London 2012: The man behind the tech

Staying calm under pressure is often easier said than done as a CIO. Mark Samuels spoke to the man behind the tech powering the recent London 2012 Olympics to find out how to cope when the biggest spotlight in the world is shining down on you.

Keep calm and carry on sign

The Doctor's Surgery: Dr Mark Samuels, editor at advisory organisation CIO Connect, examines the future role of the IT leader in this new monthly column.

I spoke to London 2012 CIO Gerry Pennell in July, just before the start of Britain's brilliant Olympic Games. Pennell is always friendly but he seemed particularly calm at the time, particularly given the context of managing IT for the world's most high profile event.

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I asked him how he managed to stay so calm. His response was simple: he thrived on pressure. More to the point, he had spent years working towards this moment if you didn't enjoy the pressure, you were in the wrong job.

Great IT just works. It is something all CIOs must contemplate as they strive to deliver digital systems for their business and its customers.

"IT can be found underlying every event and venue," said Pennell. "And that's where the Games get interesting, because you're managing many events in parallel across a range of locations."

But in the end, Pennell's moment came and went without anyone noticing. There were no stories of network failure in the press, no tales of cyber security lapses and information loss incidents. In short, no one noticed the technology underpinning the Games.

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That might sound a touch sad, especially given the effort taken to run technology for such a huge event. But there can actually be no finer accolade for Pennell and his team of 5,000 IT professionals and volunteers.

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Athletes and spectators at the Games didn't spend time talking about technology because they didn't need to. Access to events was swift; information was available in a timely manner and the 110,000 pieces of technical equipment associated to the Games appeared to work well.

That, of course, is not to say that things did not go wrong. I'm sure Pennell and his team spent a considerable period of time dealing with a series of technical concerns. But the fact we have no idea whether technology problems did occur is yet another testimony for the success of the IT set up at London 2012.

So, what are the lessons for other CIOs? IT management at an Olympics is at the extreme end of technology leadership, but Pennell's mantra for the past few years has always been about keeping things simple and avoiding complexity.

Risk, in such a high profile arena, is not an option. Technology must tick along nicely in the background and improve the user experience through its invisibility. In short, great IT just works. It is something all CIOs must contemplate as they strive to deliver digital systems for their business and its customers.

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