It's a bold notion, but in an era when everything from fitness monitors to subsea blowout preventers is getting connected to the Internet, also prescient one. Bell now works as chief digital officer at GE Power & Water, the first such C-suite executive in GE's 123-year history. Although he has the affable mien of a hoody-clad West Coast software entrepreneur, beneath that easygoing veneer flickers the flinty intensity of a motorbike racer who likes to push himself hard at the track. “I’ve always believed that in order to succeed, you have to commit to being uncomfortable,” he says.
Bell’s got the record to prove it. Two years ago, after he left a pure play Silicon Valley software job, he spent six months travelling the world and telling everyone about his epiphany. Then one day there was an email from GE in his inbox. “It said, ‘We’ve heard you, we’re intrigued, we should talk,’” he says. “At that point, I had to decide whether I really believed what I was saying or whether it was just hubris. The stakes got pretty high when the world’s largest industrial company came knocking. So I said yes.”
Bell’s chief domain is the company’s multi-billion energy business making turbines, generators, transformers other power machinery. “The entire value chain of energy must go digital or you’re going out of business,” he says. “There is no other way."
GE Power & Water, not to mention other GE units, had never had a digital officer before. That's partly because the business of making electricity and sending it to customers remained fundamentally unchanged from its earliest days. But in the last decade, when utilities started adding wind, solar and other renewable sources of energy, the rigid grid system suddenly had to become more flexible. It had to accommodate power from the sun, which doesn’t always shine, and the wind, which doesn’t always blow. Meanwhile at home, people also started putting solar panels on their homes, using their own generators and even storing and trading power from batteries. “It’s like going from juggling one ball to juggling 10,” Bell says. “We need to use software to keep all the balls in the air.”
Bell has his office at GE’s software headquarters in San Ramon, Calif. Late last month, he was at GE’s Minds+ Machines conference in nearby San Francisco, where is business just launched the world's first digital power plant that has the potential to save customers $300 million over its lifetime. Earlier this year, GE also came out with the first digital wind farm, which could lead to $100 million in lifetime savings, and started connecting the dots on transforming all of power generation, grid and consumption with software.
Bell says that customers have been always asking for outcomes like these, but they are now demanding them in ways that are shaking up both software and hardware. “In the past, they wanted better machines, but now they’re demanding outcomes at the enterprise level,” he says. “They want to optimize their entire companies, from business and operations to asset performance.”
Bell says that GE has an opportunity to quickly grab a big share of the quickly growing digital industrial service market, which is estimated to top $220 billion by 2020. “There’s no other software market of this size anywhere else,” Bell says. “For example, right now, we are using software to optimize a wind turbine. But the solution is getting so powerful that we can optimize an entire wind farm.”
Bell might be the first chief digital officer in GE history, but not for long. The model has gained traction and it's quickly becoming part of GE's playbook. Other GE businesses – from healthcare to aviation – are already developing their own digital service offerings. In September, the company also launched a new business called GE Digital that will connect them all.
Bell recently talked about his vision and the importance of seeking insights from different fields and businesses with GE executives at the company’s “corporate university” in Crotonville, NY. When he started out as a software developer in India, programmers working on different project and in different computer languages still had to share time on a single mainframe. “I was the only person who programmed in three languages and thus the only one who could be productive the full eight hours,” he said. “It was then when I realized that specialization was for ants. It was true then and especially today. In the valley, you have to be a polymath and a Renaissance man or woman to really understand what’s going on.”
Being a Renaissance man is something Bell embraces with gusto. When he is not disrupting industries, you can find him riding his Ducati or his Aprilia RSV4 Superbike motorcycles at the track. “You have to push yourself into the uneasiness,” he says. “When I started at GE, I knew a lot about software but I didn’t know squat about power generation. But you learn much more when you’re really uncomfortable, that’s the true growth mindset. Now I can tell you how an air-cooled gas turbine makes electricity. Try me!"