The squatty, narrow orange Renault 12 car slows to stop. It is a Saturday afternoon, and a boy and his mother are running errands. All seems as it should be in Colombia, South America. And, most likely, it would be if this story were taking place in 2018 instead of 30 years earlier, at the height of the Cali-Medellin drug cartel wars.
Julian Sanchez, age 10, gets out of the car and pauses. He turns to his mother, Amparo, unsure which building in the strip mall they are going to. Is it the supermarket or Drogas La Rabaja, the recognizable drug store chain with the red and orange striped sign?
Colombia’s drug war had many fuses helping ignite the bloodshed that erupted in 1988.
Tensions were escalated by way of intimidation, murder, and domestic terrorism. The drug stores were owned by Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, the leader of the Cali cartel – and the Medellin cartel liked blowing them up.
“When I asked where we were going she said, ‘I’ve wanted to talk to you about this. You are not, under any circumstances, allowed to go into those stores,’” Sanchez said, referencing La Rabaja. “’You make sure your uncles know and your friends know. Do not go into those stores. Ever.’”
The message was not framed in urgency or accompanied by a piercing stare. “There was none of that,” Sanchez said. “This was just another thing in the list of things that moms tell their kids they can’t do.”
Bombs, gunfire, and assassinations were the anthem of Sanchez’s youth. Yet, this day, this conversation, was part of a childhood he would label as “normal.”
“I still remember hearing the shots that killed the defense minister a few blocks from my house,” Sanchez said. “Eventually, it just wasn’t safe to live there.”
Moving to Safety
“Eventually” came sooner rather than later, and in 1989 Sanchez’s parents moved the family 1,600 miles to an aunt’s home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 11 and ready to enter the sixth grade.
Now safe, the family had a more pressing challenge – the English language. His father, Marco, a software developer, spoke minimal English. His mother, an attorney in Colombia, spoke none. School had already started and now Sanchez had to play catch-up. “I was dropped off on my first day and it was like ‘good luck!’” he said.
Sanchez walked into his classroom with a backpack full of empty notebooks. He was shown a desk and took a seat. When the bell rang his classmates stood. Confusion set in, as did “a ton of stress,” he said.
“Everyone is now up and they have their hand over their heart and they start saying something,” Sanchez recalled, almost as anxious now as he was then. “I’m like ‘what are they doing?’ Then it happened the next day and the next day and the next.”
After a few days, Sanchez decided to play along. He mouthed the words, or what he guessed the words to be. It didn’t take long for his teacher to notice and eventually write out the Pledge of Allegiance on notecards for the new student to take home and study.
He would no sooner get back in his seat when the lunch lady would appear. More stress.
“So, after the Pledge of Allegiance, which already stressed me out, some random lady would come in and say a bunch of things and different kids would raise their hands. For weeks I studied this and tried to pick up patterns. OK, so on Mondays these two girls over there seem to raise their hands when she says these sounds,” Sanchez said. “Finally, I learned enough to know she was talking about food. I eventually learned that the girl next to me, when certain words were used, was getting three chicken nuggets. I liked chicken nuggets so when I heard those words and saw her hand go I up, I raised my hand, too.”
As a child, solving problems was his motivator. Through it all, his challenges returned him home – to the insulating strength of family.
“My parents were my best friends,” he said. “They had done so much for me, given up so much.”
A Unique Personality
This rough start could have gone one of two ways – adapt or don’t.
“I think those years are what made me kind of an innovative person,” he said. “I mean, you put yourself in this mindset of ‘OK, I have to figure this out. I have no choice.’ In the end, it was all positive.”
All positive? That attitude defines Julian Sanchez. Everything is an adventure wrapped in a let’s-see-where-this-leads approach. First impressions were created for a person like him, and when you meet him, they quickly take root.
Most likely he is dressed in a combination of clothes that makes you wonder “are neon blue pants a thing?” He admits to wearing sneakers into meetings that he shouldn’t. Or buying 15 dinosaur T-shirts and wearing one every day for weeks. “Some of that is intentional,” he said. “It’s meant to show people that it’s OK to dress different and be different as long as you’re still bringing your ‘A’ game. It’s not about what kind of shoes we wear.”
As Sanchez speaks, you’ll form conclusions. Here’s a man, you’ll tell yourself, that doesn’t have a care in the world. And, you’d be right. “My upbringing has allowed me to live very risk-free.”
He shares that he’s not concerned about getting fired. At first the proclamation seems odd. No one’s talking about getting fired. Then he follows it up with a story about launching some of the first John Deere mobile applications “without all of the typical approvals and consensus that is customary for this type of thing.”
“It’s not about defying rules for the sake of it. Innovation often requires that individuals take risks,” Sanchez explained, putting the philosophy in context. “In this case, the risk was not seeking consensus. So, once the apps launched, I started getting phone calls from people who I didn’t even know existed … and, plenty of phone calls from people who I did know, and they were the boss of a boss. It crossed my mind that I may not have a job by the end of the week, but that’s a feeling you have to get comfortable with when you take risks. Deere couldn’t afford to wait any longer to launch its first customer-facing apps, and when you are doing something that helps our customers, it’s always worth it.”
He moves in and out of topics with relative ease, occasionally letting you in on what’s spinning the gears inside his head. “I just bought a unicycle,” he blurts out and then he transitions to tacos. Sure, why wouldn’t he?
Three years ago, he made a New Year’s resolution to eat as many tacos as he could. For most, the focus would be on the sheer quantity of the challenge. Of course, there was that. He did eat 733. But, for Sanchez, it was about finding the places that served the tacos that motivated him.
“So, what does that mean?” he asks. This is another Sanchez trait. He likes to ask questions he anticipates you’ll want the answers to … and then he answers them. “It means that every city I travel to I’m going to make it a point to find tacos. The journey took me to places I would otherwise never go to.”
An Intuitive Career
It seems fitting that Sanchez became an expert in User Experience, or User X. Simply defined, User X refers to the experience a human has with anything. “When I say anything,” Sanchez clarified, “I mean it could be a computer, a system, the world, a phone conversation.” He said consumers often feel “stupid” because they don’t know how to operate their new television. Sanchez said in a UserX approach it’s not the consumer who’s “stupid,” it’s the TV.
“You have to know how anything you make will be accessed and interpreted,” he said.
Although the actual term is just 10 years old, the practice and science of UserX came as early as the Industrial Revolution when engineers studied the appropriate size and weight of shovels to maximize worker productivity.
“The last 20 years there has been a realization that as technology gets more complex the experiences with those technologies matter more and more and more,” he said.
John Deere’s growth as a technology company is what first attracted Sanchez. “Much had already been done in aviation and medicine (other fields he worked in),” he said. “Where the real growth showed was in manufacturing and in a company like John Deere.”
Sanchez has had his hand in mobile applications, intelligent solutions, and technology strategy.
“What I’m most skilled at is observing humans – farmers – using something and being able to interpret what I’m seeing and where they’re struggling, and then coming up with an idea. That’s the sweet sauce of innovation,” he said.
When asked about the significance of the Fellow Award, Sanchez folds the honor into a discussion about the future of User X.
“Being recognized made me very uncomfortable,” he said. “I’m proud of it, but I just look at some of the other people that have won it and I go ‘Oh, gosh, I’m next to these folks?’ The part that ends up being super cool is helping Deere evolve.”
He pauses, making a connection between what the Fellow Award can bring a personality like his.
“Making this journey is exciting because what I do know is we have to change. Somebody asked me if I was going to start behaving now.”
Sanchez smiles and leans back in his chair. He rubs his face at the thought of the question … and the possibilities.
“The award gave me the motivation to double-down on ideas and the transformation I’d like to see the company continue to make. So, I told them I feel like I can misbehave even more!”