U.S. Tennis Open's CIO Has Something to Teach You

By Anna Maria Virzi Print this article Print

With the United States Tennis Association's showcase event underway, there's no margin for error. Here's what its CIO has to say about project management methodology.

With Larry Bonfante now serving at the US Open tennis tournament, he only has one chance to execute an ace.

As chief information officer for the United States Tennis Association, a not-for-profit organization that runs the annual tournament in Flushing, N.Y., Bonfante and his team must make sure that all computer and communications systems that power the physical access control, point-of-sale, meal allowance and other applications are good to go. That's no small feat for an event expected to draw about 650,000 people over the next two weeks.

The US Open, as Bonfante points out, is the world's most highly attended annual sporting event. It represents the association's key fund-raiser, generating revenue from ticket sales and television advertising in order to showcase and promote the sport of tennis. Eighty-three percent of the organization's $177.3 million revenue in 2004 came from the event, according to the most recent annual report filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

Bonfante's experiences exemplify how a CIO must prepare for a single big event when there's no margin for error. "Ready or not, on a day in late August, two people are going to be standing across the net [at Arthur Ashe Stadium], hitting the ball at each other. That's a project deadline," Bonfante said in an interview at his USTA office in White Plains, N.Y., in mid-June.

In addition to an immovable deadline, another daunting challenge involves the fluctuating size of the tennis association's workforce. With 375 people on staff throughout the year, the number of people who receive credentials to work on-site at the US Open—counting the players, coaches, media, sponsors, consultants and vendors—soars to 20,000 during the tournament. US Open sponsor IBM, for example, has 12 to 18 people working on site at the tournament to support the USTA's advance media team and the US Open Web site.

For information technology, the number goes from about 30 year-round full-timers to an additional 20 seasonal staffers who directly work with the USTA's I.T. department.

To keep new initiatives on schedule, the association follows a stripped-down version of the methodology developed by the Project Management Institute, an association that sets credentials for project managers. For ongoing operational processes, the association has a handbook that documents procedures and responsibilities during the tournament.

"Being an event of its size and complexity … [the US Open] begs for standard project management and having all the various pieces planned out in advance, documented so that you can very quickly engage, train and make effective a large-scale number of people in a short period of time," says Jeffrey Zonenshine, the USTA's director of information technology for professional tennis and a certified Project Management Professional. He is credited with customizing the USTA's project management approach to address the needs of a small organization.

The methodology, known internally as "Plan To Win," is outlined in a 55-page manual that defines the processes for initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing a project. The manual shows templates and hypothetical examples for each of the phases. "A goal is to break projects down to tasks that are simple, straightforward, readily communicated and readily tracked," Zonenshine says.

Exactly how does the USTA's approach to project management differ from that of a large organization? "If you look at PMI applied at NASA, a project charter is a fairly significant document in terms of size and complexity. Here at the USTA, the basic template we use is a one-pager," Zonenshine says.

The project charter template in the "Plan To Win" manual, for example, asks those charged with delivering projects to identify the project objectives/mission in a "brief, business-oriented paragraph." The objectives must answer three questions, including the problem to be solved or opportunity to be achieved and benefits to be realized. He or she must also describe the project scope, requirements, risks and timetable, and break down costs for hardware, software, facilities, and I.T. staff and contractor services.

A sample included in the "Plan To Win" handbook shows a timetable for implementing an access control system, which involves setting up scanning technology at US Open entrances to validate bar codes on tickets and credentials. With June 1 as a starting date, selection of access point locations would take place on day 1; an equipment order would be developed and the actual order would be made during week 2. The plan would then call for the equipment to arrive by weeks 5 and 6, and installation would be wrapped up by the end of week 6 or July 15.

This article was originally published on 2007-08-03
Executive Editor
Anna Maria was assistant managing editor Forbes.com. She held the posts of news editor and executive editor at Internet World magazine and was city editor and Washington correspondent for the Connecticut Post, a daily newspaper in Bridgeport. Anna Maria has a B.A. from the University of Rhode Island.
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