CIO

Olympian Efforts

Ben Bradley talks with Xerox's Olympic point-man Vince Schaffer, about teamwork, outsourcing and making mistakes

In his role as director, Worldwide Olympic Operations since 1993, Vince Schaffer has managed Xerox's global sponsorship of Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Atlanta, Nagano, Sydney, Salt Lake City and now Athens. He is responsible for delivering operations implementation, technology, service, contract management and logistics prior to and during this month's Olympic Games.

Bradley: Let's start with the past. What have been some of the major IT mistakes made in previous Olympics? And how will you make sure these mistakes are not repeated?

Vince Schaffer: In Atlanta in 1996, there were problems with file distribution. Xerox generates thousands of results reports for press and IOC [International Olympics Committee] officials at every Olympic Games. The file issues in Atlanta meant that everything ran a bit behind schedule for the first few days.

We were able to work around the issue by utilizing our backup plan, which allowed a single copy to be faxed from any competition venue to the Village, Main Press Centre (MPC) and International Broadcast Centre (IBC) where the documents were needed, and then printed and made available. For mission-critical applications such as the "results" applications, there are always backup procedures and redundancies built in.

Each Olympic Games comes with a unique set of challenges. Knowing this, the technology providers start preparing and testing two years before the Games actually begin. This allows plenty of time to run various scenarios and devise backup plans. Our weeklong TR-2 [Technical Rehearsal 2] on June 18, 2004, where we tested technology, process and communications, had significant improvements over TR-1.

Bradley: What is it like doing tech in a remote place, in a less than perfect environment?

Schaffer: The Sydney and Greece Games had little or no manufacturing or large warehousing for Xerox. We had to plan as if we were an island unto ourselves. We must guarantee that we can sustain ourselves during the Games. All equipment earmarked for the Games was in the build plan one and a half years before the games and onshore six months before the games. This helps keep the emergencies to a minimum. The same is true for the paper consumables, and so on.

My mantra is "always be ready for anything". And even if you are ready, you still have to have a plan in case something goes wrong. The answer during an event as large as the Olympics is to have a core group of technology sponsors on loan and ready to help out. In Atlanta, there was a drive to use biometrics for accreditation. Even though biometrics was not at that time a proven technology, there was strong desire to push the technology and not use barcode. However, a sage from a previous Games insisted that we not delete the barcode. In the end, the biometrics did not come to pass for many reasons but the steadfast barcode saved the day.

With the changing locations for the Olympic Games, infrastructure is always a concern - taking into account different laws, different technology, the different speeds at which people work, and the like. There is always a learning curve about working with the local culture and how the difference in culture could cause potential IT problems.

For example, Xerox used more fax machines for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games than we ever have. This is because in Greece they still love the fax machine! They feel more secure sending information via fax than e-mail. We had to change our equipment allotment to meet this request.

Also, in Europe there are 220 volts, which was good for us to easily access and plug in our equipment. If there was a blackout, we had generators for mission-critical applications.

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Finally, because the technology demands at the Olympic Games continue to dramatically increase, the network requirements have become more sophisticated, which elevates security concerns. One of the biggest challenges is making sure a virus or worm doesn't get through the firewall. This year, more than 21,500 members of the media tapped into the network using PCs and kiosks to get competition results, event information and background on competitors. We needed to make sure the best tools and technology were in place to protect this information. That's one reason there were two networks for the Games. One was the administration network and the other was the Games network, which had mission-critical applications running on it with significant security.

Bradley: It's not often you have so many technology end users in one place. How do the IT providers account for cultural differences/language barriers among support staff and actual users (for example, athletes using e-mail and fax) in the Olympic Village?

Schaffer: We start the process two years out. That gives us time to adjust and understand cultural, language and work barriers. Xerox had more than 200 service engineers working on our nearly 6000 pieces of equipment at the Games. Those engineers who supported the Games were from at least 20 countries. We had to take into account their own culture and how they would adjust to the new surroundings during the length of the Games. We did that by bringing them in early for some training on the people, processes, transportation and any other issues they face.

Supporting IT at the Olympics presents a unique opportunity for different companies and cultures to work together on an event designed to unite the world. We can be competitors in the outside world, but in the Olympic world, we have to work together to be successful. Each of the technologies we provide depends on technology provided by another vendor.

Information technology at the Olympics is just like a giant relay race: A swimmer hits the finish line. Swatch gives it a time, which goes through the Atos Origin network. A judge looks at it, says it's OK. Then it goes to PRD [print for distribution] and the file is sent through the Atos network to Xerox printers. A runner grabs it and delivers it to officials and reporters. If one goes down, we all go down. That's why the testing process is so crucial to event success. Knowing this, we've been preparing as a team since 1998. There is a constant interface with the sporting federations and with press and broadcasters. We are almost like some of the athletes performing at the Games: We must operate as a team to ensure we win "our" race.

Bradley: How was the IT profile different this year?

Schaffer: The scale of the Games has nearly doubled, growing the technology needs exponentially in a very tight space. The environment in Athens was more distributed and the division of labour more segmented, presenting logistical challenges such as transportation. The city has unwieldy traffic patterns that do not lend themselves to easy movement.

The elevated focus on security for the 2004 Summer Games extended to the network and the information residing on it. Xerox, along with other major IT providers, carefully designed and built the network with security top-of-mind. The Olympic Games network was isolated from the Internet to avoid risks from a worm or virus. However, we had several backup plans to quickly respond should they strike.

Bradley: How has the technology at the Games changed over the years?

Schaffer: Technology at the Olympics is no different than in business - it gets faster, better and more sophisticated each year. But sometimes the simplest innovations make the biggest difference. For instance, getting information to reporters and IOC officials. We generate the reports and a volunteer runner delivers them to a cubby-hole mailbox for the recipients to grab. In the past, this created a certain amount of chaos, as reporters and runners were always bumping into each other trying to access the cubby-holes. We realized that if you just take the back off the cubby-holes, so that the runners put the papers in one end, and the reporters pull the reports out from the other, the problem was solved. Not the most technological innovation - but we'll have a lot less collisions!

Ben Bradley is the founder of Growingco.com, a provider and facilitator of peer-driven intelligence, interactions and insight