Alumni Profile: Eduardo Frias
Eduardo, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. Everyone seems to come to the MSE from a wide range of interesting paths and with some pretty unique motivations. What led you to Carnegie Mellon?
I was doing software engineering work in Argentina where I'm originally from. I was in the middle of a truly miserable project.
I was talking to my friend Santiago Ceria (MSE ‘93). We came to the conclusion that we should make an effort to learn how to do this stuff better, become something of an expert, and then teach others what we’ve discovered.
Around this time, Jim Tomayko was holding a series of seminars on software engineering best practices in Buenos Aires. Santi and I met with Jim, and with Coach’s trademark personality and passion, he entirely talked us into Carnegie Mellon and the MSE. It all came down to an idea that Santi and I had stumbled upon, an idea echoed by Jim and the MSE: advance the state of your knowledge so that you can advance the state of the practice.
So after you graduated in 1994, you took up a number of prominent roles. First at Accenture, and then later leading development efforts at Dell and Johnson & Johnson. What did you learn while in the program that carried you through those first few years?
After joining Accenture, I recall thinking: “This is easy!”. I had just spent a year and a half nonstop working six and a half days a week to learn as much as I possibly could and to earn my MSE degree. Stepping into the Accenture environment seemed like a piece of cake even though, by most standards, it was a very challenging and fast-paced role.
The MSE taught me a lot about perseverance and work ethics, my own limits in terms of what I could do and what I might accomplish. By the time that I graduated, I knew that I could hang with the best of the best.
Even if I were to do it all over again, going through everything I did as a foreign student without the best English skills in a new city and a new country, I could take on the world. As a professional, the confidence gained by going through the MSE carries me through to this day.
After Johnson & Johnson, you made a pretty big change, sidestepping into e-commerce platforms. What drove you to move from a large corporate setting to smaller shops like Ideally and then eventually Stella & Dot?
Simply put: I got tired of the big corporate life.
At J&J, I and another executive oversaw a team of 2,500 people. Johnson & Johnson IT at the time was a $3 billion organization. We managed a budget of $250 million between the two of us. I remember driving to work one day and not feeling particularly happy about my ability to personally influence what we were doing.
I decided I needed a change. So I joined this small startup in New York City where I traded the J&J team of 2500 for a team of 20. It was one of the best career choices I ever made.
I came ideally equipped with the benefit of having learned solid techniques at CMU as in my prior positions. I’d seen strong processes and great corporate practices first-hand at Accenture and Dell and J&J. I knew that I could directly apply all that knowledge to a small environment. Bringing that together with the diversity of activities that I was involved in — it was rejuvenating. I realized that personally, I'm just much happier when I can be in direct contact with people than when I'm several degrees removed.
What is something that most people may not realize or think about when they are considering the sort of switch you made?
Often you think of a role like Senior Vice President in a large company to be a very high pressure role. But in reality, the smaller the shop, the greater the pressure. For better or worse, you have nowhere to hide. You’re forced to contribute your share and defend your decisions. I thrive in that sort of environment.
It’s also an environment where, as a leader, you can make and act upon decisions quickly. After some amount of trial, error, and testing, an idea that we had today could be live at our website tomorrow. That kind of pace and turnaround is unheard of at places like J&J or Dell.
You are currently the Chief Information Officer at Beach Body. Tell us, what is Beach Body doing to leverage the new technologies in the fitness domain?
Absolutely. Our mission is to help people achieve their goals, to live healthy and full lives.
Changing a habit is a really hard thing to do, doubly so when it involves something like weight loss. Think about traditional marketing approaches for fitness plans such as P90X. There may be a television infomercial, to which viewers respond by dialing a 1-800 number and purchasing a DVD. But the reality is that people aren’t watching TV all that much anymore, and DVD’s may be a thing of the past.
This meant that we needed to look for a fresh way in which to address our customers. We now have a strong on-demand platform for all of our fitness products, from streaming workouts to downloading meal plans, available where and when our customers need it.
But moreover, we’re also building a community platform. So much of what makes these lifestyle changes difficult is feeling isolated, as if you are the only person in the world trying to lose 20lbs. We are providing our customers with mobile tools that allow them to stay connected, seek advice, and connect with others in an effort to manage those days when your motivation slips.
What it comes down to is staying people-focused. I can confidently say that every dollar of the $1.3 billion annual revenue generated by Beach Body goes through one of the technology solutions that we build and support. We appreciate that there are millions of people who use our products every day, and we take that responsibility very seriously. Sure, we may be a for-profit corporation. But we’re committed to helping people enjoy their lives and their families more fully in the healthiest, longest-lasting way we can.
What challenges do you find most interesting now that you are 10+ years into your career?
Most of the challenges we face come when we don't apply the kind of systemic thinking — the sound software engineering principles and tested approaches to organizational change — that we learned about in the MSE.
There will always be new challenges that accompany new technologies. For example, we are doing quite a bit around data science so we can understand the behavior of the people that use our products: what gets them going, what keeps them motivated, and what contributes to them falling off the wagon. And while those challenges are tough, they can be solved by hiring smart engineers.
The truly interesting challenges come back to the people, to our customers. How do we make smart investments to ensure that we're helping as many people as possible, and that those individuals will be as effective as possible in achieving their goals?
That focus plays out in a lot of the practices, tools, and technologies that we employ. We use world-class, bleeding-edge practices, from agile to continuous integration and continuous deployment. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to do automated testing and how to best roll out no-down-time-releases. And we do all of these things mindful of the central question: “How do we make good decisions so this technology really helps people?”
It is interesting that some alums, when asked what challenges they find interesting, might typically respond with a technical challenge. Is it fair to say, however, that yours is more people focused?
Oh absolutely, 100 percent.
Several years ago, I decided that I was going to take a management career path. So if you asked me today to start coding, you'd probably fire me as your worst developer ever!
But I made that change because I find it much more challenging to work with a group of technologists to change the way that technology organizations operate rather than to actually build or change a system.
The human change aspect of technology organizations is greatly underestimated. We think that because we're technically smart people we adapt to change more easily than the rest of the world. We could not be more mistaken. My title may be CIO, but my last three or four jobs focused on helping the "IT shops" perform better.
CEOs don’t care if you're using Java or PHP or Ruby. They don’t understand front end from back end. What they do know is that companies are either successful or not based on technology. When they come looking for people like me it's because things are not working.
And they’ll ask: “How can you transform us into a world class software organization?”. I find that to be the most exciting challenge of all because it is so closely tied to the human factor.
What did the MSE teach you that helps you manage organizational change like that?
It comes back to the basics: How do you define the scope? How do you go about estimating the work? Who are the right people with the right skills and right knowledge to do it? How do you plan the work? How do you track the work? How do you deliver the work?
Even when we are talking about something non-technical such as change management, the same process-oriented principles that I learned at the MSE apply.
The MSE makes you think about hard problems. They're not always the most real-world kind of problems, but they make you think long about hard stuff. And that rewires your brain so that when you land in an organization that is large, that is complex, has multiple moving parts, where hundreds of millions of dollars fall under your management — you are prepared.
You recently made a gift to Carnegie Mellon to establish a scholarship for MSE students, the Eduardo and Norma Frias Memorial Scholarship. What was your motivation for making that gift?
When Coach visited Buenos Aires and turned me onto the MSE, it was somewhat bittersweet. I really didn’t have the money to drop everything and go to Carnegie Mellon. I didn’t think it would ever happen. And while Jim did everything he could to find financial aid for me, it just wasn’t in the cards.
But then my parents stepped up and paid my way. They made it happen for me. I know that the decision to attend CMU was the most important decision of my life. From a personal and professional perspective, it changed everything. Besides paying them back, I wanted to do something that would help others in the same way that they helped me.
What would you say to any other alums considering a gift to benefit MSE students?
First of all, it is not that big of a financial commitment. I used to think of scholarships and assumed that I couldn’t afford to give enough money for a scholarship. And even what I donated is not that much money in the context of how much it costs to attend CMU full-time. But I wonder if people know that it really doesn't take that much. You could give a few thousand dollars and the difference would be huge.
I will say this: I'm extremely grateful for that pivotal moment in my life. The 50-year-old man that I am today would not exist without that period of my life at CMU. I tell that to every person every chance I get. It prepares you so well for so many challenges, technical or managerial, both inside the software industry and out. Often you don't fully realize the impact of the MSE until many years later. But without a doubt, the return on investment for me has been off the charts.
I think it’s important to remember that others helped us get to where we are today. What better way to honor those people than by paying it forward.