Arriving at FedEx Forum in downtown Memphis, Mike Garrison (BSIS ’09) drives into an underground garage, parks in a reserved spot and uses an all-access card to make his way inside the arena.
He’s on the floor when the Memphis Grizzlies take the court, not only as a fan, but also as vice president of information technology. He is constantly checking connections, networks and the myriad of other behindthe-scenes functions that make the NBA game appear seamless to 18,000 attendees and hundreds of thousands of fans watching on TV.
Family members tell Garrison to write a book. Friends ask for advice on how he did it. His life story reads like a screenplay, taking him from a northern Florida high school to jobs as a late-shift janitor, mail room clerk, and junior IT staffer before landing him with the Grizzlies.
A FOOT IN THE DOOR
In 1976, Garrison dropped out of his senior year of high school to take a job as a janitor at a Proctor & Gamble manufacturing plant to help support his mother. He worked his way into the mail room, where he took the opportunity to introduce himself to those in leadership positions. “The plant was a training ground for P&G engineers, so there was a lot of brain power for me to tap into,” he says.
During that time, he made sure he was noticed, proving his value to the company. “In the early 80s, IT departments printed large jobs overnight because it took several hours to print,” recalls Garrison. “As I worked the night shift, I learned how to clear paper jams and restart print queues so that when workers arrived in the morning, the job would be complete.” He also learned to change the tapes that backed up the computer data overnight and routinely checked that other machines were functioning.
“I wanted them to rely on me to perform small IT tasks,” he says. As he progressed, Garrison realized education would start to play a larger role in his future, so he earned his GED and enrolled in a two-year college. “Before I knew it, my supervisors were sending me to technology trainings and I was working in the IT department.”
From there, Garrison hit his stride, earning several promotions along the way. In 1996, the company asked Garrison to build a new network infrastructure, which required a move to Memphis, Tenn. He designed and deployed a new network, connecting the Memphis location with offices in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Geneva, Switzerland. He then was hired as the network manager.
“At this point, everything I knew I had taught myself,” says Garrison, “but I felt I needed a formal education.” He enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program at a traditional university in Memphis and later took a job as a senior network analyst at the corporate headquarters of AutoZone. With the pressures of a new job and more responsibilities, he found that a traditional school wasn’t meeting his needs and, like many working adults, realized that Strayer University was a better fit.
In 2001, Memphis beat out 30 other cities to become the new home of the former Vancouver Grizzlies. By a stroke of good fortune, the basketball team’s staff moved into a Memphis office building owned by AutoZone. The Grizzlies asked AutoZone for help with installing basic IT services and, as the senior network analyst, Garrison was tasked with the job.
The team was so impressed with his work that they asked him to join as director of IT, a role he initially turned down. “But when I was asked a second time, I couldn’t say no,” laughs Garrison. Once he accepted, the work started immediately: “I was hired right before the first preseason game and had only a couple of weeks to bring the technology in the outdated arena up to par for an NBA team,” he says.
The Grizzlies played their first three years in an aging arena while the FedEx Forum was built. The construction of a new arena gave Garrison the opportunity to design the entire network from scratch. A moment of pride occurred on the day the organization moved into its new home. “I had two parallel networks set up so the only time users experienced an outage was when they were walking down the street from the old building into the Forum,” he says. “I was proud to be able to keep the business running during the transition, and to introduce the brand-new network to the staff.”
Today, Garrison is responsible for providing and maintaining an ongoing business network for Grizzlies staff, and an event network that changes according to what the arena is hosting on a given night. “We prep the arena to meet the specifications of each night’s event,” he explains. “Artists and other performers have their own specs, which differ greatly from the needs of an NBA team.”
On game nights, Garrison is an employee of not only the Grizzlies, but also FedEx Forum and the NBA. “NBA game specs include wireless Internet for beat reporters, a signal for broadcast trucks in the parking lot and conference links for postgame media interviews with players, among many other things,” Garrison says.
It’s a tall order to constantly update the arena with the correct technology, so Garrison relies on the support of his team and sets the right expectations. “I try to lead with the right attitude for what it takes to accomplish this goal,” says Garrison, who was promoted to vice president in 2007. “It’s about much more than putting in your eight hours each day. It’s a lot of long hours, but it’s worthwhile to know I am providing a reliable network to a lot of people.”
Garrison, who never misses more than a game or two each season, is critical to the fan experience. Whether a fan is watching the game on TV or glancing at the Jumbotron for player stats from inside the arena, it is Garrison’s team making that possible. “When the game starts, I’m on the floor, making sure everything is working,” says the Strayer University alumnus. “Then, when I walk through the concourse back to my office and glance at the game on a television, it’s a good feeling to know that I’ve helped make that possible, and that my family in Florida watching the game knows I’m a part of that.”
Garrison likes to be hands-on, but his role as vice president requires him to take on other responsibilities, such as strategic planning, developing and overseeing budgets, and building the skills of his team. “I love basketball and I love working for the Grizzlies, but I really enjoy the leadership work that comes with this job,” he says. “It’s another layer on the skills I’ve built over 30 years.”
It’s that mentality that has carried Garrison through a long and rewarding career. “The entry-level positions were critical to my career because I was literally laying the cable and then seeing how computers communicate across that cable,” he reflects. “From there, I’ve built on everything I know and have layered in formal education. I’m proud to say that I earned my bachelor’s degree at the age of 50, because it means that I’ve never stopped learning.”
And as for the answer to those friends and colleagues who want to know how he did it? “There is no wrong place to start—whether it’s an entry-level job or a degree program,” he advises. “But the most important thing is to start.”