In 1960, Carroll Shelby was told he had two years to live. He spent the next 50 years making the most of that two-year sentence.
Rich Sparkman is IT director at Shelby American, the company that continues to make the cars that are Carroll Shelby's legacy. When you sit down with Sparkman in his office, he'll talk about computers, but he gets excited when he talks about cars. There's no question that making fast cars go even faster keeps pretty much everyone at this Las Vegas company coming to work in the morning.
A bit of history is in order: After a short but very successful racing career (including a Le Mans win in 1959 for Aston Martin), Shelby was diagnosed with a serious heart condition and given the famous two-year prognosis. Unable to continue driving, he decided to build racing cars. He found a platform in England -- the AC Ace -- and an engine (really a series of engines) at Ford. Putting the two together, he created a light, aluminum-bodied sports car with a ferocious V8 engine. By the time the early years were over, he had become the only man to win Le Mans as a driver, manufacturer, and car owner.
A lot of different adventures ensued through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, including turning the Ford Mustang into the first muscle car, a shift to Dodge (as Shelby continued his relationship with Lee Iacocca), and a return to Ford. In 1997, Shelby American introduced the Series 1, a purpose-built supercar -- and that's where Sparkman enters the picture. One of the first things he had to do was address the various parts of the Shelby IT program, from CAD files and manufacturing data to the Shelby Registry, a customer-facing program that maintains the history of every car Shelby builds or modifies, so that its provenance can be established when it's sold or auctioned.
Sparkman began by putting all employees on a common set of computing platforms, with Dell Precision workstations going to engineers and Dell Dimension desktop computers going to other employees. It was a simple start at rationalizing the IT for a relatively small manufacturer, but it echoed the state in which many firms found themselves. The modest beginnings have expanded to an IT department that differs from most other automakers in scale -- but not in its concerns or basic tools.
Today, the company's main IT concern is sharing and protecting the CAD files that are the central intellectual property of Shelby American. Sparkman says that the files are managed internally with systems that are segregated from other systems, though files must be securely shared with both Ford (which makes the Mustang, Focus, and Raptor that Shelby modifies for customers around the world) and suppliers in Michigan that make many of the parts that Shelby uses in both modified vehicles and its own Cobra automobiles.
Like many companies, Shelby has turned to the cloud for several key applications, including SharePoint and a third-party CRM package. Key manufacturing applications, though, are proprietary, largely written by Sparkman and now internally hosted on Hyper-V virtual servers. He says one application is kept carefully segregated from all the others for security reasons -- the web server stands alone.
Having looked at all the security packages available for web servers and the data that feeds them, he felt that complete segregation was the best option for reducing the chances that an ambitious hacker could gain access to Shelby's IP. The web server is hosted at a co-location facility with minimal data links back to any portion of the Shelby American production network. The emphasis on security and reliability has provided significant value to the company, but that's only a piece of the overall value added by IT -- value that has allowed IT to become its own profit center within the organization.
There is significant angst in the IT industry over the idea that the CMO is taking on many traditional IT roles. At Shebly Amercian, Sparkman has flipped that relationship on its head by putting many of the traditional marketing roles under IT's control in a unified profit center. All marketing material design, and much of the material's production, is done in-house within the IT department's environment. As you tour the Shelby production facility (which also holds the Shebly museum), the number of images on the walls is impressive, and the individual images are impressive in their quality. Sparkman says that producing all the material and images allows for more control over that quality and adds significantly to the overall value IT provides to the company.
Looking forward, he sees the challenges for IT increasing as the cars on which Shelby bases its modified vehicles continue to be "World Cars" in Ford's lineup, with a single platform used around the world. The advantages of the World Car platforms include being able to ship Shelby versions of the cars around the world, though the advantages come with the challenges of keeping up with emissions and safety requirements of many different jurisdictions -- a process that falls to IT in its engineering support role.
Sparkman will continue to look to cloud applications for Shelby IT functions. An early adopter of Office 365, he sees no contradiction between cloud architecture and the need for security. He is also looking forward to an increasing reliance on mobile platforms, with a rollout of new smartphones (and a new cellular provider) recently completed and a gradual increase in the number of tablets in use -- "gradual" meaning slow growth from the two tablets currently in use by vehicle inspectors on the shop floor.
He seems intent on keeping IT at Shelby American operating within the model establishing by the company's founder: Put as much power as possible in a lightweight package, and see just how fast it can run. It's a model at work in small and midsized enterprises in many different markets -- but one that rarely comes with as much V8 roar and rubber smoke as it does at Shelby American.
Click the image below for a slideshow of photos from my tour of Shelby American. And then let me know what you think of Sparkman and his work at Shelby. Is the model he's built one that you recognize? Is it one worth tuning up for other companies? I look forward to the conversation.
The Cars of Shelby American
This is where it all began: the Shelby Cobra No. 1. This is also where the slideshow begins. Click the image to see other Shelby automobiles and where the Cobras (and others) are built.
Curtis Franklin, Jr.