Q&A: Dilbagh Gill, Mahindra Satyam
At the forthcoming FIFA World Cup in South Africa, an indispensable role will be played by India-based provider Mahindra Satyam, who in 2007 (in its previous incarnation as Satyam) secured the contract with global football administrators FIFA to provide the latter with technology and software support through 2014. Outsource tracked down Mahindra Satyam’s Head of Sport & FIFA Relationship, Dilbagh Gill, at the company’s London offices to get the lowdown on his team’s efforts building up to the world’s largest football extravaganza.
Outsource: So, Dilbagh, thanks for joining us today. Can you start by telling us what Mahindra Satyam are doing for FIFA – and why your organisation was considered to be the most suitable to take on that work?
Dilbagh Gill: So what are we doing for FIFA? This could be a very long answer! We are essentially the exclusive partner of FIFA to do all their technology work, both external and internal: so what they need within FIFA for the day-to-day running of the business, and (when talking about external technology) what they need for the running of the World Cup and their other events, including their Congresses and other meetings. Essentially what happened after Germany 2006, when FIFA was using a third-party provider, was that they decided they wanted to take in and own their intellectual property going forward. So they looked for an organisation that could help them develop a product totally ground-up, and put out a global tender in November/December 2006. Nine companies bid for it and we were one of them.
After that process we were selected as their partner to do a ground-up development of the event management system, which is the backbone for running the World Cup. From there on, the relationship blossomed into multiple touchpoints with FIFA. Why were we selected? I guess from our side it was the quality of service which we were providing. We didn’t have any domain knowledge, for sure, at that point in time – but we brought in a lot of software knowledge, in terms of events. So FIFA brought in the domain knowledge and we brought the software knowledge, and a marriage was made there. In terms of intellectual property, FIFA wanted its IP – so in a very rudimentary sense at that time it was work-for-hire: we were a vendor and we were paid for services. Seven or eight months down the line, after we started working with FIFA, we began to think that this would be a pretty strong platform to demonstrate to the world some of the work that we were doing – and that’s when we went to FIFA and told them that we’d like to become a sponsor.
So from a vendor we moved to become a sponsor – and of course FIFA could smile about it because the cheques that were coming out started to stop! But at the same time they felt it was very interesting for an IT company to come in as a partner and work with them, and they’re pretty satisfied with that. An analogy I can give you is: we look at sponsorship as an arranged marriage. We can work with each other without really knowing each other to begin with. And in India, where we’re from, very successful marriages are arranged… In the technology world we do believe that we have to date for some time, to see what value each partner can bring to the table, and then get married. And the value that we bring has to be sustainable. And in our case we’ve found that sustainability, and we’ve signed with FIFA to be their official partner running through 2014 – so for the World Cup not only this year in South Africa but for Brazil 2014.
O: So what does that cover?
DG: It’s the World Cup and all FIFA events, right from the Under 17 world tournament to the World Cup and everything in between including the Club World Cup.
O: And are you a sponsor for all those events?
DG: Our sponsorship covers all World Cup events, which constitute four events: the preliminary draw; the Confederations Cup; the Finals draw; and the World Cup. It’s only the FIFA Partners who are sponsors for all those events, which are six named partners and that’s a platform that we don’t want to step onto at this time.
O: So what’s the level of commitment for the current partnership in terms of headcount on both sides, new infrastructure et cetera?
DG: In terms of product development, around 300 man-years of development time have gone into this particular World Cup. We started on March 19th 2007, so there’s been already three years of work building up to the World Cup. But this wasn’t a Big Bang deployment: we’ve been testing it at other FIFA events, so there’s been incremental deployment including at the Confederations Cup last year, which is a very good dress rehearsal in that it’s in the host country, in the same stadiums. In terms of investment other than software development, we’re doing a lot of operations work including a lot of IT security, IT operations in South Africa – which in terms of man-years is probably a larger commitment even than software development. During the World Cup itself we’ll have a team of around 160 people supporting the event on the ground.
O: So what operations specifically are you managing for FIFA? Are you for example operating IT for the press in South Africa?
DG: That’s an interesting question, because we do stuff just for FIFA; and we do stuff for FIFA and beyond. “FIFA and beyond” includes working with the volunteers – there are 150,000 of those for the World Cup, and their job is done on systems that we produce. For the media outsourcing, FIFA has on their website something called the FIFA Media Channel. That’s an extranet from FIFA for the media that’s been totally ground-up developed by Mahindra Satyam. Today there are more than 16,000 registered media on the Media Channel; all press briefings et cetera that FIFA shoots out go out through this platform…
We obviously have no control over the content – it’s just a platform. But we can also run media ticketing through this particular website, so when you get down to South Africa and you want to go to a particular game, the ticket application and distribution is run through here. So that’s our primary touchpoint with the media. We do support services for media at each venue, so we have internet kiosks that have been set up. Typically we’ve noticed that media come with various configurations of kit but of course if it plugs it’ll play, if it doesn’t plug it doesn’t play! So we have to do a lot of work on an ad hoc basis to ensure that the media have access. We basically have what we call the Local Operations Team, or LOT – there are lots of LOT…
We have ten stadiums and four other venues, so from our perspective there are 14 venues which we cover, with 100 people, and the other 60 people are supporting applications and technology support. We do not use any of the existing networks in the stadiums, because each stadium has its own network and its own standards. It’s cheaper and more effective for us to do a 100% overlay, so for the World Cup each of the stadiums has its own second network overlaid to one standard and one spec so we know exactly what’s there – otherwise we’d have so many different specifications, so many different types of equipment. So our standard network has been entirely designed, developed, deployed by Mahindra Satyam.
O: And is all of this coming into the category of the IP that FIFA owns? Because it sounds as though at least some of it could be rolled out to other events.
DG: We have an agreement with FIFA whereby we could take the entire suite of applications and services for other events – and we are going to jointly go to market for other events. There’s one smaller event in September at which both FIFA and Mahindra Satyam will be supporting a third party with this software. Another piece where we’re going to go to tender jointly is for the various confederation tournaments. While UEFA has its own systems, the other confederations – maybe AFC, CONMEBOL et cetera – could use us. From their perspective they can remove their IT budget because FIFA owns the intellectual property, so for them it’s reusability of their investment. Next year for example at the Asian Football Championship in Qatar there could potentially be a part of our software being used.
O: It sounds as though the partnership you’ve forged with FIFA has almost moved onto a “dual provider” level with FIFA renting out or selling its proprietary software through you to third parties…
DG: It’s very interesting because this wasn’t an intent of “push”; it’s basically happened through “pull”. Other providers have come to us and asked if we can help them out. The difference between FIFA events and most other events is that FIFA events are single-sport, multi-venue, while other events are multi-sport, single-venue. For example at the cricket World Cup next year, this could be an ideal platform where we could use our software. But interestingly the first event after the World Cup is a single-venue multi-sport event and I think there will be more choice for large event organisers around the world. The advantage of what we do is that our solution is totally browser-based – and it’s the first time such a solution has been deployed.
If you look at the Olympics – up to and including the Vancouver Olympics earlier this year – it’s largely been client-server-based which involves a lot more hardware. And this has been the same for the last 20 years including at the FIFA World Cup where some other software was used. For us it’s basically the next level: the Cloud. And we can run multiple events at the same time. And in fact it’s very interesting because during the World Cup we have another FIFA event happening in Trinidad & Tobago; we’ll be supporting both of them and they’ll be at totally polar ends of the spectrum in terms of size and capability. It’s something we’ve brought on via some of our architecture which can sustain this platform for four years going forward.
As I said earlier this platform can be used for all events through 2014. We started this in 2007, so there’s a seven-year period during which our applications have to be used, so it’s been pretty challenging in a number of ways. One is from the technology-use angle: how’s it going to be used? Another is, 90% of the applications will be used by volunteers, so they’re basically the first end-users of this application, at different venues. So we have to make it easy for them to use, but at the same time as large and as robust as for the bigger events.
O: When you were first scoping out this product it must have been crucial for you to bear in mind that you’d have to design something that suited both the very large and much smaller events.
DG: We did take that into consideration at the design, and that’s one of the reasons we took a very modular approach. There are 20 modules and each of those can be run individually. If you just want accreditation, or transportation, we can just take one of those systems and run it independently. It’s not only for sporting events: FIFA also uses it for its administrative events such as the FIFA Congress which they had last year in the Bahamas, or the World Player Gala held every year in Zurich. All the accreditation and transportation et cetera is done through this system.
O: And were you planning right from the beginning to run that through the Cloud?
DG: There were other considerations, like we do have certain reporting aspects run at the back end – but most of it is run through the Cloud.
O: And that’s part of Mahindra Satyam’s general drive towards providing Cloud-based solutions anyway, I suppose?
DG: Yes. In fact some of our centres of excellence are very heavily involved in R&D facing the Cloud, and just recently we’ve been awarded by Microsoft on the new Azure platform, which is basically for the Cloud, for our healthcare/life science product which is the first product on Microsoft’s Azure platform which has been certified by them. We will be launching a product for Oracle on their life sciences hub on June 16th for clinical trials. So we do have a lot of areas we’re taking into the Cloud.
O: Going back to some of the challenges you faced with the FIFA project: which were the challenges which you feel like you’ve learnt the most from for future operations like this?
DG: The biggest challenge really for us is that for each event we get together with different parties to work with. Typically we have to work with the different sponsors, so in South Africa it’s Telkom South Africa, MTN and Sony who have their own technology and we interface with each of them. Somewhere else, it could be three other different brands. And some of us are, for want of a better word, virgins within each sport. So there’s a lot of learning to be done on the ground. We’re getting educated while working – but we have a very stringent deadline. That’s been one of the biggest challenges.
O: That learning process itself though must mean that now your staff is relatively highly skilled at taking on that particular challenge. So when looking at new partnerships you’d feel relatively confident about building those relationships?
DG: Absolutely. The way we’ve moved along this continuum is, initially when we started with FIFA, we had a certain amount of sports clients – for example IMG, the world’s largest sports agent who typically run five or six events every day around the world; and the motorsport series A1 GP. We did some accreditation stuff with them. So there have been bits and bobs we’ve been doing with other people. But where we’d reached was, we were pretty good at reactive work in terms of when someone told us to do something we were good at delivering it. Today, we have got to a situation where we can go and sell an end-to-end consulting arrangement service.
O: So going forwards: do you see yourselves perhaps bidding for an Olympic contract in future?
DG: If the Olympics were open for bidding we would love to consider it. But at this point in time the partnerships have been signed through 2016. At the level below the Olympics and World Cup, we have become a genuine second choice for operators around the world.
O: Do you see yourselves becoming the dominant player in sports tech globally?
DG: Our knowledge is still evolving as we go. One of the things is, a lot of agencies are talking to us today because we are a sponsor. When sponsorship is in place it’s pretty easy to talk to people! But of course we do not have a blank cheque. We of course are looking to recoup our investment and sell on value… In sporting events, largely, there’s a technology provider who becomes a partner – and most of the marquee events have a brand associated with them. The Olympics have ATOS; tennis has IBM. Now we hopefully will be the name associated with football. And we are open to “white badging” some of our software; if someone else wants to put their logo on it, very good, as long as it’s our own product. You pay for it, you logo it…
O: I guess as long as the cheques are going in the right direction…
DG: Exactly. As a focus for us sport is a vertical that matters. It’s not just a one-off instance where Mahindra Satyam are providing for the FIFA World Cup. This is a genuine growth service area where we’re going to expand and develop.