Ahmed Mahmoud ’87 ’90 transformed his love of physics to become a leader in the IT world and an innovator at General Motors.
Ahmed Mahmoud ’87 ’90 arrives at the General Motors Information Technology (GM IT) Innovation Center in Austin each morning by 6:30 a.m. at the latest. He was once in the office so early that the lights in the building switched off while he was setting up for a conference call. After that, maintenance workers set his floor on an earlier timer schedule from the rest of the building.
It’s not that Mahmoud is a natural early bird. He isn’t. Rather, he believes that often the hardest path is the best one. This is the reason he studied physics in school—his brother told him it was the most difficult subject. It’s the reason he believes in pivoting away from the offshoring model that most IT companies make paramount in their hiring. And it’s the reason he is part of the team transforming innovation at GM as the chief information officer of four major units: Global Manufacturing, Customer Care & Aftersales, Global Purchasing & Supply Chain, and Quality IT.
Born in Libya, Mahmoud is the son of a former diplomat. He spent much of his early life attending American schools in places as diverse as Egypt, Switzerland and Malaysia. “I was an expat my whole life,” he explained. “All of my formal education was in English. I never had any formal education in Arabic, and although I can speak the language fluently, I can’t read or write it.”
When it came time for Mahmoud’s father to return to Libya with his family in 1981, Mahmoud decided to finish high school in Texas. He completed his junior year at Texas Military Institute in San Antonio, then transferred to Huntsville High School for his senior year since his two older brothers were attending Sam Houston State University (SHSU). Following in their footsteps, Mahmoud also completed his first two years of college at SHSU before transferring in 1985 to the physics program at Texas A&M University. He received his bachelors of science in physics in 1987, and that same year began a doctoral program in nuclear physics—also at Texas A&M. He worked hard as a student, and the stakes were high.
“There’s no safety net as a foreign student,” he said. “If you flunk out of school, there’s no scholastic probation where you can go home and spend time with your parents. If you fail, your visa is revoked and you have to leave the United States.”
Mahmoud’s professors saw great potential in him, but geopolitical forces out of his control interfered with his trajectory. During the summer after his first year in the graduate program, while other students took internship positions at national labs, Mahmoud faced a harsh reality: Libyan nuclear theoretical physicists during the Cold War didn’t have the same access to national research labs as their American peers.
“In the early 1980s, President Reagan made it so Libyans couldn’t work in national labs as physicists,” Mahmoud explained. “That was the first time in my life that I felt like an outsider. It made me suddenly ask myself if I really needed to go further in the field of physics.”
Facing this roadblock, Mahmoud earned his master’s degree in physics instead of a Ph.D., completing the program in 1990. When he prepared to enter the workforce, he discovered that courses he had taken outside of his major—math and computer science—would ultimately be the key to his future. He was hired at a research institute at the University of Houston to work on computer-aided drug design. With this decision, Mahmoud began a lifelong career working in IT, going on to positions at Eastman Kodak, Dell, Advanced Micro Devices, Hewlett-Packard and now General Motors.
For the last 21 years, Mahmoud has lived and worked in Austin. He joined GM in 2012, just as the company opened its first Texas-based Innovation Center.
The establishment of the GM IT Innovation Center in Austin (along with facilities in Atlanta, Georgia; Chandler, Arizona; and Warren, Michigan) signaled the start of a historic transformation in the way GM internally implemented information technology and services. “Historically, the IT business sends all sorts of jobs offshore to third parties around the world, including India, China and other nations,” Mahmoud said. “One of the things we’ve been doing here at GM is bringing these jobs back into our newly established innovation centers. We went from zero to more than 2,000 jobs in Austin in the last three years.”
Not only has the job growth in Austin been significant, but GM IT overall has moved from 1,400 badged employees to more than 11,000 in the last several years. Mahmoud and other executives at the company now place emphasis on both “insourcing” jobs—in other words, hiring their own personnel for projects rather than contracting outside labor—and building the overall talent of the team.
“Instead of having people in different time zones taking 12 hours to get back to you on something, you can now get your answer in 12 seconds or 12 minutes,” Mahmoud said.
The people in charge of IT at the company are now predominantly GM employees who work at one of the four U.S. innovation centers. According to Mahmoud, GM selected these spots because they are in close proximity to an abundance of IT talent.
“Our locations and the surrounding towns about 300 to 500 miles away cover roughly 70 percent of the college-graduating population of the nation,” Mahmoud said. “A few years after school, people usually get married, have kids and start thinking about moving closer to home. These locations keep them near enough to grandma and grandpa, and we don’t lose valuable employees.”
New college hires are an important resource for GM. Many of the employees at the GM Austin IT Innovation Center are recent college grads, and Texas A&M is one of the schools from which the company selects its hires. But, said Mahmoud, many young people have been told to steer clear of IT because they are misinformed and believe that most jobs are going overseas.
“Software is everywhere,” he said. “The latest lightbulbs have software in them. Look at microwaves, TVs and cars. The concept that all software jobs are going overseas is bad information.”
As the father of three children—22-year-old Maryam, 21-year-old Adam ’16 (a construction science major at Texas A&M) and 16-year-old Sami—Mahmoud encourages his children to explore as many subject areas as possible in their studies. He becomes frustrated when he hears parents and academic advisers urging students to avoid classes that don’t count toward their degrees.
“You go to college for an education, not just for a degree,” he tells them, thinking back to his own Texas A&M experience. “It’s like trying a new food. Taste it and see if you like it before you turn it down!”
At GM, Mahmoud runs teams totaling approximately 2,000 people, some of whom are part of the GM Vehicle Health Management (VHM) initiative. They develop technology that will help predict vehicular malfunctions before they happen. The program is called Proactive Alerts, and it uses a combination of sensors and software to keep drivers safer.
“Let’s say the starter takes four turns to start the car, and all of a sudden it’s beginning to take more energy,” said Mahmoud. “This tells me that the battery will start degrading, and within X number of weeks, the battery will go out.”
For now, Proactive Alerts monitors a vehicle’s starter, fuel pump and battery. Information from the car is transmitted to a data center, and internal issues are reported to the driver via OnStar. The goal is to prevent unexpected repairs and get drivers to the service area of the dealer before the problem intensifies. GM announced the product over the summer, and drivers of certain 2016 GM vehicles—like the Corvette Stingray, Cadillac Escalade and GMC Yukon—can opt into the program.
“Terabytes of data comes to us on a daily basis telling us the temperature of the car and various voltages, and we run these data multiple times,” Mahmoud said. “No other company is doing this.”
GM has more projects like this in the hopper—from a partnership with ride-share service Lyft to updates to the myChevrolet mobile app—but for Mahmoud and other GM leaders, new technology is not necessarily the most important end goal.
“At the end of the day, a major portion of our role is people development,” he said. “It’s up to a handful of leaders to make thousands of people more productive. The idea that there is a hero who will do something completely on his or her own is unrealistic. I’m a very big believer in inclusiveness.”
It’s for this reason—for his team—that Mahmoud gets up every morning and goes to work before sunrise, ready to start the day’s quest for innovation.
Texas A&M is one of GM’s partner universities, and Mahmoud serves as GM’s executive champion for Texas A&M. In addition to supporting the university financially with grant money given through the GM Foundation, senior leaders from the company are dedicated to hiring Aggies. Each semester, GM deploys a campus team to recruit students for jobs and internships, and partners with departmental leadership to enrich curriculum. Since receiving the “Partner School” designation with GM’s university relations team in 2015, 47 Aggies have been hired to don a GM badge. Of those, 32 work for the IT organization.
In the College of Science, faculty chairs ($2 million) and professorships ($500,000) are key to building a team of renowned biologists, mathematicians, statisticians, physicists, astronomers and chemists. We also seek a $40 million naming gift for the college.