How to Successfully Bring a Silicon Valley Approach to an Established Manufacturing Enterprise

By Mahbubul Alam, CTO/CMO, Movimento Group

Mahbubul Alam CMO-CTO - Movimento

Change can be a huge challenge for long-established industries seeking new markets or customers, higher profits and a future growth path.  Embedded cultures and ingrained processes often resist metamorphosis, stymieing the best intentions of senior executives charged with driving transformation. In some minds, the auto industry is the poster child for old-school thinking, despite the fact that modern technology is quickly being added to today’s car.

Bringing the tech-oriented, fast-moving Silicon Valley approach to what some view as the staid automotive realm was the ambitious goal of Movimento Group prior to my joining the company as Chief Technology Officer (CTO), fresh from many years in the tech industry. I wouldn’t have considered such a task had senior management not already been committed to merging these two industries — Detroit and Silicon Valley.  Nonetheless, the undertaking was still formidable.  A phrase that has guided my thinking over the years is “Timing is Key”  – I knew it was the right time to push forward on my vision for Movimento.

Movimento’s business had been focused on “reflashing” the software in modern cars, which means updating or reinstalling this code. The target when I arrived was nothing less than to use new software and networking technology to redefine what a “car” is, turning it into a personalized, efficient, software-defined machine that became an extension of today’s technology-defined lifestyles.

It was clear from the outset that the traditional CTO role — representing the company at events, giving internal lectures and the like — was not what was needed here. Rather, what was required was a total transformation, getting the timing right and driving change. New tools to automate, improve productivity and transparency, as well as revising the previous mindset of the staff and timing these transformations to support the new vision were the essence of what I needed to achieve.  Early on, I added the role of Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) to my CTO duties because understanding the industry, technologies and customers was so critical for defining and implementing change.

Transforming the vision in an engineering-focused organization like Movimento wasn’t easy but the most difficult task I had was changing peoples’ mindset. Many members of the staff had been doing things the same way for a long time, reflecting the linear thinking that is more commonly found in Detroit.  There isn’t the sense building a large organizational empire that permeates Silicon Valley but rather a methodical, lean organizational hierarchy and more leisurely environment in which innovation, differentiation, rapid prototyping, agile development, failing quickly/cheaply, building great products, are part of key performance index and what the competition is up to doesn’t greatly impact internal processes.

One of the ways I changed that was through tools that gave me visibility such as Trello, HipChat, FredCamp, Asana, Jira, Confluence, Bitbucket, Evernote, Bamboo, Hangouts, MailChimp, XMind, SimpleMind+, Smartsheet, Google Drive, etc. Silicon Valley believes in tools!  Putting in place modern tools for communications, tracking, monitoring and evaluating was essential for our global operation. It kept me in touch with all the sites, with every individual, so they know I’m aware of what they’re doing and that their work is visible.

Using tools to accelerate and improve processes was a big change I effected. Once a successful process is defined and proven, it should be reused the next time. At first, we had a steep learning curve and not everyone got it, but for those who weren’t bought in, I didn’t waste time bringing them on board because there were higher-level objectives that needed to be achieved.  As the authority, a leader shouldn’t worry about making everybody love you but rather work with those who believe in your vision and recruit anyone else you need.

It takes awhile to change the prevailing mindset but once it transitions, there’s often a ripple effect. Some will buy into the vision totally and some will embrace just part of the concept but at least they’re going in the right direction.  An effective approach is to address challenges one or two at a time — major ones, that is — and continue to prove that your vision is correct.  And validation is important, which for our industry is supplied by customers, from media comments and what industry colleagues are saying.

Internal tools were critical but so were adopting the right new technologies. We weren’t limited to technologies commonly found in the auto industry but rather, we examined what was successful in other industries and selected what would best help us achieve our long-term product goals.  This included technologies not always familiar to the staff, such as cloud computing, virtualization, open source, advanced mobile/wireless networking, cybersecurity, Big Data and Internet of Things.  These have become the foundation of the connected, software-defined car that will represent personal transportation in the years ahead.

The auto industry certainly has a legacy, culture and processes that were successful in the past but one of my goals was to demonstrate how times have changed and how important it is to understand and track these changes, like the attitudes of millennials, emerging consumption models and the consumerization of electronics.  Cisco Executive Chairman John Chambers said recently that in five years, a lot of the large industries will not be relevant; they’re just going to disappear.  Blending Silicon Valley with Detroit at Movimento is helping not become one of the casualties instead an example for the industry how to successfully transform legacy offerings into digital services.