Oct 7, 2020 | 3 min read

Conversation with Eric Litt

Podcast #112: Star Struck: Early Lessons from OnStar

Eric Litt is a digital mobility pioneer, having served as Head of Digital for Caterpillar, CIO of GM OnStar and CISO for GM overall.  In our conversation, he shares his digital industry journey beginning with his engineering roots at Lincoln Electric Company and Battelle Memorial Institute. He discusses his move into mobility becoming the CISO for GM, one of the first CISO roles among industrial OEMs. He touches on his most recent role leading CAT’s Digital IoT Platform as well as key lessons learned and his immediate plans. 

Eric built his career on solving complex business and technical problems by bridging multiple disciplines and building high performing teams of experts. In addition to GM and CAT, he has worked for such prestigious organizations as Battelle Memorial Institute and Lincoln Electric Company as well as having been an independent consultant. 

 

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Good day, and welcome to episode 112 of our Digital Industry Leadership podcast, produced by, for, and about digital industry leaders. Today I’m pleased to feature a pioneer in digital mobility, Eric Litt, former Director of Digital Internet of Things for Caterpillar; CIO of GM OnStar, and CISO for General Motors overall. Eric built his career on solving complex business and technical problems by bridging multiple disciplines and building high performance teams of experts. In addition to GM and CAT he has worked for such prestigious organizations as, Battelle Memorial Institute, and Lincoln Electric Company, as well as having been an independent consultant himself.

Eric, welcome to our Digital Leadership podcast.

Well, thank you Ken, and thanks for the opportunity to share some of my experiences with you and the audience, and I’m really looking forward to our discussion over the next 30 minutes or so.

As well, and when you say ‘some of your experiences’, there are an awful lot of great topics that we could go down, given all the great roles that you have had. And so hopefully we’ll call this at least, the ‘high level pass’ for it all, and perhaps subsequently we’ll go deeper in future podcasts. Let’s start with your professional journey, tell us a bit about your own background and truly how it has informed your views of digital industry.

Well, reflecting on that and thinking back over my career, I’ve watched a lot of people try to plan out their career. People back in high school would say, “I’m going to be and x, y, or z”, and I never did that. I couldn’t have imagined what my career would be, nor could I have planned out the opportunities to work for four iconic companies, and they are all leaders in their respective domains.

My professional journey actually started out at Lincoln Electric Company through their engineering training program. I was familiar with them because I’d worked as a welder building these electric powerplants, and they’re the world’s leader in welding equipment and supplies. Interestingly they came to campus, I was in college, they came to the campus and they were recruiting sales engineers. Well, I had no interest in being a sales engineer, but I’d never been to Cleveland. At 22 years old I thought, “What the heck, it’s a free trip, I’ll get to see Cleveland”, but as most of us know, nothing in life is ever free. I didn’t get to see Cleveland, other than the airport of course, and that was my welcome to the business world and business travel, and the start of my journey.

After passing the interviews which were quite extensive, I had to confess to the VP of Sales that I really wasn’t interested in doing a sales job, but he offered me a job as an in-house engineer. And for those of you that aren’t familiar with Lincoln Electric, they are an absolutely amazing company, they’re a Harvard Business School case study, they are a leader in what today we refer to as lean manufacturing and incentive management. So, that sort of started my career off, and I ended up being responsible for all of their plastics processing and winding technology. After a few years I was given the opportunity to work directly for the President and the CEO, who was also the CO, to define the next generation manufacturing footprint. I had no idea what an honor that was for a company that had been in business for, I guess at that time 80-90 years.

But anyhow, he gave me this opportunity to define their next generation manufacturing footprint, and the most important thing that I learned during that experience was, that it wasn’t really about what one thinks of in traditional manufacturing as, cutting steel, bending steel, molding plastics, winding transformers, all of which I had something to do with, but it was really more about the integration of business and technology, and the integration across multiple disciplines. That really cemented my view to look at situations holistically, not as those individual components.

That was the start, and from Lincoln I went on to join Battelle Memorial Institute as a system engineer. I was initially responsible as a chief system engineer for a large navy program. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Battelle, they’re also a really interesting company, they’re the world’s largest contract R&D company. They split their work across multiple disciplines, about 50% of their work they do in the government space, and about 50% commercial work. What is really interesting about them is, they were founded out of a will of a man named Gordon Battelle as a not for profit entity, and with the charter of developing science and technology for the betterment of mankind.

Now, people that have been paying attention to the Coronavirus situation might have heard about them recently in the news, as they were the company that created the standardization process for the N95 masks. I think one of their employees was the creator of the N95 mask, I’m not positive about that. But whilst I was there, I got to work on both government DoD programs, as well as consulting for some of the leaders in the IT industry at the time, such as IBM, HP, and others. My last project at Battelle introduced me to General Motors, where I eventually served the combined time of 25 years, and that was really between working for Battelle doing some independent work and being an employee.

At the end of the day I would say all of those experiences led me to understand how intertwined the processes that bring products to market are, and I think importantly how dependent we are on the timely delivery and integrity of data, how important that is to the success of the products, and to the market as well. That’s sort of a short overview, and I guess we can take it from there, hopefully, that you found that interesting.

Perfect, yeah very much so. In fact, you can already see the red thread forming NextGen manufacturing footprint, GM of course was a leader in manufacturing connectivity, especially during that timeframe, and I loved your comments around the integrity of data. I know after early work with OnStar, at least I’ll say your first engagement with them, you became the Chief Information Security Officer for GM overall. Actually, from my knowledge it’s really one of the first examples we know of that role being created in a company that was securing their own connected products at the time, so versus as I say, IT. What was GM’s inspiration for creating the role, and yours for taking that?

Boy! One of the I’d say most interesting career decisions I got to make, and you’re referring to the role of the CISO at GM, not OnStar, right?

Correct I am, yup.

So yeah, I would say it was one of the most interesting career decisions I got to make. I had the opportunity to help OnStar massively restructure their infrastructure in a four-month firefight. But at the end of that I was asked by the CIO to take on the role as GM’s first global Chief Information Security Officer. This was in the early days of the real definition of that role, and I would say the genesis of this came from the GM Board of Directors, they were concerned like many other boards were, that the company might have risk exposure that wasn’t being paid adequate attention to.

Timeframe-wise, this was in the era of viruses and worms, things like Mydoom out there causing mayhem, and interrupting business operations and that, and so the CIO approached me and he said, “The board is asking for this, we really don’t have this role. I’d like you with your background to take this on”. From a career perspective, at least from a personal career perspective I’d say, I actually thought this was a crazy idea; why would anyone take on a job that on your best day nobody knew you existed, and on your worst day you were the excuse for being on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, as the scapegoat for the company being another victim.

But, at the end of the day, long story short, through my previous consulting engagements I had an interaction with an old-time IBM’er when I was working at Battelle, and he told me, “Take the job that has the lowest expectations, because in the worst case what can happen? You meet the expectations”. I figured it wouldn’t take that much to beat the naysayers, it was a huge challenge, it had a lot of visibility, and it was certainly one of the best career decisions that I had the opportunity to make.

You were a bit of an activist CISO as I remember, speaking at Blackhat conferences at the time, challenging hackers, constantly discussing the future of connected mobility. It was interesting because I think your peers a lot of times will choose a very low profile in the industry per se, a lot of them don’t even carry profiles on LinkedIn. So, why the visibility, and what were some of the outcomes you sought by creating such visibility?

Well, that’s a great question. I would say from a career perspective I got more external visibility from that role than any role that I had before, or since. In that position, of course it’s a double-edged sword; when you’re talking about security, how much do you want to talk about security? But remember the board wanted assurance that we were secure, and it was a wild world out there. So, some amount of visibility was a necessity.

On the flipside of that, bragging or boasting about how secure one might think the company was, was an invitation and potentially a recipe for disaster. For GM we already represented American capitalism and wealth, and despite what many Americans may believe, we as a country are not universally loved. So, being a big target and being boastful was clearly not the objective, right! But keynoting it at Blackhat was an interesting challenge.

I certainly didn’t want to invite more attacks from a bunch of really smart IT professionals, but I also recognized whether or not I went there, they were going to do, shall we say, research, and share it broadly. And so as I was thinking about the actors that use IT as an attack vector, there are some that I thought could actually be leveraged in a positive way. My thought was along the lines of, how could I get those individuals the recognition that they wanted, and reward for doing positive things, positive things to help secure IT environment. And so that’s really the essence of the challenge that I presented to that community, and not to take credit for it at all, but today I think we can probably look at the open source community as an example that uses a similar argument, how do you collectively work together to effect a positive outcome?

When we think about security, there is different types of actors out there, some you’re never going to be able to bring into the fold, but those that are looking for fame and to some degree fortune, I thought there was an opportunity to bring in, and that was the challenge that I put out there. I think you do see some of those aspects now, with the way some of the IT companies are working with people to expose vulnerabilities, and to close them responsibly.

Yeah, you planted some great seeds back then. For repeat listeners of our podcasts, you’ll know that last week we featured Lt. Col. JJ Snow, the US Air Force Chief Technology Officer, and she actually has run a hackathon for Air Force reconnaissance satellites, and specifically awarded some of the winners who managed to get through the multiple layers of security. Those seeds have carried on to a point that’s almost unfathomable, if you were thinking from 10 years ago that the air force would actually be paying people to hack their own satellites! Well done Eric in planting those seeds way back when!

So, even though that was – I’ll call, your celeb role in terms of the CISO role, the one that a lot of people will know you for is when you became CIO of General Motors OnStar, truly a pioneer in connected mobility. I don’t know how many of us could imagine a Tesla today without that connectivity, or even our Land Rovers, Volkswagens or whatever the case may be, having Apple Play on it.

What were some of the key projects you led during that time, and what were some of the early lessons you learned?

Well, maybe before answering that, a little plug for the history there. Many of the car companies that had telematics back in the early days were actually white-labelled OnStar. That is somewhat in the public domain, so no secrets are spilled there, but I won’t list who they all were. So, probably the most visible short-term impact that I had was being the senior executive that was responsible for the implementation of 4G LTE across GM’s North American portfolio. That was just a hugely enormous challenge, in that we were launching it on what we’d call a knife-edge cutover, in Canada and the United States it was new hardware that was being put into all of the vehicles that were being produced. It was part of the product release process.

Once you pass a particular tollgate in the vehicle development process, there’s no turning back. So, if we failed, every vehicle coming off the assembly line would have been with OnStar service, and you can imagine the brand of business implications could have been disastrous. 4G LTE was certainly one that got a tremendous amount of exposure, we’d liked to have been able to say we were the first one to get any vehicle with 4G LTE on it, which we didn’t quite accomplish by I guess a few months, but we were the first to put it across the entire portfolio.

On top of that there were so many other things that were done during my tenure there. We launched services in Mexico, we didn’t have services in Mexico at that time, we did major upgrades to the systems in China, obviously not being there any more I can’t tell you the exact ratios, but probably in the order of magnitude of 50 percent of the OnStar aggregated business actually comes from China. We also built a lighter version of the systems that were OnStar for a launch in Europe, and I just recently read that with the sale of Opel and Vauxhall a couple of years ago that OnStar is going to be wound-down within the European community, as it’s no longer part of General Motors.

So, those were certainly some of the big projects. But when you think about lessons learned, we were really inventing, or reinventing the control surfaces of the plane as we were flying in. Fortunately, there were no crashes, and I think most of the scars from those stressors have healed.

The 4G LTE implementation was designed, it was built, it was implemented concurrently with the major rearchitecting of the underlying systems. Those were hugely aggressive programs, they were accelerated at the request of the Chairman of the Board, they had significant business risk, and the Vice-Chairman of the Board at that time recognized he needed someone who had credibility with the business leaders and could manage the technical complexity to drive them to successful conclusion. That’s when he asked me to take over those programs.

From a lessons perspective, if I could have planned them out instead of inheriting them in-flight, I think we could have reduced the risk and probably improved the initial quality. But it’s an interesting balance, because that said, the price of that might have been a little longer duration initially, and there’s always that balance between speed or time to the market and being conservative and minimizing risk. So, at the expense of taking credit for things that I actually didn’t do, as a leader we don’t really do anything, all we do is enable our teams, and at the end of the day none of all those accomplishments could have been succeeded or accomplished, without an incredibly talented and dedicated team. I was very fortunate to be able to inherit some really good people, and to help some people be successful at that. So, that’s a little bit about the background there.

Perfect. It’s hard to believe it’s only been about five years since you finished out that role, and you think how much connectivity has become ubiquitous, again I had several examples earlier, but in all of our vehicles at this point, so again it sounds like you were planting seeds very early that the rest of the industry has really caught up to.

Let’s fast-forward to your most recent role, and that is directing Caterpillar’s digital IoT platform. CAT of course being another early pioneering connecting mobility but tell us a bit about the role and what your focus was for this platform.

Sure. Actually, CAT started their connectivity journey shortly after GM did, and I guess probably not that well-known but, they run rather large vehicles in mining areas autonomously; we’re talking about mining trucks that weigh up to 2 million pounds, going 40 miles an hour, with nobody in the driver’s seat, and running 24/7 a day. So, they’ve certainly been a leader in connectivity, they’ve been a leader in autonomy as well, and in order to do some of that they had to be able to acquire data off of the asset. They were successful in acquiring data from a variety of their products, and in many different types of environments, and because of that diversity in the environments their connectivity strategy had to include multiple ways to connect to the assets. So, in the OnStar and telematics space in the automotive industry, we talk about cellular people sometimes say satellite, that’s where we’ve got GPS location services. But for Caterpillar, satellite was more than just for GPS, it was really for communication as well as other wireless strategies.

And so, though they had that capability of connectivity, there really wasn’t an integrative platform or easy way for them to access the data, there wasn’t a way for them to build applications that exploited that data to the customer’s advantage, or to provide competitive advantage to the company. My team took on many of those challenges to address them, we consolidated datasets, sometimes datasets were unique to a business unit within Caterpillar and didn’t cross and weren’t leveraged at an enterprise level, so we were able to consolidate these datasets, we built a robust set of APIs to be able to access the data. We actually were the team that did the first hosting of live applications in the cloud, and on top of that we built an application development framework as part of that platform.

Somewhat because of the complexity of the relationship between the enterprise and the dealer network who are independent businesses, it was difficult to access customer data. So, not only the telematics data, but also the customer and some of the dealer data as well, and that was because a lot of that was contained actually just within the dealership. So, as part of that platform we also built an infrastructure with common components that facilitated the controlled sharing of data, for the benefit of the customers, the dealers, and Caterpillar. So, it was somewhat an extension of my telematics experience, but also the integration into the dealer networks, and the integration of customer and dealer data as well.

Really a pioneer. When people traditionally think of digital IoT platforms, it’s very much around the connecting-collecting the data and processing it. But traditionally when you’re looking up and down the value chains that is a different genre of systems, and it was interesting, especially CAT I think was a pioneer in looking all the way down its distribution chain, so post-sales and service.

Just so the audience gets a sense of how large this really was, I believe you had a budget of about $200-million, and a team of over 1,000 people that were working in this digital space under that, so a very large undertaking. I know many of the audience will be familiar with Uptake, an analytics platform, and CAT’s early interest in them as well as an investor. What were some of the lessons that CAT learned about the application of analytics to mobility, and in partnering with the young company?

Yeah. I did warn you that I might be a little controversial, but I think that’s the fun of having this opportunity. Fundamentally we all know that computers are dumb, right? They only do what we ask them to do, and so asking the right questions, just like when we’re interacting with people, is key to getting a good outcome. When it comes to analytics, some of my friends may disagree with me, I believe one needs to have context, you can’t just look at data blindly, because in doing so it’s really simple to get results that have a high degree of correlation, but they don’t identify the causation of an event.

My view is that for analytics to be successfully applied in the electromechanical world, which is the space that we’re really talking about, it requires a partnership between people that are skilled at looking at the data – people we refer to today as data scientists, and those engineers that can provide insights into the designs, as well as the failure mode analysis, and the expected resulting events that may occur. So, it’s really the marriage or the combination of those two different perspectives, where one can then be able to exploit the power that the analytics tools bring to the table. One without the other is problematic.

As far as partnering with the small company, as my mom used to say, it takes two to tango, and it can be quite a challenge as the objectives of each have to be clearly understood, they’re not always the same, they typically are not the same. The rules of engagement have to be unambiguous, and I think most importantly the aggregated goals have to be conducive to a productive relationship. So, in some ways I would say it’s no different than a marriage, it may have a different term to it or lifecycle associated with it, but for small companies to be engaged with large enterprises, it really needs to be a win-win relationship, and those can be really hard to formulate, and particularly difficult to actually execute because of those different objectives that the entities may have.

So, after four phenomenal roles, and as many if not more impactful leadership roles, or I should say four phenomenal companies and impactful leadership roles within those, I think the big question we all have is, what’s next for Eric?

That’s a great question, and I really wish I was a clairvoyant. I don’t play the lottery but I probably would if I was a clairvoyant. But what I’ve had the opportunity to do since leaving Caterpillar is for me a once in a lifetime opportunity, it was an opportunity to take a step back, to move back home, back home for me is the Boston area, I’m a native Bostonian, and to focus on supporting my extended family. My dad is turning 95 in a few days and living by himself in the house that I grew up in, it really was an opportunity for me to value some of the remaining time that we have.

Being able to take a step back and relieve myself of many of those high-stress roles I’ve had throughout my career, to be introspective, quite frankly to get rejuvenated, I’ve had the opportunity to build what I call my private maker space. So, you multi-task in the background thinking about being introspective and all that, and you’re solving problems all day long as you’re building this building and space. So, as I think about looking forward, having fun is really high on my priority list, and what really floats my boat is solving seemingly impossible problems.

There’s probably lots of sports analogies I could use, and maybe as a Boston Red Sox fan that suffered through the World Series throughout, folks can relate to the elation of achieving victory, but being a fan is different than being a member of the team, or even the leader of the team. So, what I’ve come to realize I miss the most, is leading a team through the journeys of identifying and solving large complex problems. Once an individual makes the transition from being an individual contributor to leading others, the satisfaction of accomplishment really belongs to the doers. As I said earlier, we as leaders don’t really do anything, it’s the people in the trenches that actually are the ones that are accomplishing, and the satisfaction that a leader gets has to come from knowing what we did to help the team to succeed. So, that is the background.

What are my thoughts on what’s next, they’re really two-fold. I’ve come to think that participating on one or two boards and being able to share some of my experiences and insights, could be rewarding for me, and a give back and beneficial to other entities. Secondly, I’m thinking about looking for an opportunity that lets me contribute as a senior leader again. I’m not exactly sure what that will look like, but we’ll see what the future holds. In the meantime, I’ve stayed connected with folks, I’ve helped a couple of start-ups in the Boston area, sort of in the way just providing some connections for them, some critique of what they’re doing and the like, and even got to help some former colleagues do some SPAC evaluation work. So, it will be interesting to see what the future holds, but really looking forward to the next part of the journey.

Well, and as much as we are, in terms of trying to help you via our Exec. Search and Ventures arm as well. So finally, in closing, can you provide recommendations of books and/or resources that inspire you?

I love to read, and for so much of my career I only got to read when I was travelling overseas on flights. I’d go to China, I’d buy two paperback books, because I knew on the way over there that I’d read one, and on the way back I’d have another one to read, and then the Kindle came out, the iPad, and all that. But I would say probably like many people today, I do most of my reading online, and I maybe get sucked into a little bit, but I follow the trails as things excite me or interest me. There is one book though that I think has some great points, it’s been out for a long time now, I don’t think it’s stale, it’s a book that Jim Collins wrote, ‘Good to Great’, and it’s an easy read. The reason I recommend people to take a look at that is, a company’s success isn’t dependent on the bricks and mortar of their facility, as much as it is on its people. So, nothing is more important than getting the right people on the bus, and putting them in the right seats, which is really the basis of Jim’s book.

 ‘Good to Great’, an absolutely great book. I was lucky enough to be at Phillip Morris at the time that he was interviewing them for their part in that book as well, and I fully agree with you, it’s all about the people, so a wonderful recommendation. Eric, thank you for this insightful interview.

Well, Ken I would say more thanks go out to you, and to your team, for giving me this opportunity. It’s always great to share some history, but when you do these things it also gives…or it’s given me an opportunity to be somewhat introspective and to reflect on my journey. Given all the challenges that the world faces today, it’s really exciting to think about the possibilities of a brighter future, and I’m looking forward to contributing to it. So, once again thanks Ken.

Alright. So, this has been Eric Litt, Digital Mobility Executive, formerly with CAT and General Motors, and if I might add, solver of seemingly impossible problems. Thank you for listening and please join us next week for the next episode of our digital industry leadership podcast series, produced by, for, and about digital industry leaders. Thank you and have a great day.

 

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