Like so many software engineers working in ag startups, Alexander Macdonald is short on farm experience but long on desire to help solve agriculture’s problems. The British-born Macdonald earned a Ph.D. in computer science at Nottingham University, did an internship in Silicon Valley and worked at Adobe before discovering his current position at Farmers Business Network.
Farm Futures: When did you first know you wanted to work in computer science?
Macdonald: I just liked playing around with computers and making them do stuff – it’s like playing with Legos. I had computers growing up and got into it from there. This is what I like playing around with and what I like doing.
How did you end up in Silicon Valley?
Not everyone migrates to California, but it’s a huge draw for people in my field. If you look at Silicon Valley, a good chunk of us are from all over the world. It’s the mecca of computer science, so everyone comes here. I did an internship and then worked fulltime with Adobe, doing all sorts of things. It’s a big company with 10,000 people worldwide so I got to see software engineering from different angles.
In Silicon Valley you have a lot of work options: Facebook, Google, for example. So, why Farmers Business Network?
This is all more exciting than adding some random thing to Facebook. Ultimately, I wanted to do something more challenging and interesting. At a big company you work on big products, but you are very far removed from doing things that directly impact the customer. When I joined FBN there were 40 employees and everything we did was directly related to helping a customer achieve something. It was much more connected to the customer.
Obviously, seeing the company grow is a big thing. You can’t really appreciate that in a big company.
Why would you work at an ag technology company if you don’t have an agriculture background?
But when I talked to the founders here, I was shocked that tech hadn’t really provided a benefit to agriculture, at least on the software side. As a developer that opportunity seemed exciting – I can bring all these skills to help farmers, an underserved market.
It’s not a ‘hippy-feed-the-world’ thing. Farmers are trying to make a living, and technology can help them. In most industries there’s a lot of competition, but hearing how monopolized agriculture is, with massive conglomerates, it feels like no one is on the farmer’s side. That was very compelling.
You can join a big company doing useless things, or a small company trying to help farmers who are working hard to do something useful for the country. Trying to use my skills to that end is definitely appealing.
How was your first interaction with farmers?
I’m on the Research and Development team. We’ve been on a few farm trips. We’re taking ideas from what the product managers bring back from the farm and implementing them. We have an ag glossary that helps us learn. One interesting thing is the word ‘application’ – to me, you install an ‘app’ on your computer, but to a farmer, it’s a completely different thing.
How do your friends react when you tell them you’re working with farmers?
Being a software developer in the bay area working on something non-traditional, people are very inquisitive. Honestly, people just don’t realize the opportunity here - that’s probably why it’s taken so long for a company like FBN to show up. Why aren’t there dozens of such companies? It was shocking to me to see how little software inroads had made into agriculture. We’re bringing something of value, and I think that’s why we are succeeding.