Williams is a name synonymous with Formula One, with many fans growing up on the success of multiple drivers under the leadership of Sir Frank Williams.
After a difficult few years the team is making its way through the field again. The British Grand Prix saw George Russell secure the team’s first back-to-back Q3 qualifying appearance in four years.
David Savage (Group Technology Evangelist) was lucky to sit down with Graeme Hackland (CIO of Williams Racing) ahead of the race weekend at Silverstone. The interview, part of our ‘In Conversation With…’ series, explored building team environments, banishing a fear of failure and the role technology and data plays in Formula One.
Graeme’s insight and comments prompted huge interest and a number of follow-up questions. So he kindly sat down with David a few days after the Grand Prix to share a bit more of that Formula One magic…
David Savage: First question, most CIO's have to demonstrate their strategy drives revenues. What priorities do you have?
Graeme Hackland: Number one, car performance, always, for everyone in the organization, including me. We've got a few criteria that we look at: car performance, number one, above everything else.
Then, because we've got the cost cap, is it going to help us to reduce costs somewhere so that we can reinvest that back into the car? Or, is it reducing risk? So, that's probably the three main things that we look at, but: car performance, performance, car performance,
DS: A lot of the technology departments drive innovation and transformation. How do you make sure your team has that same sense of purpose in an organization which is geared towards progress overall?
GH: Yeah, that's a really good point. And because the whole organization is constantly driven to improve, there's this constant improvement cycle, it filters into every aspect of what we do including in IT.
So, we are constantly striving to improve, and try to be focused on the user experience as well, because if they are working at the track with very little time to get things done, it has to be a seamless user experience. We're very focused on what it's like.
So, for a lot of other CIOs I talk to for them it's customer experience because they're selling technology or products or whatever, but for us it's about internal users, their experience, "Can they get their job done seamlessly?" "Can IT just be in the background and not in their face?"
DS: What soft skill, in particular, do you see becoming something that CIO's can't do without?
GH: Oh, soft skill for CIO's? Business language... the communication by far and away is the most important thing for us. Being able to translate what we do in IT, into a language that everybody else can understand, not using three letter acronyms, no TLAs.
Yeah, I put a lot of effort into that for every level of our organization, whether I'm talking to the board or the management committee or a colleague who is struggling with something on a machine in the machine shop, you've got to explain it in the language that they understand.
DS: So, at the event we actually had a couple of students join the call, and one of the questions back was, "What advice would you give a student looking to start a career in technology?"
GH: Start with STEM. So, we do a lot of work in Formula One because we're trying to really provide an inclusive environment that will then drive our diversity aims.
So, we do a lot of work with schools. We send some of our STEM ambassadors into schools to talk about the importance of those subjects, although there's a wide range of areas that you can work in that don't require STEM. So, if STEM's not your thing, don't worry, there's still a potential role in Formula One.
But that's important if you wanted to get into engineering, aerodynamics, start with STEM, you've got to really enjoy it.
And then you've got to have a really inquiring mind, interesting challenges. So, we sent them all sorts of challenges, build a bridge with paper and we're going to put a car wheel nut on it, and it can't collapse. All these interesting challenges that we sent them.
And you've got to love what you do. And remember that there's probably only... there's 10 CIO's in Formula One. There's only a few hundred, maybe a thousand people working in IT functions in Formula One, so it's a hard industry to get in. So, what sets you apart?
We often say to our students, "What's going to set you apart from somebody else?"
Most people who apply for roles with us have the technical expertise. So, what else have they done? So, we look at all sorts of things. Have they done Duke of Edinburgh? Were they in sports teams? Did they show that they're capable of operating within a team environment? Anything outside of their normal studying is really important to make them stand out from everybody else.
There's the F1 in Schools program. If they're really interested in cars and car technology, get involved in that. Loads of schools all over the UK are setting up teams and then competing with other schools globally.
And each year they meet at one of the circuits, they've done it at Singapore, Abu Dhabi. They meet with the F1 engineers. That's a really good program as well. So yeah, there's lots of ways into Formula One.
DS: Ok a bit of a fun to finish on. Do you ever get to go to the Grand Prix?
GH: Well, funnily enough I was at Silverstone on Saturday and Sunday. I don't go to them all. There are IT support people at every race, obviously to make sure that everything's running. And their job when the car is on the track is to make sure that the telemetry is working.
But yeah, for the CIO, I'm a little removed from making sure that the IT is working on a race weekend, but yes, I do tend to go to the Grand Prix from time to time, mostly to work with sponsors actually. So, an important part of the CIO role in Formula One, beyond the technology, is our partners and our technical partners, and showcasing their technology.
So, that's an extra element and sharing with people the success that we've had with our partners' technology.
DS: I'll throw a fun one of my own in, just to expand on that last question, and you can't say Silverstone because it's the home Grand Prix, so we're just going to assume…
DS:... that's your favorite. You can't say Silverstone, but what is your favourite race venue other than Silverstone?
GH: It's such a difficult question. I got asked this on Saturday actually, and after I'd given four answers the person was getting irritated with me because it's a really difficult question to answer, and you've excluded Silverstone, but in the end I did say it was probably Silverstone, and here's the reason.
And I'll try and give another answer because you said to exclude it, but the first race I ever went to live after I joined Benetton in 1997 was Silverstone. And getting out the coach and climbing up the bank and seeing and hearing those cars is something that will stay with me forever.
And I became a Formula One fan watching. The first race I ever watched on TV was the British Grand Prix that Nigel Mansell won, in a Williams.
And so, yeah Williams and Silverstone have a special place for me, but other tracks that I've really, really loved being at and fans really love being at include the city ones, so Austin. The U.S. Grand Prix, and Austin is such a great city. Montreal, Melbourne, the Australian fans are amazing.
So yeah, you've got the same look that the person had on Saturday who asked me the same question because I can't give one. You know, I was in Monza when Michael Schumacher was at his height in a Ferrari, and seeing those fans was utterly amazing.
I was in Spain when Fernando Alonso was winning the World Championships in '05 and '06, and seeing those fans was amazing.
Spa in Belgium is a track I've been around on a scooter. Amazing circuit. Yeah, I'm sorry, there is no one answer unless it's Silverstone.
DS: I think that's fair, and hey you didn't say the obvious one. You didn't just say, "Monaco," you gave an interesting answer, so that's fair. And given that it's obviously tied to emotion, we'll let you have Silverstone.
DS: Graeme, thank you for your time.
GH: Thanks, David.
Graeme is supporting the Spinal Injuries Association, and walked over 40 miles on the 15th of July to raise funds and awareness. To find out more and support Graeme, the Williams’ Duck and many more, click here.