USask researcher Chanchal Roy. (Photo: University of Saskatchewan)

Unique USask-led research and training project awarded $1.65M to advance software development

An inter-university group led by University of Saskatchewan (USask) researcher Chanchal Roy has been awarded $1.65 million by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to establish a first-in-Canada graduate-level program to train a new generation of software engineers.

By USask Research Profile and Impact

In addition to NSERC’s six-year Collaborative Research and Training (CREATE) grant to address Canada’s rapidly growing information and communications technology (ICT) sector, the project will receive $3.74 million in internship stipends from industry, $1.54 million from USask, $1.5 million from Mitacs, $228,000 from other universities, and more than $5 million from in-kind contributions, bringing the total investment to more than $13 million.

“This major public and private sector investment will equip graduates with specialized analytics and leadership skills urgently needed to advance IT innovation in this vital and fast-expanding sector of the economy,” said USask Vice-President Karen Chad.

“With our many partners and outstanding computer science researchers such as Dr. Roy in the fields of software engineering, analytics, and cybersecurity, we are ideally positioned to lead this multidisciplinary research and training program.”

The Software Analytics Research (SOAR) project involves co-applicants from USask, University of Calgary, University of Alberta, and University of British Columbia, along with 50 local, national and international industry and academic partners.

SOAR aims to train about 100 undergraduates, graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows to analyze massive amounts of software project and usage data and construct software that is “more secure, sustainable, scalable, and cost-effective,” said Roy, a USask professor of software engineering and computer science.

“I’m very excited about this project because we are working with industry and top researchers in Canada and abroad to provide students with software and analytical skills, as well as real-world experience,” he said.

Federal estimates suggest that more than 41,500 ICT companies in Canada had revenues exceeding $190 billion in 2018, with the sector expected to grow by 28 per cent over the next decade. Unfortunately, software errors (bugs) can have massive economic impacts, with more than 600 bugs costing $1.7 trillion worldwide in 2017, affecting 3.7 billion people and 314 companies.

SOAR students will receive formal training through targeted courses, intensive leadership and professional skills training, industry internships, and an annual industry-focused research symposium.

“With this program, we hope to attract high-quality students who will be provided paid internships in the industry,” Roy said.

“The companies will get to know these students before they graduate. After training them during their studies, companies are likely to pay graduates higher to retain them—which can address the shortage of skilled workers for Saskatchewan’s IT sector, help the economy, and help the university in signature areas of research such as water and food security.”

Interest from industry participants is so high that available internships far exceed the number of students, something that Roy said portends well for the program continuing past its initial term.

SOAR will leverage the computer science department’s considerable expertise with large-scale national research programs involving “Big Data” and software analytics gained from years of work with the USask-based Global Institute for Water Security and USask’s Global Institute for Food Security.

As well, the project’s industrial partners offer diverse perspectives and opportunities—ranging from pure software development at Saskatoon-based Vendasta to large corporations in the mining sector such as Nutrien that not only need software analytics and development but also predictive analyses of large amounts of data.

SOAR will also leverage support from organizations such as SaskTech (representing the interests of Saskatchewan technology companies) and Co.Labs (a Saskatchewan technology incubator) to develop trainees’ entrepreneurial and professional skills.

A recent report found that Saskatchewan’s more than 5,000 tech companies contributed $4.7 billion to the province’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018—5.6 per cent of the province’s total GDP. A shortage of trained workers, particularly at intermediate and senior levels, was identified.