Brookings couple develops globally recognized software for agricultural research

Farm Forum

Software that sorts and manipulates essential data from experiments in agriculture around the world started with one computer in a home office in Brookings. The passion of the couple that started the company behind the software is evident in the exemplary service they provide for their customers.

“Our program has evolved from DOS to Windows and the name from Herbicide Research Manager, Pesticide Research Manager, and Agriculture Research Manager to what is now called ARM software,” Fran Gylling said.

ARM fits a niche market with thousands of clients in 75 countries and nearly 1,000 institutions.

As computers have changed through the years, the company known as GDM has evolved from data entry to being a provider of essential services in a global market. Serving agriculture in a behind-the-scenes way, the company started in Brookings in 1982 when Steve Gylling married Fran Overby at Brentford.

Little did the couple realize that their software development goal, to improve and support smooth communication of research information between clients, would become a lifetime career.

In 1985 Steve was employed as the first Extension Computer Specialist in S.D. This job provided valuable experience as he launched a state Extension service computerization project that placed 140 computers in county and state extension offices throughout South Dakota, continuing through 1989.

The couple started their company with what is now considered a dinosaur in the computer world — a Radio Shack TRS 80 Model 3 personal computer. They began by creating the first version of the ARM software for managing agricultural research experiments. The program was used to ensure that herbicide research plots were applied accurately and that data from those plots was handled efficiently.

At first, the work provided Fran with a part-time job while Steve finished graduate school. The dream was to be successful enough to purchase a computer, printer and a new vehicle. If possible, it would provide enough for a down payment on a house for the couple.

Watching expenses closely was important to the couple. At the time, even purchasing a case of 12 black binders for the user manuals, was a risk. With their limited experience, they wondered if they would ever sell that many programs.

“We learned the lesson that being self-employed means you only need to work part time and can choose which 12 hours to work each day,” Fran said.

After the North Central Weed Society meeting in late 1982, the couple needed to upgrade their computers to provide a marketable system.

“With uncertainty, we purchased our most expensive personal computer ever which was the original IBM PC with DOS 1.1,” Fran said. “It had two single-sided disk drives. It was like buying a car, filling out the order form at the store and the computer techs came to our home to set up the computer.” Countless computers have followed through the years.

When shipping out user manuals, delivery was a challenge. In 1982 there was no express delivery offered, so the couple would call the Brookings airport to see if the plane was going to land and have enough weight available to pick up a 5-pound box.

“Our user manuals were ‘duplicated’ on our printer because there were no quick print stores,” Fran said. “The closest customs office was Minneapolis, so we needed long layovers there when we were carrying our display exhibit to other countries.”

Before personal computers, companies and universities developed their own research programs on mainframe computers to handle and analyze data. Realizing that need, Steve left SDSU in 1989 to work full time at their company, Gylling Data Management, now GDM.

As many people did not own computers, the first summer, data entry services were offered to provide data collection and prepare final reports. By the next year there were more and more people interested in purchasing their own computers. Along with this came a demand for people to understand the new technology. The job then switched to support for those using the software plus those learning how to take care of computers. There were magazines and books on computer programming; however, very limited information was available for the end user.

The Gyllings say that 32 years later, many researchers describe the software as the global industry standard for agricultural research field trial software. Some say it is the foundation of their work, providing income to their company and saving them time while working with their experiments.

ARM was designed as an economical tool to help researchers create, document, analyze, and report their research data. The software allows researchers within an organization and in different organizations to easily share study plans and results while improving and supporting smooth communication of trial information between all clients.

“Every day is different,” Fran said. “My passion is getting things done right. If I do my job well, people won’t have to call me. We are a valuable part of the research and when customers call us, a real person answers the phone and handles the problem.”

Steve and Fran have never met many of their customers. Most business contacts are made at conferences around the world, followed by phone calls and email.

The software is used by the majority of crop protection and seed companies as the common platform to allow rapid and accurate exchange and summarization of critical data. It is this universal adaptation for clients in food production — university, government, private researchers or larger manufacturers — that has had the greatest impact on agriculture. This portability enables rapid transfer of experiment data from field trials to the different “consumers” of this data such as company product managers, public information providers or registration authorities.

A national Uniform Field Data Reporting work group was the first successful effort of the major crop protection companies to standardize data handling. ARM was the first software to export and import using the “Electronic Data Exchange” format defined by the National Agricultural Chemicals Association (NACA) in the 1980s. ARM was also the first to adopt “Standardized Agricultural Research Terminology” proposed by the same group for describing research trials. Together these two technologies allow easy data transfer between different languages and experiment management software.

The couple notes that their client base is 40% North America; 40% Europe and 20% in Asia Pacific, Central America, South America and Africa. The software is used on every continent except Antarctica, and it has been translated into 11 languages (Chinese, US English, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, International English, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese).

The company’s goal is to improve the software program and written documentation to be adaptable, user friendly and simpler to use with each new request for features. Clients continually comment that GDM has the best customer support, which includes a trustworthy commitment to clients, according to the Gyllings.

GDM has been involved with writing thousands of pages of software documentation and training materials that have been published by GDM.

“We have five very talented GDM employees at our Brookings office,” Fran said. “The challenges of a global company are that we are always one day behind responding to emails, and everyone responds during their workday. The immediate feedback from global clients during software development stages was useful because they would receive changes to test, and we received their response before our next day began.”

Six International GDM representatives provide training and support in local languages.

While the company focuses on service, it has been recognized within the community it assists. Steve received the Excellence in Industry Award from Weed Science Society of America in 2012.

Steve is the Chief Executive Officer, directing software development at GDM and consulting with clients on planning software features. Fran is the Chief Fiscal Officer, providing customer support, ordering and shipping. Their two daughters are Diana (married to Mike Mentink) and Krista.

Fran’s parents, Glenn and Ruth Overby of Mellette, have provided valuable support through the years by helping take care of the grandkids when the Gyllings traveled.

The family connection to agriculture continues as Steve and Fran enjoy helping with Overby Machine Shop located at Prairie Village at Madison. The Overby brothers were rural visionaries as can be seen not only at the machine shop but also through the Overby Corn Harvester and Husker and other inventions at the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum in Brookings.