At the Forefront of the AgTech Revolution
By bringing digital innovation to farms, Julian Sanchez, director of emerging technology at John Deere, is creating new opportunities for farmers and students alike
If we’re talking technology and farms come up, it would likely mean one of us brought up server farms: how to set them up and maintain them and the best places to house them. If Julian Sanchez is part of the conversation, he would have a lot to add. From his days assembling PCs for his dad in his native Colombia, Sanchez has spent a lifetime working with computers and seeking out new ways to put them to work.
But he’d also have a different kind of farm on his mind: a real farm, with real crops and real animals tended to by real farmers who work the real land. As the director of emerging technology at John Deere, Sanchez explores how all manner of tech—from touchscreens and sensors in tractors to drones and AI—can help farmers do their jobs while providing them with the best data about their soil and livestock.
Sanchez’s life and career have been driven by his innate curiosity. He came to the United States in 1989 when his family fled cartel violence in Colombia. He was thrown into the deep end of the American education system as a teenager with no knowledge of English. So he taught himself the language by picking up on social cues. He went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering from Florida International University and a PhD in human factors from the Georgia Institute of Technology. It was while studying in Georgia in the early 2000s that he discovered John Deere. While his friends and classmates were bolting for Silicon Valley and the social media giants, Sanchez heard about an internship at the agricultural equipment giant involving mounting touchscreen displays in the cabs of tractors. “From day one, it was like, wow,” Sanchez tells The Elective. “This area is just ripe for innovation.”
That has only become truer in the decades since. Agriculture technology, or AgTech, and smart farming are booming industries, which not only provide opportunity for Sanchez to innovate—they also create new pathways for students interested in computer science who’d rather not be in front of a terminal programming all day. Or tending to a server farm.
Sanchez spoke with The Elective about his journey from Colombia to America’s breadbasket, the opportunities for bringing technology to the land, and how students, especially those in rural communities, can get involved.
I saw a LinkedIn post where you shared your dad's old slide ruler. What did he do that he used that kind of tool?
He's a physicist by training, and I would say by passion. I grew up in Colombia, and he was an early pioneer in Colombia and South America to computerize the country. He got into it early, in college, and worked for one of the large companies in Colombia that were looking at the capabilities around bringing in mainframe systems and that sort of technology and what that should look like. Later, when we moved to the U.S., he set up a business where it was all about shipping computer parts to Colombia and selling PCs to people. So in some ways my childhood was tied up in watching him try to move the needle on tech adoption and specifically computing.
I also read that he was a software developer.
His sort of first job was as a software developer for the company that did all of the yellow pages and white pages for Colombia.
What kind of impact did seeing him do that kind of work have on you as a young person?
It made me very comfortable with technology and with anything new that had to do with technology. At 12 years old, one of my household chores was assembling computers from scratch: take the chassis, open the box, put the motherboard in, get the screws, get the RAM chips and everything, connect the hard drive, boot it up, load up the operating system. Even now, I'm not a good software developer by any means. I'm not a deep technical person who can get into electrical engineering types of discussions. But I'm very comfortable with any new technology space, and I'm very comfortable having the conversations and learning just enough to make decisions about what should happen.
Obviously the process of making computers is a lot different now than when you were 12. But how did that experience of getting your hands into building computers translate into you wanting to do the kind of work you do now?
Anytime you're interacting with computers in any kind of fashion, you never hit a dead end of exploration. There was always a kind of what if: What if I added more memory? Once I get the thing working, what else could I do with it? What other games can I download? Once the internet came along, what is that? If you do certain tasks or jobs early on—and, by the way, I did plenty of manual labor—they have dead ends in terms of exploration. They're interesting crafts and you learn a lot, but you kind of run out of what ifs. Assembling computers and working with that opens up that curiosity of what if, what if, what if. And that stays with you. It stayed with me. I was always, and I still am, in a what if mode.
A lot of people have that sense of curiosity when they're kids, but not everybody retains that mindset. They grow up and stop asking that what if question. Was it difficult for you to hold onto it?
I've never had to, and I guess I still don't feel like I have to, put effort into it. It becomes just a natural progression once you master something or you get enough understanding of it. Actually, I would say I have a harder time staying with something long enough before I start asking what if. It's funny you saw the slide ruler because I was playing with it and I realized my dad taught me how to use this thing when I was little, at least the basic functions, but I totally had forgotten. So I went to YouTube and saw a few videos on how to use it, and then somebody in the videos mentioned a circular slide ruler, and I thought, “I've never seen one of those.” But that's my what if. I just go down rabbit holes of, Oh, what else is there? And I just kind of can't help it, I guess.
How did you decide to spend your life working in technology and to stick with it enough to turn it into your career?
I've reflected on that quite a bit. I just have the mentality of being curious, not being afraid of technology, and not being afraid of failure. I think those three ingredients have just led me to this path. People ask me if I charted out this path. No. I studied undergraduate industrial engineering. While I was doing an internship—I was trying to mathematically model the movements inside a warehouse in Miami—and I realized that the most interesting aspect of one of those logistics models is the behavior of the humans. So I looked into it and there was a master's degree in ergonomics and things like that, and I thought, "Well, that seems close enough, I'll go do a master's in that." I kind of found the area of human factors. When I finished my master's, I said, "OK, I don't know enough about psychology yet. Is there such a thing such as a human factor psychology degree?" And, yeah, there were some PhD programs offering it, so I did that. While I was doing that, an internship opportunity came up with John Deere—most of my colleagues at Georgia Tech, while I was getting my PhD, were going to the software companies, and I thought, "Agriculture seems different and something I don't know much about. That sounds interesting. I'm going to go check that out."
At the beginning of my career of doing human factor psychology, user experience, and thinking around that, I began to get an appreciation and an instinct of how to create new technologies and what is actually going to work and what's not going to work. That's what's led me to this current career of being, I'll say, the head innovation person at John Deere—that curiosity, following opportunities as they arise, not being afraid to fail with new things. When people ask me what's next, my answer is I'll just keep following the same formula. If I was told, "Hey, your next thing is go run a factory” or “Go be part of a production line," that sounds really interesting to me. I think I'd be terrible at it. But I think it's super interesting and I love doing it and learning how to do it.
I imagine most people don't see agriculture as particularly computer or technology heavy, even though there's so much tech involved in running a farm. Before your internship at Deere, was agriculture or AgTech on your radar as something you could do?
It was never on my radar. It got on my radar because John Deere was and still funds quite a bit of research at top universities, whether it be in agriculture or human factors or computer science or materials. It got on my radar at Georgia Tech because they were funding some work, and at the time I think John Deere was trying to make the decision of whether they should put touchscreens inside their large vehicles. We're talking early 2000s, when even most cars didn't have touchscreens—everything still had a button next to the screen. So they had funded a bunch of research at Georgia Tech trying to understand what were the trade-offs for human performance of using a touchscreen while in a bumpy moving vehicle. This was cutting edge for human factors at the time, and here's John Deere funding it. That's odd. That's what got me curious about the internship.
I can tell you, from day one, it was like, wow. This area is just ripe for innovation, but there was already so much going on. I got an appreciation for the complexity of the vehicles that were being worked on. My first internship, I got to sit on one of the very first versions of a self-driving harvesting combine, and I thought, "Oh, my goodness, these things are already driving themselves." Again, we're talking circa 2004. And so all of a sudden it was, like, "Wow, this is amazing." I left Deere for a few years—I worked in aviation, which is very sophisticated; then in medical devices, pacemakers, very sophisticated, very interesting—and I came back because II still felt like agriculture had as much of a tech flavor to it as both of those other industries, and also it has so much more opportunity for innovation. The combination of both of those was really appealing to me.
A lot of people, when they want to get into engineering or computers, look at the traditional paths of coding or programming. Agriculture rarely seems in the conversation.
When I recruit technical talent and scientific talent to Deere, I know if I can just get them to see or get a firsthand appreciation for the tech, all of a sudden their curiosity and interest will go up 10 times. But the clincher for me is—I use a sports analogy when appropriate: You come work in agriculture, you'll be in the starting lineup from day one. If you're working in some other industries, you're going to have to sit on the bench for a while. And sometimes that's because those industries might be more heavily regulated. In aviation, you have to really learn the rules of flying before you can really begin to have a shot at innovating. Those rules are there for good reason, so it's not a criticism. In medicine, you have to spend years first understanding the biology and physiology of whatever medical device you're trying to create. In agriculture, for sure, you have to get an appreciation of what farming is all about, as well as crop science and agronomy. But the bar for getting to that point where you're just knowledgeable enough to start making a difference is considerably lower.
In this photo from 2014, University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources students use new technology at the MU Beef Research and Teaching Farm. The integration of technology into agriculture has only increased in the years since.
Your current role at Deere is in emerging technology. What does emerging technology look like when it comes to agriculture?
The point of emerging technology is, let's make sure that we are bringing to the forefront any new technology, and from anywhere—it could be a new technology from the social media space or from automotive or medicine; any domain or area of technology that we're bringing to the forefront—and evaluating whether it makes sense for agriculture and understanding whether it would make a difference in the lives and the businesses of farming. That's the mission.
We're trying to stay ahead of the curve, and the source of inspiration comes from two places. The first is just going and watching and understanding farming and the psychology of farming and the culture of farming and the job of farming. I do that quite a bit; my team does that quite a bit. It doesn't mean you have to be out there all the time, but I always say it's the most productive time you can spend. You spend a day with a farmer, let's say on the first day of the season when they're trying to get everything ready to go, and you'll walk out of that farm with a notebook full of ideas of how you could improve things. So that's number one. Number two is just being very intentional about staying in touch with emerging tech trends and evaluating whether they're going to have a meaningful impact or not in agriculture. Sometimes there are new trends that are very interesting or they catch the attention or the imagination of a lot of people. But you have to have enough understanding of technology to mentally simulate, like, "OK, they do sound interesting, but will they scale? Will they be able to actually make a difference?"
I'll give you an example: drones. Drones were and still are a topic in agriculture, and they've made their way into agriculture. There were a lot of people who thought they're going to completely disrupt agriculture. Well, if you understand the limitations of drones, such as how long they can be up in the air, and if you understand agriculture, you know that farmers are usually stressed out because there's weather and all kinds of other things. So adding one more thing that they have to do with one more technology is not necessarily always the best idea, unless they're getting very clear value. That's the role of emerging technologies—mixing that reality of what customers need, evaluating the viability of new technologies, in some cases making predictions, and in some cases having the foresight to run some controlled experiments to understand what the opportunities are.
What's the most exciting emerging technology you see or are working with impacting agriculture?
Right now we're riding, rightfully so, the opportunities that innovations in AI have yielded. AI has been around a long time, and the area's really interesting. But when you look at the increase in compute power and the improvements in camera technology and you combine both of those things, they are primed to help in agriculture. And the reason why is farming is a really visual task. Before you operate a vehicle, a farmer is using their eyes to make hundreds of judgments about what needs to happen in real time or in the future. So our thinking is, with the combination of improved cameras and artificial intelligence, if we can begin to put more "eyes" around the vehicle and they're doing things that are way beyond looking for obstacles—of course, that's interesting and that's a something that has to happen—but just looking for the same things that farmers would look at: Is the ground kind of moist right now? What is the health of my plants? Where are there weeds? What's going on over there in that part of the field that looks more dry? If we can begin to do that and make the systems and the vehicles more intelligent, we can then unlock a ton of value, both agronomic value and financial value, but also quality of life for farmers. Right now, that’s the exercise we engage in I find really fun to innovate around.
For students or young people who live in places that are heavily agricultural and they're also interested in computer science, what avenues are there for them to get involved with this kind of work? What can they do with the kinds of things you're talking about?
The thing that's super cool about all of this, even all this AI stuff, is it's actually all very, very easily available online. The amount of tools and platforms where you can take essentially free courses on a platform like Coursera and really become skilled at doing some of this stuff are growing increasingly fast every day. I give this advice to all kids, including kids in rural areas: You've got this really interesting domain knowledge that you've picked up working close to the farm or on the farm. If you just pick up a few of these tools, you will be able to unlock next-level innovative capabilities. And the cool thing is that like all farmers, even farmers that don't know how to use computers or didn't grow up around computers, are very innovative. You go to any farm, they've welded something, they built a barn—the innovative spirit lives in the rural areas, lives in the farm, and having access to some of these free educational tools will, I think, just be a natural unlock. So go start there, get curious, and go down the rabbit holes of curiosity.
The other thing I would say, and this is something I've reflected on—the '80s, '90s, maybe the early 2000s, was the era of multidisciplinary teams. Companies would put multidisciplinary teams together, and there's this whole notion of you kind of bring your own special sauce to the table. That's certainly still there. Today, it's the era of the multidisciplinary individual. I'll tell kids, you might be passionate about music and you might want to get a music degree, but why don't you take one mechanical engineering class and I bet you it will unlock some insights about how to better build a guitar. You might be passionate about biology and plants, and I'll say take a physics class and I bet you it will unlock some insights about plant biology. It's embracing that multidisciplinary mindset that actually gets us kind of to a new level of creativity. Whether you do it through a structured way or online or just by experiencing things, any kid that's not doing that right now is missing out and will probably be at a disadvantage when they get to the workforce.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.