The CIO of baseball’s advanced media unit explains how he meets the demands of velocity

When baseball fans walk into Toronto’s Rogers Centre for a Toronto Blue Jays game they may not notice several boxes mounted on the outside walls of the stadium.

They are wireless transmitters that use Apple Inc.’s iBeacon low energy Bluetooth technology to transmit welcome messages to those carrying OS devices who have an enabled app.

It’s one of the ways Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) is using the latest in technology to interact with fans and drive interest in the sport.

Joe Inzerillo, the company’s CIO, was in Toronto last Friday to talk to tech reporters about one of the media industry’s most vigorous companies. It streams some 400,000 hours of video a year for 20,000 events and not just for professional baseball. It is hired by other sports do to their video streaming as well as a full service solutions provider.

Founded in 2001 to centralize the Web sites of professional baseball’s teams, MLBAM is owned by the teams, not the league. Today it’s the number one paid streaming service in North America, Inzerillo said, who quoted others as estimating it has revenue of US$800 million.

Roughly 530 of its staff of 800 are on the IT side, overseeing an infrastructure based on Cisco Systems Inc. UCS system – Cisco sponsored the conference call with reporters – and churning out dozens of applications for baseball as well as other partners. They range from At Bat (live coverage of who’s at bat, instant replays of home runs) to games (Ballpark Empire) to iBeacon (in its infancy right now, it will show points of interest around the stadium using location-based signals, allow clubs to send coupons as a reward to those coming to games and other services – like which concession has the shortest lines).

“For the younger fans connectivity might be more important than the location of the bathroom,” Inzerillo said.

With other pro sport leagues fighting for mobile eyeballs, not to mention everything else on the Internet, it’s no surprise Inzerillo says that MLBAM is in a competitive entertainment business that has to adapt quickly to new technologies (like iBeacon).

One of the way’s he’s done it is to collapse his four teams (network engineers, system engineers front end engineers, backend engineers) into two: Infrastructure engineers and software engineers. Each develops full stack solutions by drawing on complementary skills.

“What you really want working for a company that innovates is technology generalists that happen to be good at something at a given time. Because that experience really informs a lot of the decisions that get made … you really want people to have that well-rounded approach. And so if you really want full-stack developers, someone who can take a project or a group that can take a project from inception to implementation.” The more IT staff with different skills, the more likely they are to talk to each other in a precise way, Inzerillo said.

Often staff see themselves as separate groups – “network guys are network guys, and system guys are system guys and somebody’s the gatekeeper and where’s information security and what do they have to say about this?” he said. But that inherent structural friction is what he calls “the enemy of innovation.”

The truth is most of his system administrators knew just as much about networking as the network staff, and vice versa. So they make a natural group, Inzerillo said. The same on the software side between front-end and back-end developers to get faster app delivery.

Although his shop doesn’t use the tools, he took lessons from Ruby on Rails web development platform and Python programming language to create an approach that gives an individual developer more power.

It’s not exactly an Agile development process – Inzerillo prefers to call it “Agile-like” – but the benefit is faster app development and, he added, better quality code “because people think more when you have to write the whole stack.” He estimates code is being written at least 30 per cent faster than a year ago.

“It’s all to enable that velocity because it’s only getting faster and it’s only going to get more complex. And the folks that are going to be able to surf that way are being very successful — and the folks that aren’t are being really unsuccessful right now.”

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