CHARLOTTE – When Mike Szabo began working in the NFL as a scout around Y2K, a single highlight tape of a draft prospect was as bulky as what the scouts use today to access all of their information about all of the prospects.
“We’d watch video on Beta – pump them in and watch,” said Szabo, named a regional director of college scouting for the Panthers last summer. “Now, using these Surface tablets as our main computer has been great.”
Technology has come a long way in a short time, but the one constant has been the need for talented people to maximize the benefits of the latest thing.
That’s where Christa Hayes comes in.
“She’s a lot smarter than most of us – let’s put it that way,” Szabo said. “She’s real easy to work with. She’s great to have around.”
Hayes is the Panthers’ senior software architect, working closely with Carolina’s team of scouts as well as other key cogs in football operations and beyond. For the upcoming NFL Combine for example, she’s busy populating an app that will benefit the team’s medical and training staff.
“Each facet of the organization has its own needs,” Hayes said. “We stay pretty busy.”
Hayes is one of three talented software developers in an IT department that goes nine-deep. That she’s the only woman aligns with a current reality across her profession.
“I have one female friend from college who was in my classes,” said Hayes, a North Carolina State University graduate who joined the Panthers in 2011. “It is disappointing that there aren’t more women in the field. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be.”
There’s no reason, but there are some interesting theories as to why. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 37.1 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences in 1983-84 were earned by women. Thirty years later – five years ago – that percentage was at 18.0 percent.
Some have theorized that how heavily the onslaught of video game commercials in the 1980s skewed toward teenage boys began to turn the tide.
So how does Hayes find herself in the field? She first gave it consideration because her father is a software developer.
“Because of that I took a class in high school, and it was easy. I got an A, so I thought, ‘This is probably a good career choice,’ ” she said.
Her interest in football began blossoming in high school as well.
“I started following football in high school because I was in the marching band. I had to sit through the games, and I eventually grew to understand them,” Hayes said. “I came to games here before I actually worked here. I remember the Arizona Cardinals playoff game where Jake Delhomme threw five interceptions - unfortunately.
“I never really followed the draft that closely; 2011 was the first year that I did because we had the number one pick.”
The Panthers took Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick that year, but that wasn’t the only reason for Hayes’ increased interest. That also was her first year working for the team, and her role in the technology behind the Panthers’ draft preparations has grown exponentially over time.
She’s played an invaluable role in making the college scouting system app that Szabo and Co. rely upon more robust. And, while software development manager Seenu Tulluri worked to keep the coaching staff and pro scouts outfitted with what they need, Hayes and software and business intelligence developer Mike Phillips rolled out a redesigned draft board app in time for the 2017 draft.
“The digital draft piece that we use, I would guess at least half the league has something like that now, but I feel like we’re on the forefront of that,” Szabo said. “Everything is right at our hands’ reach. We can click on a guy’s card on the draft board, and she has designed it to where anything we need is right there. We can look at the guy’s statistics. We can look at the evaluations that we’ve put in. We can access tape. We can access drills from the Senior Bowl. We can look at interviews.
“All of that has been set up by her with suggestions from us for what we need. She’s been a huge part of what we do.”
While the players the Panthers draft this April will have opportunities to interact with the community, including chances to inspire young people trying to find their way, it’s obviously not quite the same for those in the IT field like Hayes.
“I would like to show children that, ‘Yes, you can do this,’ ” Hayes said. “The thing is you can get a job basically anywhere in coding. It’s useful in every industry. To be able to do it for a football team is fun.”