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01:15 – Allison’s Superpower: Making Unplanned and Hectic Situations Work Out
06:43 – Getting Into Agriculture
08:54 – Building a Company Culture
13:19 – Transmitting Culture and Core Values When Hiring New People
20:02 – Disagreeing Respectfully and Maintaining Strong Opinions
25:19 – Clear Boundaries Between Work and Home Life
32:34 – What Tech Look Looks Like in the Context of a Working Farm
40:27 – Writing Code for Non-Technical People
Coraline: Practicing empathy for the user when writing software.
Jamey: Consciously make space for people who don’t speak as loudly as other people.
Sam: Learn something new every day.
Allison: How different people want to work remotely and how we can create an open way to actually do that.
SAM: Hello and welcome to Episode 66 of Greater Than Code. I am Sam Livingston-Gray and I’m here to introduce Jamey Hampton.
JAMEY: Thanks, Sam. And I’m happy to introduce Coraline Ada Ehmke.
CORALINE: Hey, everybody. We have a very cool show today. We’re talking to Allison Kopf. Allison is the founder and CEO of Agrilyst, the virtual agronomist powering the horticulture industry. Agrilyst won the highly coveted Disrupt Cup at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. She was named the 2016 Changemaker of the Year by the Association of Vertical Farming and Entrepreneur of the Year by Technical.ly Brooklyn. She studied Physics at Sta. Clara University and once built and 800-square foot solar-powered home for an international competition. In the summer you’ll find her playing third base for about three different co-ed softball teams. She’s pretty focused on getting a dog at some point.
I played first base, but not in softball. In music. So, I’m really interested to hear what third base is. That’s a term I’m not very familiar with. Hi, Allison!
ALLISON: Hi. How’s it going?
SAM: So Allison, of course the first thing we usually start the call with is our now-famous question, what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?
ALLISON: The thing that came to my mind that I am oddly very good at but it’s only helpful on certain occasions is that I can make really hectic and unplanned situations work out, not always for the better, but work out.
JAMEY: What does ‘not always for the better’ mean?
ALLISON: I think a lot of people will always give a situation where they’re in the airport, they’re about to miss their flight, they end up getting an earlier flight [inaudible]. I always just make the flight. So, I’m very focused on having the situation end up positively but not necessarily always better per se.
JAMEY: Do you have an example of this? I mean, you just told an example about a flight, but like a specific example?
ALLISON: Yeah. This is a flight story, but I was heading to a conference in Milan after a conference in New York. It was one of those days where you just didn’t look at any of the details before you got on the plane. And so, you manage to forget that you’re flying internationally. So, I didn’t set up any of my bank accounts or have a phone number that worked. I had no phone because I forgot to charge it because I was at a tech conference before. So, I had no money, no way of getting money, arrived in Milan and thought, “This was a good trip. I’ve got to turn right back around because I don’t know where I’m staying, I don’t know where the conference is, and I have no way of getting there.” Panicked in the airport for a good 45 minutes or so and managed to somehow get enough money to get into a cab. And I had remembered the hotel name but not the conference name, and so jumped into a cab heading towards the hotel, which then I saw out of the corner of my eye the convention center I had to be at, pulled in, and like a bat out of hell ran in and gave a talk five minutes later. And so, figured it all out. Again, not necessarily for the betterment of my stress levels but gave the talk and then got to spend the afternoon breathing.
CORALINE: Wow. I would have died. I think I just would have died.
SAM: I’m having a panic attack right now just hearing about it.
ALLISON: It was pretty panic-inducing. I definitely had a bit of a panic attack and thought I was just going to turn around and fly home.
CORALINE: Yeah. And travel is so stressful anyway. I’ve traveled a lot this week as well. And I try to take this approach to traveling where I’m like once I’m at the airport it’s like, “Okay. Lots of things happen. But I know that eventually I will arrive.” And I try to make it easier on myself by always flying out the day before and always leaving a couple of days there. And I’m a very disorganized person, so I rely pretty heavily on lists. And I have this outlined document that’s like, “Hey, did you remember a brush?” But yeah, travel is so stressful. And I cannot imagine what I would have done in your situation. I hope the talk was well-received.
ALLISON: I hope so as well. This was a few years ago. The mentality that you go into with that situation is one that I level out, which is the Stockdale Paradox. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. He was a prisoner of war and he kept getting asked, he survived the war, and they asked, “What was it that got you through?” And a lot of prisoners had said Christmas is actually like this feeling of family and security, was a thing they held onto pretty dearly. And he said, “No, it was just I was so confident that there was never a doubt in my mind that everything was going to work out.” And I said, you’ve got to be pretty mentally strong to have that feeling. But once you do and once you’re secure in, “Okay, everything could go wrong but at the end of the day things are going to be okay and it’s going to work out,” it’s very mentally calming, at least for me.
CORALINE: A friend of mine just gave me a tool. My coauthor Naomi Freedman gave me a tool that I’m going to be trying to use. And she said treat every day like it’s the day you’ve chosen. And I like that a lot, because you find yourself with bad circumstances. You find yourself with some kind of challenge. And it’s easy to feel like the victim of fate or that the universe is out to get you. But if you take the perspective that, “No, these are the circumstances I’ve chosen and I’m going to do what I want with them,” I think that can be really freeing.
ALLISON: I love that.
SAM: Whereas I have a friend whose mantra is, “Nobody’s shooting missiles at me. I’ll be okay.”
CORALINE: For now.
JAMEY: What if someone was shooting missiles at them? Then what do they do?
SAM: I believe standard procedure is to jump up very high and distribute yourself across a wide area. Wait, no. That’s landmines. Sorry.
CORALINE: I carry decoys for exactly that reason. I can launch decoy Coralines out of my backpack on demand.
JAMEY: I’m just imagining like, it’s already a bad day if someone’s shooting missiles at you, but also being like, “Now my mantra doesn’t even work.”
ALLISON: There’s apparently an area on the Gaza Strip that they incentivize startups to locate there with pretty big financial benefits or tax breaks because of the threat of continual missiles.
SAM: So, entrepreneurs are risk takers anyway? Is that the theory?
ALLISON: Might as well, I guess. I would not. Jamey, just so you know, I’m not moving us to the Gaza Strip.
CORALINE: We feature ping pong tables, a full bar, and a concrete bunker as our employee benefits. So Allison, I’m really curious. How did you get into agriculture?
ALLISON: I got into agriculture a little bit randomly, but it sort of makes sense in hindsight. But I got into agriculture through the solar industry. I was working in the Bay Area with a number of solar companies right around 2009, 2010. And right at that time the Chinese market was sort of starting to flood the US market on pricing. And so, a lot of the companies that I was working with were trying to raise their follow on investments and start to scale the technologies but they just couldn’t compete on pricing. And so, I was sort of starting to look at what was next for me.
And fortuitously I’m at a company that was blending both the business model from solar with agriculture. So, the idea that if we can build localized farms and take advantage of a triage opportunity and distribution from the west coast where most lettuce is grown or most tomatoes are grown in Canada or Mexico, and build locally towards the east coast, we’ve got a real business opportunity there. But it’s really capital-intensive to actually finance the structure of a high-tech maybe greenhouse or vertical farm or some [odd]. And so, they financed it the same way that solar was financed. They would enter into long-term fixed price agreements with supermarkets or a buyer, which enabled them to de-risk a lot of the operational side of things and actually secure traditional financing like a loan to finance the operation, which made it way more affordable than people were financing in the decades previously.
And so, I knew nothing about tomatoes. I knew nothing about lettuces. But I was really excited by this application of a business model that I loved, a technology that was really interesting, and also food which I like to eat. I think most people like to eat. But we also have to out of necessity each which is great from a business standpoint, because it means it’s an industry that probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So, I joined that company and a few years later started Agrilyst after getting my feet wet working on the farm.
CORALINE: So, what is it like to work with you at Agrilyst, Allison?
ALLISON: What is it like to work with me? That’s a good question for Jamey. I feel very strongly that there’s a really interesting culture going on in startups right now. And you can see that a lot in Silicon Valley. I was just out in San Francisco this weekend. And it’s just palpable how different the culture of startups are in San Francisco as opposed to beyond Silicon Valley. And one of the things that I set out to really create when I started Agrilyst was a culture that almost was pretty opposite I’d say from Silicon Valley in that we’ve built a culture around a company that is out to solve a really big problem. We’re trying to make farms profitable, which is a huge challenge. And it involves a lot of different aspects from sales to operational management to labor management to inventory control.
But upon the fundamental thesis that if these farms become profitable the industry as a whole can sale, and as a result we’ll end up having fresher produce, we’ll have safer produce, we’ll have a consistent supply when we don’t know if we’re not going to have that supply. And so, we’ll end up having food when the population has grown too large to even supply at our current pace. And that thesis and the fundamental thing we’re trying to set out to do, we wanted to build a culture around that and bring on people who were excited by this. Not necessarily Ag specialists or folks who understood the industry in any real detail, but folks who were excited about food, excited about safety, excited about using data to actually help people as opposed to necessarily just replacing them.
And so, that was the first and foremost tenet of how I wanted to build a culture around. And then as far as what it’s like to work with me, I’m hugely competitive. I like to win. But I also really like helping other people level up or win in and of themselves. And so, I hope that my management style is really just bringing on people who are excited and talented and smart and can get the job done, but want to grow and want to increase their skills and want to contribute in a way that I can help them do.
SAM: So, is there a particular team culture that you are striving for? And if so, how are you working on making that happen?
ALLISON: There’s a few things I think that make up our culture. We’re a remote-first team. So, especially on the engineering side. So, we have folks everywhere from Hudson Valley to Jamey’s up in Buffalo. And now we have somebody in San Francisco and somebody in Montana who just joined. So, we’re pretty far spread out as far as our engineering and product team. And then our sales team right now is located in New York. But as we start to expand our customer base and start to grow, the location of our sales team also. We’ll start to stretch out as a remote team as well, is my guess. And so, building a remote culture I think is really important to us. And ensuring that we have inclusion and communication strategies that really allow everyone to be at their fullest. So, that’s one thing that’s important to us.
Another thing I think that’s really important is how we handle work load. It’s really important to me as a founder that we don’t have team churn like a lot of companies in Silicon Valley do. We want to have people stay with us for the long, long haul. And so, creating a culture where we’re working as much as we can and need to but we also recognize that when you’re not in the office or you’re not on Slack, you’re not working. And so, we try really hard to not get to a point where everybody’s burned out really quickly.
I think those are two of the big things that are important to us. I think inclusion and diversity is incredibly important to us. It’s one of our core values and building a team that looks and thinks and talks and behaves differently than each of us and having somebody who can contribute in different ways is incredibly valuable to a business but also to our team. So, we’re pretty proud of the culture that we’re building there. I carry that through not just for our team but also for outside stakeholders as well. So, when we think about investors and bringing on investment, we think about inclusion and having – our seed round I think was 50% of our partners were all women. And so, trying to bring on gender diversity or racial diversity or geographic diversity. We’re not all located in New York or Silicon Valley. So, those are things that are pretty important to us as a team.
CORALINE: The company I work for, Stitch Fix, is going through a rapid hiring phase. And one of the things that I’m struggling with is when you have a company with a strong set of core values and a strong sense of consistent culture, how do you effectively transmit that to new employees? I think that it’s a real danger when you bring on new people that can be disruptive. They can disrupt you in a positive way, certainly, but also in a negative way. How do you transmit the values and reinforce the culture when you’re hiring new people?
ALLISON: Yeah, that’s a great question. I also, side note, have a Stitch Fix that just arrived at my apartment. So, I’m excited.
CORALINE: It’s awesome, isn’t it? I’ve got 25 Fixes now. Now I have a 40% employee discount. So, it absolutely rules.
ALLISON: That’s a great question, though. I think part of this happens in the hiring process itself. So, we’re big fans of including not just the hiring manager or whoever will be working with this individual in the actual hiring process itself. So, engineers often will talk to somebody on the sales team. Well, we only had two teams for a while. But now we have customer success as well, so we can bring in people from other teams to help judge the individual based on our core values and seeing if there’s a culture fit there. Second, I think that it’s also really important to have core values that are really important to the team but are also flexible enough to grow with you as a company, but still hold true in their original intent and meaning.
So, an example of that, one or our core values is centered around respect and trust for each other. That’s something that will never change. If somebody comes on our team, is not respectful of our teammates or customers or our partners, they probably won’t make it at our company very long. And that’s something that holds true but it’s also generic enough and general enough that as we grow, that can start to take on different meanings as we start to build the team. Because I think one of the struggles for startups is you can definitely grow too fast and continuously change and change what you stand for and change the business model and pivot and add people who just don’t stand for the things you do. But the flip-side to that, which is also a challenge, is we’ll keep doing the same thing you’re doing forever. And then you almost lose the benefit of being small and nimble and able to scale in a way that big, corporate companies can’t do. So, there’s some middle ground there where we try and choose core values that are able to grow with us as a company but are also steadfast in the original tent. So, we aim to respect and trust and believe in each other as a team. But that can also grow as we grow as both a team and company.
CORALINE: When you’re hiring, how do you evaluate what the core values of the interviewee are?
ALLISON: So, we actually do different types of interviews for each candidate. But every single candidate that goes through our interviewing process will go through a core values type of an interview where the entire intent of that interview is to determine as much as you can. Now I know that you can’t really determine everything in a single interview, but as much as you can if there’s a core value fit. And so, what we’ve done is we have our core values broken down into, “What does this mean for us? How can we implement this in the office?” And then we try and come up with questions that sort of hint at things along those lines. And we try to just have a conversation, really. I think this is really important is, how do you just have a conversation with the person but aiming to answer those questions?
And another core value of ours is – I’ll give you two examples, actually. One of our core values is default to curiosity. We want people who are curious by nature. And you can tell from a conversation as you’re digging in if the person’s asking really interesting questions, if they’re digging into things, if they’re not just trying to answer questions, bang out questions like a standard interview would – or in my opinion, a standard interview would. If they’re really trying to engage and go into questions. Alternatively, they can answer questions that happen to do with their work history and how they dug into certain things, how they’re trying to learn new skills. And those types of things sort of hint at a curious persona.
And similarly, one of our other ones that’s a little bit more, I wouldn’t say testable, but testable, is we want folks who are aligned but not necessarily agreeable. And so, we want you to actively disagree with things that we say and question the things that we do on a regular basis. But at the end of the day when the team has figured out the direction we’re going down, we need to all be on the same page and ready to kick out the wheels. And that is something that you can sort of tell by interactions with prior managers or disagreements with company direction and things along those lines.
JAMEY: I love the idea of actively encouraging people that have disagreements. I think when we talk about core values alignment, it’s almost a hard thing to talk about. Because on the one hand, yes, you want people that when your core values are things like respect, it’s very important. But sometimes, I feel like there could be a worry that’s like, “Well, are we just hiring people that already feel exactly the same as us?” And depending on what your values are, you could be doing that or not. So, I like this idea that one of the – inside the values themselves, it’s like, “Well, we want people who are going to challenge us on this.” And I think that’s one of the great things about bringing new people on and into an organization is, “Okay well, someone might have a different way of doing something and maybe – are we doing it our way because we have really solid reasons or are we just doing it our way because that’s how we’ve always done it?”
ALLISON: Yeah. And using core values as a framework as opposed to a platitude maybe, I think a lot of companies, you’ll often walk into an office and see core values strewn around the walls. But you can’t actually recite them because you don’t know them because you don’t really hold true to them. And if they’re more of a framework for the person that you want or the partner that you are looking for or the way that we run the business, they end up becoming way more memorable because you actually are using them on a regular basis. So, when we think about respect and inclusion, well we’re a remote team. So, what does that mean for how we interact in Slack? And how do we involve everybody as opposed to just people who are in the office? And those types of things are really important to how you drive not just culture, but just the way the company behaves, I guess.
SAM: I also really like that idea of looking for those disagreements because if you can find one of those, you will also find out very quickly whether this person has the skills to disagree respectfully.
JAMEY: Totally true.
ALLISON: I very much agree with that.
JAMEY: I feel like disagreeing respectfully is a skill that we’re losing in general, recently. I feel like more and more people are like “Well, I disagree with you and therefore we can’t get along.” And there definitely are things in life that if we disagree on, then we can’t get along.
SAM: Right. Someone’s basic humanity, right?
JAMEY: Yeah. I have a list of those, for sure. But I feel like there are a lot of other things that I could just be like, “Okay, well I disagree with you.” I disagree with you about whether or not The Last Jedi was a good movie and we can still be friends. And I feel like people are losing that.
CORALINE: Can we? Can we though?
JAMEY: Coraline, we really can. I promise.
CORALINE: Okay. I think that’s a great point, Jamey. And I think some of it’s kind of a defense mechanism. And I think social media exacerbates it because people are expressing opinions in a very loud and very prominent way. And it’s really impossible to tell if someone tweets something at you, is this a core belief that they hold or is this an opinion they’re expressing?
SAM: Or are they even engaging me in good faith?
CORALINE: Yeah, exactly. And I know that for me personally, I’m loath to engage with people because I don’t know how strong that opinion is held and how much it’s a reflection of their core being versus “Oh, I had this idea that I thought I’d share” and it might be contrary to the way you think. I think I default to getting really defensive and not wanting to engage.
ALLISON: Yeah, and there’s totally an emotional versus logical thing here too, I feel like, in the current political climate. And everything has become so emotionally charged. “This is how I feel. This is what I believe. And therefore, anybody who doesn’t feel the same way isn’t going to listen to me and therefore I’m just not going to engage.” As opposed to the logical argument which is, “This is how I feel and believe. But I also recognize that there’s people out there who don’t feel the same way. And I become stronger in my opinions if I learn and listen to those other opinions.” There was a really good NPR segment actually a few months ago on this exact topic and how debates, and especially political debates, have just become completely not an actual debate in any logical format. They’re just, “I’m yelling about this thing because I know my base is going to listen to me,” and, “I’m yelling about this other thing because I know my base is going to listen to me.” And then the resulting echo chambers that occur and how it’s really lost a lot of the benefit that is a debate and how you can learn from other people.
JAMEY: I think the thing we’re missing is some people have just decided that they’re not going to learn. And so, it’s really hard to – you can’t debate with someone who’s not going to learn. And it’s not useful for them because they’ve already decided. And it’s not useful for you because you’re wasting energy on someone who’s just going to dig their feet in. And on the internet it’s really hard to tell which group is which.
CORALINE: I think some of that’s reflected too in work cultures, though. I worked at one company where they actually explicitly said, “We believe in strong opinions loosely held,” and how that manifest was a lot of people in rooms shouting at each other and defending arbitrary positions because they trusted that if someone was able to change their mind, that that would be more correct than the opinion that they held. But unless you could shout them down, you weren’t going to be heard. And that was a pretty awful environment for me, and for other women on their team, because we were not comfortable interrupting people. We were not comfortable raising our voice in a loud and threatening manner. We favored collaboration. And that kind of environment, there was no potential, there’s no possibility for collaboration.
ALLISON: I don’t know if it’s even necessarily gender. Like certainly people just don’t want to fight. They don’t want to have to fight to be heard. And in a work setting, I don’t think you really should have to fight to be heard. And this is especially true in smaller companies. So, we’re a team of about 13 right now. But just a few months ago, we were less than 10. And at less than 10 people, everyone was brought onto our team because they can and should be contributing. And because they bring something to the table that we didn’t have before. And so, when we brought on Jordan who was our first designer, we had nobody looking at design. And so, if he said to us, if he stopped talking because we were just talking over on design, that almost is the exact opposite of why you would bring somebody on who has design experience. And same goes for any role on especially early stage teams. But even as you get larger, if you were brought onto a team, you should have been hired because they need a skill that you can bring. Even if it’s just, “We need more of that skill,” you’re bringing a skill to the table, and hopefully more than just skill, to contribute. And so, in my opinion, you shouldn’t have to fight to be heard when you want to bring ideas to the table.
SAM: Yeah. It seems like you shouldn’t just hire for a skill but also ideally for a perspective. And if people can’t contribute their perspectives because the working style is not conducive to that, then you’ve kind of failed.
CORALINE: One of the really important things for me in a working environment is very clear boundaries between work life and home life, which I think is really challenging in a remote culture where you’re relying on asynchronous tools like Slack and [inaudible] to a heavier degree. And I actually had feedback from my boss because he would get so behind during the week on his to-do list, he would take work Saturday morning to catch up and send out a bunch of emails. And I told him that that creates this impression on other team members and people who report to him that they needed to be responding on a Saturday and that there was an expectation of working beyond business hours. And I think that’s more true in a startup where you have a lot more tasks that you’re juggling. So, is that something you’ve dealt with at your company, Allison? And how do you reinforce those boundaries and keep people healthy and happy?
ALLISON: Yeah, yeah. I think about this a lot. And I think about this a lot not just from a team perspective but from my personal perspective because I’m really bad at this. But I’m also in the founder role and so I innately just am thinking about this in a way more significant way than I would expect of anybody else. But one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the difference in work expectations inherently in different types of roles. And I find that this is so much more of a challenge for the engineering culture actually than it usually is for sales culture. Sales culture, because they’re so quota-driven, they have a structure that they’re innately going to fall into. And that may make them available at certain odd hours. But it also means that I’m going to front-load as much work as I can so that I can get to my quota or close to my quota and set myself up so that my month is successful. And then only when I get towards the end of the month, if it’s not going the way that I had scheduled for, do I run into this time crunch and start to potentially put in over hours.
Whereas especially a remote engineering culture, you have folks relying on asynchronous tools. You have the lack of somebody else getting up every day. So, just somebody walking around. If you’re not working out of a co-working space, if you’re just working out of home, my biggest struggle when I work out of home is nobody else is getting up for lunch. Nobody else is getting up to go to the bathroom. Nobody else is just talking to me throughout the day. And as a result, I end up getting into the zone, which is good from a productivity standpoint but only for the short-term. And so, I’ll end up putting in maybe an extra three hours where I could have gotten up, done something a little bit to break the day, and then gotten back into work or even just stopped for the day, depending on what time it is or what level of productivity I’m at. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can manage this really well from the get go. And a lot of it has to do with a company where I’ve specifically, every time a new hire comes on, I specifically say “This is Slack. This is how we use it. When you’re done for the day, turn it off. Turn off notifications. Don’t let notifications come on.” And I specifically say that I’m really bad at this and there are occasions where I will ping you while I’m traveling and it’s a different time zone, or while I’m thinking about something. And one of the things I’ve had to get better at, and I want anybody who’s on our team to be really good at, is – and I know that I’ve done this to Jamey for so many times so I’m laughing as I’m anticipating their face during this segue – but I will ping you and say “Hey, this is a thing I’m thinking about,” but not “Hey, this is not something that’s urgent. Don’t do this thing. I’m just thinking about it.” And so, I think it’s a really important thing to set expectations especially while working not in person. It’s really easy for people to message you and you to immediately think, “Okay, this is now something I have to do,” or, “This is now something I have to put mental attention into.” And being really thoughtful about, “This is not an urgent thing, this is not even a to-do thing, this is something I’d love to brainstorm at some point or this is something I’m thinking about,” or on the flip-side, “Hey, this is urgent. Something’s breaking. We need to all pay attention to this,” whenever we can. “Let’s set up some time to talk about this whenever everybody’s available,” and just being really incredibly thoughtful about that. And then how do you structure that for different types of roles, whether it’s remote, whether it’s engineering, whether it’s sales, whether it’s anything in any of those categories? And how do we have really clear objectives as a team so that we know what the things that we’re supposed to be working on are? And that way, when things come up that are irregular, we can say, “Look, this is irregular. We’re not focusing our attention on this.”
JAMEY: I agree with the boundaries on Slack. I don’t turn off my Slack notifications, just so you know. They’re on all the time. But I think one of the benefits of working remote is being able to set your hours. We have someone else on the team who very often will put in hours at around 10 at night because he has a small child. So, he’ll stop earlier and then work later. And that’s really convenient for him and I’m glad that he’s able to do that. But at first it was like this friction, because I would get a message at 10 at night and be like, “What is this?” And I think communication is really important, because he was like, “Oh, look. I’m sending you this because I’m working. I know you’re not working at 10 at night and if you respond to me at 10 at night, I’m going to be like what is this?” So, I think that being explicitly on the same page of those things is really important. So, I agree with you. That was a long way of saying that I agree.
ALLISON: And it’s especially hard if your remote culture isn’t in the same time zone. As soon as you break time zone, then all of a sudden people are available at my 10pm because that’s their X am. And so, the second that you’re thinking about expanding beyond just one time zone, you have to get even further into the mindfulness of availability.
JAMEY: This is really funny to me because time zones are stereotypically thought of as one of the hard problems in engineering from a code standpoint. And I literally was working on a time zone problem this morning. And so, it’s funny to me that time zones are just a problem in all possible walks of life.
SAM: Right. And from a remote culture standpoint, they are intractable. You’re always going to have to deal with them.
ALLISON: Yes. And even from a culture where, even just a sales culture where our customers aren’t in the same time zone, too. We don’t have the luxury of having a million customers in New York state, so we by nature are in, what are we in now, 10 different countries. And so, we have to deal with support and service and training and onboarding and sales and product-related. Do tasks line up at the right hours? It’s definitely an engineering challenge just as much as it is a team challenge and also just a company challenge in general with sales and support.
SAM: So, one of the things that we brought up before the call as a possible topic was talking about the tech stack for farms. And you know curiously, for a tech podcast, we don’t actually talk about technology very much. But I’m really curious about what tech looks like in the context of a working farm.
ALLISON: Yeah. So, the customers we’re dealigned with are primarily small commercial operators who are – this is their primary business but it’s also not going to make them millionaires, most likely. And so, they’re small commercial operators and that inherently brings a number of challenges from a technology perspective. Because we’re dealing with a world that is mixed in technologies. So, our customers tend to be on Facebook and understand how to use technology and maybe even came from prior businesses where they were using large ERP systems. A lot of our folks come from manufacturing backgrounds or even sometimes IT or not usually software engineering but IT implementation backgrounds. And sometimes, we have two customers I think, that were software engineers. So, they’ve got familiarity with technology from as simple as using Facebook to as complex as developing their own. And when you walk into a farm, you have a real mixed bag. So, you’ve got everything as low-tech as plastic hoop houses that would be under our control, so just a plastic covering over a field – to something as high-tech as a fully automated, they call them plant factories in Japan. And so, you’ve got this mix but also even within that customer base you have a mix.
So, a standard greenhouse I’ll use is a good example as a middle line, baseline. And you can walk into this greenhouse and it’s probably a glass structure growing either a vine crop – so tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers – or something like lettuces or herbs. And one of the most important technological pieces that they have to have in the farm is a climate control system. Because that for the grower is a risk insurance policy. If I am investing hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars into a structure, it better be because it’s extending the seasonality of my planting cycle. And so, if I’m going to do that and I’m in any climate that isn’t completely optimized or ready externally, which is nowhere in the world, then I need to have some sort of climate control. Because I have to protect against the downside that it might be snowing outside one day or it’s going to be really dark in the daytime which means it’s going to be expensive to run my lights. And so, I have to have this somewhat black box controlling at least your mechanical pieces, your climate-related mechanical pieces. So, your lights, your temperature, your humidity, CO2, anything that would affect the climate of the plants.
And even that technology can range in technological span. You can have something that was homemade by a farmer – we get this a lot – where they’ll piece together off-the-shelf controllers with certain types of vent control or pump control, to something that’s really considered high-tech in the industry but is still pretty low-tech in the scheme of things. So, you’ll have something like a Dutch climate control system. And even in an acre greenhouse you may only have two or three sensor boxes that actually are sensing the temperature, humidity, and light level, in that acre facility. So, you’re not getting fully controlled coverage. Everything’s hardwired, which is one of my favorite things because it’s hydroponics most often. So, it’s water. And if a sensor goes out or a light goes out, you know how to stop producing because everything’s in water, to get to the wires. And then when you get the data back, it’s going to be stored locally on a computer somewhere. And it’s going to be fed into old-school graphs that don’t really give us any insight.
So even that, it works really well for what a farmer needs but it still has so much opportunity for modernizing into the modern tech stack. It can be mesh networks or localized grids that can actually store sensors throughout the facility. You can have no wiring which would be nice. You can have cheaper sensors. You can have better insights. So, there’s room to grow in terms of technology. But that’s still, it gets farmers to a point where they’re using, they’re interacting with technology on a day-to-day basis. And then they’re using pretty much pen and paper for almost everything else, which gives technologists a lot of opportunity. But how it interacts with how farmer wants to use technology is a really key challenge that a lot of technology companies are seeing now.
So, the baseline is they’ve got some technology but they’re still relying really heavily on pen and paper for most things. And as technology is starting to grow, we’re almost leapfrogging a lot of technology. We went from “Okay, I’ve got this climate control system in a greenhouse” to now everybody wants to see fully automated mechanized systems that don’t involve any labor on the farm with LEDs and AI driving the actual production decisions and automated purchasing so that you don’t have to even worry about the sales side. You can just supply it directly to a buyer, which is a pretty ginormous leap from a farmer’s perspective when it comes to technology.
CORALINE: So, what sort of technology skills do you look for in your staff to support that wide range?
JAMEY: Yeah. We use React.
ALLISON: React, yeah. More so now than we did even six months ago I guess. And so, that’s the baseline from a software engineering perspective. But we’re also starting to think about, how do you connect with all these devices? Which is going to require somebody who’s connected to APIs and thought about creating standards for the first time. And how do you look at getting data in faster? We’re starting to build a mobile app. So, how do you get people interacting with the device that they have in their pocket more than the laptop? How do you think about stretching the limits on the information and not just providing insights but using it to actually drive decision-making? And so, we’ll have to think about machine learning and data science in a more heavy way in the next year or so. And so, there’s a pretty broad line of skills that we need. But we’re really centered around the software and the application of the software into the farm as opposed to touching everything which at least gives us some subset of skills.
JAMEY: For me as an engineer – if it’s not clear to our listeners, I also work at Agrilyst. For me as an engineer, the big challenge is writing code that you know is going to be used by someone who has a very different perspective than you. Because I don’t really, even though I’ve spent a lot of time talking to farmers and trying to learn about farm processes and stuff, I don’t really know what it’s like to be a farmer. And to try to make something that I know a farmer’s going to use then it’s going to be the most useful for them, is a real challenge. And I think to me, that’s the big challenge at Agrilyst.
And I think that’s a big challenge in software engineering in general. I worked on an app at my old company that was meant for doctors to use in Africa, like a mobile app. And it was a huge challenge because I had to think about things like “Well, does the person who’s going to use this have background using mobile phone apps at all? Or is this going to be their first one? Are they going to have internet?” The answer was no, they weren’t going to have reliable internet. So, we had to deal with that. Are they going to have reliable power? Honestly, the answer was no, that I realized after I had been working on this for a while.
And coming at all of these challenges from an aspect of, “How is this person going to be using this? What constraints are they going to have that I don’t have so that I’m not thinking about it? And what’s going to be useful for them in their mind that isn’t the same as my mind?” I feel like we write a lot of code for people that are baseline very similar to us in a lot of ways, people who use a lot of technology and are enthusiastic about technology. And technology is a really important part of every part of their life like it is for me. And to write and application for someone different from that is challenging but it’s also a very cool kind of challenging, in my opinion.
ALLISON: Yeah, this is a big one that we think about a lot. And it’s not just true for the engineering side. It’s true for the sales side, too. Do you hire folks who sold hydroponic equipment to farms or do you hire folks who are really, just really good at selling technology especially for early stage startups where they understand that that product is going to change on a regular basis? Because those are two very different skillsets. And they’re different people to hire. And one of the things that we made the conscious decision to do early on was hire folks who were just very good at the thing that they did that was a component of something we needed, and not necessarily try and look for everything that overlapped. So, engineers who were really good at our stack or some component of our stack, or sales folks who were really good at selling early-stage software company. Because the rest of it is stuff that we can either train around or you’ll learn over time.
I’m guessing Jamey that you knew nothing about what it was like to be a farmer but you’re starting to pick up on certain things and behaviors and the challenges now, just from spending time thinking about how they’re using the software. And luckily, we’re also at a point now where – so, we just brought on our first UX designer who has a PhD in Psychology. And her whole thing is how do you understand a user? How do you get into the mindset of what it’s like to be a farmer and the challenges that they’re going through? And then how do you help translate that for the team, both into product but also in general from a mindset of thinking. How do we craft our language so that it’s more appealing to a farmer? How do we explain what we’re doing in a way that farmers will understand? How do we talk about the benefits and the values and why you should actually work with us? How do you create a feature that will be used on a daily basis? Those types of things.
And then part of it is beyond skillset, is training from the company’s perspective. It’s bringing people to farms, spending time on farms as much as possible, working with your customer and actually seeing them use the system and where it works and where it breaks down. I’m actually out in Canada visiting, how many farms am I visiting? One, two, three, four, five? Five in the next three days, I think, if I can get to them all. But just to see that, just to watch and see what’s working, what’s not working. It’s very painful for an engineer to sit there and watch, and myself included, to watch somebody miss a button, not know where that button is. But that button being the thing that’s going to unlock so much pain reliever for this person. But if it’s not in the right place, it’s not in the right place. So, how do you – if the feature doesn’t work, it doesn’t for them, even if it was built correctly and it actually, physically works.
And so, we’re in a mindset now as a company where we’re starting to really be mindful about how customers are using the product and what works and what doesn’t and how farmers want to interact with the technology, which is a whole weird ballgame.
JAMEY: I think it’s very tempting as a programmer to be like “Well, why don’t they just use it the way I built it?” And it feels good to say that but it’s not really useful to say that almost ever.
ALLISON: Yeah, yeah. Or why don’t they just pay the thing that we specified as a price? It’s funny. The customer is a funny beast when it’s introduced to a product, huh?
CORALINE: Thank you very much, Allison. That was great. We like to close out the show by taking a moment to reflect on the conversation that we had and maybe highlight some things that we want to think about a little bit more. And one thing that the last bit of our discussion touched on is actually something I just wrote about last Saturday. And that is in the ideal situation, a developer is writing software that satisfies some need that they have. You’re scratching your own itch. And the reason that that works so well is because you are the user. So, the feedback loop between the engineer and the user could not possibly be shorter. And the next most ideal situation is where you are a member of a population of users, so you have something in common with them. And the company that you’re working for makes something that serves a population that you belong to. There are some dangers there, too, like categorical imperative and saying, “I am the customer and therefore I know what’s best.” But it’s easier to be empathetic with people that you have something in common with.
And then the more common situation for software engineers is where you’re writing software for someone that you don’t necessarily know, that you don’t necessarily have a lot in common with. And the real challenge in a situation like that is practicing empathy for the user. And you have to be actively promoting a culture of empathy and doing things like going to the farm and doing the work. And getting to know who your users are and recognizing that your customer and your user and not necessarily the same person, and really developing with empathy for them in mind. So, I think that’s really hard. And I really like the way it sounds like you’re approaching that.
JAMEY: My reflection is also kind of about empathy. There was a thread in one of the earlier conversations about hiring and this idea that when you hire someone you’re hiring them because they bring something to the table. And therefore they shouldn’t have to fight to have a voice at the table. And I really liked the way that you put that, because I think when we discussed it originally we were talking about it a little bit from a managerial perspective, creating this culture. But I think that that’s a really useful thing to think about even from a peer perspective. If you’re sitting next to one of your peer coworkers and they’re saying something that you don’t agree with or that you think is dumb or whatever, taking the time to think, “Okay. We hired this person because we value their perspective. And I am going to consciously not talk over them because we didn’t just hire a bunch of clones of me. We hired different people.”
ALLISON: That would be terrible.
JAMEY: It would be terrible. And I think it’s important some people just naturally louder than other people, not necessarily from an actual volume standpoint. But I think when we talked about people who are or aren’t willing to fight about stuff to get heard – and I think some people are just wired to be like, “Yes, this is how I feel and I’m going to say it. And I’m going to say it not necessarily meanly, but forcefully,” and like, “Listen to this because I think it’s important” – which if you can do that respectfully it’s a good ability to have. But even if you’re trying to be respectful I think it’s important to consider “I need to consciously make space for other people who don’t naturally speak as loudly as I do.” So, that’s my call to action for myself who speaks fairly loudly, and for other people.
SAM: Curiously today, the thing that caught my attention the most was actually kind of a throwaway comment, almost a throwaway comment that you made Jamey, about how some people on Twitter have just decided that they’re not going to learn anything. And I think that’s a really useful reminder to myself that I don’t necessarily approach my day in terms of, “Hey, I’m going to learn something new today.” But maybe that’s a really useful tool that I should use more.
ALLISON: And mine is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about [ancillarily] I feel like, but not necessarily in a way that can be utilized as much, which is around formalizing some of the ways that we think about remote culture internally for our company. So, I really resonated a lot and learned a lot about, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how different people want to work and how they want to work, especially remotely, and how we can create a very open way to actually do that.
SAM: Alright. Well, thank you everybody for a really interesting call today. Before we go, we want to remind everybody that we are in fact a listener-supported show. And if you like what we do and would like us to continue to be able to do it on a weekly basis, we really need your support. So, if you could head over to Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode, any amount of money is appreciated and will get you into our community Slack channel where we have a couple of hundred people being extraordinarily nice to one another. We hope you’ll join us. Thanks everybody.
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