Catalyst for Change - Summer Update
G’day, all the very best to you and yours over the holiday period and may 2018 be a very prosperous year.
It’s time for a new years update, and I think as well, time for a frank assessment for Back Paddock of the year that was. We’ve been going for eighteen years and there’s an extended group of you that’ve been with us for all of that time. For many years, Back Paddock was the toolset you pulled off the shelf in January, hammered for ten weeks, then parked again once pre-season planning was done. But man, a lot’s changed.
In the past five years, we built Cornerpost, we built the mobile apps and we built what is now a substantial Data Centre. We scaled up from two standalone Windows programs to a multi-user, multi-device enabled platform that today hosts more than ten thousand farm clients with twenty-two thousand farms, approaching thirteen million hectares of broadacre cropping and grazing land. But we certainly didn’t get it all right. In the first generation we’d used some programming methods and architecture that simply haven’t scaled well or been as robust as we need. In one instance, we created a data replication issue in the planning information as part addressing a bigger system change. It didn’t impact a great many users, but it frustrated the hell out of the ones that it did. We’d recognised the issues, but also decided not to shortcut the changes and went about reengineering the platform for the next wave of change; those changes have consumed us for the past six months.
In that time, we made the decision to stall the release of new functionality in all but one area; SoilMate mobile ordering. We still have until we nail down the last of the back-end change, which will be complete by the end of summer 2018. The redesigned environment is based on large-scale platforms that have tens of thousands of users and massive throughput, hence we’re seeing speed and robustness we just couldn’t achieve in the original environment.
In the midst of that change, we lost Adrian Ross in June 2017. Adrian was the founder of the Back Paddock Software side of the business and passed away suddenly. It was a shock and incredibly sad. Complex and often hilariously witty, Adrian had a very fertile mind, full of ideas and possibilities. He had the ability to distil complex situations to their essence and create a simpler way, to really ‘nail it’. His legacy is software that continues to have a substantial impact across Australian agriculture, surviving the test of time over 20 years.
Adrian’s passing forced us to make changes to our organisation that had been in the works for some time. The outcome is that at the end of October two founding shareholder employees had left the business. After a tough year, it is an exciting time for Back Paddock, with a new generation of bright young things to take us into the next phase and beyond.
And so, let’s talk about that change. Firstly, we created the new role of Operation Manager and promoted Brett Pollard into that role. Brett’s been with the business approaching ten years and incredibly well-versed in the day-to-day operational aspects. Congratulations to Brett. In turn, we moved Katy Lee into the role of Customer Service Lead, responsible for the customer service function and regional coordinators we have across Australia. Congrats to Katy. We then moved Alex Samson, another ten year employee into the role of Product Engineering Lead, congrats to Alex. Both Katy and Alex report to Brett meaning that the connection between feedback from users in the field and the people with the wherewithal to correct things is a closed loop.
Right on from that, we made a further decision to take a good part of our product engineering capability up to the Philippines. Truth is, we’ve struggled for the past few years with the software engineering talent pool in Australia, for the rates we can afford, when running a niche business in a technically-specialised field. Alex Samson, formerly a Filipino national, now a proud Aussie (except when it comes to boxing!) has taken the lead in recruiting our own staff on the ground up there, with the assistance of a local HR company. He’s just back from a ten-day stint onboarding the first team, who
are iOS (iPhone/iPad apps) specialists. Their first task is to finish the ‘plumbing and wiring’ of the new services that will manage sync, master database sharing and a whole bunch of other activities between CornerPost and the mobile devices. They’ve been working through the Christmas break to give us the acceleration we need, starting with resolution of some app’ crash issues around Paddock Diary and Observations. We have two years-worth of R&D initiatives to rollout in 2018, but we can’t and won’t do that until the remedial work is complete.
Alongside that, Katy’s been busy recruiting and onboarding two new Regional Coordinators for both Southern region and our first ever coordinator for Western Australia, Sian Pladdy. Sian’s on-farm with her hubby and young family out at Bencubbin on the wheat belt and has ten years ag-industry experience in WA. Melanie Brown’s based in the outer parts of Melbourne to service Victoria and South Australia. They add to Sarah and Cheryl, who’re Brisbane-based. We’ve always worked hard at our customer service and I reckon these folk will do well as the new-faces of Back Paddock.
And so, its welcome to Sian and Melanie, and Michelle, Chris and Diane up in the Philippines, you represent the future for Back Paddock. But that’s not enough, what we need as well is a platform for digital agriculture that can deliver what you, our collective user network have been telling us you need. So, for the next few pages we’re going to introduce you to what will become known as the Opterra platform for digital agriculture based on an architecture that integrates the fundamental aspects of agriculture – soil, water, plant and animal. But firstly, a tiny bit more on where things stand.
In 2010, Apple announced the iPad, a touchscreen mobile tablet running ‘smartphone-like’ apps that they’d championed with the iPhone, released a few years earlier. Since then, the whole world’s changed. Almost every agronomist we work with carries an iPhone and/or an iPad and uses mobile applications on it all day, every day, whilst working on farm. But we’ve also created another trend that’s become a substantial issue and that’s the basis that with a hundred ag’-specific apps to choose from, nothing talks to anything else. More specifically, in ag’, every app needs at its core a data structure around farmer, farm, paddock, zone; yet using five different ag’ app’s means you have to ‘do the housekeeping’ five times over. The big trend in our feedback is that we have to fix that. In the corporate world, we’ve been partnering with SST Software for the past three years to utilise their agX platform to create a unified data structure and that’s a good solution. Yet outside of that, we’re seeing the need for a simplified structure, not designed for precision agriculture as such but designed for mainstream agriculture to ‘join-the-dots’. And that’s what Opterra is to be…
Key components of Opterra will be spatially-based, and you’ll read about DataFarming in later pages, a really exciting partnership.
Associated with the Opterra change, we will be revising our subscription options, to cater not only for spatial products but also for the different levels to which our products are used. Back Paddock use varies from in-paddock functions, like sampling, observations, counts and rec’s, to professional farm management and financial consultancy. Our fee structure will reflect these needs.
This needs to fit with your business needs, so there’ll be consultation prior to introduction at the end of summer 2018.
So I think it’s appropriate that we provide an apology to any of you we’ve frustrated this year with operational issues and the subsequent hold-back of innovation delivery. We’re focussed on getting that right and acknowledge that we live in an ever more competitive environment where choice is prevalent.
Let’s get on with it, there’s plenty to tell you about.