Venue Q&A: Baylor University’s Pattie Orr
As VP for information technology/chief information officer of Baylor University, Pattie Orr has been heavily involved in the planning, execution, and management of technological workflows at the school’s new McLane Stadium since Day 1 of the design/construction project. SVG sat down with Orr to discuss her role in it, how her department anticipated fans’ future connectivity needs, and her reflections on the first season.
What were you and your department responsible for?
The technology for the stadium was under my area. I was part of the planning from the beginning: to think through what types of technology we would have in the stadium, how we would envision that, how we would coordinate with the various vendors that would be part of the stadium to make sure that their own needs were met as well for the areas that they were responsible for. Of course, the biggest highlight for my area was everything related to the network: [for example] the network closets throughout the stadium as well as the IP connections that were necessary for so many things. Almost everything has some kind of a connection — the elevators, the lights, everything — so that’s where a lot of the planning came in. Also, how we would support the mobile devices and what types of services were going to be needed for that.
How did you begin those conversations?
We started two years before the stadium was built with the planning and putting that all together. It was really a process envisioning what we wanted this to be like, and it was such a privilege to start from scratch. When you’re doing a retrofit — which is most of the time in collegiate stadiums — you have factors that limit what you can do or how it can be done. … So it was really fun to work with the architects in planning the vision for the technology and what we’d like to deliver to the fans.
I think that, in addition to having a great videoboard and experience for our fans, [we needed] to engage them in all types of great video that would be produced in the stadium. We knew that people are in love with their mobile devices — this was true three years ago — and we expected that to continue to grow. So we thought a lot about [engaging] the fans by bringing some of the video and information and games and fun things that the athletics [department] loves to do with our fans into the palm of their hands. Could we work it out so they could really be the director of their experience by using their mobile devices? That’s where we started.
An important point is that we needed to think about what would be possible in two years, not what was possible then. So, when we looked into the technology, … we felt that the technology was evolving and that, by the time we needed to do it, it would be able to be done. So it was sort of an iterative process.
And surely the same held true for WiFi and your distributed antenna system (DAS): gauging what the usage would be like in three years, not what the usage was then.
Exactly. And what the capability would be, because we had retrofitted our previous stadium with the cellular DAS and, although it improved our coverage, it was not the coverage that we have today at McLane. The technology has improved, and the vendors have improved things to a point that we were able to build that high-density coverage for making sure that fans who want to use it would have excellent results.
We knew that that was coming along, but I wouldn’t have said we were confident when we started the two years before it was built, because it’s very hard to cover a stadium of that size. It’s very hard to cover the video demand that we expected was going to be there in two years.
And the same thing with WiFi. We did not have WiFi in our [previous] stadium, but there were some professional stadiums that did have it, and [their success varied], so we looked very carefully at that. One of the things we did in the early days is visit stadiums. We did go out ourselves and see some of those stadiums to see how they had organized the technology, what types of features they were offering with what success, and what features they were thinking were on the horizon, because we were really trying to look to the horizon. We wanted to know not only what they were doing but what they would plan to do, what they thought would be important to do, what their fans had embraced, which things seemed to be the favorites of the fans, and what they really enjoyed.
Often we hear that folks in IT wish they had been brought into the project sooner. How important was it for you to be brought it even before the ground was broken?
That is absolutely critical. I was very fortunate that, here at Baylor, I was part of that team from the beginning: to understand the site, to meet the architects, to talk about the ways we would want to try to use technology. All of that was critically important from the beginning. I’ve actually had several colleagues that have been involved in projects for their stadiums where they weren’t brought in until maybe even a year into the process; at that point, there’s not a lot that they can do to help shape things. It’s important to be part of that team that is envisioning [the design and] looking at the specs, and, if you’re going to make a careful selection on vendors, that takes a great deal of time and comparison. So getting started right away with your CIO is really the best approach. There’s a foundation for the infrastructure and for the planning that requires a partnership with the CIO and with IT. It really can’t wait. It severely limits the options that are available to you if you wait.
After a year in the building, have the workflows changed at all? How has the first year gone?
It has gone great. What’s interesting about our stadium is that, in addition to our wonderful Baylor Bears football games, we also are running a facility that is a partnership with our city and our community, and, because of that, it is a year-round stadium. WiFi, DAS, and the technology is a 365-day technology; it’s not just for a few days a year. That’s the thing that is very important, and it’s very important that it be very reliable [and] easy to manage, because it’s not just for six games.
Launching, of course, was very demanding because we were learning. We didn’t even know our way around the stadium very well. We knew our technology well, but we were all learning where things were, how things worked, and working closely with our team. That was a big demand, because you launch your stadium at the same time you’re starting your semester, [and] so it was quite demanding on the team.
One thing that we did that helped us a great deal was arrange in our [vendor] contracts that we would have onsite support from our vendors this year. We specified the levels so that not only did we have the help that we needed but we also were learning how to best manage the technology and troubleshoot the technology with the experts. They were fantastic partners and a great part of our team. We also had our WiFi coaches [students who helped fans use the Baylor In-Game App], and that was a great help to us in supporting the people who wanted to use the technology and their mobile devices.
Any plans heading into Baylor Bears’ next football season?
We were very pleased with the performance of McLane, and so we intend to continue that support and continue the technology that we rolled out last year. We’ll be adding some new features, and we’re expecting an even higher take rate [for our WiFi network and mobile app]. We’re going to be prepared for that, but we’re really thrilled that our team — our own Baylor team — is well-trained and, in that partnership that we had with the vendors, ready to take care of this for this fall. We’ll still have some vendor partners here but not to the degree that we had the first year. I feel like my team did get great hands-on experience and that we’re ready to roll out even more fun fan-engagement activities. We love our Baylor In-Game App, and we will continue to use that and add new features and new ways for the fans to have fun.