Food for thought: Laurens Steffers builds Mendix apps to feed the world
In today’s maker profile, we talk with Laurens Steffers, a Mendix-certified Rapid Developer and SAP Consultant at itelligence. Laurens uses Mendix to develop apps that support the Netherlands’ food and agriculture industry. See how Laurens embraces change and looks to low-code technology to sustainably feed the world.
What’s your education and professional background? Do you have prior development experience?
I studied computer science back in 1997. That was the time Java and object-oriented programming became popular. After I graduated, I immediately went to an SAP implementation partner and became an Abap developer. I started with programming, and during those years I got to know coding languages, but because you can’t know all the details, you have to specialize in a few things. Suddenly you discover all the things that are quite equal in how they work. Knowing that, you can really say if a coding language will benefit the customer or not. That’s really cool.
That was back in 2002. In 2017, I joined the itelligence company, and there I learned even more about the functional background of food and agriculture and was able to start everything regarding innovations with SAP and SAP Leonardo, and especially Mendix of course. I have a lot of experience regarding programming languages and I’ve developed an expertise in a few of them, but you can’t know them all with full details. I don’t think I’m your typical programmer. If you look at the average programmer, you give them an assignment and they build it. In my case, if you gave me an assignment, I would first discuss everything that’s in it and maybe say that you can build or fix things using standard software or possibly change the process instead of making custom developments.
You work on applications that support the food and agriculture industry. Is that an industry you were passionate about before itelligence?
I’ve seen a lot of functional areas because I worked at different implementation partners with their specialties, and SAP has a lot of different kind of processes. I’ve done legal stuff, but also government projects–like social housing companies and production companies. But I have to say that since I joined itelligence and joined the Food & Agriculture branch there are so many things we can improve using technology. For example, we can use technology to help farmers improve the yield that they have or improve the quality of potatoes they have. If you see that farmers aren’t doing really well, we can also support them with technology and the advice we get from combining IOT, machine learning, and rapid development tools. We can provide fast applications that they can use easily.
Our customers and users are farmers, agricultural engineers, food processing companies and food distributors. We call it “From field to fork,” making sure that food is getting from the field to your plate at home. It’s the complete food supply chain; we can supply with services using our own SAP template called it.agriculture and using platforms like Mendix for rapid development.
It’s a big industry with a lot of work still to be done worldwide. That, for me, is the reason that I really like Food & Agriculture. Helping to increase the amount of food we can produce on less agricultural soil. It’s really great to help in that part. I think it’s a great cause, not only because of the work, but also actually doing something to improve the way we live on this planet.
How were you introduced to Mendix? What was your initial reaction?
The thing I’m always doing is looking at new stuff. There are some developers who really like to do the same things all day long, and then you have developers like me who like to do a lot of new things every day.
The itelligence leadership is always looking to future business. They want to look to add value in the way we interact with our customers, how we involve them. We call that: “We Transform. Trust into value.” Low-coding can help to deliver that value. In 2018, one of our business unit managers said to me that he was in contact with a company called Mendix. He said, “You have to talk to a few people, they’re going to show you a few things about Mendix. Let me know what you think.” That was the whole assignment. I went to the meeting and, of course, we had one of the sales guys. I have to say that programmers and sales, that’s not a good combination. But I gave it a shot.
It took five minutes before I thought, ‘This is the next big thing.’
The sales people introduced themselves saying, “We would like to show you that we can do the same things as you do with your language, like SAPUI5, for the frontend development. But it’s even bigger. It’s not only frontend too, but it’s more like business development. Making sure that you can offer the correct business applications for your users in a very fast way, like 10 times faster than you do in an average programming language.”
I sat back, literally put my feet on the table, and said, “Show me what you got.” It took five minutes before I thought, “This is the next big thing.” I was really blown away by the fact that they could show me in five minutes what the benefits were of Mendix.
Mendix really makes it possible to do complicated things in a matter of minutes which would take your average SAPUI5 developers hours. I know how difficult things can be, including when you have to look for errors when something is wrong and then they showed me the way the desktop modeler works. It is suggesting things to correct, and making sure you can’t create applications that are technically incorrect. That was really cool.
I like generating the complete data model based on ODataModels. It’s like OMG, is this it? That was the moment that I went to my business unit manager said, “Okay, I’m convinced.” I think that within one or two months I was following a course with SAP regarding Mendix, and I did the rapid developers learning part, and got certified.
What have you made with Mendix? Which app or project are you most proud of?
We are currently working on different applications. They are targeted at field registrations. Some companies grow specific seeds and plants, and they want to keep track of how the plants are doing and what were the circumstances regarding the growing path. With our app, they register what they sowed into the ground, what they used for fertilization, how much water they added. And in the end, we would like to collect that information. We are providing a Mendix application to add that kind of information like how much fertilizer, water and pesticides were used. We would like to gather that information on our cloud platform. Then using machine learning and analytical services we could provide advice or just gather information for a big data analysis.
Another application we created was for our Farmbot network. The Farmbot is something that was designed in the US by a few guys who had the vision to help others grow autonomous gardens. The device is placed on a two-by-three square meter field, sows the seeds, takes care of the watering, removes weeds. It provides the gardener with information on how things in their garden are growing and he/she doesn’t have to do anything.
By 2050, there will be about seven billion people in this world. The amount of agricultural land will be reduced by 40 or 50%. Using the Farmbot principle of precision farming and sharing, creating an autonomous garden, we can make sure that in close tight spaces like cities we can grow fresh crops. We created an application for different kinds of divisions in our company. They can buy a Farmbot, install it, and hook it up to our network and share data to get insights. That way, we can see all the information about the devices and sensors.
What was most helpful in learning Mendix?
Learning on the job is always best for me. The Farmbot application was one of the first applications I built. I used the rapid developers learning path. But I did it by myself, learning on the job. I think that’s the best way to do it. Every project I do afterward is improving. We built things so there was an internal app and then one for our customer. We did it almost completely different because we really want to integrate that one with our it.agriculture SAP template we have for the Food & Agriculture business, including all the OData services. We’re really looking forward into the way what have we learned, how we can improve in the next project, how can we make sure that the things we are doing with Mendix can be reused with the SAP templates we have.
I have to say, all the Mendix academy videos are very good, really helpful. The community as well. The community behind Mendix and the way people are helping me, who are actually working at Mendix is fantastic.
Have you had any “a-ha” moments using Mendix?
I love how easy it is to generate things out of nothing. If I create an application, it’s already there and it’s already working. It’s already deployed to the Cloud Foundry environment including the integration with SAP. I’m really happy with the fact that SAP and Mendix have a Solex partnership to benefit from each other’s strengths.
Also, the fact that if we have bugs, for example, like four or five days afterward, we get a new version of the modeler and things are fixed. Ideas of the community are actually put into the new version of the modeler. How cool is that?
The difference with Mendix is that they’re actually listening to the input from their community. That’s the biggest a-ha moment for me. The fact that Mendix listens and really likes to put in the effort.
What advice would you give to other Mendix developers?
Mendix developers should share more because a lot of people out there are asking for solutions, and you see that a lot of times the same people respond to that, give the answers, and that’s fine. But sometimes people create widgets and they don’t upload them to the app store, for example. If you share more, the community gets more out of it. I’m trying the best I can to do that as well when we create our own specific widgets.
For non-Mendix developers, people always have a reason for not doing something. I had the same problem but in the end, I just did it! Just start! Explore! Try it!
How has Mendix made your life easier?
I had some specific frustrations regarding the way developers have to work within SAPUI5, because my reference point, of course, is SAP. Think about getting things into production, when something is not working, where’s it coming from, et cetera. You really see that Mendix took those frustrations away, so I can really focus on the good stuff regarding the programming bit, the direction with the customers, actually sitting next to the user, changing things on the fly, and providing a new version within two or three minutes of the things you would like to have. All integrated with the processes in SAP.
That is the best part you can have regarding programming or developing stuff. Not getting into finding out where the error is, because it was a typo or a capital letter, for example. Mendix takes all those things away. It’s not that everything is working smoothly. I don’t know everything about it yet. I’m learning something new every day. You can really focus on the interaction part and the business part and not all the actual coding and making sure your accolades are correct, for instance. That is way more fun to do, especially with the fact that you can have results within an hour. And it’s not a prototype. It’s actually something that works within an hour. How cool is that?
Describe Mendix in your own words.
It’s my new BFF: It’s brilliant, fast, and fun.
What are your other interests and hobbies?
You can always do something new and start exploring. I’m realizing my childhood dream: I am a volunteer at our local fire department in Amersfoort Noord in the Netherlands. Besides that, I also love scale modeling, gaming, movies and television series. I’m never bored.