Would Farmers make good Product Managers?

I am a product person currently working at TransferWise, building technology that enables to move money across the globe instantly, conveniently and with no hidden fees. But I grew up driving tractors and combine harvesters as well as perfecting my shoveling and floor-sweeping skills in a farm — and I might have learnt more than I think from it.

Combine harvester collecting grain, tractor transporting

This week I was back in the family farm in Estonia helping out at the harvest and I caught myself thinking that my brother who is running the family farm of 1800 hectares and 260 dairy cows would make an excellent product manager. Started thinking why…

Product Manager 101 for them farming folks

In the startup world, Product Manger is a person in a development team who’s job is to literally do what ever it takes to create the maximum amount of value for the customer in a minimum amount of time. I once created the following diagram to illustrate the main qualities of a product person:

Farming 101 for them city folks

How does farming work? Taking cereal farming for simplicity sake.

Farming is the first step of getting that bread into your local convenience store. The aim of the game is simple — take one seed and generate as many from it as possible while being as cost effective as possible. And the biggest resource that you have is the land. Good KPI would be €/hectare (1 hectare [ha] is 100x100 meters). There are 6 main steps to producing grain:

So farmers for Product Managers?

To name a few things..

1. Data-driven

It’s a thing of beauty — everything that is being done has a reason AND a clearly measurable goal attached to it. My brother is very clear what needs to be done in order to maximise €/ha:

  1. maximise the yield/ha;
  2. minimise the costs/ha

In order to maximise the yield, the soil is sampled and analysed for deficiencies in nutrients. Then the lack of nutrients is compensated mostly with finely measured amount of… well, shit. The seeds are sowed with high precision machinery knowing exactly how many seeds should land on a given square meter of land. Later on the plants are protected from diseases and insects with correct dosages of substances at the correct time with the correct weather conditions.. Weather would always have the last word.

In case you were wondering… you can get around 27 seeds of wheat from 1 that you sow.
Seed-drill from above. The yellow dot on the roof of the tractor is the GPS receiver

Looking at the costs has lead the farm to develop to a place where we have tractors that can drive themselves with 2cm accuracy so that the usage of the inputs would be as efficient as possible; the cultivation of the soil is minimal which helps to save fuel; the processes have been automated to extent where 1 person can operate the drying and storing of thousands of tons of grain via iPad and a tractor with leather seats.

3. Getting s*** done

The full circle of growing crops takes 1 year. During the busiest seasons, the farm feels like a proper early stage startup — you sleep very little, you work very much. By far the busiest is the harvesting season where the grain yield is collected from the fields [5] and dried to certain % of moisture in order to preserve it [6].

Grain drier

Although we have self-driving tractors that add efficiency and automated grain driers, the main player that you are competing against is the mother nature herself. There is no time to waste, you do what needs to be done. If needed you operate a fancy machine that has more touch screens than a Apple Genius could dream of; if needed you jump into a silo full of itchy barley dust to clean it up for the next crop to come in from the field.

5. Stress tolerance

When a lot of things are going on, there are also a lot of things to loose your sleep over:

  • There are tens of things that need to be done simultaneously — have to prioritise and manage the resources.
  • The decisions need to be made in minutes and they can always change due to weather or some unexpected event.
  • There is a lot at risk — if let’s say a gas burner in the grain dryer blows up, it’s not only the financial damage of the building and equipment, you are also between the rock and the hard place with your harvest with nowhere to store your grain.
  • There are a lot of moving parts — super expensive machines that might break in thousand different places at super inconvenient times and for very unforeseeable reasons.

6. Product thinking

And if something does break, you are not going to go and spend some time putting sticky notes on the wall to brainstorm a good solution, nor are you going to plan on how to fix it. You just go and solve the problem with the resources that you have at hand and to your best abilities.

Farmers are a creative bunch — you’d be surprised what can be achieved with duct tape and cable ties. You’d also be surprised how much of the farming technology and machinery actually comes from farmers themselves who have figured out something that works and built a manufacturing site as a side business to their farm.

7. Technical

Well, we live in Estonia where you start to learn coding at the age of 7 anyway. My brother, for instance has built a few websites and invented a liquid fertilizer add-on for a seed drill — not bad (for a farmer). But besides that, farmers are super good at thinking in terms of structures and understanding systems. You kind of have to if you want to utilise the tech for growing your business.

Product.

Might need a finishing touch of customer focus and voila, you have yourself a product manager.