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The Cosworth-Ford Approach to Architectural Tool Making

April 13, 2012

The juice: 1968 Lotus 49 Formula One car

A short while ago I pulled out the Slate Shingle Studio dog-and-pony show for a good friend and fellow University of Oregon  architecture professor. His opening statement let me know right up front that the the department was not interested in collaborating with me.”We use computers,” he said, “but we don’t build engines.”

I thought about that statement a lot on my drive back home to Portland. I completely understood what he was telling me. After all, software development is justifiably perceived as a difficult and expensive long term process typically undertaken by outfits selling to a wide audience. Autodesk is a perfect example – 6,800 employees and a market cap of $1.9 billion. My UO colleague knows that he is not and does not want to be that.

The legendary Cosworth-Ford engine

The thing is, I don’t want to be that either.  And I don’t think I have to be.  The whole point of the “soft” in “software” is that it’s flexible, right?  So how do I explain what I do, that those 6,800 others do not?

A sweet little 68 Formula Ford – petite 4 cylinder version of the full Formula One series – on display here in Portland

The answer came to me out of my past as a young Kansas lad with the typical teenage- male lust for cars, specifically the tubular Formula One racers of the mid-sixties. These beauties had elegance and style not seen before or since. My favorite?  The British racing green Lotus powered with the Cosworth-Ford dual overhead cam V8.

The Cosworth Company didn’t want to build engines. They left that to Ford. What they did instead was to design and craft the camshafts, valves and heads that turned the Ford engines into the finest racing machines of the day. Cosworth-Ford engines won all but one Grand Prix race in ’68 and every race in ’69. They were the choice of the preeminent drivers of the day, including Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Bruce McClaren and Mario Andretti.

Large software firms today face the same challenges Cosworth/Ford had back in the heyday of Formula One racing: the only way to justify the extensive manpower and development time required to create a powerful tool like Revit, is to sell a lot of them. You have to match the base needs of lots of customers, well enough. But in a classic case of the innovator’s dilemma,  the momentum created makes it difficult to respond or change direction with the nimbleness required in a dynamic market space such as architectural design. Indeed, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass commented at December’s Autodesk University that startups were the thing he feared most.

Enter Slate Shingle Studio. We aspire to be the architectural equivalent of the Cosworth Company. We don’t build engines; we turn new camshafts, shape valves, stiffen suspensions. But you still need world class drivers, and the best way to attract them is to soup-up the best machines. My goal is to take the same engines owned by everyone else on the block and to modify them to suit the needs of the particular race you are running.  By identifying the right components and the right fit, we help you get the best performance gains.

In the mid 70's Chevy equipped about 4000 Vegas with 4-cylinder Cosworth-Ford engines. I'll likely never get the chance to drive a Lotus 49, but I'm still keeping my eyes open for one of these babies.

If my engine metaphor had been prepared before my trip to Eugene, I still might not have convinced my friend to collaborate with me. It turns out that he’s not driving the same races I’m building cars for. But I think we might have taken the conversation to a new and more interesting level.

Ah well, maybe we didn’t win Watkins Glen, but there is always Monaco.

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