Over a Century After Its First Sale, Ford is Still Ahead of the Times

For over 120 years, Ford has been a symbol of American ingenuity and manufacturing prowess in the automotive industry. Today, as traditional, mechanical vehicles give way to software-intensive systems, Ford is leveraging its resources to navigate this seismic shift across the automotive industry.

 “Gone are the days when businesses could operate under restrictive and singular processes. In today’s world, you need to adopt an agile and flexible approach that highlights the needs of the customer,” suggests a recent Forbes analysis of industry trends. 

In this new frontier, with roads paved by invisible signals, demarcated by lines of code, Ford has strategically reimagined its business by establishing teams with particular software-centric focuses. Ford Pro is one such team overseeing commercial and fleet vehicles. But within Ford Pro is the technology team, including hundreds of the world’s best software developers with the sole aim of enabling Ford to outpace the competition. 

Managing this mission is Scott Erkkila, Ford Pro’s Head of Software Engineering.

“We have tons of customer input that we need to act on and we know we need to be quick. These iterative user feedback driven, rapid, high frequency deployment models are very useful to us. We need to be able to pivot based on what our users are saying and what the business is saying,” says Erkkila. 

He’s referring specifically to his adoption of the extreme programming methodology, which over a hundred software teams are using at Ford Pro. 

Created by Kent Beck, one of the original signatories of the Agile Manifesto, extreme programming dials up  the intensity on software engineering best practices “to 11” (as Scott puts it), with a focus on continuous feedback and collaboration, advocating for quick releases in short development cycles.

For a deeper dive into all things extreme programming and Ford, check out this episode of The Better Build podcast.

Let’s take a look at key landmarks on the roadmap of how Ford, a legacy company, worked its way up to being on the cutting edge of development practices.

Ford’s Big Investment in a Software-Centered Future

Ford’s most recent commitment to staying in lockstep with the evolution of automotive tech came in 2018. During the same week as its 115th anniversary, Ford announced

it would commit $950 million to convert the historic Michigan Central Station into a 30-acre hub for mobility innovation. The company was motivated just as much by the desire to revive the communities of Detroit, the historical home of the automotive industry, as by enhancing the tech behind their vehicles. 

“This will be the first tangible evidence that that vision is coming to life,” said Bill Ford, executive chair of Ford.

Completed in the summer of 2023 and soon to open its doors, this campus is poised to leverage the best of techno-mobility talent. This investment and segmentation strategy intertwine as the company partners with tech giant Google to enhance Ford’s software prowess and pave the way for a new generation of developers and software engineers. As the automotive industry pivots towards a software-driven future, Ford’s investment showed a bold decision to evolve along the path their industry, and industries across the board, were headed. And that was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic pushing the world into even greater reliance on remote technologies, both personally and professionally.

Embracing Software Agility in the New Automotive Landscape

With the Michigan Central overhaul, the brick and mortar, so to speak, was laid for Ford to continue building their software-centric future. What Ford needed was a methodology that would allow them to build with velocity, and it wouldn’t necessarily parallel the method used to build their vehicles. 

As Erkkila reflects, “Devotion to quality is really ingrained in Ford culture. These extreme programming practices work so well because they challenge Ford a little bit. Like, ‘Hey, we shouldn’t build software the same way we build cars.’”

However, Erkkila is not dogmatic about the approach. “Here’s what I believe,” he tells us, “I think you can build high performing software development teams that don’t use extreme programming. Or use only just a subset of those methodologies. I think you can also build high performing software engineering teams practicing extreme programming.” This open-minded approach indicates Ford’s flexibility in utilizing different methodologies for different projects, showing the company’s adaptability in the rapidly changing automotive landscape.

A Method to Meet Rapidly Evolving Consumer Demands

As challenging as the method may have at first seemed, it suited the demands and expectations of contemporary consumers, the expectations of which are evolving at an equally rapid pace. Consumers today anticipate seamless digital experiences, advanced safety features, eco-friendly electric powertrains, and even autonomous driving capabilities in their vehicles. 

In response to these multifaceted challenges, Ford is not merely adapting but transforming its approach to vehicle production. The company is adopting new software engineering methodologies and technological frameworks, such as extreme programming, demonstrating an understanding that the future of mobility is as much about code as it is about combustion engines. “Transformation requires risk—and failure. Legacy companies are faced with the tremendous challenge of transforming their cultures into an environment that not only embraces risk but accepts and learns from failure,” industry experts note in the Forbes analysis. 

However, despite the hurdles, Ford is successfully navigating this digital transformation, with extreme programming as its guiding principle.

“With the right mindset and a willingness to fail fast, I believe every legacy business can achieve its goal of becoming a customer-centric, data-driven and high-performance organization,” states John Ganem, CEO of Kloeckner Metals Corporation.

As the industry continues to evolve, Ford’s commitment to software innovation underscores the company’s ability to adapt and thrive, continuing its legacy of pushing automotive technology into the future.

Conclusion: Powering Forward in a Software-Driven World

As we witness Ford’s evolution, it’s clear that the company is not just adapting to change; it’s actively shaping its future in line with a fast-evolving, software-centric automotive landscape.

“One of the biggest mistakes a company can make is to accept the status quo. Even after the shift, leaders need to continue challenging processes and trying to do better,” says an industry expert.

Ford’s digital transformation journey, marked by the adoption of agile methodologies and a software-first approach, shows a 120-year-old culture of boldly charting new territories, embracing change just as readily as it has embodied tradition throughout its storied history.

Ford’s journey reflects a broader narrative unfolding across industries worldwide: the rise of software as a core, strategic asset, with legacy companies surprisingly leading the initiative. As this narrative continues to evolve, companies like Ford are not only contributing to its shape but are also emerging as key protagonists in this unfolding story. The road ahead promises to be one of continual innovation and adaptation, and Ford, thanks to Erkkila and his team, is one of the best equipped to navigate it successfully.