Ford Built America’s First Tech Hub and Kept on Innovating

CIO Marcy Klevorn has always been inspired by her family's past; now she's using that inspiration to pave Ford's future.

Marcy Klevorn took the role of chief information officer for Ford Motor Company at the beginning of 2015, but she had been building decades of knowledge and experience long beforehand. In fact, you might say it’s in her blood. “Both my great-grandfather and my grandfather on my mother’s side worked here at Ford,” she says. In addition, her father invented the world’s first adjustable shock absorber. “While all the other families were going to amusement parks and riding on rides, we would be watching how the hydraulics and shock absorbers on those rides worked.” That family legacy, combined with more than thirty years working for the historic company prior to becoming CIO, prepared Klevorn to take on the many challenges of the rapidly evolving automotive industry.

With the rise of connected vehicles, autonomous cars, and other technological advances that may be more obvious to casual consumers, Ford’s innovative spirit has once again become the subject of conversation. But dating back to the Ford Model T, the company has in fact always been a paragon of forward thinking. “One hundred and thirteen years ago, Henry Ford changed the way the world moved,” Klevorn says. “Today we are doing that again.” To that end, Klevorn and her team are embracing the shift to what many are calling the “mobility industry.”

But Klevorn’s entry into the technology field came as somewhat a surprise. She was enrolled in computer science classes as part of a program at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, learning to code using COBOL on punch cards. She found these classes interesting, and took the first opportunity she could to work in the field of technology and explore the potential of solving business problems with innovation, rather than marketing. After working with AT&T on the Ford account, the auto mainstay invited her to join its team. “I expected it to be a five-year situation, but because I found so many opportunities to learn and grow, I ended up staying,” she says. That decision led to a long, rewarding career with Ford and many opportunities to collaborate and learn.

Moving between various roles and departments in the company, including the high-profile position as CIO for Ford of Europe, offered Klevorn a range of experience, connections, and knowledge needed to make the necessary changes. She could lead the way in a rapidly changing field without losing the core of Ford’s more traditional business—designing, building, and selling cars. In order to do so, Klevorn leads a function of about 11,000 people, fueling the team to follow Ford’s forward-thinking plans as it expands its business to be both an auto and mobility company.

In her thirty-two years with Ford, she has made sure to focus both on her technical and business acumens, compounding the two toward a powerful leadership vision. As IT becomes more integrated into every part of the business and the pace of disruption grows, that leadership is essential. “Sometimes my team has the luxury of seeing things that others can’t see because we’re working across all of the functions, rather than within the functions,” she notes.

One vital piece of that innovation is FordPass , a mobility platform that helps customers with everything from finding parking to accessing information about one’s vehicle from anywhere securely. What’s more, FordPass offers these tools even to those who don’t own a Ford vehicle. “I have a son who is in his late twenties who lives in New York City and doesn’t own a vehicle—despite both his parents working for Ford,” Klevorn laughs. She then describes how he could, throughout his day, use FordPass to access mobility solutions, pay for FordPass services, contact FordGuides who can help with transportation, and visit FordHubs to experience the company’s innovations.

While FordPass allows the company to help improve the lives of individuals that may not have otherwise been customers, those who already own vehicles can use the app with their connected vehicle, an effort that Ford has been dedicated to for years. Even more importantly, Klevorn emphasizes that their SYNC technology was launched in the Focus model. “Traditionally, companies would use technology like this in the more high-end or luxury vehicles,” Klevorn says. “I really loved Ford’s approach to democratizing that kind of technology.” In fact, they’re further connecting their vehicles, allowing people to use this technology throughout their work, home, and vehicle by working to integrate SYNC Connect with Amazon’s voice-activated AI, Alexa. “No matter where you go, you’ll feel like you have your full capability at all times,” she adds.

To focus on the future without losing track of their core business, Klevorn compares Ford to a fusion of a tech startup and a legacy company. The company continues to build vehicles that people love to drive, but ensure they’re pairing that with other emerging and projected business opportunities.

A focal point of Ford’s vision is improving lives, and Klevorn is quick to remind that employees are people too and that a big part of her job is making sure that Ford employees have all the technology they need to be their most productive selves. To do so, she and her team are beginning to open tech lounges in their offices, the first of which opened in their Dearborn, Michigan, world headquarters. Similar to an Apple Store, IT employees (“purple shirts,” as they’re known colloquially) are posted at the tech lounges, ready to assist any Ford employee. “Anyone can come in, bring their broken technology or any questions they have, and view new technology that’s on display and interact with it,” Klevorn says. IT employees have been so thrilled by the opportunity to help and teach that they’ve gone as far as to use social tools such as Pokémon GO to get people to come to the lounge and interact.

But her tech encouragement for employees doesn’t end with pocket monsters. Klevorn and the communications team produced a “Marcy Emoji” to use with weekly newsletters she sends out called A Minute With Marcy. “I was trying to think of ways that we could make the large team feel small, so that anybody would feel comfortable talking to anybody, asking questions, challenging the status quo,” she says. The emoji and transparent descriptions of her work allow the team a clear understanding of what a CIO does, what projects she’s working on, and opens up more opportunities for dialogue. “If you’ve got a minute, I’ve got some information to share,” she explains.

That collaborative spirit also informs Klevorn’s leadership style. She encourages each of her teammates and sees the best in everyone she works with—an important factor considering the potential stresses of the fast-paced industry. In addition to her fellow Ford employees, Klevorn spends time encouraging women to get involved in technology. “You can’t escape it, so you might as well just embrace it,” she says. Klevorn works with the Michigan Counsel of Women in Technology (MCWT) to put together philanthropic efforts to that end. The MCWT aims to stimulate children’s interest in technology through projects like robotics competitions in underprivileged schools and technology summer camps for girls. Klevorn also makes sure to get involved in campus visits, putting together diverse groups to show that anyone can follow a passion in technology. “To make a difference in the long run, you have to go younger and younger to build that confidence and that awareness,” she says. Whether it’s mentoring the next generation of tech innovators or looking to the integration of AI into consumer vehicles, Klevorn keeps an eye to the future and feels the inspiration of the past.