Ellen Barry is the CIO of one of the largest convention centers in the country — responsible for providing technical support for the business as well as running a revenue-generating IT shop that delivers services to show organizers, exhibitors, and attendees. Here’s an inside look at what this position entails.

Ellen Barry is a native Chicagoan with a degree in mathematics and an MBA in Quantitative Methods and Computers. She runs the IT group for the Municipal Pier Expo Authority — one of the nation’s largest convention centers — in her own unique way. Prior to accepting her position with the MPEA in 2000, her experience as a First Deputy CIO with the City of Chicago prepared her for this taxpayer-funded job, but she’s anything but your average public sector functionary.

As the First Deputy CIO for the city, Ellen led initiatives in desktop support and data center operations, from their statements of work through contract negotiations and ultimately the transition of services. She also worked with the Chicago Police Department on several projects, including its new criminal records system, and has done work as an internal consultant for various private sector organizations in myriad areas, such as healthcare, electronic data interchange, energy management, forecasting, inventory planning, and distribution requirements planning.

Last month, Ellen provided technical support for the Pittcon 2009 Expo at McCormick Place, featuring a full-day symposium on nanotechnology and more than a thousand exhibitors in areas like “applied spectroscopy” and “analytical chemistry” (is there any other kind?). Needless to say, there are great expectations for the resident IT department when you put on a heady show like this.

Ellen and I recently had an opportunity to talk about her current work as an executive in this unusual government agency.

Note: This interview is also available as a PDF download. Check out the accompanying photo gallery for a visual tour of Navy Pier and McCormick Place.

1. Jeff: In looking at the charter of the MPEA, I see the main two components are Navy Pier and McCormick Place. What is the connection between these two?
Ellen: In 1989, McCormick Place was restructured as the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority, joining the city-owned Navy Pier with McCormick Place. The common mandate is to encourage visitors to come to Chicago and spend some of their time and money here. Although MPEA is officially “government sector,” the Authority operates, from my experiences, as a cross between the public and private sectors. Our legal entity is public sector, but the way we deal with clients is much more like a private sector organization, meaning that we know that our customers have choices. If we don’t take care of our customers, they may go somewhere else.

We’re also unlike a typical business, though, in that our goal is not to make a profit. Our objective is to bring economic activity to Chicago and Illinois. We’re responsible for bringing in about five billion dollars a year in revenue for the airlines, hotels, cabs, restaurants, shopping, and so on, from conventions, meetings, and tourism. That’s our goal — to be an economic engine that drives the Chicagoland region as well as the state of Illinois.

Navy Pier at Dock Street

2. Jeff: But your office is a government position?
Ellen: It is, but in a unique way. My job is to provide the technical support for the business overall, just like any business, and then I also run a revenue-generating IT shop that provides technical services to my customers with Internet bandwidth, wireless or hard-wired, and other support services.
3. Jeff: Were you hired or appointed to your position?
Ellen: I was interviewed and hired, as are all positions within the Authority except the CEO, who is appointed by the governor. Lately, many of our senior positions go out to a recruiting firm, and talent is sought from public as well as private sectors. This agency is governed by a board of directors, six of whom are appointed by the mayor and six by the governor. The chair is appointed by the mayor and the CEO is appointed by the governor. So we truly have a split responsibility to both the city and the state of Illinois.
4. Jeff: In terms of the way money is spent to get things done, how does your relationship in Chicago to organized labor compare to what it would be like if you were in the suburbs?
Ellen: The technical people who work for me aren’t unionized, but on our show floor we work with a lot of union people. The painters and plumbers and electricians are all with unions. Our goal at McCormick Place is to rent space and provide certain services, like electrical, plumbing, telecoms, and technical services. We are the landlords. We lease the space out to the car show, for example, and then they sublet it to the automakers. The show itself hires a partner like GES or Freeman and they bring riggers, painters, and carpenters, who are all unionized. Because of our investment in our electrical infrastructure and our extended telecom circuits, all electrical or telecom work is managed by MPEA. We utilize some internal union staff or we reach out to the union pool and look for the number of people we will need and then they report to us, but they’re all temporary labor.
5. Jeff: The auto show has always been an impressive production to me. Is that the biggest show for you?
Ellen: No, the annual Radiological Society of North America takes most of our space, the International Manufacturing Technology show takes all of our space, and there’s the restaurant show — those are some of our largest events. But the Chicago Auto Show is our largest public show, and it’s the largest auto show in North America. The healthcare and medical industries are also major customers for us, and they use a lot of technical services. In addition, we support the high tech industry, including the Supercomm show for telecommunications and broadband infrastructure. That’s coming up in October, and it’s a major commitment for us in services on the technical side. Our customers bring a variety of technical needs, ranging up to organizations like Adobe and eBay. It sounds weird, but there is also a lot of technology being used in restaurants these days, in terms of software, wireless environments, and other specialized equipment.
6. Jeff: How much of an impact on your work would it have for Chicago to host the 2016 Olympics?
Ellen: The Olympics is a really exciting and important opportunity for all of us. McCormick Place is one of the differentiating factors for Chicago. We have tremendous tried-and-proven electrical and technical infrastructure that can provide flexible and dynamic opportunities without requiring a build-out of a new Olympic facility. For example, they’ve asked about our ability to provide accommodations for all the broadcasters and media who may be staying for an extended period of time. Of the four major buildings at McCormick Place, they will need the entire south building for media and broadcasting, which is almost a million square feet. We would love to have them take advantage of that.

We have all the power they could possibly need and more. We have high-speed networking, about seven hundred miles of fiber within our buildings, and high-powered Cisco equipment in all our closets. They would augment that with their own equipment, of course, but we have topnotch infrastructure for them to start with, and we can get them up and running in a short period of time. That is very compelling to them.

Then there are the 17 events that would be held within our walls. Everything from fencing to wrestling to indoor volleyball is being planned for our facilities, along with some of the Paralympic Games. Because of the power grid reliability, our technical and internal resources, and experienced union tradesmen, we can build out the space much more easily than other places. We effectively build houses and tear them down for a living. Take the Kitchen and Bath show, for example. We build out walls and showers and kitchens in a flash, then turn it back into a show floor and build out for something like a medical event requiring installation of MRI machines and other medical devices. So this is intriguing to them; our show floor is an open palette. We can literally do anything with that space.

McCormick Place

7. Jeff: As a government executive, how is your role different from your peers and counterparts in the private sector?
Ellen: It’s similar in a lot of ways. I still do ERP systems, event management systems, file servers, e-mail, and systems that allow people to manage the things within their authority. Those all remain the same. The business systems are consistent — the network infrastructure, the bandwidth and communications capability.

Where I’m different is that I’ve managed to become a revenue-generating IT shop. I have a strategy where I believe all services to our end customers should be managed within our organization. We’ve built out a second technical network that is totally separate from our administrative network — it never crosses. It’s entirely plug-and-play and can provide networks-on-demand for all of our customers’ needs, from providing a private network for an event’s attendee registration to specific exhibitor requirements. As an example of our services, an event may need a network to maintain all the presentations in a series of meeting rooms. So instead of each group bringing its presentation to a room and manually getting it up and running, they’re all loaded to a fileserver and then accessed by an identified device in a specific room at a specific time.

We provide a gigabit connection out to the Internet, and then we have a second gigabit-capacity network that goes out to Internet2 and other next-generation networks for research and education organizations to show some of the research and development going on, particularly in the healthcare field. These are advanced applications they are working on between universities, research centers, the federal government, and others on Internet2.

Then we’ve been adding services on top of that. I’m working with a particular six-sigma vendor who provides metrics on show effectiveness and improving show management using video cameras. We recently installed 80 permanent cameras, where a lot of places would at most have temporary cameras installed and taken down after each show.

8. Jeff: How do the cameras enable this type of show metrics?
Ellen: Some shows may be interested in tracking customer flow on the show floor: where people go, how long they stay, how many potential leads there were, whether the sales reps were engaged with them, and what days or times are best. The old assumption was that the last day of the show was the least valuable, when in fact it turns out the last day is often be the best. What we’ve found is that’s when people have finished looking and are ready to commit to a sale.

In another behavioral experiment, we tried a seating area in the middle of the show floor to see whether people would sit down and not get back up until they leave. To the contrary, we found that not only do they stay longer, but they meet other people there and go back out to the floor. We also discovered that a particular change in signage at the self-registration area can make a big difference in the registration rate, and that even things like colors or patterns in the carpeting affect traffic flow.

This kind of information has provided a valuable advantage for a lot of our shows. I have my MBA from Loyola in Chicago, and I tend to think in a more business-oriented than tech-oriented way overall, so we’re also leasing the cameras to shows to see how the floor gets put together and to manage the show floor without physically being there, even when the show is not on, via the Internet.

9. Jeff: How does what you do match up to what’s going on in other Olympic-scale cities, like L.A. or Atlanta or Salt Lake City?
Ellen: We’re a little bit different here in Chicago, in that most other convention centers in major cities have outsourced their technology. I am one of the few CIOs in the convention space, and I prefer that my dedicated tech team and their work all be kept in house. Not being under a contract gives us a great deal of flexibility in how we manage the 2016 bid. We have the best infrastructure of any convention center in the country.

I’m very familiar with the main infrastructure outsourcing company that contracts with the other convention centers in the United States. We’re in touch with each other. They do a fine job, but their goals are different from ours. As I see it, their primary goal is to maximize profits and minimize expenses. My goal is customer service.

We have the freedom to make decisions on whether we want to do something, where an outsourcer must look at the cost and see whether it makes sense. I recently received a call about whether we want to control our costs with outsourcing. Fortunately, my costs are under control, so we’ll continue to keep it in house.

The good news and the bad news about McCormick is that it’s very large. Anything we do is costly. There are no small projects here, so validating the strategy with ROI is still important to everything we’ve done, with the exception of wireless, where I still haven’t been able to show the ROI. Wireless is purely for customer service at this point. We’ll have wi-fi to accommodate 8,000 concurrent users, which is very expensive, and no one wants to pay for it.

Once our sales reps get people here, I want them to see that they can’t get this kind of experience anywhere else. I sat on two panels when the International Olympic Committee came to town, one for technology and one for media operations. The IOC had a full tour of McCormick Place as one component of its visit, leading up to the final decision it will make in Copenhagen in October, and it saw a facility that will cost about one and a half billion dollars to build today. Over the next two months, the committee will visit Tokyo, Madrid, and Rio de Janeiro, but Chicago was its first stop, and I was pleased and honored to participate. I think we’ve found the differentiator.

10. Jeff: What is the main thing CIOs need to consider in being the best and going above and beyond?
Ellen: I always work from a business perspective first. I work very closely with my tech team, and it’s a given that CIOs have to deliver well internally — but they always need to be thinking in terms of business strategy. I think CIOs must look closely at their customers and consider how they can deliver better, finer, constantly improving capabilities to the end user. I am always thinking, “If I were my own customer, what would I be looking for and where would I find value?” Then I find a way to go out and do it.