I have just returned to the West Coast after taking some down-time during my last trip to Europe. Before getting back into the swing of things, however, I spent last weekend at Willow Springs – a well-known Californian race track. The picture I have here is of me behind the wheel during the one session I raced solo. While, strictly speaking, this was part of a High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) program supported by the National Auto Sport Association (NASA), it wasn’t long before the pace being set by the students became pretty competitive.
A few months back a friend of mine came over for diner and, as we talked, I discovered he was a real racer – competing in events around California. After getting out to the tracks and watching him race, I signed up for a couple of weekends. Today we buy cars that cannot be driven anywhere close to the limits of their design capabilities, and since there continues to be no legal restrictions to taking these cars onto the race track, I thought that it could be fun. Can I still drive smoothly, and can I avoid embarrassment alongside much younger participants?
For readers not familiar with the format of these open track events, novices (such as me) are required to participate in classroom sessions before going trackside under the guidance of an instructor. Following each session there are mandatory “downloads” where our performance is reviewed with a little education thrown in as well. It was during one of these downloads that our class instructor walked us through one of the most important aspects of racing – negotiating the corners.
The process of cornering was broken into four components; breaking, turn-in, apex, and exit. Of these, the most important component being the exit – the car will always follow your eyes - so we had to make sure we went into the corner looking for the exit and then, when committed to the corner, be looking for the next corner! As we reviewed these components, I was struck by the similarities with what we do in IT.
Breaking, and being prepared to change direction, is as much in the minds of CIOs as racers. As we survey the IT landscape, there comes those times where we just have to hold off deploying new applications and consider whether the time is right to change direction. There may have been a recent merger or acquisition where the different IT operations cannot be easily integrated. Perhaps a key vendor has decided not to support the environment, or has come out with enhancements that you cannot support. There’s always something just around the corner that necessitate a pause, whether it’s car racing or IT.
Turn-in, and knowing just when to make the decision to change, separates good IT management from those with less experience, as for many of us, determining when to change calls on skills accumulated over a lifetime in IT. You can turn-in too early only to be forced to ease up and loose ground, or you can turn in too late only to scramble to keep everything together and risk catastrophe.
Apex, that mythical point lying somewhere in the corner that immediately tells you that it’s OK to resume your attack on the next corner – that next milestone that will mandate another change. It was the great Formula One (F1) racing driver, Jackie Stewart, who on one episode of the BBC’s Top Gear redefined the meaning of the apex by instructing his student to “never press the gas pedal until you know you never have to take it off!” In other words, there comes a time when you reach a point where it’s just good to go – no more looking around and no more hesitations. And isn’t this the same in IT as we reach a point where our testing is over, where running in parallel with the old is no longer highlighting anything significant, and where we can commit to the course we decided to pursue.
Exit, the most important element of all. Jackie Stewart, in reviewing the early driving efforts of his student, observed “maybe you’re trying to think too much, about how you’re doing, rather than what’s coming up! The exit is far more important than the entry of the corner with regards to smoothness.” Speaking as a complete novice racer, this was a hard lesson to learn – early laps of the circuit had me watching the track just in front of the car and I was constantly making adjustments to the steering as well as coming off the gas peddle – I wasn’t comfortable and I certainly wasn’t smooth. Don’t we often do this, as our project enters the final stages. Don’t we become concerned that perhaps we aren’t quite ready – yet we really are at the point where we can go “live!” Shouldn’t we now be looking “through the exit” with our eyes focused squarely on the next project?
The car I took to the race track was the C6 Corvette. As the weekend unfolded I really gained a new appreciation for the car – I had many friends, particularly those from Europe, who really didn’t think that a Corvette was a serious car for weekend track days. Sure, it was fast in a straight line – but would it go round corners? They may be powerful but they are just too heavy and difficult to steer and there are many more-nimble alternatives! The cynical ones even suggested that American-built cars lacked the all-round capabilities of their more capable brethren from Europe and Asia. Could you ever be smooth in something as big as a Corvette? Could you maintain the pace?
So it was very encouraging to hear our instructor take time out to talk about safety and the need to pay attention to our seats, our seatbelts, and what we need to do to protect ourselves. “Cars built today are just so hindered by the restrictions placed on them by the lawyers and it takes a lot of effort to get them ready for track days,” he said. He then added “unless, of course you have come here with a BMW, a Porsche, or a Corvette, as these cars were developed for the race track before being refined for every day road use.” Fancy that – and who knew! It turns out that, among the racers, Corvettes hold considerable prestige and are viewed as highly desirable track day cars.
I have written previously of how difficult it is to shake off a label no matter how undeserved. And I have also observed how difficult it is to maintain relevancy when your key attributes have become “legendary.” For many, the “Stingray” suffers much the same fete as Tandem – they have a wonderful heritage but perhaps they no longer provide the right balance between power and weight, between price and performance. As the original Stingray name faded, and the Corvette brand became recognized worldwide, so too has the Tandem name, retired now following the acquisitions, become a footnote in history, replaced by NonStop. But with the resurgence in popularity the Corvette brand has enjoyed, will we see something similar happen for NonStop? As the Corvette shed weight and improved its performance, are we likely to see NonStop shed costs as its performance is improved?
In the coming days, HP will be rolling out a new NonStop product line built around commodity blades. This will have enormous impact on many market segments where previously, the thought of deploying NonStop was considered a backward step – something difficult to openly talk about with colleagues without appearing as though you were diverging from “mainstream” computing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Industry-standard chip sets, vendor commodity packaging, uniform operations and management tools, open languages and standard utilities ensures NonStop remains mainstream.
Late last year I posted a blog that I titled “Grading HP?” (December 29, 2007) where I suggested HP sales and marketing could do a better job. But in going through some of the comments posted on the blog, I came across one comment that said “So, who has failed? Have we application programmers failed to extend our applications into ways that realize the dream of the Tandem architecture? Has cost and the (purported) disappearance of (good) Tandem application programmers crushed the dreams?”
And it really hit me – as poorly as we may think HP marketing has been performing – have we stopped to think about the legendary capabilities of NonStop and to take advantage of the solutions that are out there, and available? Have we stopped thinking about writing the next application on NonStop?
I have included a second picture here – this time, it is of the former Vice Chairman of ITUG and now Vice President of CONNECT, Margo Holen – turning laps on Willow Springs. At ease with the Corvette, she turned in a couple of impressive laps and during one session, blew past a number of her fellow track day students, shredding her previous lap times and enjoying herself immensely.
Surely, shouldn’t we be encouraging our colleagues to put down a few laps with the NonStop? Preconceptions really should be dealt with and any old labels torn off as we gain in confidence. You certainly won’t need to look over your shoulder for anything from Europe or Asia - and I have to believe HP will only be even happier the more we shred the legacy labels! After all hasn’t HP, in electing to deploy NonStop at the heart of its server consolidation program, laid down the “lap times” to beat, and shouldn’t we now have this as the goal within our IT organizations?