On the second Friday of each month, the Technology Association of Iowa hosts an informal networking event at West End Salvage in downtown Des Moines for entrepreneurs, educators, technologists, business leaders and government professionals.
During each event, Brian Waller, President of the Technology Association of Iowa, does a sitdown Q&A with a local tech executive. This month, Waller spoke with Bryce Hemme, Director of Platform Engineering at Granular.
After each interview, Waller presents the guest with a vinyl record of their choice for, “Vinyl Friday.” Hemme’s record of choice was August and Everything After by the Counting Crows.
Their Q&A is below and edited for conciseness:
Hometown and high school?
Le Mars, Iowa and Lemars Community High School
Why choose this album and what were you doing in 1993?
It’s one of the albums over the last 25 years I’ve listened to the most. Secondly, it’s an album that has a ton of emotion behind it but it’s not like the 90’s grunge that has a ton of emotion and is very aggressive.
1993 in Le Mars, Iowa. I’m not sure what I was doing actually. I would’ve been only 12 years old actually, so quite young to be listening to something like that. I was also listening to 90’s grunge at the time so my mother thought I was this outcast that would never make it in life.
So you leave Le Mars to go to the University of Iowa. Talk about what you studied and your academic years before you went to Dupont Pioneer?
I attended the University of Iowa. It was one of those situations where I was all the way in northwest Iowa growing up and going to Iowa City was a drastic difference, going from rural Iowa to this going all of a sudden in this metropolitan of Iowa City that was just as crazy liberal as you could be. So schoolwise, I probably wasn’t the most focused my first few years. But at the end of the day, once I found my niche which really was computer science and management information systems, it became a lot of fun.
But at the end of the day, once I found my niche which really was computer science and management information systems, it became a lot of fun. I ended up taking like 23 credit hours my last semester, but it all worked out.
So you’re leaving the University of Iowa. Did you want to be in the ag space coming from northwest Iowa? And what first job did you have out of college?
So I did grow up on a farm and when I left for college I thought I was never going to do that again. Never going to do anything with agriculture. Sick of power washing hog confinements. Sick of getting up early and staying up late in the Spring and Fall. And so I went to college thinking I was never going back to farming.
So after college, I ended up working at Principal Financial Group. And at that time, I was commuting from Iowa City to Des Moines for two years straight. It was a little bit crazy. My wife, or fiancee at the time, worked at the hospital in Iowa City. So it was worth it, but it was some super early morning and some late nights getting home. Principal
So I spent a couple years at Principal and it was great. It got me introduced to the real world of what it means to be a software engineer. And then I took an opportunity at Wells Fargo for about a year. Not terribly different, financial services again. And after a year of doing that, I had an opportunity to come to Pioneer and it seemed like the right fit.
I think everybody here knows DuPont Pioneer or Dow Chemical, I know the names have changed. Could you just take us through that whole evolution to Corteva?
So I started back there in 1999. As most people probably know, Pioneer was an independent company at the time. They were then acquired by DuPont. Fast forward to 2015, and DuPont came to a deal with DOW Chemical to merge. And then in 2017, about a year ago, DOW and DuPont closed the deal and the following 18-24 months the two combined companies have spun out into three separate companies having an agriculture business named Corteva. So that’s where things are heading. That’s a name that’s out there as a brand. It’s still not publically traded but that is coming in the near future.
So in 2014, a startup company in Silicon Valley started called Granular Ag. How and why did Pioneer come into contact and acquire this company? And what is your role with now with Granular Ag?
In 2014, Granular Ag was started in San Francisco. It was actually kind of a spin-off from a former company that actually had a location in Ames called Solum. That was a soil testing lab and they built some no weight nitrate test for soil nitrogen. And that company was acquired in 2014 by Monsanto and then the founders of that actually spun out of that into Granular to focus on business management software for farmers. And so we then already had a pretty good relationship established with the founders and so we started to go through a process of better understanding their market share and their business. And then in early 2017, we began the due diligence process. In that process, there was a number of leaders coming to terms with how we wanted to function post-acquisition and that’s how we got to where we are today.
So you now work for Granular. Do you feel like you work for a startup or do you feel like you work for a big conglomerate?
Yeah, so it’s being a startup in the belly of a massive corporation. The way I like to look at it is as a well-funded startup at this point. So we aren’t out there having to get any venture capital to continue the business. We’re getting funded by a massive organization. It feels like we’re for a startup, but there are some things that are nice and some things not so nice about being connected back to the larger organization. Part of the transition we’re going through right now is trying to figure out how to get Granular much more align with what they were as a startup.
So that’s happening here in the Iowa office. We’re now looking at moving offices in Johnson so we can distinguish ourselves.
What does the Director of Platform Engineering at Granular do?
That’s a fun question. I always struggle to answer this because there are so many things there and it feels like it’s changing all the time. My main focus is on how we bring together the different software businesses. There’s the Granular business and there’s this business named circa that’s a commercial software business Pioneer started in 2014. So bringing those two together and getting to a common platform between the two and really starting to find a way to position ourselves in the ag tech market from a technology standpoint.
Another big part of my role today is focused around leading the machine data space. That consists of getting data off of the machinery in the field whether it be through wireless data transmission or directly through off of thumb drives coming off of the machinery and getting that served up into all of their systems.
What keeps you up? What stresses you out?
Outside of making sure we have systems available to everyone 24/7. That’s just a common thing. The other aspect is the landscape here in the ag tech industry is super dynamic. SO just keeping on the leading edge and keeping up with competitors and making sure we’re always pushing the envelope for me is a huge area of focus and is where I spend a ton of my time.
Where’s your new office and what’s your relationship with the Silicon Valley office?
In Johnson, we’re moving just down the road from the main Pioneer campus NEAR the Crescent Chase apartment complex.
As far as our relationship with the Silicon Valley office, we work with them day in and day out. I’ve spent way too much time in that office over the past year or so. And we also have locations in Champaign, Illinois and Atlanta, Georgia. The fun part of this has been getting to see all the different dynamics between the locations.
Can you look down the road five to ten years in the ag tech space that you’re in and talk about what you see as exciting stuff coming up on the horizon?
Autonomous vehicles, of course, has been the talk for a while now. Case New Holland unveiled an autonomous tractor about 18 months ago and that was a big market splash and got the conversation going. It’s clearly coming. We know Deere is going to be doing something in that space as well as others. So we know that’s coming.
I think another aspect that we have a lot of investment right now is around satellite imagery and remote sensing. Being able to identify what’s happening across your farming operation what’s happening. If we can get daily imagery, we can quickly tell you what’s going on in your field. And so that’s a big aspect of what’s going on today and something I think is going to continue to evolve in the future. Right now, the resolution and regularity of imagery is a challenge, but over time that’s going to improve. So we’re trying to come up with novel solutions. Jason Thompson, a colleague of mine, he’s leading that space right now. It’s a super interesting and innovating space.
The other side of it that hasn’t been solved is the agronomy side of farming. If you think about nitrogen in soil, it’s a super complex scientific problem to solve. How does nitrogen clove through when you have rainfall, based on soil type. We’ve probably got the leading product on the market right now for predicting that, but it’s got a long ways to go.
Give advice to 18-year-old Bryce?
I’d tell myself that social networks are going to eat the world so get started and do that instead. I’d probably tell myself to actually give a damn those first few years of college, but I’ve always been the type person who does much better if I’m just doing something other than school.
Star Wars or Star Trek?
Do people ever pick Star Trek? I’m not a big Star Wars or Star Trek fan, but if I had to pick I’d say Star Wars. If you asked me something like Batman or Superman, I’d say Batman.
Favorite curse word?
All of them.
Favorite caffeinated beverage?
A dark roasted coffee. Sometimes an Americano. A Red-eye if I’m really struggling.
You are out of town, crashing at a friends house or staying at a hotel?
Hotel. I’ve been traveling a lot the last few years and have become a bit of a hotel snob. I’m not afraid to admit that. Definitely hotel.
I really enjoy words that are totally techy but have meaning outside of tech as well. Words like tessellation.
What is your least favorite word?
Negative words. I really dislike when I hear anybody say “I can’t do that.” Also when anyone says “us vs. them” it drives me crazy.
Comedy club or dance club?
Comedy club. I’m not the dancing type. I did have a good experience at dance club once that I didn’t expect. We’re in Las Vegas and my wife drags me into this dance club and I’m like this is going to be horrible and about ten minutes after being there. after about 10 minutes of being there, the ridiculous house music turns off and they brought on Gavin Rossdale from Bush and he played a 30-minute set by himself.
What sound or noise do you love?
I’m a guitar player. So I’d say a very nice guitar on a nice tube-amp, especially if the person playing know what they’re doing. Which probably isn’t me.
What sound or noise do you hate?
So my son who’s five has been making the most horrible sounds ever just to annoy people. Recently he told us he learned new languages, but these languages are all animals. So I’ll randomly hear these animal noises. It’s funny the first few times.
If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive?
“Welcome to Burning Man.” You can take that however you want.