The value of educational breadth

Alumni Perspectives with Jack Newton ('01 BSc(Spec), '05 MSc).

Jack Newton - 11 September 2020

My journey to founding Clio, a cloud-based legal technology company that has grown to be one of Canada’s most successful companies, started in childhood. My parents brought one of the first personal computers—an IBM 8086—into our home and encouraged me to experiment and play with this new device. I started programming when I was about eight years old. Over the course of the next decade, I proceeded to fall in love with the idea of creating programs. I loved the idea of creating something out of nothing. 

One of the things I’m most thankful for from my parents—and that I try to emulate in my own parenting—is that my natural curiosity was never hindered by rules or expectations. I was left to explore at my own pace and with my own direction, and my parents never tried to steer me toward a specific career.

I entered my bachelor of science program in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Science retaining all of that curiosity. While I intended to major in computing science, I remained curious about several other fields, including medicine and biotechnology. My undergraduate program let me explore a wide variety of topics—including statistics, biology, biochemistry, business, epistemology, and machine learning—as I worked to decide on a major for my degree.

At the time, I felt I was merely exploring specific areas of science, trying to decide on a major alongside an ultimate career direction. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was how the cross-disciplinary learning I was undertaking would so powerfully equip me for everything I’ve done over the last 20 years.

My eventual journey into entrepreneurship began as I was wrapping up my bachelor’s degree (in computing science, ultimately!). One of my professors and mentors, Jonathan Schaeffer (computing science), invited me to join a new UAlberta spinoff company called Chenomx. The company was looking for its first software developer to help create a novel medical diagnostic tool based on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology, and thought I’d be a great fit. I was excited to take the job. 

In tackling my first big, gnarly, “real world” technical challenge at Chenomx, I found the foundational learning I’d done across so many areas of science to be instrumental. Some of what I learned while studying biology and biochemistry during my bachelor’s degree, for example, provided a vital backdrop for the programming work I was doing as I helped create this tool.

I also came to appreciate that education is not one-dimensional, or even linear. Over the course of my career at Chenomx, I took a sabbatical to pursue a master’s degree in machine learning, studying with Russ Greiner (computing science), and my time at Chenomx was extremely helpful in this next phase of education. I eventually became the director of product development at Chenomx and was able to leverage my exposure to business topics and mentors over the course of my time at UAlberta to get the most out of my master’s program. Then, while still at Chenomx, I caught the startup bug, and ultimately directed my love of creating new things toward founding and creating Clio. 

Today, I continue to put the learning I’ve done at UAlberta, Chenomx, and beyond to work as Clio continues to thrive. Clio has grown from two people to a global company of more than 500, producing one of the most-used technology tools in the legal industry, and I’m excited for what the future holds.

Jack Newton is the co-founder and CEO of Clio, a legal technology company based in British Columbia. Clio offers software and applications tailored for the field of law, including client intake, case and document management, billing, and more.