Bill Belichick, the legendary coach of the New England Patriots, has had it with the Surface Tablets that the NFL has provided each team for game time use. In a surprisingly in-depth answer for the usually taciturn tactician, he went into exactly why he'd switched from the high-tech system back to pen and paper — and his answer touches on a lot of the issues that IT regularly fights with.
The underlying problem? The complexity of the underlying, interlocking systems, a glitch in any of which can cause everything to fall apart at a critical moment.
That's a challenge that goes far beyond any issues with the Microsoft Surface tablet itself, but still doesn't speak well to the partnership between the NFL and Microsoft, which reportedly paid $400 million for the deal.
From Belichick's statement:
As you probably noticed, I'm done with the tablets. I've given them as much time as I can give them. They're just too undependable for me. I'm going to stick with pictures as several of our other coaches do as well because there just isn't enough consistency in the performance of the tablets, so I just can't take it anymore.
Uptime matters, and as the consumerization of IT has continued apace, reliability has often taken a hit. Having something work 95% or even 98% of the time often can be even more frustrating for users than something that just never works (look at a lot of reviews of the current crop of AI assistants, which often fail somewhat less than gracefully).
The other communication systems involve the press box to the coaches on the field, and then the coach on the field, the signal caller, or the coach-to-quarterback, coach-to-signal caller system. Those fail on a regular basis. There are very few games that we play, home or away, day, night, cold, hot, preseason, regular season, postseason, it doesn't make any difference; there are very few games where there aren't issues in some form or fashion with that equipment. And again, there's a lot of equipment involved, too. There are headsets in the helmets, there's the belt pack, that communication, there's a hookup or connection to internet service or that process and so forth with the coaches and the press box. So, there are a number of pieces of equipment, there is a number of connections that are on different frequencies. Again, not that I know anything about this but as it has been explained to me there are a lot of things involved and inevitably something goes wrong somewhere at some point in time.
Simplify, simplify, simplify. It was good advice from Thoreau, and it's decent advice in a lot of IT situations. Organizations are looking to reduce complexity in their stack in order to reduce maintenance costs and improve reliability, and it looks like the communications system for NFL IT could do much of the same.
I would say weekly we have to deal with something. Dan Famosi is our IT person and he does a great job of handling those things. This is all league equipment so we don't have it. I mean we use it but it isn't like we have the equipment during the week and we can work with it and 'OK, this is a problem. Let's fix this.' That's not how it works. We get the equipment the day of the game, or I'd say not the day of the game but a few hours before the game and we test it and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Usually by game time it is working but I would say not always. And then during the game sometimes something happens and it has to be fixed, and first of all, you have to figure out what the problem is. Is it a battery? Is it the helmet? Is it the coaches' pack? Is it the battery on the coaches' pack? I mean you know, again, it could be one of 15 different things.
The NFL has some special constraints, but every organization struggles to balance stakeholders. Here, it looks like that balanced got missed.
So, I would just say there are problems in every game. There were problems last week but there were problems the week before that, too. Some are worse than others. Sometimes both teams have them, sometimes one team has them and the other doesn't have them. There's an equity rule that's involved there on certain aspects of the communication system but not on all aspects meaning what happens on one side then the other team has to have the same. If ours are down then theirs has to be down and vice versa, but it's only true in certain aspects of the communication system; not everything. Overall there is a lot of complexity to the technology. There is complexity to multiple systems and there are a lot of failures, and so I know on our end Dan does a great job to fix those as quickly as possible. He has very limited access. I don't know how much urgency there is on the other part from the league standpoint. However much urgency there is for them to have everything right, I don't know, I'm not involved with that. But yeah, it was a problem last week. It's basically a problem every week. The degrees aren't always the same but we're usually dealing with something. But as far as the tablet goes, I mean there was an experiment in a couple of the preseason games. It was one preseason game. We actually had two because it was our home game and Carolina's home game where we had video on the tablets. But for me personally, it's a personal decision, I'm done with the tablets. I'll use the paper pictures from here on because I've given it my best shot. I've tried to work through the process but it just doesn't work for me and that's because there's no consistency to it. Long answer to a short question; sorry.
Belichick should get a consumer tech column. Today's users will work so much before giving up and using shadow IT tools (or in this case, paper and marker). Giving that there's $400 million on the line with this deal, losing a key constituent to IT consistency is a major blow.
Microsoft responded to Belichick's comments, but I think it's interesting to note that his problem wasn't necessarily with the Surface, but with all the technology that was supposed to integrate with the Surface.
"We respect Coach Belichick’s decision, but stand behind the reliability of Surface. We continue to receive positive feedback on having Surface devices on the sidelines from coaches, players and team personnel across the league. In the instances where sideline issues are reported in NFL games, we work closely with the NFL to quickly address and resolve."
The NFL emphasized those integration challenges in their statement:
As with any technology, there are multiple factors that can cause issues within our sideline communications system, either related to or outside of Microsoft’s technology. We continue to work with all of our partners to ensure the best systems are in place to give our clubs the greatest chance for success on a weekly basis."
Disclosure: The author lives in the Boston area.