Vail CIO explains why he added expertise in-house and is using outsourcing only around the edges.

Chris Murphy, Editor, InformationWeek

September 10, 2012

4 Min Read

Vail Resorts launched a major customer-facing application for the 2010-2011 ski and snowboard season called EpicMix. The Vail IT team didn't have a lot of experience building customer-facing software--and even less building mobile apps--so it relied heavily on outsourcers.

For the second year of EpicMix development, CIO Robert Urwiler says his outsourcing strategy was totally different. "We sure learned a lot between EpicMix 1 and EpicMix 2," he says.

The EpicMix app provides an interactive way for guests to relive their day at one of Vail's seven U.S. ski resorts--and share their exploits using Facebook. The app shows how many vertical feet guests covered and awards digital pins for feats such as riding every chairlift. Guests can get a picture taken by a Vail Resorts staff photographer, see it in the app, and share it on Facebook free. EpicMix adds to the mountain experience and primes the social media pump by giving guests something to share.

[ Read Application Development In The Age Of Mobility. ]

In year one of EpicMix development, Vail's approach was to hire an outside firm. In retrospect, the firm Vail chose was more of a design firm than a hard-core software shop, Urwiler says, and so it didn't have the application development rigor needed to create what he calls "commercial grade software." Urwiler also says he ceded too much of the project management to the outsourcer. Deadlines and quality suffered as a result.

Now Urwiler has hired staff, including project managers, to work full time on EpicMix. He still hires outsourcers, but they do bursts of work at peak times and provide specialized skills Vail doesn't have. About 80% of the contractors Vail uses will work on premises under staff guidance. Urwiler says the old outsourcing approach was: "Here are the keys, you can do it better than us." The new approach is: "We're the experts, but we need some help with a particular job."

Vail also has embraced a more disciplined agile app dev methodology, with a focus on quality through quick iterations and testing.

Part of the strategy shift comes from EpicMix's success; it’s no longer an experiment, so Vail can invest in people to hone it. But it also shows how creating software for customers to use changes an IT organization, and the kinds of people it needs.

Vail still needs top-flight enterprise IT pros for internal applications, and it takes the performance of those employee-facing apps very seriously. It hired a VP for CRM, looking to use transactional data and EpicMix data for better personalization, segmentation, and marketing.

But Urwiler also has hired some people out of commercial software development to work on the EpicMix team. Urwiler thinks it will be hard for a lot of people who have been doing conventional IT work to take this more customer-facing role. "This is a different skill set," he says. “In my opinion you'll get better people coming out of commercial software development and coming into IT to fill these roles, than you do trying to take traditional IT people and make the transition."

That perspective is probably controversial, Urwiler admits, and he acknowledges that some corporate IT pros will thrive in more of a customer-facing role with the right training. But having worked in commercial software before Vail, as CIO of Macromedia, Urwiler brings an informed perspective.

Developing directly for customers makes quality essential, and developing a smartphone and tablet version of EpicMix raises the stakes for software quality even higher, he says.

With a Web app, iterative, small fixes usually are OK--Web developers are known to put out "good enough" software, get customers’ reactions, and then fine tune it. With mobile, even a tiny fix requires another trip through the App Store approval process, and then asking your customers to download an update. "Good enough is not a mantra we use with EpicMix," Urwiler says.

Urwiler's IT team, in partnership with the company’s marketing teams, plans to keep adding to EpicMix. For this coming ski season, if guests hit one of the resort's race courses, their times will be recorded there on the app, along with a comparison to a time by Olympic medalist Lindsey Vonn.

Since the development strategy shift, Vail’s software projects have come in on time and budget, producing high quality, Urwiler says, so he's sticking with it. "I have full confidence that that's the way to do it,” he says, “at least in our environment, because I can clearly see the difference in the outcome."

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About the Author(s)

Chris Murphy

Editor, InformationWeek

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek and co-chair of the InformationWeek Conference. He has been covering technology leadership and CIO strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999. Before that, he was editor of the Budapest Business Journal, a business newspaper in Hungary; and a daily newspaper reporter in Michigan, where he covered everything from crime to the car industry. Murphy studied economics and journalism at Michigan State University, has an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, and has passed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams.

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