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CIO interview: Attiq Qureshi, chief digital information officer, Manchester United

For any IT professional who is also a football fan, there can’t be many more appealing jobs than CIO of a Premier League club – we find out what it’s like to be the IT chief at Manchester United

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: What’s it like being the IT chief at Man Utd?

Senior executives in any corporate boardroom like to talk about winning. Winning deals, winning market share, winning customers. It’s the sort of language any IT leader needs to be comfortable using, if they’re to make an impact on the organisation.

But for Attiq Qureshi, chief digital information officer at Manchester United Football Club, boardroom discussions about winning mean, literally, winning.

“First and foremost, our priority as an organisation is to win football games, and ultimately to compete for championships, compete for trophies, and so on. That’s really important,” he says.

And there’s no getting away from it when your office is based in Old Trafford, the 74,000-seater stadium that’s the biggest club football ground in the UK, and the second largest after Wembley.

“When you walk into the office and you look up at the east stand, it’s just a great, great feeling. It’s a great place to work. There are a lot of bright people, a lot of people committed to making Manchester United successful. And it’s a great brand wherever you go in the world,” he says.

But despite the high-profile nature of his employer, and the unique working environment, Qureshi is keen to stress that the job is very much about the day-to-day essentials of managing IT and digital systems.

“We’re still a large enterprise. We are doing a lot of work on data platforms and CRM [customer relationship management] platforms. We’re shifting our operating model on how we do e-commerce. We have 1,200 permanent employees, and that bursts on a match day by another 3,000. So we’ve got all the normal challenges an enterprise would have, such as HR, finance, procurement, etcetera,” he says.

A multifaceted organisation

Much of what makes the IT operation different – Qureshi has a background as a CIO in retail and finance businesses in and around Manchester – comes from the range of activities that a global sporting organisation encompasses.

“One thing that outsiders probably don’t understand as much is just what a multifaceted organisation we are. We’re obviously a very successful, very long-lived football club. But we’re also a very large B2B [business-to-business] organisation with commercial sponsorships. We’re a massive B2C [business-to-consumer] organisation – we have 70,000 people in the stadium on matchdays, and another 70,000 who come during the month as a tourist attraction.

“According to our researchers, we have a billion followers – that’s one in eight of all people [in the world]. On a typical match day, we'll have a million people log on and use our app and website. We're a hospitality organisation - one of the things that surprised me most is we have 147 chefs. That’s the complexity and scale of our challenge.”

On a typical match day, a million people will use our app and website
Attiq Qureshi, Manchester United FC

Qureshi joined the club in December 2022 – no transfer fee involved, unlike some of his fellow employees. Just a call from a headhunter.

“For me, it’s very familiar territory. It’s about automation, it’s about efficiency, it’s about operational excellence – and that extends to things like crowd safety, security, food, and a multitude of other domains. Driving efficiencies and effectiveness in all those areas is very important. And like most organisations, we strive to give tools to our frontline colleagues to be the best they can be,” he says.

Commercial partners

Another aspect of the job that’s unique to sport comes with the involvement of tech companies as commercial partners of the club. For example, remote connectivity specialist TeamViewer is the main shirt sponsor for the men’s and women’s football teams.

Staff working in the club’s megastore use headsets with TeamViewer augmented reality software to speed up stocktaking, while ground staff use a remote access app to control irrigation systems at Old Trafford and the Carrington training ground. And the two organisations recently launched an initiative called SheSportTech to encourage women to develop a career in sport technology.

“We have quite a curious and courageous approach where we’ll try things and if they don’t work, it’s not a problem. But if they do work, they become very quickly embedded as production systems. We get a lot of support from TeamViewer with that, so if we want to try something, we’re not on our own,” says Qureshi.

The club has around 100 people involved in tech, which includes contributions from partners – IT services firm DXC is another sponsor.

Football performance

TeamViewer technology also helps to directly support the football performance of the teams. Like most clubs, Man Utd’s coaching staff make extensive use of player data to support training and tactics, through a team of data analysts.

“Our analysts, who support our coaches and go to matches and make decisions in real time, used to take lots of technology with them. These are very data-hungry individuals. Some of that data will be structured, and some of it won’t – it could be video, it could be notes, it could be applications – and they have to take that with them, particularly to away matches. That [previously] consisted of copying all of that data, or even literally putting their computer under their arm and going to the matches,” says Qureshi.

“Now, they have remote access into their own environment. They have access to all of their information in the format they’re familiar with, because it’s back at the training ground. It’s significantly more secure, and they don’t run the risk of not having that single piece of information they need. That’s a good example where there’s one or two steps [from IT] to football performance. We know the technology, particularly using TeamViewer in that example, has made decisions faster and easier.”

Read more about technology in sport

There is also one very special set of employees who, sometimes, are not averse to requiring a bit of tech support from Qureshi’s team.

“My IT support team are known to be very, very helpful,” he says, laughing. “So it’s not unknown for a manager or a player to ring them up directly and ask for a little bit of help. But players [these days] are much more technological – they’re perhaps two and a half decades younger than I am.” He would not be drawn on which players need the most help – declining to answer with a smile.

A smart stadium

Looking forward, there is a buzz around the organisation following the £1.25bn purchase of 25% of the club by billionaire Ineos founder Jim Ratcliffe, who has taken control of football operations. Ratcliffe wants to invest in the club’s infrastructure, and in particular develop a new, improved stadium.

Qureshi believes Old Trafford is already “one of the best connected stadiums in Europe”, with fans expecting internet access to be readily available even when every seat is full on a match day – as well as extensive use of Wi-Fi for staff and fan connectivity. The club is also moving further into digital ticketing which, while already paperless, is taking a further step by becoming app-based, to help stifle ticket touting.

“Probably the biggest leap will be what happens with the stadium, because then we’re really into the realms of automation and a smart stadium. While everything else will look familiar, but bigger and better, that might look radically different,” he says.

“If you look at some of the greatest stadiums in the world, they were probably designed a decade or more ago. So we have a real opportunity, whether it’s from redevelopment or from a new stadium, to take a lead – to have automation and smartness from day one.”

While on the pitch Man Utd is ferociously competitive with its rivals, there’s a more collaborative mood around relationships between clubs’ IT leaders.

Photo of Attiq Qureshi, chief digital information officer at Manchester United Football Club

“Football is our objective. But it takes a lot to make that happen. And it takes even more to run this enterprise. We leave the football to the data scientists and the coaches. Our job is to support the organisation”

Attiq Qureshi, Manchester United Football Club

“I have two [professional] networks. One is the Premier League – they have hosted events at [the new] Tottenham Hotspur [stadium] and it’s just amazing, there’s no other word for it. There’s even a brewery on site. And then a smaller network of European clubs. They share all the same challenges as we do. They’re all doing very similar things – data automation, efficiency, cyber security. These are important for all of them,” says Qureshi.

But that focus on winning remains pervasive and underpins everything the IT team does.

“Football is absolutely our objective. But it takes a lot to make that happen. And it takes even more to run this enterprise. We’re going to leave the football to the data scientists and the coaches. Our job is to support the organisation,” he says.

“When you work in enterprises, you get to measure your results a couple of times a year, or perhaps every quarter – it might be a slight incremental increase in market share or an increase in revenue, or it might be a new product launch. But here, you test yourselves as an organisation, four, five or six times a month.”

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