Building on experiences inside and outside of IT with Bryan Muehlberger


This week I’m joined by Bryan Muehlberger who is the Chief Information Officer for Beachbody.

In our discussion, Bryan discusses how his career took a step outside of IT. He discusses the value that brought as CIO along with the challenges it presented and how he overcame them. Bryan outlines how the role of the CIO is the most well-positioned to be CEO yet most CIOs are not well positioned to be CEO. He discusses how to differentiate the role of the CIO considering the consumerization of technology and how this creates one of the biggest challenges for the CIO. As we finish up the discussion, Bryan discusses how traditional methods will lead the CIO to failure and the guiding principles that lead Bryan to success.


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Podcast Episode

Episode Transcript

Tim Crawford:               Hello and welcome to the CIO In The Know podcast where I take a provocative but pragmatic look at the intersection between business and technology. I’m your host, Tim Crawford. A CIO and strategic advisor at AVOA. This week I’m joined by Bryan Muehlberger, who is the chief information officer for BeachBody. In our discussion, Bryan discusses how his career took a step outside of IT. He discusses the value of that broad as CIO along with the challenges it presented and how he overcame them. Brayan outlines how the role of the CIO is the most well positioned to be CEO, yet most CEOs are not well positioned to be CEO. He discusses how to differentiate the role of the CIO considering the consumerization of technology and how this creates one of the biggest challenges for the CIO. As we finish up our discussion, Bryan discusses how traditional methods will ultimately lead the CIO to failure and the guiding principles that lead Bryan to success. Bryan, welcome to the program.

B  Muehlberger:            Hi Tim, thanks for having me.

Tim Crawford:               Bryan Muehlberger, you are the CIO at to BeachBody.

B  Muehlberger:            Yes.

Tim Crawford:               So one of the things that I’ve always been interested in when you and I have spoken in the past is kind of what got you here. What got you to this point, not just at BeachBody, but just over the course of your career. You’ve served as CIO for multiple companies and you’ve also had an opportunity to step outside of technology. Let’s start by talking a little bit about that and maybe how that’s changed your perspective on the role as an IT leader.

B  Muehlberger:            Yeah, that’s a great place to start. So I would say I have a fairly traditional path for the most part to get into the CIO role, it started off as, as many of us do, you got the CIO, it came from software development engineering or those that came from the infrastructure side of the business and the tech perspective. I started off in the infrastructure science, so I started off as a typical help desk individual, moved into system administration and then acting as an architect, working on the major email implementations and then eventually got into project management. So that’d be my first foray into managing a group of individuals. That was one where of course they’re not individuals that actually have a direct line reporting relationship. You had to get work done through other people. But it was a great experience and it was one where I realized at that point I really like this whole management thing.

B  Muehlberger:            And of course as you know as CIO yourself that the skill of a project manager is not wasted on us and as CIO’s and managers in general. So that was definitely a very good foundational aspect of management. And from there I moved companies, I moved a few different companies during those different roles but landed at a company in St. Louis called Express Scripts, they are a large pharmacy benefit manager. At the time they were one of the largest and now the largest in the middle of an acquisition I believe, by Cigna. And I had an opportunity to move out of the infrastructure space and over to the software development space, which up until that point in my career, which probably by then was about 12 years in my career, it had all been infrastructure.

B  Muehlberger:            And so this is my first time managing the software development team and working with software engineer because which is very different than working with infrastructure people as you probably know. I did that for a couple of years. We grew the team quite extensively during that time and the company was going through a lot of growth and there were some opportunities that kind of came to fruition because of my role working closer with the business. As you’re developing software, you tend to work with the business that I made some relationships that then turned into a role.

B  Muehlberger:            So they were in the process of creating a differentiating platform they called consumerology which we can get into innovation stuff later. But it was underneath the chief marketing officer in the product management side of the business. And so I had an opportunity to go join them. So I stepped outside of IT because it had a large technology aspect to it. They wanted somebody that kind of business savvy as well as technology savvy to help drive this new thing that they were creating. So from about 2008 and 2012 I actually stepped away from technology and spent that time out in the business now working on the other side of the fence, working with my old IT peers and working on building this whole innovation platform that the company was going through. That was a really interesting time because I would say, and I think we talked about this, maybe in some of our earlier conversation.

B  Muehlberger:            It was one of those where I’ve spent my whole career in technology and now for four and a half, four years about four and half, five years. I was now spending that time in the business. So now I was away from tech in my career from a tech perspective that had kind of been stopped, but now I was building this new career and product management and innovation and in the marketing side of the business that I was still, I would say four and a half years in. You’re still kind of a novice. You’re not the expert, so to say, and you’re still building up your repertoire. So when the time came to start thinking about what’s my next step in my career, I had a really big kind of mental block of where do I go from here, been in tech most of my career, but I’ve got this other thing I’ve been doing most recently.

B  Muehlberger:            So as I started talking to recruiters, it became this thing of well, what do you want to do and what are you good at? Because I’ve been away from hands on tech, I was a little stale and some of those aspects, but I also have this whole review thing, this whole new perspective of the organization and the business by luck I would say. And it just through some from relationship building I ended up landing in a new role outside of Express Scripts at another company leading innovation and growth for them. But at the same time they had just acquired a start-up in the social media intelligence space and they needed someone to act as the CIO/CTO for that division. So I got to wear two hats. So it was a great opportunity to take what I’ve been doing along with what I had done in the past and bring them together.

B  Muehlberger:            So we wear both hats and the company was in a unique scenario where they needed to evolve as a company. And so I was able to kind of take all these experiences now and sort of bringing them together, spent a little bit of time there and then a great opportunity came along to move out of St. Louis and moved to the West Coast and join a company called Red Bull in Santa Monica, California. And there are a global company as everyone knows, energy drink company and had an opportunity to come and lead IT for the US based organization. And that would became my first role as a CIO. And so you kind of go, well you couldn’t have really mapped that sort of career path out to get there. But nevertheless each of those experiences built on the other.

B  Muehlberger:            And what I learned in all of that was don’t be afraid to take those chances and maybe step outside of your comfort zone. Because I think at the end of the day it all works out in the end that all of those experiences do come together and make you a more well-rounded individual and I just stayed in tech. I probably wouldn’t have ended up making it to the CIO path. Had I just stayed in business, I would probably be a middle manager in the business space, but because I kind of traversed both sides, I think it just made me a different kind of candidate for the Seattle role.

Tim Crawford:               We often hear about the importance of stepping into a business role and out of technology similar to what you’ve done, but I think one of the pieces that you have to think about is what part of the business do you step into and for how long? Because as you mentioned, that could create some consternation into your own mind at a minimum as well as externally in terms of how people look at you.

B  Muehlberger:            Yeah, absolutely. And I think we’ve just sometimes got to get our egos out of the way and just remember what we’re trying to do and that is build above a certain set of skills that we can then bring back to the organizations with which we work so that we can actually provide them some value so.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. So then after Red Bull you moved on to become the CIO at BeachBody.

B  Muehlberger:            Yeah. Yeah. So I spent four and a half years at Red Bull. We can talk a little bit about some experiences there as well. And then after about four and a half years, I was approached by executive recruiting firm to talk to this company called BeachBody, which I had heard about, knew about being in Santa Monica. They were literally right around the corner from where I was around [inaudible 00:08:35] didn’t even got to change my commute. But nevertheless, it was an opportunity to join this company who had been in the fitness and nutrition space for a number of years. And most people know for the likes of P90X and Insanity and some of the really great fitness programs they’ve created. But there’s so much more behind the business and it was an opportunity to take on a much larger role in the organization. They were headquartered base in Santa Monica versus being a divisional CIO like I was at Red Bull and the opportunity to a much larger team, larger budgetary responsibility, broader seat at the table and just ownership and responsibility for so many more aspects of business that I didn’t have before or maybe I only touched on at the Red Bull joB

B  Muehlberger:            So it was just an opportunity that I couldn’t say no to and they’re in an interesting point in their trajectory as well. And so there’s been a lot of challenges with the market and how we approach it and it’s been great being a part of that conversation and help us shape where we’re going in the future.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, it seems like you’ve had the fortune to work for some pretty prominent brands. I mean Express scripts is, it’s a well-known brand in the healthcare space. Red Bull, I think most listeners would recognize and BeachBody, maybe not the company name, but at least some of the brands. I mean that’s some prominent experience right there. And it sounds like you’ve been able to build upon not just your role stepping out of tech, but then also how you use that as a stepping stone to help round you out as you moved on to Red Bull and then on to BeachBody.

B  Muehlberger:            Yeah, absolutely. I think as a CIO, I think we all are starting to realize that tech permeates every aspect of an organization and having that perspective of being in so many different roles. Being in infrastructure, running software development, being in the business, working on innovation and product management under a marketing umbrella and understand marketing dynamics and then all these different brands and the different organizational dynamics that they each have to get their products to market. Just really give you that great perspective to how an organization runs and that broader context that really helps, I would say enable me to do great things.

Tim Crawford:               That’s awesome. So as you kind of think about how things have changed over that same period of time and looking forward a little bit. What’s your take on the role of the CIO today versus the past and what do you see kind of coming down the path that you’re starting to think about?

B  Muehlberger:            Yeah, so I would say, depending on how far back you go when you look at the past, it was very back office, started in the financial space because companies needed a centralized systems to manage all their financial statements and processes and then it evolved outside of that over time. But over the last 20 years it’s really become much more out of the back office. I think about what the expansion of the Internet from ’95 forward and eCommerce and how companies have now gone to market almost web first for example. It’s a very different space now and companies are embracing all of that. But I think the biggest is, I would say one is the speed at which things are changing and number two, the fact that the tech department is no longer this back office function. It is front and center and I would say of all executives, and this is not to criticize other executives, but of all executive roles, I would say the CIO was the one that has to be most versed in the other areas of business as it relates to an understanding.

B  Muehlberger:            I need to understand the legal needs, I need to understand what finance needs, operation and supply chain needs, customer service, tech of course, marketing, sales. I’ve got to understand all of that a long with HR, right? And so I’m not an expert in any one of those, but I need to understand them really, really well and also understand the needs and dynamics of those organizations so that I can take technology and provide the best solution for their situation.

Tim Crawford:               I mean in some ways you become just like the CEO that has to look across the entire organization, but the difference being you’re looking across the entire organization, but looking at how you can bring technology, and I would assume data comes into this conversation too. It’s not just a tech play. Similar to how the CEO would look across the organization. Would that be fair to say?

B  Muehlberger:            Absolutely. People always talk about what’s the future of the CIO role. I would say out of all executives, if you were to look at what they do in their areas of responsibility and knowledge of the broader organization, the CIO role is probably the most well positioned to be the future CEO or COO of companies because of that broad perspective. You expect the CEO, it’d be very strategic, very forward looking, but at the same time they’re running the organization. They’ve got to think about each one of these aspects and how they all inter work and I would say the only other role within the organization that’s close to that as the CIO role.

Tim Crawford:               But do you think that most CEO’s are ready for that or have the expertise? Kind of thinking, I’m thinking back to your past starting in the infrastructure space and I too started in the infrastructure space and it made my way up. Frankly, that’s a hard ladder to climb to get from the infrastructure side of the house all the way to the CIO. Do you think that CIOs today are well prepared for that and those folks that are coming up kind of through the rank and file are well prepared to play that role?

B  Muehlberger:            I would say probably not, not the majority at least, and just like the majority of people just in general are not well suited to be a CEO. I wouldn’t say that even the CEO’s are definitely 100% well positioned in that space, so I would say there are a large percentage of them, the ones that have started to take that different perspective of it’s no longer a command and control culture. I’m not just here to the existing systems. I’m here to take the company to another level with technology as an enabler. I think it’s really the mindset and the type of CIO that would probably be what best position for the CDO role. I would say no, I wouldn’t say not every CIO is going to be cut off for.

Tim Crawford:               So maybe some indicators there, and this goes back to some things that I’ve spoken about in the past and written about. If you’re thinking in a command and control mindset still or you’re reactive to requests that are coming to you or you’re just focused on the back office, those are probably good indicators that you are not well positioned for the future.

B  Muehlberger:            Yeah, that’s absolutely correct. I would completely concur with that.

Tim Crawford:               When you think about your role, not just at Beachbody, but think about Bryan and Bryan is a leader, what do you look at is kind of your biggest challenge today? When you look in front of you and you say, “okay, this is kind of top of mind. This is something that I really want to or need to tackle.” What is that for you or a couple of things and why?

B  Muehlberger:            So I would say number one is probably the people aspect of my role. Not only, I would say number one, managing my team, my direct reports, the broader team at large, but also then outside of the tech organization, those key relationships that I need to maintain and foster as well as you can do to gain that broad understanding of the organization. So it comes down to people being a large component of that and then secondarily would be an understanding of good strategic practices, so how do I shape strategy and not only within my organization and how we support it with the broader context of strategy at your organization at large. And I think by having a strong team and a team that you’re growing and nurturing, but also a mindset of that strategic longer term view. I think coupling those two things together I think is probably the two things that I focus on the most in my current career state for sure.

Tim Crawford:               Where does technology kind of fit into that challenge? Is that really several steps down or is it kind of back of the hand? Where does it fit?

B  Muehlberger:            Technology isn’t necessarily my biggest challenge every day as a CIO, and this is I would say where I differentiate. For example, the CTO, chief technology officer from a CIO, chief information officer and that is the CIO is larger percent of their time is spent on the business aspects of technology. Whereas the CTO is spending more of their time I would say percentage wise on the technology aspects and what is the right technology and how do I integrate these various technologies to of course enabled a broader context business, but I think they go with a tech first conversation and a CIO tends to go with the business first conversation.

Tim Crawford:               The CIO of today needs to be a business leader first that happens to have responsibility for technology.

B  Muehlberger:            Absolutely, absolutely. Which is another reason why I think given that if you look across any vertical within an organization, it’s all heavily tech enabled now and so because of that, that’s why I think a business first CIO can be well suited for the CEO role because they understand all of the technical implications that are going across these verticals as well as in the broader context of the business strategy and what we’re trying to achieve.

Tim Crawford:               Something just occurred to me, we often talk about differentiators and companies, but what we don’t talk about is differentiators for the CIO role and no longer do we have to show someone how to turn on a computer. I can remember a day when we actually used to write manuals on, you go here, you press this button, you wait for this to happen, you put in your username, you put in your password. We don’t have to do those things today. And so now it becomes how do you differentiate the role of the CIO? If everybody knows about technology, what’s the value you bring? And you kind of brought that up as part of the organization. It sounds like that’s leading an IT organization or leading a technology organization is one of those core pieces and being able to tie it to business advantages is a component.

B  Muehlberger:            Yeah, that’s a great point [inaudible 00:19:12] I think what you’re kind of touching on is that whole consumerization of technology that everyone has a device in their hand that’s as powerful as the computers I owned when I first started my career, or more powerful.

Tim Crawford:               More powerful.

B  Muehlberger:            Yeah, and it’s in your pocket. And so you take that and you say, you’ve got this whole generation on individuals who have grown up with nothing but tech. Take my kids, for example, they’re all teenagers. I remember a question one of my children asked me one time, and this was five or six years ago when they were younger and they asked me what was my first computer when I was a kid? I said, I didn’t have a computer as a kid. I didn’t get my first computer till I was in college because they’ve grown up with that. Right. And just everywhere across the organization, everyone knows technology in some way, shape or form.

B  Muehlberger:            Of course I would hope that myself and or my team know technology better and more broadly than anyone else in the company. But everyone knows tech. And because of that, I think you also see this, which is I think one of the biggest challenges of the CIO role is that because everyone knows tech, sometimes they think they know it better than the CIO. And I would say this and think about like each of the C level roles out there. The chief marketing officer knows marketing better than anyone else, but they also know tech and they try to do the CEO’s job, CFO, COO, CBO, CTO, everyone knows their area. But they also know tech. And I would say most CEOs aren’t going to be as good as the CFO when it comes to finances and investments in accounting. So I don’t go and try to do the CFO’s job, I expect them to be great at that.

B  Muehlberger:            But everyone will try to do the CEO’s role or try to do what tech does. And so because of that, we’ve got this Federation of technologies permeating the organization and it’s much easier to provision technologies. So we’ve got it that challenge constantly going on and people can go and procure a Dropbox account, share company files with a third party really easily and almost too, well, no way for us to stop it, but not really locking things down and making it very difficult.

Tim Crawford:               But that’s command and controlled [inaudible 00:21:25] Right. That’s your command and control mindset of saying, “Oh, we got to shut that down. We can’t let that happen.”

B  Muehlberger:            Well, it’s the mindset, right, because it does jump back in and you want to say, I need to protect the organization. Command and control would actually go and lock that down. I’ve been at companies where they locked down everything from the USB drive to the Internet. You couldn’t hit any email service, you couldn’t hit Gmail and Hotmail and things like that. And I’ve worked at organizations that actually have pretty much no filter on anything you wanted to go and do and visit. It kind of depends. You’re trying to protect the company’s assets and so I think because of this broader context of technology permitted in everything, there is no way without brute force, which is not going to be very effective to have that commanding control mindset anymore. So you’ve got to find other ways and you’ve got to start with understanding why people need the technology and then how do you get them to think proactively about doing the right thing?

B  Muehlberger:            Yes, you have access to your Dropbox account. Yes, you have access to Evernote, you can upload things. Yes, you have full access to the Internet, but that doesn’t mean you abuse it, doesn’t mean you share company documents haphazardly. It doesn’t mean you go visit inappropriate websites on company’s time and resources. I think it comes down to we’ve got to educate individuals to constantly think about what’s best for the organization and my doing this in their best interest. And if you get people thinking that way, I don’t think you need to lock things down to that degree. You still got to put appropriate controls in place. You still got to make sure that the companies of assets are protected, especially data and that we can talk more about that.

B  Muehlberger:            But yeah, I think that’s, I would say were the biggest challenge lies for the future of the CIO is that if you want to command and control, you’re going to fail. But at the same time, it’s moving so fast and there’s so many I would say these holes in the organization, how do you protect that and how do you move fast enough to get everyone educated on the same page?

Tim Crawford:               As you kind of think about how all of these pieces come together. I mean, there are a lot of different directions that you could go. What are the top things that guide you in your direction, in the direction that you lead?

B  Muehlberger:            I think about like the guiding principles that I just have just innate to myself, and that is act with a high degree of integrity. Would I do this if it was made public? And if you ask yourself that question, I would say if your answer is, “No, I wouldn’t want people to know I’m doing this.” Then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Tim Crawford:               By the way, that’s a great point. And something that came up in a past episode where we were talking about privacy. It was with Ashwin Ballal who’s the CIO at Medallia. And we were talking about how privacy becomes a real critical piece, especially with customer data. And I said, “Well, what guides you to make sure you don’t go across that red line?” And he said something very similar, which is if you yourself wouldn’t do it, or if you were the customer, then you shouldn’t do it.

B  Muehlberger:            That’s exactly right. I think everyone gets jaded at times because you tend to follow the social norms. So, depending on who you’re hanging around with, you tend to follow suit. And so you’ve got to constantly put that check into place and say, regardless of whether other people do it, does that mean I should do it? Is that the best interest of me, my career, company at large that I’m working for and always put that hat on at all times. You and I Tim we’ve hung out, we’ve had a beer together, but we’re not out there doing things we shouldn’t be doing in the public eye because we also know that even though we’ve got our CIO hat off for a moment while we’re drinking a beer doesn’t mean that’s the time to let loose.

Tim Crawford:               That’s right.

B  Muehlberger:            You’re still representing your company, you’re still representing Seattle role, you’re still representing yourselves as a person. So I would say integrity for sure. I would say secondarily my guiding principle is intellectual curiosity. I’ve always seek people that are very intellectually curious. They’re constantly asking questions, wanting to know how things work, trying to break things down to its simplest components and then doing all of these things with a passion, right? So I try to portray that to my team. I try to pull that out of them, try to find where their passions lie. I think by doing that it just creates this kind of centrifugal force of a flywheel that just momentum carries us forward in a positive way.

Tim Crawford:               That’s great. So as we kinda wrap on this episode, tell me what is the one thing that excites you most about the role of the CIO today and where it’s going?

B  Muehlberger:            So I would just think the opportunity that lies in front of us and the challenges that lie in front of us are so large and pressing that for one, you’re never going to be bored as a CIO in the future. I think it’s a matter of keeping things in perspective of what really matters. Constantly thinking about what’s in the best interest of the organization at large. And so when you think about how fast things are changing, there is going to be a governing effect to that naturally and we all probably are starting to see it in some way, shape or form. I mean the speed of change in tech has been pretty massive over the last eight, nine, 10 years and everyone would talk about the singularity effect that is just going to continue to change at that pace and I believe it’s going to continue to change at a fairly high click.

B  Muehlberger:            But there are two things. One is government regulation. Government’s going to get involved and slow things down. We’re going autonomous vehicles and some of the issues we’ve had their, human safety is very important, but then you’ve also got just the people limiting factor because people can only deal with so much change so fast that one, either they won’t have the skills to deal with the new and so latest and greatest technologies exist today but people don’t know them and understand it well enough to really implement [inaudible 00:27:09] block chain hasn’t really been majorly adopted in any sort of broad scoping way within organizations because it is complex. And there’s only a handful of people that really, really get it and can find the practical uses of it.

B  Muehlberger:            So those two things together are going to slow that change down, but only to a degree. And so we’ve gotta be open to that constant speed of change and be willing to adapt very rapidly to continue to ask questions and to constantly gut check that with what I’m looking at is this right for the organization?

Tim Crawford:               Love it. We’re going to have to leave it right there. Bryan Muehlberger, thank you so much for joining the program today.

B  Muehlberger:            Thanks Tim. Really enjoyed speaking with you and as always, great to talk to you.

Tim Crawford:               Likewise, and hopefully we can have you back for another episode and continue some of these thoughts maybe around some of the emerging technologies pieces.

B  Muehlberger:            That would be great. Would love to.

Tim Crawford:               All right, thanks again.

B  Muehlberger:            Thanks.

Tim Crawford:   For more information on the CIO In The Know podcast series, visit us or you can find us on iTunes, Google play, Stitcher, Spotify, and S

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