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News 05-10-12 01:50 PM

Coolest jobs in tech: from the pits of Le Mans to the dugouts of Fenway Park
 
http://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-conten...4146-intro.jpg Corvette Racing, American Le Mans Series, Long Beach Grand Prix, Long Beach, California, April 14, 2012.
Photograph by Corvette photo © GM Company
Coolest Jobs in Tech

When race cars whiz around a track at 200 miles per hour, driving ability isn't the only factor that determines who wins the race. Behind the scenes, in mobile data centers tucked into semis and behind laptops in the pit area, people like Chuck Houghton use tech to make decisions that can determine whether their car crosses the finish line first.

As race engineer for the No. 4 Corvette C6.R of the American Le Mans Series GT class, Houghton and his squad build sophisticated algorithms to crunch the reams of data spit out by modern race cars. When it's race time, Houghton is on scene, running calculations that determine when to make changes to car variables like "ride height" or when to let drivers know that they're running a few seconds behind. 'It's kind of like hanging a carrot out there in front of a horse,' Houghton says.

In some cases, it's as simple as making sure the car doesn't run out of gas. At the Petit Le Mans in Georgia 2010, a 10-hour race, the endgame came down to putting just the right amount of fuel into the car.

'[Both top cars had] stopped at the same time for our last stop," Houghton recalls. "We put just a tiny bit more fuel in our car, so they beat us out of the pit. And on the last lap, the Ferrari ended up running out of fuel. We were in second, and passed them on the track, and won.'

Whether the algorithms built by the Ferrari's squad weren't good enough, the calculations were lacking, or someone just took a chance and made a mistake, the end result was the same: second place. Houghton firmly believes that the in-house software his group created helped win that race and today provides an ongoing competitive advantage over other teams.

Houghton spoke with us just a few days after his car finished first in its class at the Tequila Patron American Le Mans Series at Long Beach. The car completed 84 laps in just an hour and 20 minutes, a walk in the park compared to some of the endurance races the #4 Corvette squad does each year. Longest of all is the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. Between travel and preparation, Houghton and colleagues stay awake for a good 36 hours by the time the race is completed.

http://static.arstechnica.net/2012/0...30e9-intro.jpgChuck Houghton on race day
'The adrenaline is enough to keep you up for most of it, especially if you're doing well,' Houghton says. 'If you're in the top three or four you're generally excited enough that you can stay awake without too much coffee or Red Bull. But certainly when you're kind of out of it, and you have no shot at winning, and you're multiple laps down, it makes it really difficult to stay awake.'

In such long races, analysis and adjustments take on a bigger role. 'During the race we get live telemetry from the car,' Houghton says. 'We can see exactly what the tire pressures are, the temperature of the tires, what gear the driver is in, we can see all that in real time and we can adjust quick things like tire pressure for the next stop.' While the team keeps pit stop times to a minimum during short races, in longer ones Houghton might take more time to adjust things like the overall balance of the car by changing the 'rake,' the difference in ride height between the front and rear.

Houghton, who has been with the Corvette squad just outside Detroit for about eight years, earned a degree in mechanical engineering while taking an interest in car racing, getting involved in a Society of Automotive Engineers student competition to build a small race car. His expertise is more on the vehicle engineering side, but over time he's learned how to program in Visual Basic and MATLAB to help build the tools necessary to properly analyze the cars.

In the week before a race, Houghton and fellow engineers run hundreds of simulated laps through their computer programs to evaluate vehicle dynamics and to determine what changes to make to the car. They bring a cluster of servers to the track in a semi-truck for pre-race preparations; during the race, they settle in front of their laptops with big headphones and ear plugs in place to drown out the noise. They talk to each other via an instant messaging system they built in-house, and to the driver by voice.

While Houghton plays a crucial role on the team, he hasn't yet been rewarded with the chance to drive the #4 Corvette. 'We've got guys that are professional and probably do a lot better job than I could at that,' he says.

Houghton is one of many tech experts making a living in the world of professional sports, which increasingly relies on IT work. Just ask Red Sox IT Director Steve Conley, who has overseen a complete tech makeover of Fenway Park.

An ancient shrine enters the wireless age

http://static.arstechnica.net/2012/0...3119-intro.jpgFenway Park
boston.redsox.mlb.com
Eleven years ago, Conley ran IT for a consulting company, trying to ride the dotcom boom. His company was growing'until the economy went south, and Conley became 'essentially the grim reaper,' going into downsized offices to strip out equipment. 'If you saw me coming into an office, you'd know it was not going well,' he said.

So it was a relief when he took a job leading IT for the Boston Red Sox. The team was up for sale, and both the organization and Fenway Park were badly in need of technology updates. 'I went in with a 'what the heck' attitude, and it'll look good on my resume, and it'll be a lot of fun,' Conley said. 'Lo and behold, 11 years later, I'm still plugging away.'

The team has since undergone a complete technical transformation. Back in 2001, the infrastructure was simply 'haphazard," Conley says. "We barely had e-mail. It was just a different culture and a different time."

Fenway, which turned 100 this year, began a decade-long renovation after a new ownership group took over in 2002, a renovation that was both difficult and exciting for the IT staff. Conley speaks of 'data closets' rather than data centers, each one stuck in a different spot, with seemingly constant movement dictated by the needs of building construction.

'To get from point A to point C, the connection between either A and B or A and C was cut four different times in the eight years of renovation,' Conley says. Through hard work, the finished product came together. 'It's a modern building underneath its bones,' Conley adds proudly. 'We have ways to get any technology we need. We have fiber throughout the building, where prior to that you would have this cascade of cable going back to the 1940s hanging off the side. It was ugly.'

http://static.arstechnica.net/2012/0...30fd-intro.jpgRed Sox IT Director Steve Conley
During this time, Conley's IT group also played a pivotal role in modernizing the Red Sox system for delivering game footage to players'which was sorely needed.

On October 17, 2004, a few innings before pinch runner Dave Roberts snatched the most celebrated stolen base in Red Sox history, he went to Conley's video crew and asked to watch footage of Yankees closer Mariano Rivera pitching with a man on first.

Little did Red Sox fans know, the fate of their season relied in part on one of the most beat up, unreliable video systems in professional sports. Literally falling apart, the system crashed numerous times during playoff games.

The Sox had been lugging a server and small storage array around the country the entire 162-game season, a level of travel it was not designed to withstand. 'The backplane of the storage array had started to come away from the back,' Conley said. 'All of that movement had caused it to really loosen up. It was one of those things you just cross your fingers and hope it was going to work.'

That day, it worked.

Roberts 'was playing it over and over again, trying to get his timing down,' Conley says. 'He said the system helped him mentally get ready because he knew he was going to have to be called on to steal that base. And he stole that base and things began to change.'

If you're a Sox fan, you know that Roberts stole the base and tied the game, sparking the first comeback from a 3-0 series deficit in Major League Baseball history. The series win sent Boston to the World Series, where more technical problems awaited.

The video system crashed in the seventh inning of game one of the World Series, according to Conley. It proceeded to crash again in each game, but the video squad got it working again each time as the Red Sox swept the Cardinals.

Of course, it played just one small part in the team's success, but the story illustrates the sometimes frantic life of tech professionals in major league sports. The video system was replaced the next year by a more robust EMC Storage Area Network (SAN), but even that ran into trouble when it fell 14 feet from a plane to the tarmac during a road trip. The CPU popped out of its socket. EMC sent engineers to Camden Yards in Baltimore, and Conley talked his video guy through the CPU replacement by phone and 'we had it working the next day,' he says. Nowadays, the Sox travel with 20 to 30 terabytes of video for players to watch on laptops.

Back at Fenway, Conley and crew are working on a wireless access system for fans. Last season, they arranged for Verizon to install a vendor-neutral distributed antenna system (DAS) to improve cell service for fans. Placing 365 antennas throughout a facility with special building restrictions (thanks to its historic status) has its challenges, but the project got done. This season, Conley worked with Comcast to install a new fiber connection that can serve 100Mbps connections for employees, while WiFi has been extended to fans with 120 access points that handle about 2,000 connections per game.

Conley says he'd love to connect up to 38,000 people to WiFi, despite Fenway being about the size of a city block. At at this point his dream is running up 'against the laws of physics," but he still hopes it will happen within a few years.

Conley grew up in Massachusetts, and his freshman grade point average at Northeastern University suffered from watching too much baseball as the Red Sox lost the 1986 World Series in heartbreaking fashion. Being a team employee, he now has two World Series championship rings he plans to hand down to his daughters.

Along the way, he got to skate with his family on a temporary ice sheet placed on the field before the 2010 'Frozen Fenway' matchup featuring the NHL's Boston Bruins, and he got a semi-private Bruce Springsteen concert when The Boss did a sound check before playing Fenway in 2003. Conley cherishes the memories, even more so because he helped play a role in preserving Fenway, a park that was once slated to be replaced.

"It's amazing, the history in the building," he said. "You get conditioned to it but every once in a while it will dawn on you. If I have a spare half hour for lunch and it's a beautiful day, I just go and sit in the stands and eat my sandwich when the park is empty. I just take a moment and go 'oh wow, this is cool.'"

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