Wireless Infrastructure

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Fritz Nelson
Fritz Nelson
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Dear SF Giants CIO: I'm Sorry

The San Francisco Giants won it all. We revisit some of the World Series champ's key technology decisions, which, as we all know, were the main drivers behind the team's success.

Earlier this Summer I wrote a piece on the San Francisco Giants' technology forays under its CIO Bill Schlough. As a lifelong Dodger fan I took the opportunity to take a few shots; and heck, the Giants were struggling at the time. Little did I know . . . anyway, Bill let me know during the World Series that he expected some retribution, possibly me in an orange thong; he even called me with a ticket before Game 2, bless him. Nobody wants to see me in an orange thong, so instead, here's a revised version of my story. (I've added a few thoughts in bold.)

The San Francisco Giants haven't won a World Series in 56 years. Now they have ShoreTel's IP phone system in place, so they're pretty much a lock. OK, not really, but it's got to be a lot easier and cheaper to make that call down to the bullpen in the third inning every night when you need Brian Wilson to save another game. (Except when Tim Lincecum is pitching; even a life-long Dodger fan has to suck it up on that). Between its voice over IP, a wireless infrastructure that let thousands of fans browse the web as soon as the Giants are down too far to Tweet about the latest run scored, and some innovative video solutions to track every booted snagged ground ball, this is an organization that's surely bound to be a .500 team win the World Series.

I'm not sure if ShoreTel would have invited me if they'd known I was from Los Angeles, but Giants Bill CIO Schlough was reluctant to let me into his wiring closet, which was lined in punch down blocks. Schlough's pride and joy in the room, at least on this night, since ShoreTel was hosting several journalists, was the stack of ShoreTel voice switches, which now run the stadium's phone system. Schlough was sold on IP phone systems to save costs; he admitted that the Giants were on the top of the MLB's telecom spending list, and he had a memo (typed) from former Giants owner Peter McGowan to prove it. The system has provided hundreds of thousands in cost savings, he said, and increased productivity.

ShoreTel's system runs the Giants' teleconferencing, its call center and call routing, and it's even integrated with the team's front-office CRM system, so (all five) season ticket holders are easily identified when they call in (to complain about the team) (to learn the victory parade route). ShoreTel chairman and CEO, John Combs, seemed most impressed with the use of an E911 feature, which can pinpoint the location (dugout) the call is coming from, notifying off-site and on-site security immediately. Schlough, who considered Nortel, Cisco and Avaya as well, touted the systems' simplicity more than anything else. The other companies required certification, stacks upon stacks of equipment, and lots of power to support it all. He claims to have a non-engineer running the system day to day, saying that the ongoing operation is just a user interface for making adds, moves and changes. Even a Dodger fan could do it, he quipped. (Boy he's funny, right?)

This is just part of the innovation that Schlough and the Giants are putting in place. He told the story of how on an opening day last season, thanks to the sudden glut of iPhones, there was so much saturation that nothing was getting through -- no e-mail, no calls (and nothing out of the infield). Being that the ballpark's namesake is AT&T, that was a bit of a problem. So AT&T and the Giants installed a distributed antenna system (DAS) throughout the ball park. Now, the stadium regularly supports about 30,000 cell phone users vigilantly texting away. The Giants also have 266 Cisco WiFi access points throughout the park, and Schlough says that regularly supports as many as 5,000 fans at a time. Lord knows what they're doing -- maybe playing fantasy baseball. Between the 3G and Wi-Fi coverage, AT&T and the Giants have invested seven figures this past offseason.

You may have heard about other ball clubs (Oakland A's) dumpster diving through every statistic you can imagine on every player from high school through the minor leagues, looking for hidden clues beyond what the trained scout's eye can see to determine a promising prospect. Sabermetrics: coined by baseball statistician and writer, Bill James; deployed unwaveringly by Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane, who for years effectively competed with higher salaried clubs; and immortalized by writer Michael Lewis in "Money Ball." Schlough's not what you'd call a devotee. To be fair, the A's and the Giants have produced equally over the past 15 years -- the Giants have finished above .500 more frequently and have been to a World Series; the A's have finished first in their division more, though, and their entire payroll would have barely fed Barry Bonds' vitamin supplier. (I stand by that comment.)

The Giants, Schlough says, believe a bit more in what they can see, so instead of looking at paper, the team looks at video. It is working with XO Sports on a technology called Sportsmotion, which outfits players in sensors that measure everything a player does; for now, this is used mostly for player development (primarily during Spring Training as players work on their skills) and rehabilitation (tracking the recovery process and looking out for areas for further strengthening and development). With the system, the Giants can compare stance and swing down to the degree, and over time, like back to when the player was healthy. The team invests a majority of its corporate excess budget (beyond payroll and scouting costs) on Sportsmotion, and says that if it helps "improve our ability to evaluate or develop talent, it's an easy argument to make."

Like many CIOs Schlough has to balance keeping historic systems up and running, and driving new initiatives, but he says he spends the majority of his time on innovation. He estimates only 10 percent of his time is spent "keeping the lights on." Schlough says that "as long as we are on top of the basics, then we can do the fun stuff." The basics include customer support and infrastructure. The "fun stuff" includes areas like marketing, retail, and of course, what happens on the field. Much of it is difficult to measure. "How much is one extra win worth to the team?" he asks. "That's hard to say--but if that win helps us knock your beloved Dodgers out of the postseason, the benefit would be measured in the tens of millions of dollars." Ouch. (Give that man a huge raise!)

The team also has cameras -- part of its Sportvision Player Tracking System -- installed throughout the upper reaches of the stadium to track player movement, taking measure of every rounded base and every dive along the third base line. The team uses this video for player tracking, examining a player's range, let's say, or his real speed around the bases (rather than the less accurate stop watch). Spray charts tell where every ball was hit, and where every player was when the ball was hit. And all of that data gets processed and crunched and viewed.

"Our COO is all about growing the business," Schlough told me. "That's what gets him excited and every business unit strives to find new and different ways to achieve this goal. Our culture is very innovation focused -- in fact, innovation is the sixth word in our mission statement." Schlough has his department set its own personal goals, but those goals have to contribute to the strategic objectives and the corporate objectives (get to the postseason). "The goal setting process ensures that we are all focused on driving the business, not just keeping the lights on."

Sounds like fun. Even for a Dodger fan.

(P.S. Congratulations San Francisco Giants.)

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