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CIO interview: Matt Harris, head of IT, Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport

The IT chief at the world-leading Formula 1 team is focused on using technology to support and deliver marginal gains in performance for the team’s drivers

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Matt Harris, head of IT for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, knows all about the benefits of marginal gains in performance. As an IT professional who’s worked in the fast-paced world of Formula 1 motor racing for two decades, he’s aware how a small modification to a car can lead to a race-winning leap in performance.

The same is true off the track, too. Harris and his colleagues in the IT department focus their attention on sourcing and implementing the best possible systems and services for those who work across the Mercedes team. This approach can lead to benefits on the track, and Harris says positive results here help define success for him as a CIO in F1.

“It’s about giving people in our business those small, incremental gains in performance, whether it’s more accuracy with data, whether it’s the results, or whether they’re getting the answers they need faster, easier and simpler,” he says.

Supporting high-performance systems

Harris recognises that delivering technology systems and services in a digital age is far from straightforward. “There’s lots going on,” he says, referring to the speed of change, which he says presents an ever-increasing challenge for IT leaders in all sectors.

“I used to be proud many years ago that I thought I could keep up with everything as it was coming out. I have given up trying, because that’s just a futile effort. And to be honest, I rely a lot on the people around me, but also our partners are valuable to us,” he says.  

Harris knows that leading IT for what is currently the world’s most successful F1 car is a team game. Like so many of his CIO peers, Harris understands that being able to create reliable and high-performing systems requires an ecosystem of expertise that draws on both internal specialists and external partners.

After spending his formative years working around the F1 cars, Harris rarely goes trackside these days. The sport’s regulations mean only 60 people are allowed trackside at race meetings to work on the car, including two from IT. Harris’s role is to take a high-level view back at base.

“To be honest, that’s good news – the people there can do a far better job than I think I could, these days anyway,” he says, before asserting that his leadership role is about ensuring that his IT team delivers high-performing technology to the rest of the business. “The rate of change of technology means that we are involved in everything.”

Introducing new services seamlessly

Harris has been with the team in various guises for two decades, becoming head of IT in August 2009. The F1 racing team, home to current world champion Lewis Hamilton, celebrated its fifth successive constructors’ title last season. It’s a repeat story so far this time around too, with Hamilton and Mercedes comfortably at the top of their respective championships.

When it comes to his own contribution to the team’s recent successes, Harris says his biggest achievement has been ensuring that the organisation is able to rely on its underlying technology. That platform is provided by a roster of partners that Harris has helped to foster since becoming head of IT.

“It’s important to know that ‘not seen and not heard’ isn’t a bad thing – some people want to be shouting about IT success all the time. While it’s nice to talk about successes, it’s also true that not being seen as a problem nor detrimental to performance is probably a good thing in our industry”

Matt Harris, Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport

“Time is so critical for us,” he says. “Whether it’s in the security world, in the data world or in terms of computing resources, we’ve got key partners in all those areas who we rely on heavily to make sure that we’re providing the correct infrastructure for the business and its requirements.”

Harris says he knows the IT team is doing its job effectively if it can work with these partners to bring developments to the business seamlessly, whether that is through a new service or a proactive change in performance.

“It’s important to know that ‘not seen and not heard’ isn’t a bad thing – some people want to be shouting about IT success all the time. While it’s nice to talk about successes, it’s also true that not being seen as a problem nor detrimental to performance is probably a good thing in our industry,” he says.

Keeping systems secure

Harris says one of the team’s key partners is security specialist CrowdStrike. His IT department has added two or three different layers of the supplier’s security products within its factory and across trackside systems. The team uses CrowdStrike’s Falcon platform, which allows IT professionals to detect and prevent never-before-seen attacks while they are still in progress. Harris says the technology is invisible to the user.

“There’s no performance degradation, no hits, and it’s a very lightweight client,” says Harris. “So that’s helpful. And the way that it cleverly sends all the information to the cloud to give us a joined-up view – of what we’re seeing, and its proactive reporting – means I don’t need a dedicated security team.”

Harris says that external security capability means his small IT team can focus on other areas. While he has 30 people in his team, about 20 of those are focused on day-to-day operational concerns – and several professionals fulfil management responsibilities.

“There’s probably a core of six or seven people who are there to turn around and try to take the system forward, whether that’s networking, databases or file storage,” he says.

“All our different employees and partners require an element of security. So it’s great for us to allow everyone to have always-on devices and, when they’re working at home, to say they don’t have to log on and put in 25 passwords to access applications.”

Beta testing on CrowdStrike began late last year and the big deployment push started in February this year before the start of the F1 season. Harris estimates about 1,500 devices are covered by the CrowdStrike system already, with a mix of user and server devices. “And what we’re doing now is iterating all the time,” he says. “It’s a constant process.”

Harris says the team’s partner ecosystem also includes HPE for high-performance computing and consultancy services, Epson for secure print services, Tibco for business analytics and Pure Storage for its all-flash platform. “All of our partners have become a virtual extension to the team,” he says.

Developing internal talent

Working closely with partners isn’t the only concern for Harris – he is focused on ensuring he has great internal capability, too. “I’ve said this many times on stage over the past year or two: trying to have the best people doing the right work is incredibly important,” he says, suggesting that technology can provide new opportunities for IT professionals.

“I don’t want people doing repetitive, boring, mundane work if that’s something we can do with automation. We’re doing quite a lot of work with other partners around the software-defined datacentre and the autonomous datacentre. We’ve got a new datacentre on the site, where we’re trying to build from code, so that piece is important and the security element of that is important.”

“Trying to have the best people doing the right work is incredibly important. I don't want people doing repetitive, boring, mundane work if that's something we can do with automation”
Matt Harris, Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport

Harris says his team members want to make sure that, when they’re building new machines, they will be built from code in a consistent and uniform way. He says monitoring alerts is another big priority for his team. Harris says the CrowdStrike technology gives his team the ability to create dashboards for performance monitoring out of the box.

The IT team can use this insight to help prove the value of technology to the rest of the business. That type of information can make it easier to justify new investments in IT. Yet Harris re-asserts that performance matters more than anything when it comes to the team’s systems. While new innovations might be available, Harris prefers to ensure systems are tried and tested before putting tools into production.

“We always used to joke about the bleeding edge – being on it hurts. That’s partly a joke, but we do have to be careful. And we do get involved with some of our partners with early-life development and deployment of systems. You have to pick and choose where you’re doing that, because in some places that can actually mean being a step ahead of the business and your competitors,” he says.

“If you get it wrong, or you’re making changes in the wrong place, you can be wasting time or resources. You’ve got to be careful that you don’t end up taking your staff down a route they don’t believe in.”

Driving new gains in performance

Harris, however, has a clear plan for the journey he expects his team to plot over the next couple of years. He hopes most of the IT department’s work will be automated, where service requests will be made and monitored through a portal-based system.

“Then we’ll be turning around and we’ll be proactively going and trying to help our employees, whether it’s on a user device, or whatever platform it happens to be,” says Harris.

“There’s bound to be some something new that we’ve got to try to support. But with some of the technologies and the vendors and software suppliers out there now, who knows what’s going to be available in two years’ time?”

What will remain key for Harris is the ability of his IT department and its partners to help drive continual improvements in performance across the business and out on the race track.

New regulations in the sport will have an impact on how the team operates. Harris recognises the potential effect, yet says marginal gains in performance remain the key to success.

“Money matters. And moving forward, it probably matters even more. But efficiency and time – whether that efficiency is around money or people’s time or everything else – is so important to us as a business,” he says.

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