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John Deere’s Julian Sanchez: “To Develop Resilience, Become Comfortable With Failure ”

Become comfortable with failure. Failure is not fun, so we shy away from it, even in our personal lives. We stick to what we know and seldom try new things because it reduces the probability of failure. So, practice “safe failure.” This could be simple things like, try to take a new route to work, […]


Become comfortable with failure. Failure is not fun, so we shy away from it, even in our personal lives. We stick to what we know and seldom try new things because it reduces the probability of failure. So, practice “safe failure.” This could be simple things like, try to take a new route to work, or try to learn to play an instrument, or try to learn a new language. The key is don’t go into everything you try with the ultimate expectation that you are going to “succeed.” Give it a fair effort, but be willing to fail, which sometimes means giving up on something. I guarantee you will still grow, and you will become a little more comfortable with failure. For example, I purchased a unicycle about two years ago. I tried to learn, but after about a month of falling, I decided it was ok to fail at it. Again, it’s about trying things that stretch you, but being comfortable walking away from them.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Julian Sanchez, Ph.D. Julian is director of precision agriculture and business development at John Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group. In his role, Julian is responsible for leading strategy, business development and portfolio management. Julian started his career at John Deere in 2004 as a summer intern at the Moline Technology Center and re-joined Deere in 2011 as manager of Enterprise User Experience, where he laid the foundation for UX capabilities at Deere and pioneered a design philosophy. Throughout his career at Deere he made significant technical and business contributions in the areas of digital innovation, including building capabilities in mobile software development. Prior to John Deere, he spent time at the MITRE Corporation, where he worked on the Next Generation Air Transportation System, and Medtronic, where he led efforts to develop telematic systems for heart failure devices. Julian holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Industrial Engineering from Florida International University and a Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology from Georgia Tech. He holds over 20 patents, 35 publications and is a John Deere Fellow in Technology Innovation.


Thank you so much for joining us, Julian! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

I was born and raised in Cali, Colombia, which is known as the salsa dancing capital of the world. Oddly enough, I’m a terrible salsa dancer. I moved to the U.S. when I was 11 years old, to Ft. Lauderdale, FL, where my parents started a business: They would order computer parts from Silicon Valley to our house, then we would assemble and ship them to my aunt in Colombia, who would sell them. It was around this age that I learned to be curious about technology, as my house chores mostly consisted of assembling computers and trouble-shooting malfunctioning components. Later, while getting my engineering degree, I became aware of a field known as Human Factors, which deals with understanding human capabilities and limitations and applying that to good design. I went on to get a Ph.D. in that field.

While getting my Ph.D., I was given an opportunity to be an intern at John Deere. I didn’t know anything about agriculture, but I immediately felt a passion for the space. First, it is something that “matters.” Second, I found the problems fascinating. Here is an industry that doesn’t get much attention for being a tech-heavy domain, and yet, there is cutting-edge technology everywhere you look. At the time, summer 2004, Deere was evaluating touchscreen display technology and redefining the experience in the cab of these sophisticated vehicles. At the same time, self-steering technologies were starting to become mainstream in agriculture vehicles. Here I was at the intersection of technology innovation and human behavior, in an industry where its end users were demanding it.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Deere was in the process of redesigning the controls of a very important vehicle, and there was a team that had been working for some time to define a concept. Even though the team had done a nice job of considering the requirements, I knew it could be better. Another colleague and I decided to take a shot at redesigning it from scratch, and we came up with a completely alternate concept. We showed it to stakeholders, collected some feedback from end users, and it ended up being the concept that went into production. It felt like big deal, getting our ideas into a major product.

The key lesson that has stayed with me the rest of my career is if you think you have a good idea, don’t wait around and ask for permission or alignment to dive into it. Don’t worry too much about who is going to get upset, just start working on it. Many people wait around to be inspired, so they can get motivated, so they can begin to act. I think they have it backwards. When you start by acting, oftentimes you become inspired by something you didn’t expect, and that is what leads to motivation.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The name John Deere carries something special with it. It creates a special bond between any two people who are connected to it in any way. I still can’t fully explain it, but it became apparent to me when I first started with the company. I didn’t have a background in agriculture, yet the first time I visited a farmer who used John Deere equipment, it felt like I was visiting family. Visiting farmers is an important part of my job as it keeps me connected to the emerging needs in the domain.

I thought I would only feel that way that first time on a farm, but it happened again, with the very next visit to another farm. And it happens every time I visit a farmer that has a connection with Deere. Even when customers are giving you feedback on what Deere could improve, you are treated like a member of their family when you arrive at their farm.

It goes deeper than that, though. Sometimes I happen to be wearing a John Deere t-shirt, and strangers will walk up to me and convey that they have a relative that owns John Deere equipment. I also have acquaintances who will send me pictures of John Deere equipment they encounter across the world. I mean, I’m assuming if you work for a car company or a software company or a restaurant that people aren’t sending you pictures of those products. I can’t fully explain the connection the brand inspires, but I like it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’ve had numerous mentors, bosses and colleagues who have helped me and believed in me. But when I think about someone helping me achieve success, I think also about the people who haven’t necessarily been on my side all the time, or in some cases, never! I’ve come to believe those individuals, the ones we perceive as “difficult” are the ones who help you grow most.

Some years back I had an employee who challenged everything I said, and often did so in a manner that was really annoying. For a while, it would rattle me, to the point that I started trying to figure out how to move him out of my group. But eventually I realized he would make me think deeper and harder about the problems we were trying to solve.

Working with him taught me a couple of things that have been pivotal to my career: 1) don’t let anything rattle you at work, because at the end of the day, it’s just work; 2) things that annoy you sometimes annoy you because they challenge your opinions or beliefs. Since this lightbulb went on, I have always sought conversations and individuals that annoy me. In fact, I have an opening in my group right now for someone to fill that role.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

It’s always risky to ask a psychologist to define a term like resilience. For me it’s the ability to see beyond complexity and be comfortable moving toward a goal, even when it seems like the odds are against you.

Resilient people have the ability to see through complex problems. They know that if you apply yourself and work the problem, then you have a good chance of coming out on the other side. Resilient people are willing to take on difficult problems and see them through.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

My dad exemplifies the traits I described above. His favorite subject was physics, and when I was growing up (in high school and college) I would seek his help with difficult physics problems.

There was never a problem that overwhelmed my dad. I would observe his demeanor as he absorbed the problem, walked away from it for a little while and then started to work it. This was something that struck me at a young age. I realized that his success wasn’t that he knew everything — it was in having a calm and confident demeanor in the face of a tough problem.

This same approach was prevalent in other aspects of his life — and after many years of watching him, I began working to apply it to all aspects of my life. Don’t panic, absorb the problem and start working it.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

There is always someone who tells you “it’s impossible,” no matter what you are about to try. I’ve learned that when you set out to prove that person wrong, you are unlikely to succeed, and even if you do succeed, it’s not very satisfying.

I’ve learned to instead take the feedback that something is “impossible” as data to better work the problem. If you assume good intentions, someone telling you something is impossible is actually pointing to a challenge you will likely have to deal with. Don’t let it discourage you or make it emotional — use it as information. People on the “this is impossible” camp are actually helping you identify challenges and achieve the impossible!

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

In the first semester of my master’s degree, I was taking a programming course where we were learning a new software package to develop websites. While I enjoy programming, I admit it has never been one of my strengths. The final exam, which made up more than half the grade, was to build a website using this program. I managed to do it, it compiled, and then I decided I had a little more time to make a few cosmetic changes to my code. To date, not sure what I screwed up, but when the professor came around to check it, nothing was working.

I failed the course, which put my scholarship at risk. I ended up retaking the course and was able to retain my scholarship, but the lesson I learned was more important. I spent my holiday break becoming proficient in this program, as I told myself I never wanted to let that happen again. In learning the program, I became interested in other applications, which at the time were very popular in the web development world. This eventually gave me the idea for my master’s thesis. My thesis connected me to a professor who suggested I get a Ph.D. and put me in contact with the person who would eventually became my Ph.D. advisor.

So, this terrible moment, which I still dread thinking about, actually opened doors for me. But it happened because I decided I wasn’t going to let it happen again, and I ran toward it, rather than away from it.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

When I was 11 years old, my parents, my brother and I moved from Colombia to the U.S. I didn’t speak English. On the first day of school, my parents dropped me off, and for several weeks I didn’t understand much or anything being said around me. I remember every morning a lady used to come to the classroom and she would say words and different kids would raise their hand at different things she said. By the second week I recognized the word “nuggets,” and I realized she was the lunch lady coming to get a count of what kids wanted for lunch that day. I raised my hands at “nuggets” for a while until I learned other names of food.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

Rather than five steps, I have three:

1) Become comfortable with failure. Failure is not fun, so we shy away from it, even in our personal lives. We stick to what we know and seldom try new things because it reduces the probability of failure. So, practice “safe failure.” This could be simple things like, try to take a new route to work, or try to learn to play an instrument, or try to learn a new language. The key is don’t go into everything you try with the ultimate expectation that you are going to “succeed.” Give it a fair effort, but be willing to fail, which sometimes means giving up on something. I guarantee you will still grow, and you will become a little more comfortable with failure. For example, I purchased a unicycle about two years ago. I tried to learn, but after about a month of falling, I decided it was ok to fail at it. Again, it’s about trying things that stretch you, but being comfortable walking away from them.

2) Surround yourself with dissenting views. This prepares your brain and your emotions to handle tougher problems and deal with them in a resilient way. The idea for my very first patent emerged out of a dissenting view, where a colleague disagreed with me on my idea to help operators of agricultural equipment stay fully attentive in self-steering vehicles. Embracing that dissenting view led to us patenting several methods to detect whether they were paying attention.

3) Find those around you who will support you when you do fail. Part of being resilient is being able to bounce back, and that is a team sport. You can’t always carry the weight of tough failures on your own, so find those around you who are willing to help you through those moments and place added value on those relationships. My first boss at Deere, nearly 15 years ago, showed me what it’s like to provide support for those who take risks. As we were building up our research tools I saw the need for an eye-tracker to allow us to better understand how our technologies were impacting operator behavior. It meant asking for an unbudgeted sum toward the end of a fiscal year. After being told no numerous times, I decided I would just wait a while. He pressed me on it and asked if I truly believed it was something we needed, and if so, told me not to stop pushing for it. He made clear he would keep supporting me. So I did keep at it, and soon after, succeeded in getting the purchase approved.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would try to get everyone in the world to spend 15 minutes per day learning a new language. Our ability to find common ground amongst each other is a matter of communication. There is something tremendously powerful about being able to talk another language that immediately builds a bond between people. I recently spent some time living in Germany, and even when a German person spoke English, the ability to communicate even at a basic level in German built trust and appreciation for each other. If this feeling could be propagated at scale, I think the human race could elevate its conversation about real problems.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

David McCullough (author)

Sara Blakely (entrepreneur)

Greg Popovich (NBA Coach)

Ninja (e-sports extraordinaire)

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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