That time when I knew nothing about Ag

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Observant recently announced their acquisition by Jain. This reminded me of an essay I wrote during my last few days with the company. I never shared this essay with anyone, until now.

I always knew that I loved "building things people could use to improve their lives". But it was my work at Observant that helped me realise my passion for product. Given how much I valued my time with the company, I feel that now is a good moment to share my story.

I knew nothing about Ag

It was a warm morning on 11th December 2014, when I sat down with Matthew Pryor at 8am for a coffee at Brother Baba Budan in Melbourne’s CBD. I had decided that this morning I was going to quiz the CEO of an AgTech company, on how IoT was impacting the big players in agriculture. I knew nothing about Ag.

At that stage of my career, I was working hard to establish myself in the industry as someone with an informed point-of-view on IoT. I had spoken at conferences, written blog posts, and was exploring how IoT was going to impact the businesses of several Deloitte clients.

I don’t often drink coffee, so that morning I sheepishly ordered a hot chocolate and got to questioning Matthew on agriculture. He pulled out his iPad and started showing me sketches of irrigation bays. He explained the important role of water in agriculture, as I nodded along and took notes. He spoke about ag with passion, and rattled off so many statistics that my academic-self started to beg for evidence and citations. I sensed his pride in achieving so much within the constraints of the Australian market. His appetite for expanding into the US was evident. I certainly felt that I was being pitched a technology company that was eager to grow. After a thought-provoking conversation, we exchanged pleasantries and went our separate ways - I was running late for standup.

Days went past and I put what I had learnt about IoT in Ag into my repertoire of examples. I pulled it out at presentations to clients in insurance, logistics and banking, claiming: “have a look at what the ag sector is doing with IoT, isn’t that cool!"

A few weeks later, I was discussing Deloitte’s annual Tech Trends report with colleagues. We got to talking about ambient computing in the Australian market, when we realised that we still needed a local case study for the upcoming report. “I’ve got this" I wrote to the partner over chat, and went off to email Matthew. Just back from his family holiday in Milan, Matthew graciously wrote a feature article for the 2015 report, highlighting the role of tech and data in Ag. My interest in Observant’s work was growing and I was starting to get sucked in.

Fast forward to March 2015. It’s late one evening and my girlfriend and I are chatting. I turned to her and said:

“Remember Observant?"

“The farming company?" she asked with a confused look

“Yes!" I replied, “I think I want to try working with them for a little while"

One thing led to another and suddenly I was completing a coding challenge, interviewing with engineering, and wrestling to get 15 minutes with Steve Hallam (my reporting partner at Deloitte) to ask what he thought of my plans. Fortunately, both he and the firm were incredibly supportive… so we setup a secondment.

Influencing an entire company is hard; my five major battles

It’s been a tremendous journey at Observant. I’ve seen a lot, learnt a lot, and (I think) changed a lot. I joined the team when the company was preparing for a capital raise. My assigned objective was to deliver a new scalable frontend stack, which had to support the release of a mission critical product: OpsCenter. While I can proudly say that we delivered on that goal, it’s not the only thing that I’m proud of from my time with the company. I am incredibly proud of the progress the company has made in fundamentally altering the way it delivers software. UI software, to be more specific.

When you combine Flynn (the newly developed front-end stack) with changes to how the UI team is structured (now having its own lead), its culture, processes and ways of operating, Observant now has the potential to lead the Ag sector in terms of UI software delivery. These changes will have an influential impact on customer experiences, customer satisfaction and ultimately, the future success of the business.

It wasn’t easy to get the team and product to where they are today. In hindsight I see myself as having tackled five major battles, met with varying levels of resistance:

  1. Putting aside existing UI engineering efforts and moving to a new core technology, which resulted in Flynn, our React-based platform.

  2. Redesigning the entire data model and API layer, which was a huge learning experience in collaborative technical design. With so many interested parties having varied and sometimes conflicting opinions, finding consensus over a technical design this important was a challenge.

  3. Proving the need for real user research and proper UI design, which resulted in hiring a solution analyst and full-time designer.

  4. Delivering a product that satisfied unrealistic market expectations, by hacking together a heavily technically-indebted release of OpsCenter.

  5. Changing the team’s culture, standard for quality, and way of work, through improved hiring and the adoption of new processes such as pull-requests, peer code-reviews, estimation sessions, sprint planning, and retrospectives.

I absolutely cannot claim single-handed credit for any of this change. I believe that the intention and desire to improve the way the company delivered software was always there. What I can say with confidence however, is that I was able to lead the effort by instigating change and demonstrating its value. I should add that none of this happened overnight either. The evolution was progressive and took my full tenure to achieve.

Nothing beats talking to real users

Launching our new products at the World Ag Expo in Tulare was a major milestone. Meeting with some key channel partners provided clearer insight into the stress and pressure that was being passed on to the team. It also exposed me to other aspects of agriculture, its stakeholders’ needs, and its market drivers. Spending time in California served as my annual reminder that the work we do in Australia is dwarfed in impact, by the work bay-area companies are doing. That said, it also reminded me of why I am in no hurry to live in the US.

My time with Observant has also taught me some incredibly valuable management lessons. I’ve come to appreciate the real value of people and process in scaling a business. I experienced the real difficulty of growing a business into new geographies, recruiting and retaining staff, and managing widespread marketing and sales. I learnt that mismanaging market expectations is "organisational suicide" and that product companies will always struggle to meet all market demands. I learnt that the law-of-diminishing-returns applies to culture change. And that once you have captured the easy process improvements, finding the next productivity-boost becomes more and more difficult.

However, the biggest lesson of them all, was the realisation that I was ready to pursue a career in Product Management.

Observant operates in a complex growing market, with a solid value proposition around water. While I have learnt so much about the sector, the more I learn about Ag, the less I know. After a phenomenal 11 months, I can happily say that I still know nothing about Ag - and that’s exciting!