunity to help and literally impact every single consumer facing mystery in the world right now that is facing a new digital world, that is not clear cut or like everything that they've ever seen before. And our companies, we're positioned to help those companies solve those problems.

    Sounds like an exciting time. Thank you so much for talking with us today, Andrew.

    My pleasure, Nancy. This is great. Thank you.