Ford's Don Butler: Car Tech Wizard. Connectivity Guru. Bridge Builder.

Don Butler talked to TechRepublic about his new position as Ford's director of connected vehicles, his vision for the future of car tech, and building strong relationships in the auto industry.

Don Butler, Ford
Don Butler was all smiles in his office at Ford's Product Development Center.
Image: Lyndsey Gilpin/TechRepublic

Don Butler makes things happen. He's always a few steps ahead, always thinking of how to better technology systems and make a difference. But he won't tell you that himself.

"Throughout my career, I've sort of been at the intersections of technology and its application and development and relationship to people in just about every role I've been in," Butler said.

He's six months into his new role at Ford, where he is the executive director of connected vehicle and services. Breaking it down, that means he covers three areas of connectivity, Butler said -- brought-in, beamed-in, and built-in. Brought-in leverages smart devices and the capability of those smart devices from the standpoint of media, apps, communication capability to connect the vehicle to the outside world through things like Vehicle Health Report and 911 Assist. Beamed-in refers to everything from satellite radio to Wi-Fi to Bluetooth. But built-in, that's where Butler's passion lies. The vehicle's built-in data connection, and what the connectivity means for Ford, is his vision.

Butler works closely with the marketing, IT, and product development teams at Ford in his quest to position Ford as a leader in connectivity. He says that he sometimes acts as the "living interface" between them to help advance Ford's technology mission. Part of that is just selling the vehicle, but the bigger part is ensuring trust and loyalty in customers to connect with them better -- both literally in the car and figuratively.

The auto industry has been Butler's home for the majority of his career. He began at General Motors as an engineer before transitioning into many other roles -- the most significant being the planning and business development for OnStar. That position was where he married together his electrical engineering background, his MBA from Harvard, and his marketing experience.

"I've always been interested in technology, from the time I was two or three. I've always liked science and had an affinity for math and tech," he said. "I can remember in 1985 building my own PC ... from the ground up, the whole thing. I can remember in school breadboarding and using 6800 microprocessors. That stuff was all cool to me."

Unfortunately, Butler joked, he "didn't become a Michael Dell. I wish I'd have known I could sell these things."

But he's made an impact in his own right. In addition to his critical work getting OnStar off the ground, Butler ran GM's operation in Egypt before the company filed bankruptcy in 2009. He left GM and joined a small startup in Seattle called Inrix. But, as Butler sheepishly admitted, that only lasted two months. He ran into the GM president Mark Reuss at the airport and was asked to come back to the company to be the vice president of Cadillac's global marketing. That mission included the ability to help develop Cadillac's popular CUE interface, which earned a reputation as a strong marriage of tech and automobiles.

But after some time, he said he was no longer aligned with the company and wanted to do something else.

"I didn't know what that something else was going to be, interestingly enough," Butler laughed. "I just trusted that God would provide, and had some confidence in my own abilities too."

So here we are, full circle. Sitting in Butler's office next to a painting of a Mustang and chatting about the future of Ford's innovations. And for all his success in the auto industry, Butler credits never burning bridges, and always being transparent about his values and goals.

"One of the things I've learned as I've gone through this is you always want to leave feeling good about what you've done and how you've done it," Butler said. "And never want people to feel like they got burned. You always want to be on the up-and-up."

In his own words...

1. What are some of your hobbies?

"First, it's not a hobby but my faith is really important to me, like praying at the start of each day, more about plugging in than unplugging. I'm also into fitness and working out, strength and cardio. My typical Saturday begins with an 8-12 mile run. My wife and I like to cook together and occasionally travel to special places, Paris being our favorite destination."

2. What's the most exciting project you've ever worked on?

The most exciting project I've worked on in the past was OnStar and helping develop that business. I'm most excited that I'll get to take that experience and what I've learned since to bring the 'connected vehicle' vision to life for Ford."

3. Looking back, what is some advice you would give yourself when you were just starting out at Ford?

"Given that I'm only 6 months in, this is a difficult question. The advice I'd give myself now is the same way I approached this opportunity in the beginning: Be real and genuine, admit that I don't and won't know everything, take advantage of my newness to ask a lot of 'whys' and 'hows' and finally find a couple of places to bring immediate impact."

4. Where do you see yourself in 5, 10 years? At the end of your career, what do you hope people remember about you? What do you hope to have contributed?

"It's interesting because earlier in my career I did have 5 and 10 year goals about what positions or levels I'd have. Now, I'm more about living in the moment, enjoying what I'm doing, pursuing it with passion and purpose. At the end of my career I hope to be remembered for being passionate about the business and the people, great to work with, great to work for and great at getting work done. Specifically, in terms of contribution, I would like to be part of shifting Ford to being more of a software/technology company delivering amazing experiences."

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