A visit to John Deere's Consumer Electronics Show exhibit can be an eye opener, and not just for city-folks who have never seen a modern combine. What visitors may not know is that most of the people on the stand sharing the story of how food is produced are integrally involved in the company -- and none fit the stereotype, white-shirted engineer sitting before a computer screen.
Farm Futures got a chance to talk to five of these engineers, folks who represent the changing face of ag engineering and technology. Of the five we talked with, four had no ag background; Two are not U.S. born. And all have interesting stories about how they ended up at the company.
Agriculture is undergoing a structural change. Succeeding in this environment will require "new eyes" on opportunities. Diversity can be an asset for any operation, from your farm to a major ag company.
What follows is a look at those five team members, how they got to Deere and what role they play today.
No plans for agriculture
Zach Bonefas, senior staff systems engineer, automation and autonomous
Zach Bonefas grew up in the shadow of the John Deere Tractor Works in Waterloo, Iowa, and didn't think he would have a career in agriculture. Little did he know, his love for computers and technology would eventually land him a job in the equipment industry.
A tech lover back in the early 1990s, Bonefas had many friends with similar interests in high school. Those friends had "all the neat tech stuff," he says. Not Bonefas. "I was begging my parents for a computer when I was a sophomore in high school," he recalls.
His parents refused, not realizing the value of a computer to a promising engineering student, and in 1994 computers cost more than they do today. Bonefas suggested he buy it himself with a loan from the credit union. His mother co-signed the loan and Bonefas paid it off by doing odd jobs and mowing lawns.
"I learned to write code on that computer, and it was really a kind of springboard for a lot of my development as an engineer," he says. As a result he was well prepared by the time he got to the University of Iowa to study electrical and computer engineering. There he discovered his love for embedded software. Those are the deep instructions in processors and sensors that perform a range of tasks in a machine.
For Bonefas, his Deere career started with internships, which turned into a job at the company. His college classmates thought it was hilarious.
"I was mocked pretty badly by some of my classmates," he says. "They were going to work for Hewlett Packard,Texas Instruments or Motorola. They were viewed as tech companies at the time, and here I am going to work for John Deere."
Those classmates thought Bonefas was heading into a dead-end career at a "hick company." But many of those classmates were forced to find other employment – several times.
“John Deere was the right bet and I've had a very interesting and fulfilling and technology driven career. So, I think I get the last laugh on that one," he smiles.
Bonefas started out at Deere working on autonomous vehicles with a focus on perception and obstacle detection. One day John Reid, director of product technology and innovation, came to Bonefas and told him it was time to leave research and go to a business unit.
Bonefas chose the Intelligent Solutions Group, eventually leading a project that would require his skills at machine perception and obstacle detection. That's the Active Fill Control System on the company's latest self-propelled forage harvesters. The system automatically detects a trailer next to the forage harvester and begins filling based on a preselected fill strategy.
The sensor and processing development then became the base for the Active Vision camera in the S700 series combines used in the Integrated Combine Adjustment system.
For a non-farm kid who had to get a loan for his first computer, Zach Bonefas has made his mark in the world of ag technology.
Going beyond engineering
Sona Raziabeegum, strategy lead, digital solutions
When you talk with Sona Raziabeegum, you learn things. Like, in India when you go to college you get to be a doctor or an engineer, then you can move on to what you want to do when you grow up. "There are only two choices, and I fainted at the sight of blood, so this is easy, engineering," she quips. "I had more of a math affinity than the other subjects, so that definitely helped."
When Raziabeegum enters a room the energy level rises. She's a quick-witted talker who today is integrally involved in crafting the company’s precision ag digital strategy. Her road to Urbandale, Iowa, was a little more circuitous than most.
Her family culture required getting married; thankfully her husband was fine with a wife who wanted a career and wanted to live in the United States.
Her move landed her in Michigan, a far cry from crowded Kerala, a land of beaches and coconuts on the southern tip of India.. "It's like 30 million people in a place that's maybe a quarter, the size of Iowa," she notes. " I came to Michigan in the middle of winter. I walk out of the house and do a face plant."
She laughs about that first experience with the cold, but there was nothing funny about unemployment. Her first job, a Web startup, required more training, which she achieved. Soon she landed at Chrysler where she worked mainly as a consultant.
That job involved interacting with different parts of the business and helping develop tech solutions. "I got to interact with a lot of folks with the business side of the company," Raziabeegum says. "I was getting a seat at the table to see how they talk about costs, profit, loss, and the customer value proposition which were really alien concepts to me because that's not my background at all."
That sparked her desire to get an MBA, which she did at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. The MBA experience revealed a love for strategy, operations and marketing. She wanted to learn more, but do so at a corporation with rotational leadership. It turns out Deere was one of the companies that popped up on the list.
"It was not an agricultural decision tree at all, like it wasn't an industry decision tree, it was like 'oh, how can I learn?'" she explains.
And that's when she entered the world of agriculture, some 12 years ago. "I had an eagerness to learn and there was an eagerness with the people to teach me," she says.
Even now, Raziabeegum laughs that she can still embarrass herself in a conversation about agriculture. But what does an India-born, Kellogg MBA-educated woman bring to the ag-focused strategic discussion?
"One of the things I do is ask a lot of questions and sometimes folks who completely understand something, think they understand what they're talking about, and I look around the room and see some people nodding their heads and some people shaking their heads," she explains. "You find that the basic assumptions [people have] are not really aligned, and sometimes I bring that to the table where I'm just so curious and I will ask 'why did you do that?"
That question can change the conversation as engineers, designers, marketers and manufacturing experts work through strategy.
Raziabeegum is a fan of the phrase "good is the enemy of great," which in a large business like Deere can be trouble. "We are the leading ag equipment company in the world, but we've seen other giants topple, right? What we've learned from a lot of examples in the industry is to always disrupt yourself. Don't wait for others to disrupt you because that's going to happen," she says.
The goal is to challenge assumptions, ask plenty of questions, and learn along the way. Good lessons for all types of businesses, including the family farm.
A global perspective
Tavonga Siyavora, program manager, new market entry
A move to Phoenix, AZ from his birth country of Zimbabwe, and interest in swag as a senior in college linked Tavonga Siyavora with John Deere 11 years ago.
"It was my senior year (at University of Arizona) and I had no idea what in the world I was going to do with my life, but I did want to apply my engineering skills towards something," he says. "And John Deere actually came out to the career fair there."
He had a good conversation with some of the Deere folks there. "It was actually quite by happenstance," he recalls. "I came to the career fair, having good conversations, but primarily you're looking for free swag."
Siyavora notes one special feature about being a company employee. "You can have multiple careers within Deere," he says. "With my engineering background I started out mainly on the manufacturing side at the harvester works in East Moline."
Eventually an opportunity popped up to work with the company's office in sub-Saharan Africa. "They needed someone with a precision ag background and that complimented my desire to be a part of what Deere is doing on the continent," he says.
That experience gave him insights on the impact Deere is driving at outside traditional row crop country. The work included dealing with larger farms, but also connecting with small-holder farms to bring in mechanization.
During that work, he was able to connect with several pilot programs, which evolved into Deere partnering and working with Nigeria-based startup Hello Tractor. "We did a couple pilots down there and shortly after my coming back, we actually connected Hello Tractor with the ISG Collaborator Program," He says.
Hello Tractor is an app-enabled matching service that allows small holder farmers to get access to a tractor from an owner-operator. "You're talking about two- to five-acre farms and the economics don't make to much sense to own equipment," he explains. "If anything, we're bringing that layer of technology to not only help drive increased mechanization across all those plots but support small business so folks can go out and purchase that tractor and leverage the technology to get a solid customer base that can drive their business."
Now he works on ways to bring precision ag to those areas. "It's not like we're running around with full-size tractors and GPS. You don't have the antennas and some of that stuff doesn't exist out there, yet, we need the data," he says.
Today Siyavora leads all New Market Entry projects at ISG, working with marketing, customer support, product safety and compliance from ISG and regional offices in Germany and Brazil. He supports efforts to expand JDLink into Asian and Latin American countries.
"I'm excited about the role that I have now," he says. "I'm working closely with our colleagues to make sure that our precision ag technology, or our portfolio of precision ag technology, is available to actually meet market maturity when the customer is ready to engage."
From home farm to test farm
Marcus Hall, Jensen Farm manager
Marcus Hall grew up on a grain and cattle farm not far from the World's Largest Truck Stop along I-80 in Eastern Iowa near Durant.
For Hall, the color of farm equipment on the home operation was green As he left for college his father was just getting into precision technology. Back then, Hall wasn't so sure about a career in agriculture.
" I'd been doing it my whole life and I didn't know if this was something I wanted to pursue," he recalls.
He earned a business administration degree and graduated into the teeth of the 2008 Great Recession . "At that point I was happy to be an employee somewhere," he says. "I worked to find whatever I could find."
He eventually ended up at SageAg, a small contract company that has since branched out to field test and software development. Early on, Hall was a contract employee working with Deere at the Jensen Farm. After six years at SageAg Deere approached him to manage the test farm.
Jenson Farm is no ordinary farm. You don't visit to look at the crops. "We have some crops out there, but mostly we have dirt," says Hall, who now works closely with technicians and systems test engineers to test new Deere tech at the farm.
It's a core part of the "put it in the field" proofing that equipment goes through on the road to commercialization.
For Hall, part of the fun is seeing the list of equipment heading to the farm for testing. "We may get word that Waterloo is shipping something to us. So those days are fun. It's almost like Christmas when you open up a package when the truck shows up," he smiles.
Working with new machines every day, Hall sees plenty in development. And he's seeing an engineering progression in those tests. "I don't think it's tied to anything you know that's a big breakthrough, but I think we're doing a lot of stuff better and it's kind of like the 'Aha' moment. Like, well that worked, but now I see the other side and that works even better, and this is a whole lot easier to set up," he explains.
He points to AutoTrac turn automation as an example of how far tech has come. "I remember the days when we were excited when there was one button to raise everything and shut off things too, and you could make the turn and hit the button again and everything would go. You're like, why can't they automate this? And they just did it."
For Hall, the farm kid who didn't think he wanted to be in ag, this job fills the bill.
The extroverted math lover
Liz Conzo-Kershner, Intelligent Solutions Group analytics leader
Liz Conzo-Kershner grew up near a dairy farm, but perhaps she wasn't seeing it clearly in her formative years. "I went home several years after I started working for Deere and we're driving down the road with my Grandma,” she recalls. “I was like oh, there's some alfalfa, and she's like, 'only for the last 50 years,' and it was only at that point that I cared.”
Conzo-Kershner may have grown up near a farm, but she never expected agriculture to be in her future. She got her start as an economist at the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and even held a position as the assistant director of Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business.
So how did she end up leading a data science team?
"When I was in high school, I would never have said I want to lead a data science team at John Deere. The term data scientist wasn't even a thing until 2008 or so," she says. "But I was an extrovert that liked math and so I was trying to figure out a way to intersect those two things as my career path."
After years working for government and academia, she wanted to find a role in business where there was a need to use economic analysis to help drive decisions.
Conzo-Kershner is deep into big data these days. Her definition of "big data" has changed throughout her 15-year career with Deere.
"Three years ago I came to the Intelligent Solutions Group and the definition of big data exploded for me,” she says. “I went from data that could fit in rows and columns, that I could use traditional methods to analyze, to data that quite frankly, I personally couldn't wrangle anymore.”
What does that mean for a farmer? Companies across a range of industries have engaged data scientists in new ways. From deep analysis and machine learning tools to predict how a hybrid will perform, to multiple variable analysis to better understand machine performance, data has growing value.
That requires more than an economics background. The work involves engineers and computer scientists, not all with an ag background. "I've been with Deere 15 years and 12 of those years were in ag but not at ISG and in that time I became steeped in ag," she says.
It's diversity of thought that helps solve problems. Deere has opened its precision ag systems to partner with more than 150 companies worldwide for data sharing, bringing new tools to improve performance, and to reduce operator fatigue or boost productivity.
To capitalize on all that data, Conzo-Kershner says the company has created job families. "One is what we call a data catalyst, so that's the translator between the business and the science. They're asking, 'what problem do you want to solve?'" she says. "Then we have the data wrangler that pulls the data from all different sources, and they also evaluate the data to understand its cleanliness and where there might be outliers."
And finally, the data scientist builds algorithms based on what the catalyst has identified as the problem and uses the information the wrangler has pulled together into a usable form.
Conzo-Kershner hopes to create career paths for those who want to stay at Deere. "I want that great talent to stay and I believe that we have some of the most interesting problems in the industry to work on with arguably some of the most complex and biggest data sets to do it with."
Conzo-Kershner is well aware that farmers may feel nervous about all that data. "We have all this data and you think about all the use cases,” she says.”Let's make sure it makes sense within what we've said we'll do with this information. And I take that very seriously.”