Brad Allan may have only been with McLaren Applied for six months, but he’s revelling in life at the forefront of software engineering.
An avid fan of Formula 1 and a proponent of agile software development, he tells us about why he joined, the solutions he’s working on, and gives a fantastic insight into how an industry-leading software development team is rapidly growing in McLaren Applied's London office.
Q: What attracted you to McLaren Applied?
Initially, it was the allure of Formula 1 and the fact that it’s such a cool company.
My father loved Formula 1. Fellow South African Jody Scheckter became world champion in 1979 with a win at Monza, and when it happened my father danced around the living room. That memory has never left me. Since I can remember, I’ve been an avid fan of Formula 1 and the technology that surrounds it.
During my interview, it was possible to have an open and honest conversation about McLaren Applied and the journey it’s on. It meant I had a clear expectation of what I was getting myself into and what needed achieving, as the company moves from project-oriented work to product development.
The latter requiring a longer-term perspective, focused on generating recurring revenue, licensing opportunities, as well as provision of product support and ongoing maintenance.
Q: What is your role at McLaren Applied?
My role is to create an environment that is conducive to successful and autonomous software teams, operating with agility, as well as continually adapting and learning through reflection and feedback loops. This amounts to giving a team the tools needed, the right environment, and trusting it to make good decisions.
I refer my team to the Agile Manifesto, challenge them to look at its principles and figure out for themselves how they want to adopt it within their operating context and current circumstances. Agile wasn’t intended to be disruptive or game-changing, but rather guide our values in terms of how we can build software that is more useful immediately, and can reach market faster to receive customer feedback sooner.
I also want to ensure the team understands what it’s building so they better understand their context and how they are making a difference towards company goals and, indeed, our customer expectations and desired outcomes. When this happens, people have a sense of ownership, purpose and accountability.
Q: What is the culture like in the London office?
The London team is relatively young and growing rapidly. A lot of people haven’t even been here for a year yet.
We operate in a blameless culture. Individuals are hired because we believe they will be collaborative team players. And of course, great technologists!
That said, mistakes happen. Having a blameless culture is about recognising that we are all human. We need to learn from our mistakes and find ways to avoid recurring problems that slow us down.
It’s also about understanding the root causes that might have escaped our quality processes, or lead to sub-optimal functionality, which hinder the ability to build software that is fit for purpose.
Q: What projects are you working on right now?
We’ve been working with a major UK railway company to help it address the problem of spare seats on trains going unused.
Sensors that can register when a seat is occupied or empty are located above the seats. They can differentiate between luggage and passengers thanks to height-sensitive functionality.
The seat occupancy system integrates with the reservation system and displays seat availability. Passengers can then identify free seats at a glance at stations thanks to LED indicators.
This contributes to better customer experience and eases overcrowding on trains. In the future, there are prospective wins for the rail company because if someone who has reserved a seat gets off earlier than expected, that seat becomes open and the railway company can resell it.
McLaren Applied has a partnership with Deloitte and we work together to develop products that solve complex industry challenges and improve clients’ business performance. Currently, three products have been borne out of an array of concepts.
The Airport Operations Performance Predictor draws upon our expertise in data science to allow airport operators to deliver improved and robust On Time Performance (OTP), by enabling coordinated and focused delivery of the day’s flight schedule.
There is the Performance Optimiser which involves creating a digital copy of a client’s daily operations. We use it to improve network performance through increased, augmented supervisor decision-making based on the same innovative analytical insights used in Formula 1.
Finally, SupplyCycle establishes the optimal way to balance production and inventory efficiencies, therefore bringing stability to operations.
We supply McLaren Racing and the rest of the Formula 1 grid with ATLAS (Advanced Telemetry Linked Acquisition System). It is an advanced data-visualisation tool that can provide powerful, race-winning insights. Expressing information contextually, and as patterns rather than plain numbers, it enables the teams to understand the correlation and relationships between the many pieces of data as they arrive in real time.
We are developing a telemetry analytics platform to scale this racing telemetry technology and apply it beyond motorsport (as well as for motorsport), because it is an ideal tool to understand and manage any complex systems that have many degrees of freedom.
As the automotive and public transport industries move towards connected and autonomous vehicles, real-time performance monitoring and sophisticated, highly accurate predictive algorithms will provide the bedrock of customer safety and satisfaction.
In undertaking this initiative, we are also improving the usability and accessibility of the data to be used in external systems and allied software disciplines like data science and simulation. In turn, we are giving data scientists a platform to deliver immediately usable development infrastructure that enables them to develop models and deploy them into the McLaren ‘Models as a Service’ cloud.
Q: What type of person would fit into the software development team and what skills do they need?
It depends on the seniority of the role we are recruiting for. Ultimately, they need to take pride in their work and must always strive to do their best.
We value people who want to be successful within a team environment, and see the value in a culture of wanting their colleagues to learn and grow as much as they are.
If we were recruiting for our top-end principal engineers, we’re looking for people who are thought leaders. They will have a comprehensive understanding of computer science, software engineering, cloud platforms, virtualisation and containerization, application architecture and security. Significant experience working in agile teams is essential, within an agile environment, where they know collaboration is king and that knowledge siloes don’t work.
Q: What do you enjoy most about working at McLaren Applied?
There is an unquestionable “cool factor”. When I get asked what I do for a living and respond with “I work for McLaren”, it immediately raises eyebrows. McLaren has a history of being at the front of the Formula 1 grid and people know it has a winning mentality.
I don’t think I will ever get bored of walking down the boulevard at the McLaren Technology Centre, next to all those legendary Formula 1 cars that I used to see on television. It’s definitely a perk of the job!
I must stress that there are people who work in the team that have no idea about Formula 1 and that’s okay too. McLaren is about more than Formula 1, we recognise our roots and we want to pursue the use of cutting-edge technologies to solve wider complex problems. If you’re a software engineer that’s not interested in motorsport or cars, that’s certainly no reason to refrain from applying.
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