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New career, same old stuff

Earlier this year I switched careers from sysadmin to aerodynamicist at a Formula 1 motor racing team (after completing a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering). As it turns out, in some ways, being an aerodynamicist at a racing team requires many of the same tools and processes as being a sysadmin. Here's what I have found...


There are many things going on at once, as with most jobs. It can be difficult to keep track of everything you need to do, when you need to do it by, who needs to know when you have completed your task, and what you have done so far. For me, the tool that comes to mind for this task is a light-weight trouble ticket system. There can also be problems that occur with the model or the wind-tunnel operations that need to be tracked. Again, a trouble-ticket system is useful for this. (Chapter 16: Customer Care)

One of the most important parts of the job is viewing the wind-tunnel data produced. For this we have a suite of in-house software, and associated configuration files and templates. As the software changes and more functionality is added, the configuration files and templates change. No single person is responsible for these, the aerodynamicists all need to be able to add and update templates for others to use. The best way of sharing these updates, and being able to revert to previous versions if an update adversely effects your work, is, naturally revision control software, which we routinely use for important system configuration files as sysadmins. (Chapter 10: Change Management)


Speaking of this in-house software that gets updated... It is a critical piece of software. If it doesn't work, the aerodynamicists are dead in the water. Even though the software is tested, real-life use of it puts it through its paces more rigorously. To avoid taking down all the aerodynamicists, new releases are first given to one volunteer aerodynamicist, who tests it, and works out the bugs (and has access to the previous stable release, to get back up and running if the new version fails badly). After that aerodynamicist okays it, the software is released to the rest of the (small) group. This is a miniature version of the One-Some-Many roll-out process. (Chapter 13)

Wind-tunnel time is precious and tightly scheduled. Tunnel testing involves someone to run the tunnel, an aerodynamicist and some model makers. The aerodynamicist directs the test, but everyone needs to be on the same page.
A test list must be prepared in advance, with a list of parts to be tested, and the order in which they are tested. The model makers pre-fit the parts to the model, to make sure there will be no problems when the time comes to test them. The aerodynamicist considers, and documents in advance how the test will proceed based on the results from each part as it is tested. Beyond looking at the results to decide which part X (e.g. front wing end-plate) is better, there is no thinking required on the day. The decisions have been made in advance, and no tunnel time is lost trying to decide what parts to run next. This process is very much like the process we used for preparing for maintenance windows (Chapter 12). Document what you want to do, what could happen at each step, and what you should do as a result. That way no time is lost during the time-critical period in which you are doing the work. Preparation and check lists are key.

Posted by Christina J. Lear

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Damn. That sounds fascinating!

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