Fact and fantasy

Fact and fantasy

Guests see only the wonder of Hong Kong Disneyland. They don't see the 30 data centres holding tier after tier of IT equipment. We talk to the man behind all the glitter, CIO Noble Coker.

"Dirt, trucks and sea" confronted Noble Coker in February 2002, when he arrived at the site of Hong Kong Disneyland as both the CIO and the only IT professional on the payroll. He had just taken up the awesome responsibility for the creation of the massive technological machine that would drive Disney Inc.'s fifth Magic Kingdom theme park. "I was warned to expect the worst. Don Robertson, the first managing director of Hong Kong Disneyland, told me: 'I've been in the company 34 years, and I've seen the opening of new parks, extensions, and new attractions, but I've never seen the launch of a large technology project that did not have problems. On 12 September 2005, the world will be watching us.' "

A little more than three years later, Disneyland was up and running, with no serious IT problems.

The invisible technology

Disneyland's guests see only the surface of the Magic Kingdom: Main Street USA, the Sleeping Beauty Castle, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, the many rides and attractions, and the parades that wind their way around the park. They don't see the other half of the magic, such as the gigabyte ethernet backbone running down Main Street USA through the two onsite hotels and up to all the attractions.

They don't see the 30 data centres holding tier after tier of IT equipment, including the servers running top secret Disney applications that control full-size animatronic rampaging elephants or space machines.

Another invisible technology is the web of wireless waves that co-ordinate the marchers in every parade and synchronises special effects, such as the wireless triggers for cannon balls that crash in the water to scare boatloads of guests. Employees carry VHF terminals with push-and-talk capability. The whole campus is wired for wi-fi and mobile phone networks, including GSM, CDMA and 3G.

To head up an IT project of this size when he was 31, Coker, from Texas, was clearly on the fast track, but he had almost made the wrong career choice. "My first degree was finance and I wanted to be an investment banker, but the career adviser told me technology was critical to business and that I could learn IT by joining a consultancy," he says.

Coker applied for a job with Price Waterhouse and when the interviewer asked him about hobbies, he casually mentioned that he sang Thai songs. After high school, he became a missionary and discovered a gift for oriental languages by learning Lao while helping immigrants settle in California. Later in Dallas, he began weekend singing with a Thai restaurant band. "I made great tips that helped pay my way through college," he fondly recalls.

When Coker performed a song for the sceptical lady from Price Waterhouse, she was overwhelmed and delighted by this unusual talent and made him a job offer there and then. He joined Price Waterhouse and spent months training intensively in C, COBOL, DB2, and Oracle, after which he began work as a consultant.

"In 2000, after I finished a project for Imagineering, the company with primary design and construction responsibility for Disneyland and its attractions, they asked me to join the company," says Coker. "And they started by investing in my further education by sending me to the University of Southern California to do an MBA in business strategy."

At Disney, Coker obtained an overview of large-scale IT operations, in his job of consolidating the technical resources of the company, which had become dispersed due to the multiplicity of creative projects. His rapid absorption of the Disney way of doing things paid off: "I begged my way on to Hong Kong Disneyland and they were kind enough to let me have a shot at it," he says.

Multi-cultural IT team

Coker recruited IT staff for Hong Kong Disneyland, building it from nothing to its current strength of more than 80. During the construction phase, the IT headcount reached 200, including 40 or so expatriates mainly from other Disneylands and 80 people from IT vendors or systems integrator firms.

Cultural misunderstandings were inevitable. "One guy from the US task force came to my office six months before opening and said: 'I want to go home. I've been here two months and nobody has asked me home to dinner.' I asked him if he'd been invited to restaurants and karaoke and he agreed he had. I helped him realise that people were reaching out to him according to their culture, but not in a way that he recognised," says Coker.

"In contrast, when the task force was due to pull out, most people would have preferred to stay here on local terms, because of the camaraderie, and the unique culture."

When the IT staff switched on the hotel reservation call centre, they expected 10,000 calls but were overwhelmed by 100,000 and needed people urgently to answer the phones, says Coker. "So I asked our senior database administrator to take some calls. She looked at me as if I were nuts, but she took the calls. When I asked her how she got on, she rolled her eyes and said one customer yelled furiously at her. However, after she patiently pacified the customer, the latter bought three rooms instead of one. My IT colleague had been reminded that customers were real people and she felt proud to have been of service."

There's another way of seeing what is important, says Coker: "We get letters to Hong Kong Disneyland about guests' special experiences. They never write about the great attractions, meals or merchandise; they always write about cast members ['cast member' is the Disney term for employees] who made their day by taking an interest in them."

Next-generation IT

Coker believes that much of the success of the IT operation at Hong Kong Disneyland is due to a change of orientation in his staff, away from a purely technical focus to flexibility in problem solving, and an embrace of the corporate mission.

"When I hosted a group of CEOs recently, they were surprised to see IT specialists dining and fraternising with colleagues from other departments. In the past, IT staff were relegated to a back-office function, and the arcane knowledge involved put them in an ivory tower, separate from business considerations."

Coker pursues this concept with evangelical zeal, and calls it 'the next generation IT business.'

"IT people are learning to play a much more active part in business life. I believe Disneyland is at the forefront of this movement. When you get true integration between IT and other parts of the business, IT becomes more than just a job: it becomes a non-commoditised role.

"When we were building key technical systems, IT cast members still found time to help hard-pressed colleagues by selling food, sweeping up, or merchandising. Cast members in those other roles remember that IT staff helped out when the going was tough," says Coker.

'Disney University' teaches technical skills as well as the corporate culture.

The first two days of every new cast member's training is called Disney Traditions, which is a view of the company's history and culture, how to create a magical experience for guests and the trainee's role as a cast member. Local employees act as voluntary teachers a couple of days per month.

"When some IT people applied to teach the course and were nearly appointed, the HR people were surprised, describing it as a 'fantastic' achievement.

"I am encouraged to see IT people participate, but why should it be viewed as unusual? This reflects the 'back-office culture' of IT staff and I feel that the actuality, as well as the perception, has got to change," says Coker.

Hiring SI vendors

With so many systems to get operational, a lot of IT work had to be outsourced. Disneyland's size and prestige meant there was no shortage of systems integrators (SI) knocking on the door, says Coker: "I talked to a lot of SI people who would have loved to sell us the same integration products over and over,

like commodities.

"What they should have done was understand the role of IT in our unique Disneyland culture and customise their services to fit our organisation."

"Our suppliers are expected to make an investment, a commitment, that pays off in longer term relationships. Those who do not have the same passion as I have are not the right partners for us," he adds.

As head of IT, Coker is on Hong Kong Disneyland's senior executive steering committee, which formulates business strategies and co-ordinates the work of the CEO, Bill Ernest, and specialist departments including marketing, sales and publications and human resources. Coker is also chairman of the cast advisory council, which represents the views of employees to management.

"I have an incredibly varied role. One day, I am talking about data warehousing or wireless communications and the next I am discussing the best type of footwear to avoid blisters, or the length of sleeves necessary to defeat sunburn, for the role-playing cast members. Some of these problems may have surfaced in the media, but we do have a good system to solve them."

Teething problems

Several aspects of Disneyland operations gave rise to adverse media publicity in the early days, but Coker points out that teething troubles are to be expected.

"In the 1950s, the original Disneyland in Florida was considered a fool's venture. The media was reporting: 'Walt Disney had built this crazy park, nobody will like it.'

"Similarly, Disneyland Paris has had some severe business problems, despite being surrounded by hundreds of millions of Europeans familiar with Disney culture. Yet today, it is the number one tourist destination in Europe and is able to invest in its future. Disneyland Tokyo had a lot of rough patches, yet it, too, has emerged very successful," he says.

"The key is: as long as you are humble enough to learn, you will continue to work on the problems and get better and better," adds Coker.

As Disneyland becomes an established operation, says Coker, the management ask how it can give something back to the Hong Kong society. IT is relevant to this project, he says. "We have tremendous technology and educational resources which we could share with universities and colleges. The head of architecture for our division is an ex-head of NASA Laboratories who has an outstanding record in technology.

"We can contribute lecturers, host events and help raise the profile of technology education in Hong Kong. We can also participate in school programmes and leverage the Disney culture to teach technology in a fun way." Helping, in fact, to create the 'next generation' of IT in Hong Kong.

Quick fix to long queues

In the US, Disneyland guests order tickets online or at a travel agent, then use a home computer to print a sheet bearing a barcode that enables entry to the park. In Hong Kong Disneyland, most guests want to buy tickets at the park, and the management only realised this when construction was almost complete.

"So we stopped pouring concrete and quickly designed a Disney-themed redemption centre where guests can swipe their credit cards to obtain the tickets they ordered earlier. The redemption centre with eight machines can theoretically dispense more than 8,000 tickets an hour," says CIO Noble Coker.

The targeted capacity of the park was 30,000 visitors, but when the number reached 29,000 in the early days, long queues for food and attractions were criticised in the media. A rapid response was called for and the capacity is now capped at 25,000, while the queuing problems have been addressed by introducing Fastpass, a reservation system developed for Disneylands.

Guests can obtain a Fastpass by inserting their Disneyland ticket into a special kiosk at the attraction. The kiosk prints a Fastpass that will permit the guest rapid entry during a certain period.

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