Software innovation leads to Olympics gig
“We need a timing solution for this weekend,” an event official said to Paul Smith prior to a regional curling competition in Labrador City about a decade ago.
Everyone knew it would be too expensive to ship large timing clocks to Labrador City and, besides, the regionals were just a few days away and they would never arrive in time.
“Is there anything you can do with this?” the official asked Smith, showing him some computer software designed to keep time during curling events.
Smith, a retired educator with plenty of computer experience, looked at the size of the numbers on the display. He recognized immediately that it was much too small to be used on the ice.
“That’s not going to work,” Smith said. “I’ll put something together really quick for you on the weekend.”
Somebody’s already got this done for sure, Smith thought as he searched online. After a few hours, though, he still couldn’t find anything that would easily and accurately keep time for the curling match.
Screw it, he thought, it’ll take me less time to make one up than to spend more hours looking for it.
Within an hour or two he had written a program that would allow umpires to simply press a space bar and the time would jump back and forth, like a clock in a chess match. He showed it to some members of the curling club and they quickly saw the value in what he had created.
“You should look at expanding on this and putting in time-outs,” they offered.
Smith took the challenge, working on his software like a puzzler completing a jigsaw, tinkering away a little bit at a time.
Finally, he had a package together and he was ready to send it out. He got a lukewarm response from the Canadian Curling Association, who told him they already had clocks and, thanks, but no thanks.
He sent it to the World Curling Federation, and the reception was much warmer.
“Go ahead and try it and give me some feedback, see what you think about it and I’ll fix the problems you find,” he told them.
After about five years of using the program in minor tournaments, Smith received an email from the competitions director. For Smith, it was the best possible news. The world body wanted to officially adopt his timing software for all world tournaments. They also asked if he would like to travel to Italy to launch it.
Smith immediately agreed, and it was the first trip of many to a variety of top curling destinations throughout the world. His innovation also earned him a licensing fee.
But he never expected it to take him to the Olympics.
It doesn’t get any bigger
Smith’s first trip to Italy led to more modifications of his software than he had made the entire five years prior.
“I’d go to the end of the timing bench and sit at my computer and start doing modifications, and by the next draw it was ready,” he recalled.
The next year he was called to be the chief timer in Denmark, working with a dozen volunteers.
The following year he was asked to go to Switzerland. Shortly after returning home he received an email from the World Curling Federation asking if he would be interested in being the deputy chief timer at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
“It was a two-second decision,” Smith laughed.
A surreal journey
In 2013, Smith visited Sochi as part of a testing event, common practice at each hosting city, to fix any bugs, where he was able to see the sites amidst the construction.
Smith said it’s been a surreal journey.
“I always thought I’d love to go as a spectator but never expected myself to get to the Olympics as an official,” he said during a recent interview at the Carol Curling Club.
Shortly after returning home to Labrador City after officiating curling at the Games, the deputy chief timer said the only bad thing he took from the experience was the flu.
“I had never imagined it would be as rich and full as it was,” he said of the Olympics.
But the work isn’t over for Smith. His software is still gaining momentum.
“I also found out while I was (in Sochi) the United States Curling Association has adopted it as official timing software now. It’s starting to get pretty well known,” he said.