Finding connection & collaboration through data at Raven
I became an engineer because I wanted to join Starfleet as a kid, and then you learn that Starfleet doesn't exist and so you become an electrical engineer."
Senior Research Engineer Kelly Vanderwerff never imagined she would be at an engineering company like Raven, but she learned early on in her career of the different applications of her skills. "It's still just really fascinating problems. I'm a creative person and I like to be able to express myself creatively. I feel like engineering is a great outlet for that," said Kelly, who has been at Raven Industries for the last four years. "It's really fun to be able to see [my work] manifest itself in massive machinery."
Her first job out of college was at the EROS Data Center around the time they were building "Landsat 8." As part of the calibration team, she helped build the data pipeline, making sure that they collected the right data to calibrate or debug issues while the satellite was in the air. "That meant a lot of testing on the ground. I got to spend some time at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and at satellite and spacecraft vendors where we had satellites and instruments in the chamber and we were running tests to make sure that our data was valid," she said.
After a few years of contract work, she found her way to Raven through a friend who told her it was "a really great culture, a lot of fun, lots of shenanigans, lots of really interesting projects." She says that the other thing that really drew her to Raven was the high level of access to the hardware and the final product. Engineers at Raven are encouraged to experience their research and development in tangible ways through on-field testing and debugging. When Raven started its move toward data analytics, Kelly saw herself bringing her previous experience with data into the division. "I was really excited about that because I'd seen a data project, from the ground up, get to a point where it was successful. And I thought that I could use my experience there to help out."
For Kelly, the first interaction with what she's helped design or build is really thrilling. "It's a lot of work to write a piece of software or build some hardware and get it to do the thing that you intended to do. And when you finally get to that moment, it's very fulfilling," she said. The other thing she really enjoys is starting with a vision of what the thing needs to be or needs to do, and being able to start at ground zero. "Here are the tools and resources that I have and how do I come up with a strategy that gets me from the nothing that I have right now to this really cool vision? And I really enjoy that. That's a process that I never really get sick of."
The collaborative environment at Raven is one the company prides itself on, as it brings a collective perspective when needed and creates space for idea-sharing and connection. "We have these standing meetings where everybody is encouraged to say what they're working on. If they're struggling with anything people will offer to help," she said. Kelly speaks of the significance of accessibility at Raven in a few different ways: the accessibility to her peers who are working on something that maybe indirectly influences her work; the access to products to "get your hands dirty;" and the access to customers to see how the work she does is impacting or improving their daily lives.
"It can seem intimidating to come into an environment where there are a lot of people who are farmers, but it's such a non-intimidating environment. It's such a welcoming and teaching environment that there's just so much to learn," she said as she spoke of some of her colleagues and the work that the Applied Technology Division does at Raven. She's found that a lot of what she works on at Raven impacts this extended network of farmers — including people in her life — in very tangible ways, and she sees how connections form between casual conversations and a problem she's trying to solve at work.
As a data analyst, she spends a lot of time looking at numbers and she says that something that's tough about it is there can be a disconnect between a number and what it represents in the real world. "Listening to customers talk about what it means if it's not performing and what it means if it's performing well, it's just really motivating. And it also makes it something that's real," said Kelly.
Listening to customers talk about what it means if it's not performing and what it means if it's performing well, it's just really motivating. And it also makes it something that's real."— Kelly Vanderwerff, Senior Research Engineer
This connection to end-users creates a space to iterate towards success better because they get to interact with the person they are helping. "Not coming from a farming background, it's really nice to get to meet people who are living that life because I'm probably not going to think about problems the same way that they are, and really I'm trying to get into their head and solve their problems."
Recently, as Kelly was working on coming up with a metric to monitor how well the steering systems were behaving, she sat down for lunch with an operator. They talked about how sore he gets at the end of the season, and if the system is steering jerkily, that's really hard on his neck and his back at the end of 14-hour days. "So it made me think about it more. What are other poor performance states that we want to be able to detect? It made me rethink how sensitive those metrics need to be. And it's also really fulfilling to think that maybe we can prevent somebody from being in pain by the end of the day."
In the last four years at Raven, Kelly has spent almost a month in a machine shed, "just torturing a sprayer and seeing what data came out," dedicated days to riding in a tractor collecting data while talking to customers, and prototyping products.
Kelly believes Raven is pushing the envelope in the space of software, data and technology, and that the company is always trying to solve the next problem in bigger and better ways. The goal of being more intelligent with data, making it more useful and accessible to people, while having access to the things creating the data and the tools to solve problems are elements of her career at Raven that she has found to be very fulfilling. There's no typical day at Raven and that is what she really values as a creative engineer in the field. Kelly's career path might be more grounded than her original plans for Starfleet, but every day she still finds worlds of possibility in her field work.