IT Life: Running The Olympics IT Marathon

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Gerry Pennell runs the IT systems for London 2012: he is a slave to his watch!

After a seven year wait, the Olympic Games officially begin in London today as the world’s greatest athletes compete – on our doorstep for the first time since 1948.

It’s unlikely that the millions of spectators at the venues or at home will have thought about how crucial IT is to the world’s greatest sporting event, but Gerry Pennell has thought about it every day for the last few years.

As the CIO of LOCOG, he is responsible for making sure that everything runs smoothly and he also worked on the previous biggest sporting event in Britain, the 2002 Commonwealth Games. He admits to being a slave to his wristwatch, but says London 2012 is the best thing he’s ever worked on in his 32 years in the industry.

What is your company, how long have you been in IT and what are your areas of expertise?
I’ve worked in and out of IT since 1980, so 32 years, and now I’m at the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG). I started in software development but I was very much a technical slave, there was a lot of modelling and simulation-type stuff.

Over the years I sort of broadened into project management, both technology and non-technology enabled projects. I’ve done infrastructure projects as well as software development projects and that’s where I’ve learnt my trade.

What’s your favourite project that you’ve ever worked on?
This one. It’s just an enormous scale of technology – we’ve got £500 million worth of programme to deliver. There’s no room for manoeuvre if you’re late or if you get it wrong so everyone’s mind is focused and it’s quite a ride.

What technologies were you involved with ten years ago?
Funnily enough, ten years ago, I was just wrapping up the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, so I was in the same line of business that I am now!

The difference in scale between the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games is enormous and the technology investment in London is about 20 times that of Manchester. The big difference, and this shouldn’t be a big surprise, is everything to do with mobility. Smartphones and the expectation of service that you get with them has changed and has influenced everything from the downloadable application to the infrastructure – Wi-Fi, 3G and all that.

So that whole world is the most striking difference. Obviously there have been significant improvements on other fronts as well, such as the Internet. Fifty percent of ticket sales were online in Manchester, virtually all tickets were sold online in London.

Similarly, the quality of the broadcasts has changed as it’s all high-definition whereas it wasn’t in Manchester. If it had to be one thing it would be the impact of consumer technologies.

What do you expect to be using in ten years time?
Me? I am going to be retired! So I’ll be making use of some appropriate home-based technology, probably a tablet I think or whatever the tablet develops into.

What’s your budget outlook going forward?
I expect my budget to be reduced to nothing very soon!

What do you think is the greatest challenge for an IT company or department?
I think it’s very contextual as it depends on a particular company and a particular situation, but generally I think it’s the consumerisation of technology and what that brings with it. On one hand I think supporting what your users want is the right thing to do. However while supporting all that you must not compromise the integrity of your data or security. I see this as quite a challenge.

To cloud or nor to cloud?
Yes and no. I think again it is situational. There are some things can go straight into the cloud and some things can’t, it all depends on the type of business that you’ve got. Much of it depends on the technology:  how much privacy it gives is  critical.

I do think the economic case for moving to the cloud is very strong, so I do expect over the next ten or twenty years the cloud will become largely the way IT has gone. But how fast you move there I think is quite situational.

Who is your tech hero and who is your tech villain?
I’m going to dodge the question slightly and say my heroes are the teams that actually make this stuff work in a business context. My villains are largely salesmen who overpromise and don’t deliver on behalf of their respective IT organisations.

What’s your favourite technology ever made and what do you use the most?
My favourite technology actually is a sail – you didn’t say it had to be business technology! In terms of what I use the most, it’s my wristwatch. I am currently a slave to it.

Apart from your own, which company do you admire the most and why?
There are so many companies that have done admirable things that it’s difficult to pick out one, but I’m going to pick on my last one which is the Co-operative Group. Why do I admire it? It combines business sense and some pretty strong ethical values.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to be a pilot, believe it or not. I had a desire to travel, although I do quite enough travel at the moment.

Are you a tech Olympian? Find out with our sporting IT quiz!

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