David Mazza, vice president, engineering, NBC Olympics, seems to have been the fairly typical engineer-to-be when he was growing up. "My mother tells me I took apart everything as a kid to see how it works before putting it together again."
It's the "putting it together again" that separates an engineer-to-be from, say, a neighborhood terror. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to take something apart. It's the rare child who can actually put something back together so it still serves a purpose. That's what makes an engineer.
Mazza is still putting things together. But what he puts together today, NBC's Olympic technical facility, shows just how far he has come from his days working in a black-and-white TV studio in junior high school and at Penn State's public-television station as a high school intern.
"TV and radio weren't an electronic business that was done in a back room," he says. "It had an output that people saw, and it had an effect on people, good or bad."
Mazza's work at NBC definitely fulfills those attributes. Spanning the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, the 2000 Sydney Summer Games and this year's Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, it has helped ensure that hundreds of millions of viewers can watch what has become TV's most prestigious event.
Mazza began his career in 1978 as a freelancer, working for HBO (where he worked on all the championship boxing matches), USA Network and ESPN in the early days of freelance sports production. Basketball, hockey and other local sports were his calling card.
"I would drive to about five cities a week," he recalls. "It was a grind, but, at the time, I loved it."
And it gave him the training he draws on every day. "If the truck rolls in and something doesn't work or breaks during the day, you either have to fix it or go around it," he says. "I think that simple factor is something you learn in the remote world that you don't learn in the studio."
In 1986, Mazza hit his limit of life on the road. He spent 280 days going from event to event that year. Recently married to his wife, Taylor, and starting a family, he decided it was time to spend more time at home. So, in 1987, he moved to Boston, where he spent half his time working on construction of a technical facility for the Christian Science Monitor Channel and the other half on the road.
He started to take on consulting jobs on smaller system-design projects and also worked for CBS at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France. When he returned home from Albertville, he was contacted by Sony about helping out on the $50 million Hughes facility in Los Angeles and Colorado. That job was a challenge because he became involved when the project was a third completed to help make sure the functional needs were met by the technical construction.
When it was completed, it was back to New York to visit NBC's then-vice president of engineering Charlie Jablonski, who asked him to head up NBC's technical efforts for the 1996 Atlanta Games.
"I never thought I'd work at a network. I never really had a desire to because it's so big and bureaucratic. But he presented me with the challenge."
It was accepted. Looking back on the experience, Mazza says it's the timeline that amazes him. "Once we started wiring, I had a pretty good sense of how long it would take [to get operational], but I never imagined how difficult the process of ordering and getting $25 million of equipment would be. I think we were totally screwed and didn't even know it."
Mazza still hasn't encountered a project as complex as the "virtual International Broadcast Center" split between Atlanta and Rockefeller Center. The intercom systems were trunked together, the routing switchers were tied together, and there were T1 lines for getting information back and forth. "We were working with data networking before people were doing a lot of those things."
When the games were over, Mazza wasn't sure he was mentally ready for another go-round. But, in 1997, he re-upped. That's when he and his team began devising a multi-game technical strategy that would cut the integration time.
"All my colleagues and friends tended to be from the remote side of the industry, and they had the right mindset for how to make something portable and reusable," he says. "The scale was unlike any other remote we had done, but the same theories carry over, whether it's a weekend remote or a five-month remote. So we looked at every piece of the puzzle and figured out which pieces we could build and move so we don't have to throw away so much stuff."
The result was RIBs, or "racks in a box." Conceived by his colleague Matthew Adams, it's akin to an inside-out remote truck, Mazza says. The RIB is against the wall, but the back of the racks are easily accessible. "You can have 20 racks together and designate subsystems within those platforms that cause all the high-density wiring to happen. That way, you don't have to cross over and deal with a cable each time."
The RIBs are broken down so they can fit in shipping cases and be put in storage until the next Olympics.
How big a difference do the RIBs make? Mazza says integration time was halved between Atlanta and Salt Lake City, with the latter completed in 37 days.
The biggest challenge at the recent games was integrating a large number of new technologies and products. Because they were held in the U.S., Mazza figured it would be the best time to try new equipment because vendor support would be easier to get and something could always be sent via FedEx in a pinch.
"It gave us a lot more gray hair than we had six months ago, but it worked out," he says. "In the end, most of it worked, and it didn't burn us on the air. Some of it was pretty close but nothing that prevented us from getting our job done."
Mazza is already preparing for the games in Greece next year. He heads to Athens later this month. The challenge? It won't be technical. "We're going to definitely earn our money in terms of infrastructure issues like power, air-conditioning, hotels and transportation."
The use of flypacks at Olympic venues, which require much less gear and space than production vehicles, is one way to help minimize costs and impact of infrastructure issues. There's still some time to go before the final push, which will begin in January. Plenty of time to bring gear in, see how it works, and put it back together again. For engineers, some things never change.