What Hauke Stars intends to do as a member of the Volkswagen Board of Management is a revolution by the standards of the group. The automotive giant is an old company with highly complicated structures, lots of hierarchy and bureaucracy. Stars, who has been responsible for IT and organization on the board since February, is trying to unravel and modernize this network from the inside.
WORLD: At the federal government’s digital summit, there was talk that Germany needs a turning point in digitization. Has she already started at VW?
Hauke Stars: At Volkswagen, this turning point has already begun with the New Auto strategy. The strategy means, on the one hand, the company's focus on electromobility and, on the other hand, on digitization. We want to become a software and data-oriented mobility company. My job is to further advance digitization and the use of data in the company. The transformation places high demands on us, so we still have a lot of work ahead of us.
WORLD: Does the state’s digitization backlog burden a company like VW?
Stars: It is clear to all of us that there is a lack of IT talent. According to the digital association Bitkom, there are currently 137,000 vacancies for IT specialists. This is also due to the fact that our schools are lagging behind in terms of digitalisation. I don't understand why modern tools aren't used to a greater extent to impart and test the subject matter. As a company, we train IT specialists ourselves, but that's not enough. We need more government initiative to promote STEM education.
WORLD: Hackers usually penetrate companies through employees who click on e-mails without knowing it. Is the digital backlog also a risk in terms of cyber security?
Stars: I don't see this connection like that. Volkswagen invests a great deal in information campaigns to make employees aware of risks and weaknesses. We also invest heavily in monitoring external threats and constantly monitor new developments. This is a never-ending race with the hackers.
WORLD: How badly is VW affected by cyber attacks?
Stars: We are regularly attacked, but we have mechanisms in place to deal with it. At the same time, we ensure that our systems are always updated and protected as best as possible.
WORLD: Could data theft have happened at VW this summer, as happened at the supplier Continental?
Stars: That's speculative and difficult to say. We must always be vigilant because there is no such thing as absolute security.
WORLD: 40 terabytes of data have been stolen from Conti, which are offered for sale on the Darknet. What impact does this case have on VW?
Stars: We are in close contact with Continental and are analyzing to what extent Volkswagen AG data is affected. This is a lengthy process, if only because there is so much data.
WORLD: Could the case become economically dangerous for VW?
Stars: We can't say anything about that yet. Even the hackers will most likely not yet know exactly what is contained in the 40 terabytes. Assuming that there were codes from our software subsidiary Cariad, it would still hardly be possible for strangers to do something with them immediately. If we determined that there was any safety risk to the vehicles and our customers, we would communicate this and take appropriate action immediately. But we are not in this situation.
WORLD: Does Volkswagen have data rooms in the world that are regionally encapsulated, or could the state in China, for example, access data from you?
Stars: We don't have a data center in China, we have one in Singapore. The business-critical data is located in our three centers here in Wolfsburg. Our colleagues work on protected systems and only see the data that is relevant to them or that has been approved for them. Thus, the Chinese state per se cannot access the data rooms. If a security agency in China could access our systems, we would have a big problem.
WORLD: So there is a firewall between Wolfsburg and China?
Stars: There is a delimitation of the systems. Also, we typically have role-based security systems, which is standard in a company of this size. I myself can't access data, for example in vehicle development or in China - because I don't need them for my job.
WORLD: Let's talk about digitization in the office: How often is the fax still used at VW?
Stars: I hope not so often anymore (laughs). Sometimes I see that people also include a fax number in their signature, but that probably comes in electronic form. Of course, we still have old systems that are gradually being replaced. So it's our turn.
WORLD: What does the optimally digitized working world look like for you?
Stars: Modern systems, automated processes in the form of workflows, data-based information that is available with a swipe of a finger and helps us, for example, to understand customer requirements even better. We have already implemented changes in many areas. For example, we use virtual reality in development so that we no longer only have to work on very expensive physical prototypes. We use quantum computing to analyze battery chemistry. We use artificial intelligence in production and wheel design.
WORLD: Is there a big difference between factory and administration - on the one hand digitized production and on the other hand typing data into Excel lists?
Stars: No, we have innovative solutions in both areas, but we also have old worlds that we have to change. We'll do that gradually. We have not started a huge transformation program, but are working on specific topics in three-month sprints. That gives us more speed. Overall, the change from Volkswagen to a tech company is not a sprint, but a marathon.
WORLD: So far, cars have been developed in seven-year projects. Do your people even participate in these short sprints?
Stars: I experience a lot of openness to agile working. This is standard in IT today. Having concrete results every three months is motivating for the team. And other areas are also moving in this direction, such as vehicle development.
WORLD: The software subsidiary Cariad is working on an operating system for cars. Would such a system also be conceivable for the company?
Stars: In this context, I would understand the term operating system less as a technique and more as a methodology and mental attitude. Technically, such a system would not make much sense, we mostly use standard software. But we need a uniform platform, a high-performance IT infrastructure on which everything runs together. But for me it's mainly about the way people work and that we see ourselves as a tech company.
WORLD: But so far VW has been a huge bureaucracy with a lot of hierarchy - and the opposite of agile.
Stars: This system has strengths and weaknesses. It is true that a group like Volkswagen involves a lot of hierarchy and bureaucracy. I'm trying to purify that and thereby enable more speed. Colleagues take this very positively. On the other hand, Volkswagen's size also has many advantages.
WORLD: What do you mean by that? process stability?
Stars: Yes, and above all the opportunity to share innovations within the group, to implement bigger things together. You can see that on the platforms in the vehicle business, which achieve enormous economies of scale. This also works in IT.
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WORLD: What are you changing in the organization, are you taking jobs away from people, are you eliminating hierarchical levels?
Stars: I'm working on making the hierarchies flatter so that we can make decisions faster. I hear from employees in the Group that they want to take on more responsibility. Decisions should be made more in the project teams and less in committees.
WORLD: Do you relieve employees of work that can be automated?
Stars: We want to free employees from repetitive tasks, there is still a lot of potential. The more we automate, the more capacity we free up for tasks that add more value. This not only happens in production, but also in the relationship with our customers. By analyzing data, for example from our websites, we can understand better and earlier what customers want. We still have a lot of work to do here.
WORLD: Can you reduce the number of employees as a result?
Stars: That's not the point. For us, it is more of a concern that the number of employees will fall too quickly with the demographic curve and at the same time not enough talent will follow. This is another reason why automation is necessary.
WORLD: If digitization is a cultural issue - what has to change for VW to arrive in this new culture?
Stars: Every company has to be open - to change and to digital tools. For example, I see low code, i.e. programming without mastering a programming language, as a great opportunity to take employees with me. We have our own training team for this. Constant learning and error tolerance are very important. The cars must always be flawless. But in the process, we have to be open to trying more and doing things differently if an iteration doesn't work.
WORLD: That doesn't sound easy for a car company.
Stars: It's not that. The old, tedious processes come from product perfectionism. But under Oliver Blume we are picking up speed. I also encourage my managers to always question: Is this the right way? If not, then you have to make quick decisions and take a different path.
WORLD: Can you derive something from this for our pre-digital society as a whole?
Stars: Maybe that perfectionism doesn't count everywhere, but that you first have to try out, learn and, if necessary, make adjustments to many things - just like in software development. Openness to change, enjoyment of decisions and new approaches - if we manage to live this attitude in the Volkswagen Group and in Germany, we will gain a lot.
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