Winter Olympics CIO's Winning IT Strategy: Play It Safe

Busser's guiding philosophy for choosing the Games' technology is to leave the on-the-edge performances to the athletes.
For 17 days in February, people around the world will see David Busser's handiwork. His biggest hope is that nobody notices it.

David Busser, photo by Lori Adamski-PeekBusser is CIO of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. That means he runs a $300 million IT system for timing events, reporting results, coordinating transportation and lodging, as well as just about everything else that's needed to handle 3,500 athletes and officials, 70,000 spectators a day, and millions of Web visitors. That's why he took the job-to be in the middle of something that matters to people around the world. There also will be 9,000 members of the media covering the event, and Busser is well aware that they'll take note of the technology only if it fails. "For two or three weeks, the Olympics is all people are talking about," he says. "What I don't want them talking about is the technology."

With 600 full-time IT people working on the project and 2,300 more IT employees and volunteers during the Games, there's not much time for Busser to ponder his part in fulfilling the Olympic ideal of the importance of bringing athletes of the world together for peaceful competition. But there are moments when it hits him that he's involved in something special, such as when he visited Athens, Greece, in November for the lighting of the torch that will carry the Olympic flame back to Salt Lake City. "Day in and day out, it just feels like a big project," he says. "But I'm counting on the fact that when it's all over, it will feel like the experience of a lifetime."

Sporting Life
Busser admits he's a mediocre skier and hasn't laced up ice skates since he was 12

Before The Games
Convergys, the Utah billing-services company where Busser was VP of technology, lost not only Busser but its CFO and its human-resources director to the Olympic Games

Busser's IT project is far from typical. First, there's the deadline. It offers zero wiggle room, with no time for working out the bugs, because the system has to work right on day one of the Games. Second, there's the short-term nature. The system will run for 17 days in an intensely public environment and then will be shut down. Finally, there's the management structure. Busser, 50, is paid by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, which manages the local Games. But he works with an IT consulting firm, SchlumbergerSema, from Barcelona, Spain, that the International Olympic Committee has retained through 2008 with the goal of increasing the reuse of the technology from each Olympiad. The staff is a complicated mix of professionals who hail from 23 nations. There are Utah residents such as Busser, international staff who've worked on past Games, SchlumbergerSema consultants and their subcontractors, plus staff from IT vendors that donated hardware, software, or services.

Busser has managed to get all those groups to work as one team, says Philippe Verveer, the International Olympic Committee's director of technology, who spent several months as a consultant for Busser. Verveer led the IT effort behind the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, and France's 1998 hosting of soccer's World Cup, so he knows the pressure that Busser faces. Yet that moment of truth when the Games begin is also the greatest appeal of such a job. "We start from scratch, and you know you'll be judged at the end," Verveer says. "There's no chance to blame it on the previous person in the job."

The complexity and time pressure explain Busser's guiding philosophy for choosing technology: Leave the on-the-edge performances to the downhill skiers. Busser prefers to play it safe. The Games' 5,700 Gateway PCs and workstations run Windows 98 or NT 4.0, not XP or even Windows 2000. While 10,000 Olympics workers will be given mobile phones, Busser is using little wireless technology for data transfer-despite pressure from hopeful IT vendors that want to see their products showcased-because he thinks wireless adds unnecessary risk.

And there are lots of backup plans. The applications that manage the results at each venue were written by a subcontractor. In case of hardware failure, a Plan B system running that software on different machines would take over. There's even a Plan C-a third system running software written by a different subcontractor and running on different hardware. "Where we're innovative is in absolutely making sure we have a system that can support the Games, and not in the clever ways we're doing that," Busser says. "We can't postpone the Games for two weeks if we're not ready."

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Photo by Lori Adamski-Peek

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