Bill Ford Isn’t Scared of Apple
Steven Levy

This is a great read. Let me my share my view on some of this.

As a bit of background, I worked in Ford Research for 10 years before leaving in 2005 to, ultimately, start a company that builds web applications for engineering. I worked on several innovative efforts within Ford including the Ford Hybrid Escape which was rightfully mentioned as a big accomplishment for both Ford Motor Company and Bill Ford personally.

Ford is a great company and I still have many friends who work there. I also think Bill Ford is a great, forward looking guy. BUT, Bill Ford and Mark Fields are not the people who will execute this vision. When I worked at Ford, we would refer to some people as R.I.P. — retired in place. While the majority of Ford people are really great, those who are R.I.P. are the major anchors that hold Ford, automotive companies, and engineering in general back because some of these people are on the critical path. This is the true cost of having 197,000 employees…you are constrained by the lowest common denominator.

That being said, the Ford Hybrid Escape was a fantastic and innovative program. I credit almost all of that to the relatively small team that worked on it. They were smart, motivated and aligned. That is hard to come by in a large organization. I suspect Bill Ford and Mark Fields are taking that into account and I think it is essential for the efforts he talks about to succeed. But it is also hard to achieve at scale.

What I see as the biggest hurdle is corporate culture. You can argue that Silicon Valley is equally insular (probably true), but they have a different mindset. They are in tune with technology in a way I have not seen in engineering organizations and they are far less scared to take risks. My experience as an engineer is that engineering organizations are so risk averse that they are either unwilling or incapable of really embracing the kinds of dramatic change (both in their business and their infrastructure) to reap the true value of technology. As a result, car companies are saddled with monolithic data management and collaboration systems that are far inferior to what is possible with modern technology. They are further constrained by IT organizations that are more driven more by financial and litigious concerns than by the use cases of engineers. The upstarts like Tesla and Apple may succeed where Ford fails because their vision is to be technology companies that happen to do engineering. This makes a huge difference in how you view risk.

Getting people in the organization to embrace risk a failure is going to be difficult. I’m sure most Ford employees (at least in Michigan) were around only a decade or so ago when, after annual performance reviews, employees were force ranked and the lowest ranking people fired. Someone with that kind of conditioning is going to be justifiably hesitant about participating in Bill Ford’s “failing faster” approach (which, to be clear, I commend).

But let me be clear…Ford is full of extremely smart people from top to bottom and I wish them all the luck in the world (especially since my company focuses on applying high tech solutions to engineering problems). Having somebody at the top of the company driving this change is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for success here and I hope they can achieve their goals here.

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