View From The Top: Q & A with David Black

November 25, 2015 02:29 AM

What is your connection to farming? 
I’m only one generation off the farm. I still have family that farms in southern Illinois. I spent 20 years at Monsanto in technology and also some corporate strategy. I also spent time doing nonprofit work in agriculture. When the role opened at CHS, it was an easy decision. I had the utmost confidence in the executive team that was assembled here. 

What does a chief information officer (CIO) do? How is your role informed by agriculture?
The four key things I think about every day are cloud computing and its impact in our industry; the Internet of Things, or how people and devices are connected; mobility and consumerization, or the ability to get to any information for any decision at any time in the field, home or office; and the impact of Big Data. 

The second world that not all CIOs think about is precision agriculture. I lead our strategy and vision for precision ag. My job is really to help our farmer-owners with all the noise and confusion. 

As a cooperative, we exist to do things for farmers that they can’t do for themselves, and I think precision ag falls squarely in that space. Who do I trust with my data? What value will it bring to my farm? There’s a lot to figure out, and I think CHS can play a role in helping our farmers figure that out.

Company: Farmer-owned cooperative CHS is a Fortune 100 business whose portfolio includes energy, crop nutrients, grain marketing and animal feed. It had $1.1 billion of net income in 2014. 

Education: Bachelor of Computer Science, Tarkio (Mo.) College

One book managers must read: There’s been no one book really valuable to me; rather, in-the-field experiences represent the greatest value for information technology (IT) folks.

Business leader you admire the most: I admire our CEO, Carl Casale. He’s a farmer and an executive. He cares for employees. He’s a risk-taker.

Favorite leadership quote: “Tell people what you’re going to do, go do it and tell people that you did it.” 

What top trends are shaping IT in agribusiness? The trend will be driving far more toward the decision and information space and less about hardware and sensors. I think that’s really the role CHS can play, all the way from the input side, whether that’s fuel, seed, chemistry or crop nutrition, to the grain side. We’re positioned with our farmer-owners at the table during a number of decisions they have to make. We have a retail network that has scale and reach to our farmers, and we have trust. 

What is the greatest opportunity of precision agriculture? The greatest challenge?
The greatest opportunity for precision agriculture is ultimately, resulting decisions are going to improve on-farm profitability through greater yields, improved market positions, greater efficiency and more sustainable farming. The biggest challenge is complexity and fragmentation. Weather information is here, soil information is here. Dissimilar systems are not well connected. There aren’t a set of strong standards that exist in this space. I think the role of CHS is really to help bring these relationships together and provide value for farmer-owners.

Fragmentation has to continue to improve. There are a number of big players who have tried to drive more commonality but haven’t necessarily succeeded because the value proposition’s not there for the farmer. There are organizations such as AgGateway that are continuing to drive and create data standards. I think it will continue to improve, but I’m not certain in the near-term we’re going to see a single platform that everything drives to.

Why does agribusiness need to promote careers in science and technology?
Of the megatrends that have changed agriculture, the next is going to be precision ag. The skills required to apply precision ag are still agronomic, but all of this is going to sit on an IT backbone. Science, technology and engineering careers are going to be critical. People who understand how to transform data such as statisticians, these are the future jobs of agriculture. It means you’re recruiting from traditional ag schools but also from non-ag schools that are producing science and technology career-path individuals. 

We’ve been very traditional in the skills we look for at CHS. We’re in a genesis about how we go about looking for these roles. Within our corporate strategy group, we have a business analytics team that works within CHS to understand our business and plan new roles. 

What lessons have you learned about hiring for technological skill? 
There’s a generation out there that has a very different approach to the use of technology. Recognize employees have expectations as you bring them onto the farm. There are expectations about how they connect, mobility and availability of information in a ubiquitous way whether they’re in the field or at home. 

Do you go with a double major or with individuals who have an IT background as well as an ag background? Favoring someone with a stronger tech background and teaching them the agronomic skills might give you a better answer. This is a world in transition. None of this is pure black and white.  

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