The Aussie who became Bush's IT manager

Getting the president set up for Apec was a big job

Tasked with managing the ICT requirements of United States President George Bush, an IT professional could be forgiven for allowing their high tech fantasies to go into overdrive. But according to Ben Wrigley, IT manager at Sydney's Intercontinental Hotel, where Bush stayed, the job is more like a step back in time.

Wrigley was given the mammoth task of coordinating and overseeing the president's communications needs during his visit to Australia for the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit in September.

Wrigley said he approached the challenge like any other IT project — well, almost. This was "Project President" and Wrigley admits it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

However, he is quick to point out that reality is very different to all the Hollywood movies featuring the White House as the backdrop to the latest cutting edge technologies used by presidential aides.

In fact, Wrigley says, much of the president's communications gear can only be described as "antiquated".

This is because it is used in both first-world and third-world countries. For example, after APEC, Bush was heading to Uganda and the gear remained unchanged.

"Old PSTN switching works and this gear has to work in any country on the globe; it is tried and tested technology," Wrigley says.

"The old voice switching technology and cabling connectors were so old that the young techies on staff didn't know how to set it up."

As a result, one of the primary providers, Telstra, had to call in three senior technicians aged over 65 to assist.

But it wasn't all old-world technology; Wrigley says there was some IP-based gear and a lot of satellite technology.

"There is an entire section of the president's entourage dedicated to satellite," he says.

"I saw two satellite dishes when they were here but there was a lot more."

It was Wrigley's job to connect with the White House Communications Agency, which sets up the communications gear from country to country, and pull it down again, ready to move on in line with Bush's itinerary.

Prior to his arrival, Wrigley had to meet a series of deadlines — which included ensuring all infrastructure was in place — as well as negotiate and engage with a number of external service providers leading up to APEC.

"It is pretty much a set-play for the agency staff as the president travels a lot; they need infrastructure that works so the focus is on reliability," he said.

"There is a gigantic checklist of gear that has been tried and tested."

While Bush only stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel for three days, staff were arriving up to six weeks prior to his arrival.

Wrigley says the number one priority was a land-based voice and data network able to survive an apocalypse.

"Immediately I was told to triple the network's capacity. We have 510 rooms plus conference facilities so that's a pretty significant boost," he says.

One upside of Project President is that there are no budget limitations; money certainly wasn't an issue.

"That makes any IT project so much easier — we didn't have to pay the bill at the end of the day," Wrigley says.

"Fortunately, existing infrastructure was solid so scalability wasn't an issue. The core design was good.

"It was important not to just have functionality but redundancy. There were plenty of fall back plans. It was a level of redundancy I just wasn't used to.

"For example, when it came to power supply, services are duplicated by five. It certainly isn't cost-effective on a normal basis, but with so many layers of backup it would take a freak occurrence to get through all five. It is basically impossible.

"But all planning had to be implemented with this level of redundancy in mind."

Wrigley says the agency staff had military backgrounds and were trained in special communications requirements.

They arrived at the Intercontinental from the airport with four truck loads of tech gear; it takes them a couple of days to unload and set up and another two days to pull it back down again.

"They occupied an entire floor with this gear; the place was teaming with security staff from snipers on the rooftop to marines stationed on every floor and men in dark suits everywhere," Wrigley says.

In fact, Wrigley's workplace was transformed into Hotel California, the song made famous by The Eagles, he says.

"There were no check-ins or check-outs — the entire hotel was in lockdown mode," he says.

And while Wrigley's professional approach was in line with the way he would tackle any other IT project, there were a couple of "glaring incidents" at the beginning of the relationship with the president's staff that raised concerns.

When Wrigley first began working with agency staff, it immediately became obvious that they had to follow procedure, which couldn't be altered in any way.

As military personnel, Wrigley says they did everything by the book and couldn't comprehend the free flow of enterprise.

"They will not deviate in any way, so third parties and other providers had to be flexible to compensate; it was important to get vendor selection right," he says.

"But at the end of the day, everything ran smoothly and this was only a minor problem; overall the project was extremely successful."

It is probably fair to say that successful is almost an understatement considering the long list of disasters that could have gone wrong.

And Wrigley certainly didn't know what to expect right from the start. From the moment "Project President" landed on his desk, nothing was routine, even the initial briefing.

"A guy from the US embassy turned up unannounced, introduced himself, and then provided me with a brief for the president's visit," he says.

"It was all very low key until six weeks out, then it gained momentum and stepped up a gear as external providers were bought in."

That's understandable, because there had to be some 'men in black' mystery for this project, Wrigley says.

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Tags managementBen Wrigleygeorge w bushIntercontinental Sydney

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