How a Three-Minute Interview and Flight 155 Became Pivotal Career Moments

- Dieter Mulitze

I am often asked how I ended up starting a software company for plant breeding. Honestly, it was never my plan even for a second, and looking back I can identify the critical moments. When we do such reflection, we can be surprised by what we see, and better still, learn to identify such pivotal moments or events for our future. Here’s my story, even if it seems somewhat unbelievable.

I grew up on a dairy farm in eastern Ontario, so “agriculture was in my DNA.” My university career started at the University of Waterloo in mathematics and computer science, but a year later I switched to the University of Guelph into Crop Science. Back to my roots, you might say. After my second year I again needed a summer job and decided to visit the professors in Crop Science to see if there were any summer positions.

Three Minutes with Professor Hunt

I happened to visit Professor Tony Hunt in his office. I told him I had studied math and computer science at the University of Waterloo and was now in his Crop Science program. He asked if I could possibly write a system on the IBM Mainframe (no PCs in the 1970s!) to handle his winter wheat breeding program. I said “Yes,” not fully knowing what was involved. He immediately hired me for the summer.

The entire “interview” was less than three minutes, but it landed me a summer job for a few years and one-year fulltime to develop what was published internally in 1978 as “The Wheat Data Base System” – perhaps one of the first such systems ever developed. Those were the days of keypunch machines and boxes of keypunch cards all read by a card reader. It was cutting edge at the time, but now I think of it as “Neanderthal computing.”

After a two-year career detour, I was again thinking of a job in computers and agriculture. I decided to write to the agriculture faculties in Canada to inquire if there was a job in programming in any of their departments. I received several rejection letters, except from the University of Saskatchewan, Crop Science Dept. that offered me sight unseen a job as a programmer to develop a plant breeding software system for all the crops in the department. I just had to phone and accept the job, which I gladly did, and we moved to Saskatoon. Saskatchewan.

The job was great. At the end of the summer, I was asked to consider a Ph.D. program with basically a guaranteed scholarship while I worked part-time as the departmental programmer on miniframe computers. I had a computer terminal and no more keypunch cards! A Ph.D. was not “on my grid,” but I accepted and ended up pioneering computer simulation in quantitative genetics as part of my research. A postdoc position led me to a research center in Aleppo, Syria, in the early 1980s. It has been surreal to watch the news about the conflict in Syria and see bombed out places in Aleppo and Damascus where I used to visit with shopkeepers or enjoy the cafes.

The next four years took me to Morocco as a cereal breeder while on faculty with the University of Nebraska. I was hoping to move back to Canada with my family, but no jobs were open in Canadian universities or with Agriculture Canada.

Flight 155 Pivotal Moment

The next critical moment soon arrived in the fall of 1988. I boarded Eastern Airlines flight 155 from Montreal to Atlanta, Georgia, on my way to the American Society of Agronomy meeting. The flight was only one-third full, yet there was a passenger sitting next to me. To my surprise he was going to the same meeting. Not only that, but he arrived so early at the airport that he was put on the 155 flight and not the next one that he was booked on! He was a professor from the University of Manitoba. After several hours of discussion on the flight, he strongly urged me to start a software company to develop plant breeding software.

I had never entertained the idea as I had set my sights on academia or government research. But the idea stuck with me. Upon moving back to Canada in 1990 during a recession and the looming Gulf War, I started Agronomix Software from an office in my house. Apparently, 80 percent of startup companies go bankrupt within five years. I’m glad I didn’t learn about that until I had been in business for 15 years.

So, as you can see from my story, the “three-minute interview” with Professor Hunt was a most pivotal moment that started a chain of events, but of course, I had absolutely no idea at the time. Flight 155 was far more than just getting to Atlanta. What about your story, your career? Can you identify the critical moments? Take a few moments to reflect, you might be surprised by what comes to mind.