Speed and Friction

In a recent news story, Paul Walker, famously of the “Fast and Furious” movie series died in a car crash when he and a friend wrapped a Porsche GT3 around a tree. According to reports, they were going too fast for the condition of the car when they lost traction and spun off the roadway. The Porsche GT3 is a highly capable sports car, capable of speeds exceeding 180 mph. It is a descendant of the famous Porsche 911 which shares a rear engine, rear drive configuration with the lowly Volkswagen Beetle. This platform has been campaigned as a successful race car since its introduction in the 1960’s yet is not without its challenges. Because the engine is located behind the rear wheels, it produces a tremendous amount of traction under acceleration, so that the driver has the ability to navigate corners at high speeds by maintaining weight transfer towards the rear of the car by accelerating. However, if the driver brakes during a high speed turn, or even lifts off the throttle, causing weight transfer toward the front axle, the engine can act as a counterweight, causing the rear wheels to lose traction and allowing centripetal force to spin the back of the car towards the outside of the turn. The experienced driver of this type of vehicle is aware of this, and the high speed technique is to brake like hell before the turn, and hammer the throttle through the turn to keep the rear end firmly planted. This author has practiced the technique in a “regular” 911 much less capable than the GT3. The ability to negotiate a standard right hand turn at a traffic intersection at >50 mph produces an exhilarating feeling of power and invincibility. While completely effective on empty roads, this can be devlishly difficult in traffic and so while at normal road speeds there are few issues, at race speed, the car can be a challenge, and difficult to keep on the road.

By now, you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with software development, leadership, staffing strategy or any of the other topics that show up regularly on this blog. We often talk about teams using a speed analogy. We want our teams to deliver software faster, but when we go “too fast” we often end up in the ditch. We get going so fast in one direction, that we can’t negotiate a turn. We don’t recognize the balance of the car and keep all the wheels planted on the roadway.

Here are ways that the team can lose traction:

1) Process change
2) Staff change
3) Architecture change
4) Leadership change

Software teams are a lot like our mythical Porsche. They don’t often turn safely at top speed.

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