IT Value

And the Winner Is…

What CFOs can learn from Ernst & Young's secretive tabulating of the Emmy Award ballots.
Joseph McCaffertyAugust 27, 2010

With 24 nominations, the TV miniseries “The Pacific” is the leading nominee for the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards, which airs this Sunday. How many winged trophies will it win?

Andy Sale knows, but he’s not telling.

A partner in Ernst & Young’s Los Angeles office, Sale is one of just a handful of people, all E&Y employees, who know who the Emmy winners are before the envelopes are opened. Indeed, Sales prints the winners and seals the envelopes himself.

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E&Y has been the official tabulator and guardian of the Emmy ballots for the past 22 years, and Sale has overseen the task for the past 10. (He also manages the audit firm’s process for tabulating the Golden Globe Awards.) On Sunday Sale and his colleagues will stride down the red carpet at Los Angeles’s Nokia Theatre L.A. Live, locked briefcases in hand, and take their places backstage to finish their jobs.

Finance chiefs concerned about information security could learn a thing or two from how E&Y handles the Emmy vote for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. “It’s important that we have a process that is absolutely infallible, and that protects the importance and confidentiality of the data,” says Sale.

All 14,000 ballots are addressed directly to Sale, who supervises a process that uses electronic and manual methods to tabulate the results. “We use a number of different methods and audit random ballots to ensure the results are accurate,” he says. Close votes are often manually counted and triple-checked, he adds.

A small team of E&Y employees work on the vote and only four or five individuals know the exact results, says Sale. That’s because the firm separates the data into incomplete sets that are worked on by different people. “They only get the information they need to complete their tasks,” he says. The employees handpicked to work on the project can be counted on to keep their lips sealed, adds Sale, even to curious spouses. “They know not to even ask,” he says.

Another precaution E&Y takes is to tabulate votes on computers that can’t be connected to a network. The USB drives used to back up data are encrypted, password protected, and locked away each night. “Our data never leaves the building and doesn’t go over any network,” says Sale. “And we never use any third parties through the entire process.”

Still another factor that has contributed to E&Y’s flawless record of 22 years without a security breach is that it continually rethinks the process. Sale says the firm is constantly making changes to guard against new risks, such as the prevalence of hand-held computer devices. “You can never say, ‘That’s the way we have always done it,’” he says.

What about the possibility that a Kanye West-type presenter might try to sway the results by announcing the wrong name? “We are backstage listening to make sure the right name is read,” says Sale. “So far it hasn’t happened.”