An interview with Santa's CIO
We corner the big guy's IT supremo
With hands on management and a little bit of star dust, Santa's IT operation goes without a hitch year after year. William Knight talks to the big guy's very secretive CIO and finds out it's not always eternal joyfulness at Christmas HQ.
As interviews go this was not hard to arrange. Some weeks ago I'd said it would be interesting to meet Santa's CIO and he must have been listening because late one evening the door bell rings and an immaculately dressed chauffeur asks me if I'd like an interview.
A huge limo is parked under the street lamp and circling exhaust fumes create a mysterious vignette. I note the number plate "RUD 0LF", just as the rear door opens and the chauffeur ushers me through.
Inside, deep in white leather upholstery, sits an archetypal business man. No beard or red hat, just a dark suit and plain tie, with a lapel pin in the shape of a small Christmas pudding.
Ünter Klaus is CIO of Christmas HQ, and as the mist billows round the windows and the car sets off he explains how his responsibilities centre on the NGBS (Naughty Girl & Boy System) with its billions of records.
The reality of Christmas HQ is far from the pixies and fairies wonderland described in legend. Klaus must manage the terabytes of data and facilitate the Big Day (BD) or Christmas Eve. "We have tremendous organisation, logistics and planning for each year's timetable," he says. "I must make sure each child gets only what their record demands."
The size of the job is impressive and while delivery is run with Santa's special abilities IT must rely on its own resources. "Magic is very expensive and hard to control," says Klaus explaining how it requires technical expertise to wield magic effectively. "Things can go very wrong without the right level of support, maintenance and specialist staff.
"We recently implemented a Magic Oriented Architecture (MOA) but had enormous difficulties integrating NGBS. The project has been a major compliance exercise, but no matter what products say on the box, we've found there's no silver bullet."
Compliance is Klaus's top item. Christmas HQ runs via many organisations world wide and each has its own requirements. Even though the enterprise is beyond any single jurisdiction they must still respond to requests from subsidiaries and pressure is escalating due to ever-more financial products given away in Christmas stockings. "Kids don't just want chocolate and model cars," he says. "They have sophisticated tastes we have to cater for."
The UK's data protection act caused tremendous problems. "We were inundated with requests from upset little boys and girls who believed Santa had got it wrong; that they had in fact been good," he says. They have been forced into a massive record management program and employ hundreds of data entry staff at head office.
On cue the car door opens and we step into a huge white-walled computer centre. Giant icicles hang majestically from the ceiling and rows of decorated Christmas trees serve as partitions between cells of busy workers tapping at their workstations. I wonder at the mix of ice and electricity, but though the temperature is mild – most of the staff were wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Team Santa – Delivering IT for Christmas" – the ice isn't melting.
I follow him along a partition to the bank of a babbling river running right through the middle of the building. He stops at the entrance to a foot bridge and swipes an ID card. A tinsel-clad barrier rises up to let us through.
"On one side of the bridge we have the technicians," he says, "and on the other the management." He stops in the middle and points to group of Elf consultants constructing another crossing further downstream. "The consultants tell us to build bridges between the business and the IT department, that we sometimes misunderstand each other."
We settle in an open-plan lounge on the far side of the river and Klaus describes why communication is so important. "Each year we have to finish by first light on 25 December – there is no option. Misunderstanding causes delays so we are always building more bridges between the camps."
His request to move to a building without a river has been postponed for another year and Klaus has to deal with the realities of the situation. "Each year's BD is the goal. We have to remain focussed," he says.
The rigid timetable and communication overhead creates formidable pressure and despite the wonderful surroundings and holiday atmosphere, this can throw up mavericks. Klaus relates an incident when the NGBS was updated with thousands of bogus records. "We had sacks of toys and gifts delivered to a warehouse full of mock-up boys and girls. It was a terrible scam," he says. "We only found out when our gnome-built produce was listed on eBay the day after Christmas."
They traced the perpetrators through a hacked server on Christmas Island and to a dacha on the black sea. It turned out to be disgruntled contractor Gnomes annoyed at being left off the Christmas party guest list because they weren't permanent staff.
Klaus talks of other threats and stresses his belief in careful risk management. To illustrate his point he pulls out a risk list showing "Incompetent Management" at the top. He laughs when I point it out. "Oh! I have them mixed up, this is the anonymous risks," he says and searches his pockets for another list. "This is it," he says. "The Christmas number one is always rather predictable I'm afraid." The list shows "Skills gap" at the top and a mitigation of "Identify training requirements”.
His staff are capable of solving most technical problems so when they identify areas that need better skills they order a book from Amazon, he says.
The talent of his staff is hard to dispute. The RFID system – that's Rudolf's Indicated Direction – was created by a genius developer in an afternoon. "It uses a GPS system cross linked to the NGBS and a Neural Net finds the best route for Santa to take on the BD. The optimum route must consider sleigh loading, distribution points, weather patterns – all this is too complicated for procedural languages."
Results are transmitted via an encrypted, always-on XMas Link (XML) to the big guy's monitor, and so far the system has never broken down. But now the genius developer involved has left the company without writing anything down they daren't touch it. "Nobody is quite sure how the RFID works," he says, "so we don't mention it at project meetings and we never reboot it."
Other programs have been bolted on the side of the RFID so now they aren't certain if results comes from RFID or not. "Without it Santa's job would be impossible," he says. "We can never replace it or change it."
He shrugs and reluctantly admits that an IT system has dictated how the business works. He hopes that one day they'll get the magic budget to fund a replacement, but in the meantime they have too many fixes to make in all the subsidiary systems.
Despite the difficulties Klaus has an enviable record. For thirty years, not one deserving child has been missed from the Big Day's delivery and he credits his hard working staff and the dedication of the Boss. "We have a no-failure policy," he says. "We understand the situation and we work to it." He hopes that other CIOs can look forward to perfect deliveries at Christmas and wishes everybody a happy new year. ®