Ford CEO hired Doug Field away from Apple in 'huge coup'

Phoebe Wall Howard
Detroit Free Press
Doug Field, named Ford chief advanced technology and embedded systems officer on September 7, 2021, is seen here working on the Ford 351 Cleveland engine in his De Tomaso Pantera.

When Ford Motor Co. announced the hiring of Doug Field, the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg and Jim Cramer, host of "Mad Money" on CNBC, called the move a "coup."

Field, 56, still had his job listed as an Apple vice president of special projects on LinkedIn even while he took questions from the media about his new role at Ford as chief of advanced technology and embedded systems officer, effective immediately.

The mechanical engineer educated at Purdue and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was returning to Detroit after a tour of duty in Silicon Valley: eight years at Apple during two stints and five years at all-electric carmaker Tesla as senior vice president of engineering. Early in his career, Field worked at Ford as a development engineer and later at Segway, which made two-wheeled personal transporters.

"I think the auto industry is in a period of profound change," Field told reporters during a call following the company's announcement. "Electrification, software and connected vehicles and autonomy are going to change everything. Too often, these new technologies are brought forward by startups and we lose some of the history in industries that have been built up over time."

He continued, "There's no company with a better history in this industry than Ford Motor Co. and, after meeting and talking to (CEO) Jim (Farley) and other leadership at Ford, I became convinced that not only was the history here but there was a deep desire to really change and embrace these technologies and sort of build the best of both worlds, where the scale and history of Ford can be combined with a completely new set of approaches in the product and in the experiences and in the connection."

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Hau Thai-Tang, Ford chief product platform and operations officer, praised Field's "game changing" ability to scale up products and move them from early adopters to early majority. 

Highlights from the media Q&A

What does this hire say about Ford's ability to attract top talent? 

  • JIM FARLEY: "This is just a monumental moment in time that, I think, we have now to really remake a 118-year-old company."

Can you speak to what your priorities are going to be in this role, and what does this say about the position of software at Ford?

  • DOUG FIELD: "The exciting part is building off of all the customers and all the different products that Ford has. It's also one of the big challenges of preparing a platform for the future."
  • FARLEY: "If you look at what happened in the mid-2000s with mobile devices, and the winners and losers that played out, those that invested in superior embedded systems — sensors and onboard computers — really changed the phone from a device to make a call, just like a car was a device to make a trip, something much more. The entire customer experience of the future goes to the embedded system. That is the center of the transformation of Ford. ... Having someone like Doug who's done it is unbelievably valuable."

Can you speak to a recurrent revenue stream for the industry, and updating like Apple does and how that would apply to Ford?

  • FARLEY: "The first inning of kind of software as a revenue source for Ford is really Ford Pro, where we vertically integrate the services and offer customers energy management charging services, telematics fleet management services. I would also ask that we think about maybe the cost side of the business side too. We've seen over $40 million of good news on quality issues that we solved over the air with F-150 already."
  • FIELD: "In the mobile device arena when you first purchase hardware, it's not the end of the relationship. It's actually the beginning. Over time, new operating systems are installed, new applications are discovered, new ways of integrating it into your life so that it reminds you to wish your wife happy anniversary as you drive up the driveway. All of those things that we've come to expect from our mobile devices in our life, the automobile can become a part of that same system, that same ecosystem ... It really has to be part of life in that way."

How much can you talk about your work at Apple? Did you sign a non-disclosure agreement? 

  • FIELD: "Apple doesn't talk about new products and I'm not going to talk about my work at Apple either. But there's nothing that prevents me from being fully engaged at Ford. I'm looking forward to using everything I've learned from all of the teams I've worked with and all of the companies I've been privileged to be a part of."

Is this the end of the Apple car project?

  • FIELD: "I am not going to talk about our work at Apple. Apple works on a lot of great things in total secrecy. We just don't talk about those outside of the inside of Apple."

Where will you be based, in the San Francisco Bay Area? 

  • FIELD: "Wow, OK, those are a couple of big questions. I'm in Michigan right now with the team. I will be here whenever I'm needed in order to push things forward. I am keeping the house in California, as well. I have a house here and a place in California. I think it's important, actually, in this role for me to make sure that I'm in touch with the talent and technologies and things that are emerging in Silicon Valley."

How do you critique the Silicon Valley culture as related to the Detroit culture?

  • FIELD: In terms of the cultures, they're clearly very different but they both create strengths that I think can be combined. A lot of companies have not been successful combining them. They've ended up with hubs in the Midwest and hubs on the West Coast with very different cultures. And I think one of my challenges will be figuring out how we can take the best of those cultures and try and merge it into one. The spirit of innovation and risk-taking is great in Silicon Valley.  And we want to combine that with a culture of respect for history and growth and support of a large base of existing customers." 

Where is your assessment of the industry's progress in the tech race? And Ford?

  • FIELD: "I think the companies that are way out in front on this are the ones that got to start from scratch and not deal with legacy and basically build up teams from the ground up. i think the rest of the industry has had trouble catching up with some of these startups, in a large part because they have so much history and so much complexity to deal with on a daily basis. I haven't been at Ford long enough to know how far they are. I deeply believe that the products that a company ships today are a reflection of the state of the organization probably three or four years ago. So i have to get to know where Ford is today, which is not the same as the products they're shipping today."

Should Ford develop software on its own or partner up? 

  • FIELD: "We have to control the experience we give to our customers and we have to have control over our destiny ... We're not going to be experts at every single little piece of the technology and we'll work with the best people out there, without delegating the overall design and the overall experience."

Highlights from Free Press interview 

What's the reaction from friends and colleagues in Silicon Valley to your taking the job?

  • FIELD: "It's only been a few hours. I'm sure there will be people that are excited and I'm sure there will be some number of people who think I'm crazy but they're not going to think that for that long because with the folks I'm going to be working with here. We're going to do great stuff."

What's the difference between Silicon Valley and Detroit?

  • FIELD: I think of it less sort of geographic and more of a technology culture. The dominant perspective in technology is that startups grab the ball and run with it and then upset the large incumbents. This is the thesis behind "The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail" by Clay Christensen. I've always wanted to figure out how to work with a company that could rewrite the last chapter or two of that book. I believe it is possible with the right leadership and the right vision to take a company as successful and large and historical as Ford and actually make those kinds of changes. But it only comes with vision, imagination, humility and really strong leadership from the top. I really felt like that's what I was joining."

What role did Farley play in your decision to join Ford?

  • FIELD: "It was the single most important factor, in first getting me interested and then as I met more of the leaders around Jim. ...  When I was first talking to Jim about Ford, he said that we have five  years to completely transform this place to make sure Ford is a relevant and leading company in the next 100 years. That's a bold thing for a leader of a company to say. ... That kind of commitment to, hey, we're really good at a whole bunch of things but we're going to have to change dramatically to be a part of what is the future of automotive. That's what brought me here."

How long have you been talking with Farley?

  • FIELD: "I can't even say exactly when we started talking about a specific opportunity, but it was relatively recently."
  • FARLEY: "I think we learned about each other through others. I called Doug at the introduction of a common friend. ... The leadership team at Ford, we all get it, we recognize this is a moment in time and it's very exciting and humbling at the same time. I think this was a gap in know-how in delivering the Ford+ plan. I did my homework personally. I didn't delegate this to anyone. I did my homework. I talked to everyone I could, who I trusted and who they trusted. Doug's name came up almost every time. So I wanted to talk to this person, regardless of what the direction was. It wasn't even a recruiting thing at all. He was a respected person who knows about this transition and I wanted to get his advice. As we started to share opinions back and forth, it was, I would call, an organic process. I don't want to be dramatic about it. It was just something, as a CEO, that was on my mind every moment of every day."

How did the early Detroit experience of Field factor into this new hire?

  • FARLEY: "I don't think that was material. What was material for me and the leadership team was Doug's proven track record ... For me, deep respect for what we do really well in our industry and his incredible clarity and transparency on where we need to go and what we can' do ourselves. that combination is really special."
Doug Field, 56, now Ford chief advanced technology and embedded systems officer, is pictured here with his wife, Cathy, on their wedding day as they're picked up from their wedding in a 1965 Lincoln Continental.

Can you share a little bit about your background growing up?

  • FIELD: My grandfather worked for Packard and constantly told stories of his days at Packard. He even gave me tools that he gave me from his time owning a dealership. My mom was an artist. My dad was an engineer. I've studied art and music as well as engineering. I think that's part of the joy I have in working with creative people and designers. And the thing I really love is when all of these disciplines come together: Software, electronics and hardware. My first time to really bring those altogether was at Segway, which was really exciting. My passion was always with cars. After I left Ford (as a development engineer from 1987-93), it had become more of a hobby. As these technologies started to grow, and cars became as much about technology, that's when I really got interested in becoming involved in working on them again." 

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Contact Phoebe Wall Howard at 313-222-6512 her on Twitter@phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.