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How do you work with a tight budget?

How do you work with a tight budget?

Andre Mendes, CIO of Special Olympics International, shares how he introduces new technologies with a constrained budget and ever-changing users.

No matter what the size of your company, there is always a budget constraint in running IT. But no one knows it better than André Mendes, CIO of Special Olympics International (SOI). The non-profit organisation, which aims to empower people with disabilities, ran the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai in October. How different is it to run IT in a non-profit organisation?

When you look at the IT world, whether you are in a non-profit or profit environment, CIOs will tell you their budget is very constrained. There's always more to do with less, that's a given.

I face a very similar challenge compared with some of my peers in the corporate world. They have a slightly bigger budget and I have a lot more leeway in terms of the vendor providing us services and resources. It kind of balances itself and we manage to accomplish all our missions.

From a gratification standpoint, I can tell you that working for organisations such as Special Olympics and working with companies such as Citrix (sponsor of the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai in October) that understand our mission, is extremely rewarding. It gives you a certain amount of faith in the world in the ability of people to self-sacrifice and to bring to the table more than just the bottom line. Some people might think there's less pressure in a non-commercial world and I'd like to disagree, because critical systems are critical systems.

They matter in any organisation nowadays, regardless of what the ultimate motive is, whether it is profit to the shareholders or benefit to mankind. It is still a pressurised situation.

How do you run IT with such a constrained budget?

As you can understand, it is an organisation that operates with a very tight budget. We have seven regional offices, representing 160 countries.

To provide IT infrastructure in each regional office and each country, you have to be very careful of the way you do business and be conscious that if you don't do things properly, at the implementation standpoint, you are going to encounter a tremendous amount of expense. In a lot of occasions, it could turn out to be uncontrollable circumstances.

How do you manage your team, which is made up of mainly volunteers?

SOI has a very heterogenous population. We have people hired not only by the SOI headquarters, but also people hired by the regional offices in different countries, and then volunteers. A substantial amount of the Special Olympics movement is based on volunteers. In fact, in Shanghai, we had between 14,000 and 15,000 volunteers, much more than the athletes.

But when the mission is well-defined, it's not that difficult to manage them. A lot of that is the spirit of giving that is unique in this type of organisation. Are there challenges with volunteers? Absolutely. But the rewards are just tremendous. The final equation works out very well.

How can technologies help in managing such a dynamic environment?

It's a very dynamic environment. The use of application virtualisation is imperative, from a financial standpoint and logistics standpoint. Can you imagine the staff I'd need, to update the applications across all the regional offices? It would be impossible to maintain.

For us, it makes obvious sense to have an application virtualisation strategy so we can effectively abstract the geography by having one data centre at Washington DC, where all the regional offices have access to applications. This strategy follows the most basic premise for price-performance. I can tell you that although we are forced to do it [virtualisation], I can't see why any organisation that needs the same type of control over the globe won't be using the same technology.

It's a reflection of the evolution that the IT industry has experienced, it's a reflection of the almost ubiquitous existence of telecommunication services.

How are relationships between vendors and SOI?

A substantial number of vendors are supporting the Games. Not only do we have our standard infrastructure, but we also have some activities that are taking place here for the first time.

We are very lucky that Citrix has agreed to sponsor us. It creates a whole new dimension, because not only did they provide the software and hardware, but they also gave technical assistance, to set it up and maintain it throughout the Games. The way we use Citrix actually goes well beyond the Games.

The game management system (GMS) was provided by a company in New York, which has worked very closely with us in the past few years. The health software was offered by a company in London. It's truly an international conglomerate to provide the technologies.

What was the total IT investment for the Shanghai Games?

It's a difficult number to come up with, because we had systems that were purchased, systems that were rented and systems and services that were donated. It's difficult to put a value on how much is the entire IT investment in such an environment.

I'd say when we look at the overall value that we bring to the table, we are talking about several million dollars, associated with all of the IT investment necessary.

What were the latest technologies used at the Shanghai Olympics?

One of the major differences in the Shanghai Games is the substantial use of radio frequency identification technology for credential and tracking of the athletes.

We have been very pleased with the amount of functionalities that this technology gives, the amount of control that we could have over the location of the athletes.

The access control really is a leap ahead from our previous Games. We also had a web casting project. We captured content from every single event and made that content available on the web.

So if you are a parent who has an athlete participating in the game, and you can't come to the Games, you can go on the web and, through a search criteria, identify your athlete and have access to the performance of the athlete via streaming video. The video will be based on a particular athlete.

We tried as much as possible to capture the video for every athlete. We worked with several universities in Shanghai and University of North Carolina. Bandwidth is always an issue, we are talking 20-plus events all happening at the same time spreading all over Shanghai in 19 districts. It is a very big challenge. It's not easy to procure the links and keep them available for a very long time. We need a full bandwidth to perform the application delivery, and, without Citrix, this would have been extremely expensive.

It allowed us to put a cap on the amount of money we needed to spend on connection.

How do you bring the latest technologies in such a dynamic environment?

We have to follow the same model that you find in corporations, where the introduction of the new technologies and functionalities follow a very short timeframe for development.

Instead of having a "big-bang" type of implementation, we have to go through all the processes and make sure you are introducing all the functionalities gradually.

This is so that you minimise the risk, but at the same time you are continually making progress. Standardisation is one of the most important components for any technical strategy.

If you are not standardising and you are constantly deploying one-of-a-kind custom applications, infrastructure and network, you will end up creating a very difficult environment to support and to progress.

When you utilise standard technology as a baseline, it brings evolution in a more controlled way and is faster to deploy.

What was the business continuity plan of the Shanghai Games?

Last year when we were organising one of the pre-Games, there was an earthquake in Taiwan that actually turned off a substantial amount of bandwidth to China. If that had happened in the middle of the Games, all of a sudden we would have had latency on the scoring results to the media and the athletes.

Fortunately, it happened before the pre-Games, so there was no interruption. But it did give us a scare and validated the strategy we took.

We accessed the typical office applications from Washington DC, but the Games software was kept in the data centre in Shanghai, because at the end of the day, we won't experience problems with bandwidth issues.

The entire arrangement is fully redundant. We were using cluster devices, mirror devices for the storage environment.

We ensured that even with a major regional disaster, we should have been able to continue the Games in a very standard manner.

Having joined the Special Olympics International in October 2006, André Mendes is the CIO of the organisation, responsible for all strategic and operational aspects of the IT infrastructure. The global organisation has seven regional offices that organise activities in 160 countries. Prior to his present position, Mendes was chief information technology officer at Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), a non-profit national television station in the US. Mendes was recognised for his leadership by magazines in the US, including Computerworld, which named him as one of the Premier 100 IT Leaders in 2001 and CIO Decisions magazine, which granted him the 2006 Mid-Market Leadership Award. Mendes is also a co-author of the critically acclaimed CTO Leadership Strategies from Aspatore Books. He was a speaker at the CIO Conference 2007 in Auckland, New Zealand, organised by Fairfax Business Media.

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