«Drone technology won’t ‘take off’ everywhere»

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Is «Digital Ag» more hype or more hope? How does one manage IT professionals? What makes a good customer? What’s our Foundation up to in the digital area? We put these and other questions to Andres Meyer, Chief Technology Officer of the Resonanz Group*. 

The interview is also available in German here.

Syngenta Foundation: What does a Chief Technology Officer actually do all day?

Andres Meyer: In our case, the job is pretty well my dream combination. I get to co-develop clever solutions for interesting problems. I’m allowed to keep on testing new things. From time to time I write code myself. And I meet lots of people from all sorts of sectors. In a nutshell: as CTO I have the privilege of only doing what I enjoy!    

Resonanz has a lot of experience in the agricultural sector. What are your main activities for our Foundation?

One important project is the «Field Trials App». This tool helps both run and evaluate trials of new varieties. The Syngenta Foundation is currently running studies in several countries, notably on vegetables. The app makes life easier for your Seeds2B** employees and their partners at local seed companies. Better organized and more efficiently documented trials enable these suppliers to develop the best varieties faster. That benefits smallholders who have so far only had access to older varieties with lower yields. A public version of the app is commercially available via www.quicktrials.com.

What else are you working on for us?

On G.A.T.E., for example. This platform*** helps the Foundation to see better how various innovations compare in tests, and decide which ones to take forward. G.A.T.E. enables the Foundation to focus its resources and give smallholders faster access to the best innovations. We are also contributing to a more internally focused project on impact measurement, and to a few further activities. 

There is a lot of talks nowadays about «Digital Agriculture». But looking at smallholder farming in particular: how much of this is hype, and how much is a serious prospect for the future?

That depends on the topic. I see a lot of potentials in the scientific evaluation of Big Data, as well for Artificial Intelligence. In my eyes, «A.I.» is a bargain-price personal advisor. Traditionally, for example, an extension officer looks at the weather forecast and tells farmers what to do as a result. A.I. by-passes that by sending the appropriate advice straight to smallholders’ mobiles. Or, for example, gives them commercial tips based on crop prices and input costs. 

That sounds good. Where are you more skeptical?

Drones provide some great data and can perform important tasks. But I currently only see a future for them on large commercial farms. When it comes to trials on small, remote fields in developing countries, I don’t really see drone technology «taking off».  

Whatever the case: Resonanz Group has plenty of competitors. Why should clients come to you in particular? 

We want to have a positive effect on people. We aim to achieve that through innovative thinking, software development know-how and a focus on cooperation. That, of course, includes a deep understanding of a client’s problem, and intimate knowledge of the available technology options. This approach often leads us to creative solutions based on several existing components and platforms. We often simply have better ideas than our competitors!

So rather than fancy IT-DIY, a close eye on customer needs?

Absolutely. Both eyes, in fact!

What are your main other sectors outside agriculture?

Our international teams are working on blockchain solutions for insurance. Another very exciting project is on real-time visualization at events. At a concert, for example, your mobile would become part of a huge virtual screen and light up with each drum beat. Sorting out the timing is the kind of challenge we really savor!

Talking of widely dispersed teams: IT experts have a reputation for being gifted soloists. How do you manage that kind of group?

Many of us only meet in person once a year. All our other interactions are «virtual». We maintain communication through daily stand-up conference calls, for example, and use all the tools we can that facilitate collaboration. And part of leading a team starts at recruitment time...

If you were giving early career tips: what kind of employees are IT companies looking for nowadays?  

On the Support side there are two main criteria. Employees there of course have to be technical experts. But they also need to enjoy working with people – including some who are significantly less enthusiastic about IT! In the case of Developers, the picture is a bit more complicated. They have to be creative. They must also be keen and really able to write code, and want to continue learning. At the same time, they need both to be very self-disciplined about working on their own, and – at least at Resonanz – natural team players. 

How would you describe your ideal customers?

They enjoy exploring new ideas and solutions that are a bit «off the beaten track». They are willing to try innovative approaches and work with us to rewrite the rules. In other words: customers who want to do a good job, and who believe in cooperation.  

Which remaining digital «nut» would you like to crack in the agricultural area?

I would like to develop a tool that really helps smallholders. One that doesn’t already exist, and for which the only hardware requirement is their phone. Brainwave suggestions are welcome!  

What do you do to leave the digital world behind you occasionally?  

I’ve got three children, and love playing the piano. I’ve also just finished building our new house – but have to admit that I used a lot of digital assistance!  

***For further info on G.A.T.E.: andrea.balmer@syngenta.com