Max Senges traded the visionary buzz of Silicon Valley for an old-school German industrial center bracing for a dramatic overhaul.
As head of Volkswagen's new coding school in Wolfsburg, the former Google researcher is a small but important part of the automaker's massive push into software.
VW's strategy — involving more than $30 billion in investment and multiple projects and partnerships — is critical to catch up to Tesla and counter the existential risks posed by the automotive ambitions of Apple and Alphabet.
"The car industry is changing from a focus on, 'faster, stronger,' to becoming more sustainable and smarter," said Senges, who worked at Google for more than a decade. "What matters for us here is to foster a mindset" that can bridge the tech and auto worlds.
While VW is one of the largest auto producers, it's now pitted against companies that have routinely disrupted industries, casting former leaders aside in the process. And they are coming with deep pockets and big plans to own car data — a $400 billion opportunity, according to McKinsey & Co. estimates.
VW Group's management is keenly aware of the challenges. CEO Herbert Diess regularly cites Nokia's fall as the world's dominant mobile phone maker because it failed to keep up with the iPhone as a cautionary tale. He will provide an update on the company’s tech transition at events this week, including during a Power Day on Monday and at the group’s annual press conference in Wolfsburg on Tuesday.
The biggest hurdle for Volkswagen may be its firmly entrenched culture, built around seven-year automotive cycles. Line and brand managers traditionally have almost total control over what goes in their vehicles, while VW’s powerful unions weigh in on nearly every decision.
That structure helped manage more than 100 factories around the world, but it’s ill-suited for handling vast amounts of data and constantly tuning code. Initial forays have not gone well, with UBS Group determining the company is years behind Tesla from a software perspective.
The brimming confidence of top executives is not shared by everyone at the German auto giant. Some view a plan to finally start over-the-air updates this month as daunting rather than a promising milestone, according to discussions with people involved in the automaker’s operations.
The bruises from last year’s scramble to rescue a new line of software-heavy electric cars — with hundreds of specialists working in sprints — have not all healed.