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Pan Am Games 2015: The startup that turned into an enterprise overnight

It may be hard to relate to what the event’s IT director has gone through, but look more carefully and there may be a little Pan Am in other large firms


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Brian Cook looked and sounded surprisingly relaxed a few weeks before the 2015 Pan Am Games officially got underway. The event’s IT director and his team had only a few days left to set up last-minute venues and deploy laptops and printers in a time-frame that might panic other CIOs. There was a huge amount of testing to be done. There were bound to be a few glitches.

And yet, he spoke with a group of reporters with a slow, measured British drawl as he outlined the incredible challenge of managing technology that spans multiple cities and serves some fairly non-traditional use cases for athletes, commentators, businesses and many other kinds of users. Though it may be difficult for IT leaders in more established firms to get their head around what Cook’s life is like, think of it as one of those stories of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, except where the story moves from beginning to end at near-lightning speed.

“We go from, in essence, a startup organization four and a half to five years ago to 1,300 paid staff and 23,000 volunteers that are coming in,” he said. “We have to build the enterprise solutions that drive the organization from five years out, and they need to be built out from a scalable point of view to be able to grow all the way through, so we don’t have to have major architectural redesigns two and a half years into the project.”

In the earliest days, for example, Cook and his team are primarily focused on “pre-game systems,” including accreditation, transportation, staffing and logistics technology. This includes its web site, which goes from a pre-games mode of providing key dates to a “games-time” web site with full schedules, results, information on athletes and more.

Unlike many startups, however, the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games is not the kind of organization that can be tolerant of failure.

“The key piece for me is the operational readiness and testing,” Cook said. “We have to be able to get all the different partners aligned and understanding how we’re going to be delivering. The pre-games period is a completely different beast than games-time. We have to deliver to two very rigorous service level agreements. And we have to work as one team.”

In large enterprises, a similar startup-style growth rate may still occur, but at more of a departmental level. I see marketing organizations, for example, undertaking huge initiatives that are turning them into de facto startups with their own specialized needs and deliverables. The same goes for HR, sales and other parts of bigger organizations.

This is where the work of Cook and his team could be an inspiration. To what extent can IT leaders look at their company and identify the areas where lines of business will be taking on a new kind of competition? How can you start planning now for changes that might see those departments increase exponentially in size, scale, or use of IT? What kind of strategic planning, budgeting and organization will you need to deliver what’s required?

The CIOs who get this right may not get a gold medal, but there’s no doubt they’ll be winners in their organization.

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