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How to Win a Solar Race Using Agile

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The Nuon Solar car racing team uses agile and Scrum to take the steps which add the most value to the project, integrate different disciplines, ensure transparency and focus, and reflect to improve. Their goal is promote and educate the use of clean energy; their mission is to win the South African Sasol Solar Challenge -- a road race in which participating vehicles can only use solar power for motion -- using the power of innovation. Quality of direction and quality of interaction are the key factors driving their success.

Jelle van der Lugt, team manager of the Nuon Solar team, will present how they apply agile at the Agile Consortium Belgium 2018 conference on February 8 in Brussels. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries and articles.

The topic of this year’s Agile Consortium Belgium conference is "Making Enterprise Agility Sustainable":

In the market today we see companies going through a big cultural and organizational change to reach enterprise agility. But once the journey is ongoing or even seems completed, how do we make these changes sustainable? A new question that arises today!

InfoQ interviewed van der Lugt about how they apply agile to develop a solar car.

InfoQ: Who is the Nuon Solar Team and what do they do?

Jelle van der Lugt: The Nuon Solar Team is a full student team who participates in solar races. The team is called a "dreamteam" and consist of 10 TU Delft students. We participate in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in Australia and in the Sasol Solar Challenge in South Africa. Our goal is to promote and educate the use of clean energy.

InfoQ: What made you choose to use Scrum for this team?

Van der Lugt: We have chosen to use Scrum for several reasons. The first one is a very simple one: by using scrum, we don’t have to spend time on developing our own organisational structure. Scrum is a system which has proven itself; it makes sense to use this experience for our own benefit. The second reason is that Scrum forces us to take the step which adds the most value to our project first. For us this is very important because we love to implement cool new stuff in our solar car, but without four wheels and a solar array the car won’t drive. The basics which are less stimulating for bright technicians still have to be done first.

Scrum makes sure that different disciplines are integrated. With the daily stand-up everybody ask: what they are going to do and whether they need help. I notice that a lot of times other disciplines can help each other in solving problems.

Scrum makes sure that there is transparency and focus. I can only be doing one thing at the time. I already noticed by doing one thing at the time I finish faster and the result has higher quality. This is purely because I don’t switch tasks all the time.

The last reason and for me the most important one: Scrum has mandatory moments of reflection. At the Nuon Solar Team we have two moments of reflection: the official retro and our self taught check-in. The retro focuses on improving the way our team uses Scrum and the check-in focuses on the emotions of the team.

Earlier InfoQ interviewed Jeroen Molenaar about coaching the solar team. He explained how they do their retrospectives:

Jeroen Molenaar: The retrospectives alternated between having a team focus one week and a personal focus in the other week. This way they had to focus on either the team or the individual every week. The benefit is that every team member gets feedback from the whole team every other week. This prevents the elephant in the room; annoyances under the surface everyone sees but the team is not ready to handle in a team retrospective.

InfoQ: What did you learn in the retrospectives, and how did you use that to improve?

Van der Lugt: In the beginning the retrospective was mainly used to understand Scrum with the whole team. Rintati en I did the Scrum Master course but the other eight team members didn’t. So we worked a lot on applying Scrum in practice.

In the last two retrospectives we started improving Scrum for our needs. One improvement at the time. The last improvement we did was adding the question: "do you need help?" in the daily stand-up. With this we hope to improve the interaction between disciplines and solve problems by using each others talents and knowledge.

InfoQ: How does using agile and Scrum differ for developing a race car?

Van der Lugt: This is a hard question because this is the first time I use Scrum. Together with Epic Agility we developed our own version of Scrum.

InfoQ asked Jeroen Molenaar from Epic Agility about the difference:

Molenaar: When coaching these guys you find out that engineers are a similar kind of people; a little bit introvert and somewhat "binary". That makes it very fun for me to coach them.

The difference is the domain knowledge. You have to understand that hardware is NOT software. You have to learn new things that are important in their world; calculating, predicting, names of parts. So especially the technical side of agile coaching of software teams is different since the same concepts just do not apply.

This is a car; it’s hardware. That means you can’t automate as much. You therefore have to find different approaches for testing and verifying stuff. Also, when building hardware you can change the shape or a part as easily. This results in the project being more phased than you would see and desire in software projects (design > build > test).

The things we tried are fast prototyping and finding out what is the easiest way of testing something quickly. You need to have more tolerance; how easy can you change a part for a different brand. Then you also want to decide as late as possible; postpone important decisions and build in flexibility to do that (keep the impact of decisions as low as possible).

InfoQ: What are the factors that made this team successful?

Van der Lugt: The most important factor of success for this team is the road to a peak performing team. This means working on two factors: quality of direction and quality of interaction. Quality of direction means a clear mission for the team and individual.

Our team mission for example is: win the Sasol Solar Challenge in South Africa by using the power of innovation. And my personal goal is: creating an environment where we decide ourselves what we can, and cannot do. By aligning the individual goals with the team mission we are becoming a team who works out of pure intrinsic motivation.

Quality of interaction means completely trusting each other. I think one of the most important factors in achieving this is learning why team members think the way they do. We try to know each other better than we know ourselves. An example of a session we did to improve the quality of interaction was: why, why, why. Team member A asks team member B why he joined the Nuon Solar Team. A writes down his answers. We did that for five minutes and when the time was up we switched roles. Afterwards we did the same but one layer deeper: A asks B: "Why did you give those answers in round 1?". In total you ask why three times to each other. The results of the session were unique, and we learned a lot about each other. It is very rare that you search for the deepest reason why you have chosen to commit to the Nuon Solar Team.

When both factors are cared for we will be able to reach our true potential. We still have a long road to go before reaching this, but we will get there!

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