Indy speedway CIO says a sense of urgency drives decision-making

Off-the-shelf isn't an option for Rhonda Winter. Instead, she borrows great ideas.

Rhonda Winter, CIO, Indianapolis Motor Speedway [2015]
Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Few CIOs provide services for the diversity of business operations that Rhonda Winter does. As CIO at Hulman & Co., owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Winter and her IT staff of 12 full-timers and two contractors must ensure that tech systems at the famous track are ready for the iconic Indianapolis 500, numerous other races and big-time nonracing events like this year's July 4 Rolling Stones concert. Winter's team also delivers IT services to Hulman's IMS Productions video production operation and its Clabber Girl baking products unit.

It's an unusual mix, but Winter is up to the challenge, having held IT and business leadership roles at other unique organizations, such as the NCAA and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Here she shares insights on her strategies for leading IT.

What's the biggest technology challenge you face? I'll tell you a bit about this facility: Today there are no fans here, but on race day there could be 350,000, and everybody has their Wi-Fi, their cellular phones. We also go from [several hundred employees] to 4,000 -- we hire temporary people to come in and work. And we run events in analog, digital and on TV, and all three require connectivity. So for us, connectivity is the biggest challenge. It's very important in fan engagement, operational efficiency and for creating an intelligent stadium. Each one requires connectivity.

And once you're connected, you're collecting data, so then it's bringing to the front the data that's important, so we can make data-driven decisions.

Is this connectivity challenge just about having enough bandwidth to handle the devices? That's the first part, but it's really about creating community around the sports and the fans to actively engage when they're here at the events and when they go home. So it requires connectivity and parsing the data so it makes sense to them.

How have you addressed this challenge? The challenge here is it's outside. Verizon put in a distributed antenna system in 2015. They're a partner -- they're the title sponsor of the [Indy Racing League].

How do you approach those big events from an IT standpoint? We really are a project-based company. [For the speedway] we turn off the electricity in early October and turn it back on in April. So we have a project plan called the IT 500 to open up for the month of May; that's a living document, and every time a new requirement comes up, we add it. On that plan, like any big project, are all the things we need to do and the project owners. And we have a lot of customer conversations.

We also have a baseline of stable infrastructure, so we're able to throw up a temporary upswell of capability in a specific location in the facility; that's important for us. And I use cloud infrastructure a lot, because we spin up extra capacity for the websites for the fans. And we have a passionate employee base. That's definitely the secret sauce -- the employee commitment.

Rhonda Winter, CIO, Indianapolis Motor Speedway [2015] Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Like other mobile users at the speedway, CIO Rhonda Winter relies on a distributed antenna system installed by Verizon.

You've also talked about the importance of mobile to your enterprise. We used to set up offices in the track. But now we're all mobile; we don't have desk phones. Mobile is king for us, because of all the traveling we do, because we have a heavy sales and marketing bent, and we're back and forth from the track all the time. And we can work from home seamlessly.

Tell me about a recent innovation and how you developed it. People who are VIPs -- our guests, people who have a need to be here in special places -- need to have credentials and they have to sign a waiver, and those lines were very long. We wanted them to get where they need to go to do their jobs or to enjoy their day. So we put a concierge at the head of the line who could check to make sure they have everything they need to stand in line. [The concierges] have iPads feeding them customer information and so they can direct folks to the right places. We had iPads that they could then sign with their finger, but we found that slowed people down, so we put in a stylus at all the counters to make it flow better. That makes the experience wildly different, and we had a huge improvement in customer surveys as a result.

How did you come up with the idea for that innovation? We borrowed that from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. They did a concierge service that improved lines. This is the philosophy I have: to find other solutions and shamelessly borrow great ideas. I haven't worked at places that have competitors, so there aren't suites of solutions I can buy off the shelf. So I spend a lot of time looking at what others have done and borrowing from those.

As humans, we want things to be better. And we're better with a red pen than a blank piece of paper; we're better at tailoring it to our needs.

Do you have an overarching IT policy you follow to serve such a varied collection of business units? To drive commodity IT to its lowest common denominator and share it. Connectivity, for example. The [Clabber Girl] baking powder plant enjoys the connectivity. We drive the shared resources to the lowest common denominator and we leverage our sameness. That allows us to have the most amount of money to invest in those things that make the biggest difference for each of the business divisions, because each business needs a very different competitive investment.

And we use cloud first. Cloud plays to our ability to be agile and people-centered. So technology and data are centered around the people who need it, not the desks.

Rhonda Winter, CIO, Indianapolis Motor Speedway [2015] Indianapolis Motor Speedway

You have a degree in industrial administration. How did you end up in that field of study? I went to work for GM right from high school. We had a co-op every six weeks, and I was sponsored by the IT department. And that [degree] made me different because I'm all about business processes. I have a quick tendency to break a big problem down to business processes and then improve them. I'm always looking at how I can deliver value quicker, and I think that came from manufacturing.

GM is an iconic company. What was the best lesson you learned from that environment? I didn't appreciate it enough until I was gone, but what I did realize was that the checks and balances in a big company provide a safety net. But here's the bad part: It also slows it down. When I went to a smaller company, I could see the difference it made to the bottom line. I have a philosophy that there's nothing we can't manage ourselves out of. I have a sense of urgency to make a decision because I think if you sit still, you can get run over.

I learned if you put people in the room together who are really smart and motivated to make a difference, particularly if they have nothing in common, if you then turn the heat up and challenge them to make things happen, really good things happen.

Do you worry about driverless cars? This place was founded as a test facility for cars. We've always been a testing ground for new technology. I haven't seen [driverless cars] around here, but we've had electronic-powered race cars come out and do some testing.

This story, "Indy speedway CIO says a sense of urgency drives decision-making" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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