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Matt Vandermolen merges technology with commerce

When he finished high school, Matt Vandermolen thought he wanted to be a police officer. To prepare for a law enforcement career, he began university studies for a psychology degree.

But he found he had no passion for the program, or for being penned into crowded lecture halls jammed with first-year students. So he left the university to study computer programming at Niagara College. The change, in his words, was “fantastic”. 

“Website development, IT support, database administration, Niagara College gave me the tools to step into those roles,” he recalled, “all of the skills and functions I would need.”

Graduating in 2006 as a programmer analyst, Vandermolen quickly got a job working in municipal government, but what he wanted was the creative, competitive buzz of the private sector.

It was a good move.

Less than a decade out of college he was named Director of Canadian Operations for Agency Oasis, tasked with building from scratch a Toronto-based tech team for the U.S. company which specializes in digital strategy, design and marketing. 

Today Vandermolen is a vice-president of the global digital agency Valtech. He guides multinational campaigns for such giants as L’Oréal and SC Johnson, but also enjoys helping more traditional in-store retailers find the comfort zone to nudge themselves and their customers into digital commerce.   

Niagara College helped launch Vandermolen into career orbit. In the past five years alone, he has gone from Solutions Engineer to Director of Technology, to Director of Technical Strategy. He sits on the North American senior leadership team as Vice-President Technology, managing clients who collectively top $25-million in annual revenues — and making sure they hit their key performance and revenue targets.

“You can be as brilliant a technologist as possible, but if you don’t develop those soft skills you’re going to hit a cap in your career pretty quickly.”

If Vandermolen’s story sounds like a clinical diet of technology and elite digital commerce, a magic moment actually came from an emotional bit of fate that changed his life and many others.

While working at Oasis, he was leading a web project for a bank — a culture dense with regulatory bureaucracy — when he was suddenly asked to be chief architect of a website to help parents of children with learning challenges. It was a major project with a tight deadline.

After a summer of 100-hour work weeks, often sleeping at the office, his team delivered the goods just in time. got a splashy New York City launch complete with Times Square billboards.

The website was a hit, winning huge international awards — the 2014 Sitecore Site of the Year award as well as a prestigious Webby, an international award recognizing excellence on the Internet.

However for Vandermolen a special proof-point came from a teary-eyed mother whose dyslexic son had been struggling at school. She told him that, thanks to the website’s forums where parents shared experiences and doctors discussed new findings, she could now talk to her child in ways that she never dreamed possible.

“It has a huge impact on my life and on his,” the mother told him. “He’s a different person now because of this tool you have built.”  

Vandermolen quietly reflected.

“Going from corporate banking to that was quite a shock,” he said. “What an insight.”

One of Vandermolen’s strongest skills is as a talent spotter and team builder. When he had to recruit a 50-person team to work out of Toronto, he would recall and track down exceptional individuals whom he’d encountered earlier in his career. Even today, while collaborating on major campaigns alongside other companies, he has a radar for spotting emerging young stars.  

But Vandermolen said the greatest gift Niagara gave him was not technology.

“It was confidence. Before attending college I was extremely introverted, terrified of speaking in front of people. With the smaller class at Niagara, my profs gave me the confidence to speak my mind, to talk and collaborate. It really opened me up,” he said.

“That tool has served me the greatest. It enables me not just to communicate with but to motivate and inspire my staff, or to convince senior colleagues and clients why we should take a particular path.

“You can be as brilliant a technologist as possible, but if you don’t develop those soft skills you’re going to hit a cap in your career pretty quickly.”