Digital hub – my workplace to be
Hello, my name is Matthias Tempel, and I work in what is perhaps the most innovative unit at Bayer – the Langenfeld digital hub. I head the Crop Protection Innovation Lab there. My father is a farmer. He is the fourteenth generation of our family to work his farm. Even so, he learns something new every season. The fact that my father’s experience gives him a head start in terms of knowledge in the field was what inspired me to get involved in data-driven farming. After all, it takes longer to learn from experience than it does to learn by analyzing data. I therefore asked myself early on how data can help us in agriculture, and so I started writing my own programs.
I have been with Bayer for over four years. Before setting up the digital hub with two co-workers, I worked in other Bayer units as a product manager. This included working at The Climate Corporation, an innovation company under the umbrella of Bayer that is also involved in digital farming.
One example of the solutions we are working on is “Crop protection as a service”.
This focuses on how we can provide our customers, whose knowledge of their fields is based on decades of experience, with a solution that supports them both in the form of advice and by guaranteeing them certain outcomes, such as excellent weed control, if they carry out the tasks we plan. A huge amount of data and numerous algorithms enable us to give the farmers recommendations about the right time to take action. As a product manager who is familiar with the problems and requirements of our customers, I have to ensure that we collect the relevant data and that our Data Science colleagues understand the agricultural context. For example, if we want to create a weed-free field, we first have to clarify which weeds grow on the field and in what density, how they are distributed and which technologies we can use to determine this in a scalable way. This is the only way to reach a successful conclusion.
We have a state-of-the-art organizational setup in the digital hub.
We all set great store on the right people and the right culture. In doing so, we are guided primarily by the agile agenda, which generally means putting individuals and interactions above processes and tools. This is why we operate a quite different style of leadership. After a recent meeting, I asked a co-worker whether the person next to me was my new boss, since he had presented our new product instead of me. In fact, it was our intern. I saw this as a great compliment, because it is our aim that everyone on the team – no matter their position or role – should be capable of explaining our vision and products, and thus be willing and able to represent us with confidence in the company. Everyone is free to express their opinions. Sometimes we even have passionate discussions about them. This is right and proper, but we always have to be careful to keep things on track.
In the hub, we are working to solve the most difficult problems in agriculture.
These are problems that no one has been able to solve so far – as if we were trying to design not the fifteenth version of a smartphone but the first one ever. The product managers in our hub therefore need a spirit of invention and discovery, great curiosity, and a knack for asking the right questions to find out what our customers’ real problems are. As a product manager, I have to take on board the many – and sometimes contradictory – opinions of the farmers, pin down the core information and consider whether the problem is worth solving and what a solution would actually look like.
Like me, many of my co-workers therefore have an in-depth knowledge of agriculture, in addition to being able to write programs. They have a particular feel for designing solutions or a YouTube channel with hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
This makes it possible for us to achieve a great deal with relatively few resources. We know it is impossible these days for anyone to tackle exciting and challenging tasks alone – you always need a team, and that’s why we all pitch in, no matter what it is. Even the “bosses” write programs or annotate images if it is important to leading our issues to success.
Our everyday work is shaped to a huge extent by our two-week sprints.
Each of my days begins with telephone calls with the product managers about key issues and the daily stand-up meeting, during which the development teams talk about their solutions and challenges. This gives me a feel for which areas need a little tweaking, evaluation or decisions. The refinement sessions also form an important part of my work. These involve advance planning for the next sprint and making decisions on which functions we are going to tackle. We help the developers get a good understanding of the task. On the basis of this information, they then look for the best solution. We bear a great responsibility, because in the next sprint, the developers will be tackling everything we decide in the sessions. We therefore have to be sure that the functions we define will also provide the desired customer benefits. As soon as a function has been developed, we will look at whether we can measure the success and whether the farmers will really be able to use it. The short intervals between the sprints enable us to make quick adjustments.
Alongside steering product development, another important part of our work is getting to the bottom of the problems we intend to solve.
To this end, we maintain close contact with our customers, the farmers, using a wide range of feedback tools, discussions, design thinking workshops, or even a quick survey on Instagram. Some of our customers are already using prototypes of our future products and provide reports about the solutions on Instagram and Twitter. This creates a great dialog with the customer, and the products are already with them before market launch.
Our work also includes conducting many experiments with our UX designers.
We then test the most promising ideas with our customers. At the end of each sprint, we also take plenty of time for review sessions and retrospectives, during which the developers present the new functions. We discuss what went well in the last two weeks and what didn’t go so well, what we still need and what we could do even better.
Since I have been working in digital farming, I’ve managed to surprise my father once or twice.
My father is astonished when I use my cell phone to identify weeds. However, I’m still not sure whether I will win our bet that I will be cultivating his fields with robots before he retires. We are well on our way to this, though.
You can find another example of our digital hub’s work here: https://www.yellow-trap.com