In today’s high-technology world, a new startup tech firm with the potential to go really big is often described as a unicorn. That term is also used to describe a software engineer or skilled programmer with exactly the right background and combination of skills to drive a company forward, simply because both of those are rare and hard to find.
To John Stone, senior vice-president of John Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group (ISG), the unicorns he’s searching for are software engineers, scientists and developers in high-technology fields — with farming backgrounds. As society becomes ever more urbanized, finding them is no easy task, but recruiting people with these skills has increasing importance for all farm equipment manufacturers.
Deere has been aggressively hunting those unicorns for 25 years. And it’s had some success.
“We have a huge variety of talented people, many of whom come from a farming background themselves,” Stone told a group of machinery editors recently gathered at the company’s brand new ISG R&D facility on the outskirts of Des Moines, Iowa.
“Here the unicorn is a software engineer who goes home and farms. So they know the production cycle first hand. Those employees are engineers; they’re software developers, machine learning scientists, data scientists, marketers, as well as customer support personnel.”
For those who don’t have a farming background, the company has gone so far as to plant a variety of different crops right in front of the building, specifically so staff can see what crops look like and how they’re grown.
In early 2018, at the quarter-century anniversary of Deere’s initial plunge into the high-tech world, the company also cut the ribbon on this brand new engineering facility. Walking through that building a year later proves that the environment this new breed of farm equipment brand employees — or unicorns — can call home is as unique as they are.
“Here in this facility we’re working on current products, but also on intellectual property and of course future products,” said Cyndi Smiley, Deere’s media relations manager.
A lot about the building is different compared to other facilities owned by Deere. For one thing, there is a lot of staff working out of a comparatively small space, which hasn’t happened by accident.
“We have about 830 employees here at this building, which would make us one of the most dense and cost-effective facilities in the entire Deere network,” noted Stone. “As you walk through, something you won’t see is a lot of walls. That does a lot of things. It helps us with an economic building with a frugal design. But it also allows us to have an environment that is very collaborative. It encourages collisions, people running into each other (figuratively speaking) and having something to talk about.
“There’s a buzz here,” Stone said of the enthusiasm created in part by the work environment.
But don’t think the building feels cramped and confining. Far from it, it’s a new kind of work environment that Laura Barringer, the engineer in charge of quality supply management and facilities, said is paying dividends.
“We are (seeing benefits),” Barringer said. “We’ve heard some great anecdotes so far. But we haven’t been here very long to really, truly measure velocity.”
“That (collaborative environment) is so critically important,” observed Stone. “A new tractor or combine program might take us three or four years to develop; but we’re deploying new software products to the market every 60 days. That kind of pace is different from the rest of Deere. That kind of pace means we need an open and reconfigurable work environment that is very collaborative.”
Several years ago I heard one of Deere’s senior VPs say the horsepower race in ag was over and the technology race was about to begin. The current pace of development at Deere’s ISG clearly shows the race is now on, and the green brand intends to lap the field. The current pace of development was made possible by the company significantly ramping up its investment and focus on ISG in recent years. The new ISG building is just the latest example of that.
“In 2006 to 2012, that’s when we really started investing in the digital operations,” confirmed Barringer. “In Integrated Solutions, we’re continuing to look at all of the decisions an operator needs to make in a season and what can we do in sensors and data so they can make better decisions. What can we automate?”
The software engineers whose job it is to figure those things out work in that open and changeable floor plan, which incorporates 42 “neighbourhoods,” some of which can accommodate up to 50 staff.
“We also have over 60 noise cancellation speakers,” said Barringer. That helps keep the noise level astonishingly low in a building jammed with employees.
“It’s really a much denser design than a typical office,” Barringer said. “Typically, we’d have one person for every 200 square feet. Here, we’re in the 100s.
“There is assigned seating, but there are lots of ways people can work, especially in the atrium. There are meetings happening there all the time. And that’s exactly what we wanted. Before, we were three different buildings and people were sitting half a mile from each other and supposed to be working on the same solutions. So we came together, and we see connections happening.”
Walking through the ultramodern facility, it’s obvious some employees have decided to decorate their “neighbourhood” to represent just exactly what their particular jobs entail — an indication the creative juices are flowing. Overall, though, the building has a clean, uncluttered look. But that isn’t to say the $32.6 million building is without character.
“We’re at least $50 per square foot cheaper than a regular office building,” said Barringer. “So we could spend some extra money on things people would appreciate.”
Overlooking the atrium and above the cafeteria that serves restaurant-grade meals and Starbucks coffee is a games room where employees can go and let off some steam over a ping pong table or other activity before getting back to business.
The ISG solutions neon sign that hangs over the common atrium area is a vintage dealership sign that has been given a modern purpose. And nearby is a statue of a leaping deer, one of only 14 remaining of those corporate icons that were commissioned by Deere in the late 1800s. And a horse-drawn plough that spent many years in the Smithsonian stands by the main entrance.
“We have some really great things that came out of our archives that are in our building now,” Barringer said.
Given that Des Moines isn’t exactly known as the high-tech hub of the U.S., just how hard is it to find unicorns willing to locate to the Midwest?
“Folks are actually seeking us out now,” said Barringer. “Which is really exciting. People are noticing (us), and that’s helped us a lot.”
Having a first-rate facility to work in has helped. But it remains necessary to spread out some of the R&D to locations elsewhere.
“We still have a big challenge,” Barringer acknowledged. “Because as we grow we need talent, and we compete with even Tesla, for example. That’s why we have other strategic locations as well.”
Deere is represented with offices in Silicon Valley and other places around the world. But Iowa is the brand’s ancestral home, and it’s the best place for software engineers and scientists to work closely with the plants that actually build the tractors and equipment their systems will be integrated into. And that’s an advantage, because unlike the early days of digital technology where systems were add-ons, now most digital systems are built into the equipment right on the factory floor.
Said Stone, “Think about precision agriculture as a system. It’s not just a sensor, a smart planter, a tractor that drives itself. It’s about technology that makes that equipment smarter and easier to use and more precise. One of the most difficult challenges in agriculture is, how do you take those different technologies and deploy them at scale.”
Deere is confident the new environment it’s created in Des Moines will help its unicorns do exactly that.
This article was originally entitled as ‘Hunting unicorns’ in the December 2019 issue of Country Guide.