Tesla CIO Builds IT That Keeps Pace With Its Cars

By Peter High
Jay Vijayan, CIO for Tesla Motors

Tesla CIO Builds IT That Keeps Pace With Its Cars

Jay Vijayan, CIO for Tesla Motors, is responsible for the company's business applications, infrastructure, network, systems operations and security. Learn how he helped IT evolve into a global organization that is a key enabler supporting the growth and success of the company's business.

CIO Insight: Jay, you’ve been the CIO of Tesla for two years, and you’ve been with the company for nearly three. Can you please highlight the evolution of the IT function during that time?

Jay Vijayan: The IT function in Tesla has been evolving extremely fast with the evolution of the company. The company had quarterly revenue of $39.5M in Q4 2011, but in the last quarter (Q2 2014), we reported quarterly revenue of $769.35M. Our exponential growth is not in revenue alone, but in all areas—from production volume to global sales.

We have produced a car [Tesla Model S] that won all the prestigious awards in the automotive industry in its first year of production. We are continuing to grow and move faster than ever to achieve our goal of accelerating the world’s transition to electric mobility, with a full range of increasingly affordable electric cars.

As part of this exciting and continuing journey, the IT team built Tesla's entire global systems network and data center infrastructure; software applications for the factory, corporate and retail network; and the necessary information security infrastructure and tools. We continue to ensure that everything we do in IT is aligned with a larger business goal. IT has evolved to a global organization and a key enabler to the global growth and success of our growing business.

CIO Insight: I’ve been fascinated by the fact that during a time when most IT departments chose to buy technology rather than build it, you have a bias toward building your solutions. Why is that?

Vijayan: There are a few reasons why we chose to build versus buy. Here are the two core reasons:

Speed and Agility: As a business, we had to move extremely fast and also be agile for catalyzing a fundamental change in the automotive industry. IT function had the task to enable the business to be operating with the highest speed and agility. To do that, we needed a business operations software/ERP system that is simple, lightweight and flexible enough to satisfy our core business needs.

We couldn’t find such a system. Every system out there was built, not for one company or one industry, but built for several industries and tens of thousands of companies. By their nature, they are heavyweight, with functionality to satisfy all the needs of the world and additional bells and whistles. They are not very fast and not very flexible. So we went ahead and built one ourselves to satisfy our core needs.

Seamless Vertical Integration: Elon’s [Elon Musk, Tesla's Co-Founder, CEO and Product Architect] vision is to build a vertically integrated organization where information flow happens seamlessly across departments and where we have a closed feedback loop to our customers. By doing this, we can provide the best possible product, service and overall experience to our customers in the fastest way possible, while also operating efficiently as a business.

To bring this vision to life, we had to have simple and central business operations software that could connect all departments and enable information flow seamlessly across departments. Again, we couldn’t find one software program in the market that satisfied this need.

Traditionally, companies buy best-of-breed software for one or more business functions and then spend enormous amount of energy, resources and money to integrate, manage and maintain it. The information flow is not smooth or seamless because many times these applications do not talk to each other easily. So we ended up building one.

CIO Insight: How do you ensure that the systems integrate with one another and that they can be refreshed and ultimately retired when necessary?

Vijayan: First of all, we removed several discrete software applications across the company and replaced them with functionality from our in-house central ERP business application. So the amount of integration we needed to do has been very little. Any integration we build is developed in the simplest way possible, but with necessary controls and compliance mechanisms to maintain data integrity and seamless flow. We use lightweight open-source middleware to integrate as necessary.

CIO Insight: Your automobiles have been used as examples of the Internet of things. Can you provide highlights as to how you collect data for the company and your customers to make better decisions?

Tesla CIO Builds IT That Keeps Pace With Its Cars

Vijayan: Tesla cars, starting from the Roadster and now Model S, are the first and only true connected cars in the industry. Ours is the only company that can do over-the-air firmware and infotainment updates to our cars for feature functionality upgrades and maintenance. Tesla Model S is a true example of Internet of things in action. The data we collect from the car is used for diagnosis and R&D purposes, to make our product better, and to provide the best service and overall experience to our customers.

CIO Insight: Clearly, Tesla is a bit of big data poster child. You collect petabytes of data from your cars. How do you turn this data into insights and actions?

Vijayan: The data we collect from each car is not that big in size. In fact, it is very small. We do it in an efficient way. Just this number multiplied by the number of our cars on the road is what makes it big, and as the number of Tesla cars on the road increases, it will be huge in the years to come.

We use this data to get meaningful insight on the product and its internal workings and for continuous improvement feedback. Our product engineering teams take this information and work on improvements and prepare a software update for the car. This update—after the quick, efficient product lifecycle process, including rigorous testing, concludes—is sent back to customer cars over the air. Once a customer accepts this update, it is applied to the car seamlessly.

CIO insight: The company has invested heavily in infrastructure to make driving an electric car coast-to-coast easier. These investments have expanded beyond the U.S. How do you stay connected and what data do you collect?

Vijayan: The network of Tesla Superchargers is an important part of the ecosystem that provides the best driving experience to our customers. Tesla Superchargers allow Model S owners to travel for free between cities along well-traveled highways in North America, Europe and Asia. Superchargers provide half a charge in as little as 20 minutes and are strategically placed to allow owners to drive from station to station with minimal stops. Tesla Superchargers represent the most advanced charging technology in the world. It's capable of charging Model S 16 times faster than most public charging stations. 

All of our charging stations are connected to the home network. Our Supercharger teams monitor their efficiency and how they're working. We will know immediately if there is an issue with any of the charging station and can take quick action to resolve it. Many of our Supercharging stations are solar powered. They have solar panels to offset energy use and provide shade. Over the next few years, we plan to cover more stations in sunny locales, with solar canopies, as part of our commitment to the environment.

CIO Insight: Tesla has become a global company. How do you think about managing data across borders where you've expanded? What do you do to ensure that data is secure?

Vijayan: We take data and overall information security very seriously. We have thought through this deep, wide and clearly, and we have a strategy that we are working to implement as we grow globally. At a high level, we will keep necessary data for [a particular] region within that region.

Talking to a few of my CIO peers, it looks like many other companies that had different strategies in the past are now moving to this new strategy. This validates that we have taken the right path from the onset of our expansion.

This strategy also helps us to easily comply with the regulatory and compliance needs of the region and reduce the risk from a security perspective. We have heavily invested in security, in cutting-edge tools to protect data, and by hiring the best security experts and researchers to keep the data and network secure.

This article was originally published on 11-05-2014