Tuesday, June 14, 2011

In Memoriam: Liz Metcalfe, Digital Pioneer

Canadians often don't recount or adequately value their history, let alone their online history. It was through the efforts of people like Liz Metcalfe that Canadians have an online voice. Liz Metcalfe was involved in a variety of early Canadian projects that launched national online properties.

Liz was a digital pioneer for Canada. Last night, I found out that she was killed in a horrible traffic accident.

Liz began her Internet career in 1989 - long before the Netscape IPO and the meteoric dot.com days. She worked for such Internet collossi as Canada.com, Yahoo, Rogers, and AOL. She help these companies establish their initial presence in Canada. One of the first online portals in Canada's was launched under Liz's direction, Southam's Montreal Gazette portal.

With Rogers she helped launch Quicken.ca, one of Canada's first and largest financial websites (subsequently merged with Canadian Business). Her collaborative reports on Canadian online banking and brokerage offerings were significant in assisting Canadians to move their financial affairs online and spurring the companies to improve their online services. She also provided a stream of regular content for the website and helped develop phenomenally popular RRSP tools. With a background education in film and journalism and a love of technology, Liz was one of the first people to understand the unique nature of the Web medium - helping develop interactive features when most other companies were still offering brochureware.

At an individual level, Liz authored email newsletters and blogs long before they were a mainstay here. Under the various forms of her Media Gleaner she covered domestic and international and tech issues. She was a locus of information and her Facebook postings became topics for diverse, occasionally heated, discussion. An example of this was the purchase of Huffington Post by AOL that she reworked into a blog post

In addition to being one of Canada's leading digital pioneers, Liz was an incredible woman with an unbridled and diverse range of interests and passions. She was a science fiction aficionado - introducing me to such treasures as Ender's Game, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and filk music. She wrote scifi and poetry. Her love of motorcycling was chronicled in her blog, Moto-Mojo. Her solo road-trip through Belgium and France and resulting escapades were a riveting travelogue and vicarious delight.

Liz died on her motorcycle riding back from a charity event that she regularly participated in for Toronto's Rape Crisis Centre. Please consider making a donation in Liz's honour via her CanadaHelps WROAR Ride campaign page.

I owe so much of my Internet career to Liz. After graduating from Humber's Internet management program in 1999, I went to work for a start-up doing programming. It wasn't my cup of tea, but already the dot.com bubble was bursting, as were career opportunities. I really wanted to make content and direct the structure and offerings of websites. I applied for a job at AOL that I didn't get, but a colleague of Liz's referred my name to her. I got a call from Liz about a web producer opening for Quicken.ca. I never liked personal finance and had no background in it, but Liz was so engaging and encouraging, I decided to set up an interview.

I didn't show up. Normally, not showing up for an interview is a definitive act, but Liz called me back. She instinctively knew my concerns and convinced me that my skills and interests could be applied, so I interviewed and started working at Quicken.ca in 2000. Liz was right; it was a great opportunity. She and the Quicken team were excellent role models and teammates. We built an incredible, innovative website together. One of the projects that Liz and I worked on together that I'm most proud of is the University Planner - the first tool in Canada to use StatsCan data to help students calculate and plan for the actual cost of a university education.

Liz also offered daily guidance at our regular morning meetings that she set up. The team would discuss topical news and project details every morning. Through Liz, I learned how to write killer homepage teasers (among them the "Vince Carter teaser" where attaching a celebrity name to any topic guaranteed click-throughs).

The dot.com burst hit the Rogers' online properties hard, so we all moved on to other projects. If it wasn't for Liz, I would likely not have had the opportunity to be a web producer, a job that I loved.

It was Liz who shaped my love of understanding what users want and figuring out how to offer content and experiences to meet their needs. She gave me the career outlet to refine my skills and interests, which I continue to expand through my PhD studies.

On a personal level, Liz was a close friend to me and my family. Liz befriended everyone she met and managed to find time to support all her many friends. As my wife recalls, "You were such a thoughtful, generous person and a true friend. I'll never forget how you actually volunteered to read my tediously long master's thesis (not even my own husband would look at it) and made such kind and supportive comments. You will be greatly missed!"

On her Facebook page, Liz described herself as "an incurable optimist, a collection of contradictions and a cultural hybrid." It was these elements that made her not only a wonderful person to know but such an important person in the history of Canada's Internet.

We miss you Liz!


Here is Liz's obituary in the Toronto Star and a news story on Liz and the accident on Global.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for writing this. I have worked with Liz (whom I used to call Lizette, because she came to Southam New Media (and canada.com) in Edmonton from Montreal. I have rarely been associated with a person SO friendly, optimistic, creative, and professional as Lizette. I think I'm one of many who will cherish her memory for ever.

Taxlady said...

Thank you for this post. It really tells about Liz. I met her in 1977 and she was one of my dearest friends.

Anonymous said...

Here's is a reply from Sherry:

I met Liz one sunny afternoon in 2009, and she seemed like a great lady to know. I did not get another opportunity to meet her again. I was shocked to hear about her.

Anonymous said...

Liz really was a very nice person. Perenially sunny and great to work with.
I am so shocked and saddened to hear of this.