by Martha Heller

How Cargill IT is helping to solve the world’s food problems

Jan 06, 2021
AnalyticsArtificial IntelligenceBig Data

CIO Justin Kershaw describes what he looks for in his senior leaders and how the $114 billion agriculture company uses data from low-Earth orbit satellites and distributed ledger technology to bring transparency to the food supply chain.

Justin Kershaw, CIO, Cargill
Credit: Justin Kershaw, CIO, Cargill

Justin Kershaw held his first CIO position nearly 25 years ago, at W.L. Gore, a specialty materials manufacturer, currently with $3.7 billion in revenue. Later, he spent six years as a divisional CIO at Eaton before joining Cargill as CIO of the food ingredients business, and global IT operations leader. He ascended to his role as Corporate Vice President and CIO in 2015.

Based on revenue ($114 billion), Cargill is the largest privately held corporation in the U.S. If it were a public company, Cargill would rank number 25 on the 2020 Fortune 500 list, just above Bank of America and right below Fannie Mae. While Cargill, along with other large food producers, has been the subject of criticism related to worker safety and coronavirus outbreaks at several of its meat processing facilities in the U.S and Canada, the company is laser focused on using technology to improve global sustainability and reduce food production problems.

During a recent Zoom call with Kershaw, we discussed IT’s role in innovation, change management, and product engineering. We also discussed the qualities that Kershaw looks for in his senior team. What follows is an edited version of our interview.

Martha Heller: How do you describe your role as CIO of Cargill?

Justin Kershaw: My job has three components: the first is to be a thought leader in applying technology to help solve the world’s biggest food challenges, both for Cargill and for the industry; second is to make sure we invest in the right technologies for the right return; third is to be an operational leader for the entirety of the corporation.

In my opinion, the technology organization, if it is run right, should be the primary driver of change in a company. What we do in IT is more about change and outcomes than about technology.

The winner in our market will be the company that successfully marries the digital and the physical to solve the world’s food problems. You can’t eat a blockchain. Somebody has to make the food, and automating that process takes gobs of advanced technology.

How are technology trends impacting the food and agricultural industry right now?

Big data and advanced analytics continue to have a major impact. To be more specific, I’d point to computer vision from low-Earth orbit satellites and very sophisticated up-close imagery in dairy, swine, and row crop framing, along with artificial intelligence to drive predictions and decisions on the farm.

A few years ago, we made the decision to be advanced in distributed ledger technology, commonly known as blockchain, but for supply chain, not for money exchange. Distributed ledger technology allows for transparency and traceability across the supply chain. One of the pilots we are running is for our Honeysuckle White Turkey, where a very simple distributed ledger collects data on the origination of the turkey, the story of that farm, who owns it, and its location, and brings that information all the way to the store, where it is available to the consumer.

We are taking what we’ve learned from these simple pilots and applying them to more complex problems. Our goal is to use distributed ledger technology to create real-time transparency between the supply chain and our customers.

What are some examples of recent innovative technologies that have had a significant impact on the business?

The first is our Cargill Data Platform (CDP), which moved us to one proprietary data platform for all of Cargill, and is helping us make the most of our data. The CDP is where we brought to life our open-source distributed ledger technology, and where we are analyzing satellite imagery for crop predictions.

The second is iQuatic, a product for shrimp farming, which we built in-house in our Cargill Digital Labs. Shrimp is an extremely important source of protein globally and will only become more important as the population increases. But shrimp farming has always been manual labor-intensive. iQuatic gathers inputs from shrimp ponds and uses AI and a visualization app to help shrimp farmers be more efficient in growing a healthier, more sustainable, more profitable product. We have several hundred shrimp farms on the platform now, and we are now applying that same technology to dairy, swine, and poultry farms.

How do you decide, organizationally, where IT stops and product engineering starts?

I asked my peers at Microsoft, HP, SAP, and IBM how software companies draw the line. Is the CIO of SAP responsible for what goes into the software? Is the CIO of Microsoft responsible for the Xbox gaming console that is full of software? I found that in the big software companies, a product leader is responsible for the software that goes into a market-facing product, not IT.

We are adopting the same path at Cargill. IT supports everything product engineers need to do their work, but the engineers that developed iQuatic sit in our animal health and nutrition business. This is how Cargill will evolve: IT will continue to operate the digital labs where the product engineers work, but the engineering will happen in our digital businesses.

If you were going to hire your successor, what are the leadership skills you would look for?

Honesty, integrity, and humility come first. I would also look for a curious person who asks more than they tell. I was not an expert on computer vision and cyber security when I took this job, but I relentlessly put myself in situations where I could learn.

Early in my career at Cargill, I had a mentor who would ask me, “What have you learned since the last time we were together?” I thought answering the question would be easy, but as the meeting approached, I realized that it wasn’t. I had to actively hold myself accountable for thoughtful, purposeful learning and be able to articulate that learning, especially because my mentor, who was CEO of the company, was really good at it. He’s been using this method for some time, and it has had such a big impact on me that I’ve adopted it for my own team.

The second is a coaching mentality. What kind of coach are you? Do you run up and down the sidelines and yell all the time? What kind of culture do you create on your team? Do you create a safe space for risk-taking? Can you elevate the team or do you need to be a hero?  When I was younger, I was a rower, and in rowing you learn that there are no stars in the boat; you can only go as fast as the slowest person.

And the third is storytelling, which is extremely important when you are the bridge for your business partners between technology and what is possible. Storytelling might not be as important a few layers down in an implementation team, but in the last five years, it has emerged as a capability that I really want in executive IT leadership.

What advice do you have for tomorrow’s CIOs?

Tomorrow’s CIOs should get themselves into some complicated situations and study what type of leader they want to be. They should be inquisitive and read about great leaders and decide which attributes to emulate, and also look for examples of great leadership in their own lives. And they should take notes. I’m a big believer in logging your thoughts about your career and reviewing those notes once in a while to reflect on how you are evolving as a leader. Tomorrow’s CIOs should actively manage their careers and not wait for challenges to come to them.