7 Ways America's Cup Champions Sail Like Successful IT Teams

By Mark Sunday, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Oracle

Mark Sunday, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Oracle.

I’ve been a fan of America’s Cup sailing for 30 years. Since its inception in 1851, the competition has showcased skill, athleticism, technology—and more than a fair dose of intrigue. Beginning with the 29th America’s Cup in 1995 in San Diego, and continuing with the races in which Oracle TEAM USA has participated, I’ve been fortunate to have had a front-row seat, and, occasionally, behind-the-scenes access. It’s provided a great opportunity to see firsthand what it takes to excel at the highest levels of yacht racing.

While watching Oracle TEAM USA’s unprecedented comeback victory in the 34th America’s Cup in September with IT leaders who were in town for Oracle OpenWorld, I was struck by the parallels between winning America’s Cup teams and successful IT organizations.

Here are seven ways the things we do within our enterprises to accelerate IT can be analogized to how that expert, focused Oracle sailing team won the 34th America’s Cup:

Winning teams embrace disruption. We’re in an era of unprecedented technology disruption.  Organizations in every industry are finding their business models changing with the explosion of cloud and mobile computing, social networking, big data, and the Internet of Things, to name just a few. IT organizations supporting modern businesses have never been more challenged to keep pace with change. For those that can respond at the speed of opportunity, there are rich rewards.

Similarly, while technology has been at the core of the America’s Cup since Yacht America won the first race around the Island of Wight 162 years ago, there’s never been the level of disruption we’re seeing today. As recently as 2007, lumbering monohulls were topping out at speeds of 20mph. Today’s boats are 6 ton, 72-foot catamarans, which essentially fly on the water’s surface upon foils the size of surfboards powered by 13-story wings. But the technology disruption just begins with the shape of the boats. The same technologies changing businesses have revolutionized not only how the America’s Cup boats are built and sailed, but also how spectators viewing the event from 170 countries around the world are drawn in to experience sailing as it has never been experienced before.

The ability to leverage mobile and social technologies has fundamentally changed how spectators engage with the event. During the September battle between Oracle TEAM USA and Emirates Team New Zealand, spectators had access to live data on their mobile devices, fed directly from the boats on the Bay. For example, the America’s Cup 3D Viewer, fed with sailing data accurate to within an inch, provided iOS and Android smartphone and tablet users with direct access to live audio and race commentary.

ORACLE TEAM USA on San Francisco Bay. Photo Guilain Grenier. Used by permission ORACLE TEAM USA

On the big screen, racing coverage was enhanced for global television audiences with the help of Stan Honey, the graphics pioneer who developed the first-down “yellow line” used in National Football League telecasts. Because sailing takes place on such a large canvas, TV viewers typically have a tough time keeping up with the general flow of the race. It’s sometimes difficult to tell which boat is in the lead.

In his role as America’s Cup director of technology, Honey applied some of the smarts developed at Sportvision, a company he co-founded, to deploy a network of boat-mounted cameras and sensors. Overhead helicopters were added to the mix. Finally,  Honey and his team created on-screen overlays to show viewers which boat was out front, as well as wind direction and each vessel’s speed.  This capability, AC LiveLine, was recognized with an Emmy for extraordinary technical innovation.

Management is important, but building the complete team is mission critical.  Without a doubt having an effective IT organization begins and ends with the entire team. That’s why it’s important to keep in mind that the CIO is just the visible tip of a very large iceberg. The CIO and top IT managers engage with key stakeholders to chart a course. Then software architects and engineers build out solutions. Finally, operations and support teams ensure flawless execution and rapid remediation as issues arise.

Likewise, an America’s Cup campaign requires years of focused preparation and effort. More than 100 dedicated designers, boat builders, technologists, sail makers, shore personnel, and support personnel were part of Oracle TEAM USA, and I haven’t even mentioned the sailors.  Everyone had a specialized role, but all pulled together to achieve the common goal of bringing home the Cup. To iterate on quality, as one of the leaders of Oracle Racing put it, the sailing team hired slowly and fired fast.

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