Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Damn the Economy! Data Acquisition Engineers Needed

So I've got an opportunity to do some data acquisition for a pro team, guys that I consider personal friends. Problem is, with a 13-race schedule and a lot of testing, I'd need to devote more time off work than I've got available in vacation time (not to mention needing to keep some for my wife and otherwise-personal life). So I've been trying to find some good guys to suggest to the team for a full season of data engineering.

No one to be found.

As you are no doubt aware, data is big in motorsports, one of those former "unfair advantages" that, as they all do, has moved into "absolutely necessary". I was told by one data guy that I called that 2012 is going to be one of the largest Grand-Am fields in a long time, if not in history, and teams from the Continental series, Rolex GT, and DP are all looking for data guys (and this ignores all other series!) And there's just few good ones to be had. This guy I mentioned has been getting calls from Motec to support their customers, and I'm aware of other manufacturers looking for customer support for their products, too. There's only so many "few good men" available.

I've got my ideas on why this is the case. First, it's all contract work; except in the rare cases of the real top-end teams, data guys are part-time "travel crew", where they show up for the race and test weekends. The teams simply can't afford to keep someone like that on board full-time. As a result, most of these guys (like me) just do this part-time within their own lives, with "real jobs" during the week.

Second, the economy hasn't exactly been booming, so team racing budgets are strained. When that happens, data guys are typically low on the funding priority pole, after testing, development, so forth. Yes, we all know the value of a good data guy toward racing success, but we're in the minority. A lot of racing teams tend to be as short-sighted as other business. As a result, there wasn't a lot of work available so data guys made some career changes to do other things.

Third, the lifestyle of a data guy - hell, of racing in general - doesn't exactly appeal to everyone. Race schedules are tough, and you gotta be flexible.

Interested in the work? Here's what it takes to be a good data guy.

Personality and Communication Skills

First and foremost - more important than anything else - you must be able to work with people.

The job of a data guy (and I use that term generically; I know some data gals that kick ass) is to download, sort, and interpret data from the race car. But much, much more importantly than that, his job is to interact with all parties to tell them what that data means. To do that, you must be able to interact with personalities that spread the width and breadth of human nature. You'll be talking to mechanically-minded technicians working on and setting up the car, with team managers looking for things going wrong, with chassis and aero guys wanting to know where to change the setup, and with race car drivers (from dolts to supermen) that are looking for that edge. You have to be able to comprehend their position, understand their moods, and present the information to them on their level, using their language. The car may "talk" to the driver while on the track, but the data is the objective judge that has the facts. You are, in effect, the language interpreter between the race car and all the other people involved in that race car.

Further, you have to get along. Race teams are a group of people that, like a band, live and work closely, occasionally for long periods of time. You have to be able to get along with the roadies as well as the talent, and you have to tolerate all the foibles including Ian Faith's cricket bat.

If you can't work with people, knowing the ins and outs of all the hardware and being the team's biggest techno-nerd will get you absolutely nowhere.

Technical Ability

But, that said, knowing the ins and outs of all the hardware and being the team's biggest techno-nerd is very important, too. Knowledge of computers, software, electronics systems, data transfer/storage, are all important. You are going to be the guy that has to gather, correlate, and organize all the information. The first thing a driver is going to ask when he gets out of the car is "what's the data say?" and right behind him will be the crew chief asking the same question, with the team manager right on his butt heading your way. And they want it NOW.

You better know how to get to it.

Knowledge of Motorsports and Vehicle Dynamics, and an ability to "Visualize" the Data

There are a lot of books out there on data acquisition. I've got a few suggestions if you're interested. But when it all comes down to it, you can teach technical ability to get to the data, and you can teach how to run the software and make the pretty pictures, but I'm not clear that you can teach vehicle dynamics and truly express what the data is saying in terms of car control.

All those squiggly lines and tables of numbers mean nothing unless you can be the interpreter for what they are telling you. What does that line moving so quickly in that section mean? Why is that table data flat-lining and staying the same during the compression on the hill? Why is the data missing there? You can't just say "oh, look, that line is moving down and up fast while those two are moving, too" you need to be able to say "you are making a quick throttle lift right as you're turning in for South Bend, causing corner weight transfer which is upsetting the chassis. This could be why you're losing 10 mph through there versus your co-driver." You have to take your personality and communication skills with your technical ability and knowledge of vehicle dynamics and put it all together into a reasonable presentation of what's going on. After all, the only thing people REALLY want to know is just that: "what's happening?"

Do you naturally talk with your hands on an invisible steering wheel with your right foot on an invisible throttle? Having a motorsports background, even an amateur one, is not absolutely required but it goes a long way toward being able to interpret the data into real-world scenario.

Humbleness

You're not in a competition with these guys, you're all on the same team. You don't have anything to prove; if you're doing your job right, then people will know. You are the silent member of the band, the trombonist or bass drum player way in the back of the symphony, the one providing the support, not the one out front of the stage waving the violin around. If the symphony wins, you've done your job, no need to bang the bass drum louder so the audience notices you. Sure, you'll give your opinion, but most of the time they'll ask you for it if they want it (and if they do trust you for your opinion, that's a clear sign Yer Doin' It Right). But in the end, it'll be you, the data guy, that has to convince the Pilote Prima Donna that he is, in fact, lifting where he thinks he's not...but in a way that he believes it (and maybe in a way that convinces him he thought of it. See "Personality".)

Business Acumen

Let's face it: this is not a full-time job. However, with the right promotion, time management, and business sense, it might be a lot of part-time jobs rolled together into a more-than-full-time job. Parlayed right, you can get a lot of work out of this.


At the same time, understanding how the motorsports business works helps in a lot of decisions about going forward. It's nice and all to say "you gotta buy those new pimpy shocks" but it's better to present it as "those $2000/corner shocks should give the drivers confidence to gain up to a second per lap, which would put you on the podium next race".

Confidentiality

If you do work with multiple teams, you must, must, must maintain a Chinese Wall between all of these teams. I've not seen too many teams that require signing of Confidentiality Agreements (amazing) but to a good data guy those are totally unnecessary. Your reputation is your value, not what some team manager thinks he can glean out of you for what you did for the other team. Just like talking bad about other people behind their backs, your revealing other people's data or information to a team, even for the best of reasons, immediately implies to them that you're willing to do it the other way.

Their asking is just part of motorsports, you should refuse outright, without condition, and walk away if they insist. I personally don't even bring data from other teams with me to the track, just in case someone gets access to my PC.

Flexible Work Schedules

It's motorsports, and all that that implies. You'll be called to fly to the track "tomorrow", and you'll be working dawn to well into the night. Your work isn't done until the car is on the trailer and way down on the highway.

If you're a Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 kinda guy, this just ain't your game.

So What's the Benefits?

It's motorsports, and all that that implies. As a contract employee you'll get either per-hour or per-diem pay. You'll get your expenses paid to go to some pretty damn cool races and race venues. You'll, hopefully, be part of a successful motorsports program that wins races and championships, you'll get to bask in the glory of success, and you'll be able to tell people, "yeah, I was part of that team".

And you'll get to hang with some pretty damn cool folks.

Data acquisition is, in my mind, a rare piece of motorsports where there's a high demand but a low quality supply. Unlike being a driver, you'll get reimbursed for your efforts, and if you're better than the rest you'll gain a favorable reputation and actually rise through the ranks based on that talent. Maybe it's not as satisfying as being a driver - it's certainly not going to gain you the fame and access to the winner's trophy podium - but in the end you're still a key piece of that success and you're far better off going home with reimbursement for your efforts.

So, who wants to be a data guy...?

Greg