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4/17/2012
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A Formula 1 Racing Team's Mobile Development Makeover

Are your SMB's mobile apps any good? IT chief for Lotus F1 racing team shares how he answered that question and improved mobile app development techniques.

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Think you work in a fast-paced environment? Spend a day--or a season, more like it--in Graeme Hackland's shoes.

Hackland is director of IT and information systems for the Lotus F1 racing team. He's responsible not only for the Lotus factory--its home base of operations in England--but also for the team's onsite technology needs at all 20 Formula 1 races each season, including inside the cars. Each of those events lasts four days; more than half of them--such as the recent Chinese Grand Prix--take place outside of the Lotus F1's time zone.

"We show up to an empty track, so we have to take with us everything that's needed to run a race," Hackland said in an interview. That includes servers, storage, networking gear, and anything else the team needs to run. It also includes applications. Everything that gets set up at the race is linked back to the factory so that data can flow back and forth in or near real time so that everyone on the team remains in sync even if they're not at the track. "We deliver new software for every race. We simply can't afford to deploy applications that break."

[ Before you start building your customer-facing app, consider these 5 Mobile App Development Tips For SMBs. ]

The 40-person IT/IS group is largely comprised of developers and testers that share a laser focus on the rest of Lotus F1's 520 employees and their tech needs. (Public-facing applications such as the Lotus website are outsourced.) Inside the factory, that includes a computer-aided design (CAD) application, integration and user interfaces for manufacturer apps, and custom apps. At the track, Hackland's team builds and supports applications for things like telemetry, GPS, real-time statistical analysis, and so forth.

As in other sports, there's an intense focus on gaining an edge through data. Numbers drive strategic decisions like when to bring a car in for a pit stop or when to make a move on the track. Data sources include: the car itself (via telemetry), track weather, and competitor information--such as the tires that other teams use.

Lotus F1's tech needs--there's a joke in here somewhere--are increasingly mobile. Hackland's users need to be able to access applications and data from a vast array of devices and locations. Since Hackland is concerned entirely with internal users, rather than how his apps stack up on Google Play or Apple's App Store, he prioritized platform agnosticism. When the cars are screaming around the track on race days, there's no time for questions like: "Can I get this on my Android phone?" The goal of 100% agnosticism is still a work in progress, but they're getting there.

"Although we've still got a bit of Java left, all of our development is .NET," Hackland said. "We're writing apps that people should be able to run from any tablet, smartphone, Windows PC, Mac, or whatever."

As Lotus mobilized its software tools, Hackland realized he had a problem--his team didn't find out if the apps they were writing were any good until they were in production. There were two key pieces to the solution. First, Lotus F1 began using iRise to run interactive simulations of its apps before writing a word of code. That allows engineers and other end users to test, say, an app for balancing a new vehicle, well before it's actually developed and deployed. Users can then tell Hackland's team what's working well, and what will cause them problems on and off the track. "All of those kinds of things we've been criticized for in the past: that we don't have a good enough understanding of how they use our software," Hackland said. "They said that because what we delivered to them sometimes was not logical to how they worked."

Second, Hackland's department adopted agile scrum development. That has gone a long way to improve another underlying issue in Lotus F1's mobility shift. "Another criticism that was coming from our user base was that they didn't have enough interaction with us," Hackland said. "They would be there at the beginning when you do the requirements capture, and then at some point in the future they would see the product."

As a result, the IT/IS group can now develop in three-week "sprints" that better suit the grueling nature of the Formula 1 season and Lotus F1's business. Moreover, the developers have much keener insights into what people actually need and how they use their apps. The business, meanwhile, has a much clearer understanding of all of the work that goes into all of those apps.

"At the end of every three weeks, we're showing them what the product looks like right now and what work was done," Hackland said. He added with a chuckle: "We can then tie that back to the visualization we did up front to show whether we're still on track, or whether they've changed their minds again--which they sometimes do."

InformationWeek is conducting a survey on the state of enterprise applications and business processes and organizations' priorities in evolving technology over the next 12 to 24 months. Upon completion of our survey, you will be eligible to enter a drawing to receive an 32-GB Apple iPod Touch. Take our Enterprise Applications Survey now. Survey ends April 20.

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