Formula One & Software Development — two peas in a pod

Wherein I ruminate on the similarities between thee pinnacle of motorsport and software development
20th February 2023, four minutes to read

It’s that time of year – twelve months of hard engineering work, and your team can share your new creation to the world. The team will be judged on its performance relative to your competitors. Your users will speak honestly about their love or hate for your creation. Not only has the team poured every ounce of energy into working towards this moment, they’ve gone above & beyond to support last years creation being used by those same users, against those same competitors. They saw where they’d made mistakes, where they’d excelled — they’ve strived to address those issues tactically with the existing product, and strategically in the soon-to-be-revealed creation.

I am, of course, talking about Formula One (F1). It’s that time of year when teams share their creation with the world — judgement is passed and people search for the nuance & detail, often missing what is hidden from view. The true test is on the track — how it’s wielded by the users drivers in the pressure cooker, getting the job done.

I could just as easily be talking about commercial software.

Squinting in the mirror

The long-term view of F1 isn’t random — it’s seen in the distance: you know what’s coming. This allows you to plan investments in your vehicle, team members, drivers, etc. This is the same in a well-run software team! The marketplace shows you where you need to put your investments and your customers feedback informs what needs to be addressed immediately.

The annual financial cycle of most business defines the rhythm of work in a software organisation. It tells you which architectural issues (chassis, aero in F1) need to be invested in, how your marketing (race strategy in F1) needs to address the realities of the marketplace, and how you need to adjust your recruiting & compensation packages to retain key personnel.

Star software engineers, designers, aerodynamic visionaries will retire, or leave for different challenges. Equally, your 10x developer (driver) will become disillusioned with the industry & teams success, and leave you. Your engineers deployed on the challenges of today. Some of them – sometimes many, sometimes few – are deployed on whatever coming after whatever is now.

Success is a product of the culture of an organisation, with a little bit of luck to make it existing. Formula One just makes it simple to measure – every race puts a number on the organisation’s performance.

The cycle of the financial year season

F1 is intrinsically driven by annual cycles – goals driven by external factors (season, rules & regulation changes), goals revised constantly by observation of your competitor, and on occasion, by the governing body. You seek to outperform your competitors definitively, but it really is a game of inches milliseconds. Sometimes you’re lucky and you take tenths of a second.

Ostensibly the year starts with your product launch – display of the new livery, and maybe the new car itself. You trot out a series of sponsors partners in a dog and pony show to wow the world with your new creation. You talk superlatives, but only the most deluded talk assuredly about winning & success – you have an idea what the real-world performance is, but you don’t really know until you’re all on track. In reality the team has spent the last year working on the internal combustion engine, aerodynamics, suspension, materials, battery technology, lubricants, fuel, safety, livery, and more to get the best out of them in a way that is deployable within the regulations. The public – and the press – discuss as a short-lived burst of energy since the last race ended only four months prior.

Then you’re out on track racing the cars week after week for 23 races – sometimes you might get two weeks between. You’ve got to optimise your package ‘cause you don’t have time to stop, you’re committed to this concept. You measure your technology, you analyse its performance through telemetry & data science, and you copy are inspired by what your competitors have done. You adapt. You also plan for next season, where you do this all over again with the new insights you’ve learned.

Just like software.

Further Reading

Total Competition is an interesting – if overwrought – view on business through storytelling of Formula One. It’s also about building the process & the system to make short, medium, long term in a well-oiled cycle. You don’t need to understand F1 to get value from it and is a palette cleanser for the treadmill of tech & business books you might regularly read.