On the 17th episode of Enterprise Software Innovators, Diane Jurgens, CIO of The Walt Disney Company joins the show to share how Disney uses technology to create magical experiences for their guests, next-generation innovations that are reimagining film production, and her best practices for building a culture of innovation.
On the 17th episode of Enterprise Software Innovators, hosts Evan Reiser (Abnormal Security) and Saam Motamedi (Greylock Partners) talk with Diane Jurgens, EVP & CIO of The Walt Disney Company. Disney is an American multinational entertainment and mass media company, with pioneering experiences in film, TV, theme parks, and more. Today, Diane shares how Disney uses technology to create magical experiences for their guests, next-generation innovations that reimagine film production, and her best practices for building a culture of innovation.
Quick hits from Diane:
On Disney’s next-generation film production technology: “We do a lot of our filming on stages with something called Stagecraft, which is an integrated, virtual production environment. In traditional movie making, you'll construct a physical set but then you might film with a green screen. With Stagecraft, instead of virtual post production, it’s displayed live; you have these physically constructed partial sets that allow the directors, actors and the camera operators to position themselves accordingly. Then you have a much more expansive virtual reality set with models from different cities, different countries, even different worlds and shoot live to that. It allows actors to see and visualize what they're actually shooting in; it's really unparalleled creativity to render this in real time - photoreal virtual sets, it’s really amazing to see.”
On Disney utilizing animatronics at their theme parks: “My nephew loves Spiderman and we were at Avenger’s Campus. If you've been there, Spiderman comes out and interacts with the audience and then he crawls up high on the building and does a major flip in the air and lands on the other building. Well, our imagineers actually have designed and built animatronics. So my nephew absolutely could not believe that was not a person.”
On Disney’s partnership with startup ecosystems: “The accelerator program starts by vetting a large number of startups and this year the theme was Web3. And out of those companies, they narrow it down to a smaller number and then senior leadership gets together and we listen to their pitches on their technology. Our executive sponsors in different business units give them meaningful feedback on the applicability of their technology, but also some coaching and mentoring on how to work with large companies like Disney.”
On Disney’s customer centricity: “100% of the focus of everybody who comes to work at Disney is how to delight, and that storytelling in surprising people. At D23, we unveiled Avatar, the next 3D movie from James Cameron, and to see the surprise and delight [was amazing]. That movie was made with the audience in mind [in terms of] how to make that immersive experience as best as it can be.”
Recent Book Recommendation: Investments Unlimited by Helen Beal
Evan Reiser: Hi there, and welcome to Enterprise Software Innovators, a show where top technology executives share how they innovate at scale. In each episode, enterprise leaders share how they’re driving digital transformation and what they’ve learned along the way. I’m Evan Reiser, the CEO and founder of Abnormal Security.
Saam Motamedi: And I’m Saam Motamedi, a general partner at Greylock Partners.
Evan Reiser: Today on the show, we’re bringing you a conversation with Diane Jurgens, CIO of the Walt Disney Company. Disney is one of the preeminent media companies in the world, pioneering innovative entertainment experiences in film, TV, theme parks, and more. In this conversation, Diane shares how Disney has digitally transformed the theme parks to create magical guest experiences, cutting edge technologies that are reinventing film production and are best practices for building a culture of innovation. Diane, before we dive in, I just want to do a ‘thank you’ for joining and we’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, so I appreciate you making the time.
Diane Jurgens: I’m looking forward to it, too.
Evan Reiser: Cool. Well, maybe to start off, do you mind sharing a little bit about some of your background, your role at Disney?
Diane Jurgens: Sure. So Diane Jurgens, Chief Information Officer for the Walt Disney Company. And you probably know a lot of our products if you’ve been to the domestic parks, Walt Disney World, Disneyland Resort, or Disney California Adventure.
And we have international parks as well. Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar, ESPN, ABC. I mean, the list goes on. And most recently, our streaming businesses with Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+. So I’ve been at Disney now two years. I’ve come from a background of automotive and 20+ year international career, and so I’m just having a great time. Love working at Disney.
Saam Motamedi: Diane, you talked about a number of the products that, like, all of us know and love and immerse-rich customer experiences are such a hallmark of Disney and Disney’s success for many decades. I’m curious, like, how does Disney approach digital transformation in the context of these customer experiences and to ensure the success of these experiences?
Diane Jurgens: Well, I think it first starts with storytelling, which is a heart of our company and has been for our 100 year history. And so, really, digital or technology is to enhance that story and not get in the way of it so that our customers, our fans, our guests are really thinking about the story and the experience. And technology is an enhancement after that. Recently, I was in our Walt Disney World Park, and it was a great example of MagicBand+. So MagicBand+ you wear on your wrist, and it’s this amazing digital experience that connects you to the story and in our case, the history of Walt Disney World. Just a quick example we have for our 50th anniversary at Walt Disney World these statues set up around the park. So there’s 50 golden statues, and you walk around searching for them. And so digitally, we know we’re connecting with RFID. But little kids and 80-year-old grandpas, they’re just knowing they have this magical thing on their arm that’s doing haptics and lights and making statues talk. So there are so many ways that we can connect stories and our customers to our digital technology without them even knowing how it works.
Evan Reiser: That’s an incredible example of rethinking and reimagining the customer experience right through kind of new technology. Do you mind sharing maybe other examples of how Disney’s uniquely using technology to create some of these reimagined experiences?
Diane Jurgens: Going back to parks, Genie+, it’s an amazing experience where you’re using the digital and AI capability we have. You share what do you want to do? What are your favorite characters? Do you like Marvel or Star Wars? What experiences and shows and food do you want to experience during your day? And then Genie+ will recommend what is your best Disney day? And it adapts for you throughout the day that you’re in the park. You get maps to attractions. It shows you how to get the most out of the park, where are the lowest waits in lines, for example. So, a really magical experience using technology. Another one is, as you mentioned, in our studios, we now do a lot of our filming on stages. We call StageCraft, an invention with Industrial Light & Magic. And so it’s an integrated virtual production environment. In traditional movie making, you’ll construct a physical set, but then you might film to a green screen. Well, with StageCraft, rather than doing that virtual post production, it’s displayed live. So you have these physically constructed partial sets that allow the directors, the actors and the camera operators to position. But then you have the virtual reality, a much more expansive set with models from different cities. You can put different countries, even different worlds, and shoot live to that. And so a StageCraft where you would have shot looking at green screens, now, it allows actors to see and visualize what they’re actually shooting in. And it’s really unparalleled creativity to render this in real time. Photoreal virtual sets, it’s really amazing to see. And you’ve actually probably seen some of our productions that leverage StageCraft and didn’t know it, whether it was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. We’ve had Emmy Award winning episodic series such as The Mandalorian, How I Met Your Father, The Old Man. If you’ve seen any of those, you would have seen StageCraft technology at work.
Saam Motamedi: Those are such interesting examples. And one of the things I was reflecting on is Disney’s surface area of interaction with the end consumer is so broad and rich that there are so many opportunities for technology to play a role. I love the Mandalorian. I have no idea about StageCraft, so it helps me put that whole experience into a different context. Are there other examples that our listeners might find surprising and interesting? Around the ways Disney is using technology?
Diane Jurgens: There are some simple ones, actually, that are quite surprising starting again in parks. If you think about WiFi and base stations, if you walk around any of our theme parks, you’ll be hard pressed to find any technology that’s apparent. So we do a lot of theming. We work with our imaginary teams to actually build technology into the attractions in a way that it’s not visible. And so you’d really be surprised how much technology is around you as you’re walking through the park. And then there’s some other things that absolutely delight our visitors. If you get on an attraction these days, it might not be fixed, like going on a roller coaster or a chute or down a river. Now, with our trackless vehicles, like in the Rise of the Resistance, you’ll go backwards, sideways, spin. And it’s a very unpredictable and engaging experience. And probably, for me, the one I thought was most fun. Recently, I went to California Adventure with my brother and his grandson, my nephew. And my nephew loves Spiderman, and so we were in Avengers Campus, and if you’ve been there, Spiderman comes out and interacts with the audience, and then he crawls up high on the building and does a major flip in the air and lands on the other building. Well, our imagineers actually have designed and built Animatronics, so my brother absolutely could not believe that was not a person. So it was so fun to see the reaction of the crowd and my own family to what we’re doing with technology and how creative our Imagineers are.
Evan Reiser: One thing that’s always impressive about Disney is you kind of mentioned the technology is a little bit transparent, or maybe the words opaque, but it’s behind the scenes where it does delivers that experience, but then it doesn’t get in the way. It actually is hidden from that experience. I have to imagine it yields a more immersive environment for your guests and customers.
Diane Jurgens: Yeah, one of the challenges, actually, is if you do let technology get in the way, imagine being in a theme park looking down all day at your phone, right. You’re going to miss the magic of the park. And that’s why we built things, even in rides with QR codes, so you can play a game while you’re waiting in line that distracts you, and at the same time your heads up rather than all the time just looking at technology. And so I think it’s that balance of what is the experience, how to deliver that in a way that’s transparent and seamless and still is surprising and delighting every time you engage with it.
Evan Reiser: There’s many applied technologies today in the world, right? Across different enterprises that are more commonplace today, and they’re considered best practices. I have to imagine some of those started off as Disney, as state of the art. Disney was a pioneer in many different ways, probably has been throughout the long history, are the kind of examples of maybe state your technologies, which you feel very bullish about, that you think will enter more mainstream usage in the future.
Diane Jurgens: One in particular, our ride systems are trackless rides. I mentioned Rise of the Resistance. There’s a few, and it’s really nonlinear. You can think about it as a self-driving vehicle, albeit on a smaller scale, really untethered experience. And I think there’s a crossover there into smaller vehicles for personal transportation. I also think another state of the art, actually, is how we’re using augmented reality combined with physical storytelling. I think there’s a lot of commerce and other use cases for doing that in the way that we do it at a larger scale. So I think both augmented reality and some of our rides and attractions that have been developed by our Imagineers are really state of the art.
Saam Motamedi: Diane, the examples you shared of just the role of technology at Disney, like, many of them, blew me away. I feel like I now need to go back to the parks with this lens in mind. It’ll be a very different experience. It’d be super interesting to understand how you, as a leader, have built and cultivated a culture of innovation and maybe some of the specific practices that you’ve put in place that you think differentiate Disney and enable Disney to have and see this impact from technology.
Diane Jurgens: I will start with a couple specific to my team, but then expand it beyond because we have accelerator programs for technology that really reach across the company. Specifically, for my team, I believe giving people time to innovate is really important. Our 2022 Innovation Challenge, for example, really encouraged our team members to submit ideas. And then it was really self curated. We could go on, we could vote. We could ask questions. And so that curation process lasted a couple of weeks. And after the voting, then a team got together cross functional and looked seriously at all these ideas for business value versus ease of use, cost, a bunch of dimensions. And then from there, we pared that down. Those projects, those teams now have commitment from myself and my leadership team to give them the space, the resources to go make those ideas real. And by the way, it may not be them. They may be handing it off to other team members, which also brings our teams together to work in different ways. So that’s really exciting to see the energy behind that innovation culture. I also believe recognizing things you want people to do. So every quarter I have CIO Awards, and two of the five categories are really focused on innovation. One category called Create the Future, and the other category called Think Big. So as people do innovative things, they get recognized for that on our town halls and we had 64 nominations last quarter for the CIO Innovation Awards. So it’s pretty cool to see how the momentum is building, and you just allow people to have that freedom to innovate, and it’s amazing what they do. And then probably more broadly, across the company, we have a program called the Accelerator Program, and this is how we work with external companies, specifically startups. And seeing what startups do, bringing that energy and that innovation really also has a ripple effect within our teams on what’s possible.
Evan Reiser: I have to imagine that Disney is so broad right there’s so many different ways you engage with customers. There’s probably just hundreds of thousands of different technologies there, I have to imagine it’s hard to stay up to date all of them. I know you’ve had great partnerships with technology startups. Do you mind sharing any novel approaches or practices in terms of how you collaborate with the startups?
Diane Jurgens: I mentioned the Accelerator Program run by two of my colleagues, David Min and Bonnie Rosen, and we start first by vetting a large number of startups, and we usually each year choose a different theme. This year was Web3, and out of those companies, they narrow it down to a smaller number and then a senior leadership, myself, a CFO, CEO, and the leads of our business units, we get together and we listen to their pitches on their technology. And out of this, usually it’s in the summertime, we connect these startup companies. This year we narrowed it to six to executive sponsors in different business units, and that gives them meaningful feedback on the applicability of their technology, but also some coaching and mentoring on how to work with large companies like Disney. This culminates in what we call Disney Demo Day in early October, November time frame usually, and by then, they have actual real proof of concepts. In fact, in early October this year, we launched Disney Music Emporium of Virtual Experience, an Immersive online store that was one of these startup companies. And the Accelerator program helped us do. It goes from big picture thinking to connecting them, to practical problems with executive sponsors, to demo days that often lead into commercial opportunities with the Disney Company.
Saam Motamedi: One other question, Diane, I’d love your perspective on, which is a thing that we talk about often on the show with our guests, is this concept of customer centricity and as it relates to innovation and digital transformation, really building with the customer in mind. And I’d say the examples you gave of how Disney leverages technology are some of the best I’ve heard on the show. And I think the reason why is not just that they’re so delightful and interesting and surprising, but they really start with the end experience that you’re trying to create for the guest or the viewer and then take the lens of how can technology enable that versus starting with technology? And I feel that approach at Disney is very unique. For other technology leaders listening to the show, are there any lessons you can share? Like how do you build that customer centricity and empathy into your team and lessons you can share around that.
Diane Jurgens: First of all, I’d say 100% of the people I’ve met in my two years at Disney love working for Disney, right? So we have parks technology teams. We have our streaming technology teams. They use and enjoy and love the stories. And so that connection to purpose and connecting to our customers, it’s us too. And I think that the joy you get when you get it right is huge. I was at D23, which is our fan, our customer base as Comic-Con for Disney fans. And in September, you cannot believe the energy of the people who enjoy the Disney brands across Star Wars or Lucas or Pixar or games, and to really get the energy. And I think that’s 100% the focus of everybody who comes to work at Disney is how to delight that storytelling and surprising people. At D23, we unveiled Avatar, the next 3D movie from James Cameron, and to see the surprise and delight, and that movie was made, I’m 100% certain, with the audience, the viewer in mind, how to make that immersive experience through the visual, through the sound, as best as it can be. So, yeah, it’s just pretty cool every day, and I’d say internal as well. We view our cast members, our team members, we want those same magical experiences, the awesome way that we use technology at work to collaborate, to empower ourselves, and then also the security element. So we’re looking at our customers, but we’re also looking at our employees and cast members in the same way as we bring traditional It systems.
Evan Reiser: That’s amazing. Okay, we spent the last five or ten minutes to do more of a Lightning round format, just looking for shorter answers. Saam, do you want to kick it off?
Saam Motamedi: Absolutely. Maybe to start, Diane, what does success look like for a CIO?
Diane Jurgens: Two measures I use. The first is resource allocation. We all have finite people budgets. How are you using the resources that are under your control for the best of the company? And that really comes to knowing your business and what the priorities. I think the second one, on a personal note, is where are you at in your learning journey? How are you staying ahead and how are you spending your time?
Evan Reiser: Maybe kind of the other side of that question, especially for maybe listeners that are aspiring CIOs or kind of just stepping into a new executive role in technology. Are there may be areas you think CIOs, maybe CTOs can risk, maybe underestimating the importance of?
Diane Jurgens: One of the things I said midway through my career was I would never report to a CFO because I didn’t want to be treated as a cost center. And I think we can’t underestimate showing the value that we’re bringing every day to the business. By the way, I report to a CFO at Disney. And so, first of all, never say never. But the important part of that is that she recognizes that technology is an enabler for the company and doing our business. So I say, don’t fall in the trap of being treated like a cost center. Flip it around and think about how you’re adding value to the business.
Evan Reiser: Yeah, that’s great advice.
Saam Motamedi: What’s a common mistake you see a new CIO or IT leader make?
Diane Jurgens: Thinking it’s about technology. My number one rule is know your business. And I learned that from a mentor of mine early in my career. He had five keys to success, and the first one was know your business. So I remember walking to into his office and he said, so what did you learn about the business? And I started talking about supercomputers. And he goes, that’s not our business. We make aircraft and satellites. What did you learn about the business? So I’d say, keep it focused. We’re here for the business, not for technology.
Saam Motamedi: That’s a fantastic answer.
Evan Reiser: Yeah, it is. And I’d resonate with me because I have a stake many times in my career. So it may be more on the personal side. Is there a recent book you’ve read that’s had like an impact on you? And if so, I’d love to hear why.
Diane Jurgens: Well, I’m rereading a book right now by our CEO Bob Iger called Ride of a Lifetime, and the first time I met Bob, I told him that I had read the book. That’s why I came to Disney along those lines, Pixar Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull. That’s a great book. I’d say the one I’m reading most currently is called Investments Unlimited. Now don’t laugh. It’s called a novel about DevOps, security, audit compliance. And you think that’s a sleeper, but it actually is about 150 pages and it just brings back in novel form some of the things as CIOs we need to keep forefront. It’s cool to invent technology, but you got to be compliant, it’s got to be secure, and they make the mundane topic pretty interesting.
Saam Motamedi: Yeah, that sounds great.
Evan Reiser: What do you think will be true about the future of technology impact the world? That maybe most people feel like it might be science fiction today?
Diane Jurgens: I think this idea of being untethered from phones or physical devices, but still having access to the world’s information to controlling devices. If I look back ten years ago and you had told me my 86 year old dad is sitting in his armchair turning lights on and off, choosing entertainment, watching the security cameras, I would have thought that was Sci-Fi. And here we are, somebody who’s technology not advanced, controlling a lot, but still through his phone. I think eventually you won’t have to do that. It will feel like somebody’s there watching over you, helping you as a virtual assistant. I don’t know, it sounds corny, but I think that’s going to be cool.
Evan Reiser: It does not sound corny. It sounds really cool. And I have a feeling that you’re going to be right on this one when we look back. Anything for us that maybe we forgot to ask about? Anything else you feel passionate about, like to share?
Diane Jurgens: Well, I’d say my passion is around STEM education and the future generation for people early in their career pipeline to stay technical long enough. I think sometimes we jump ship and think going into management or leadership roles and I would just say getting that technical foundation, whether it’s education or experiences early in your career, hugely helpful. And then, of course, my passion around promoting neurodiversity. I think there’s an untapped underestimated workforce out there that I’m looking forward to seeing in the future in more technology roles.
Evan Reiser: That’s great. Thank you so much for sharing some of your experience perspective. Just really enjoyed the conversation. Looking forward to it a while, it was everything I hoped it would be. So thank you so much for joining.
Diane Jurgens: Thank you, Evan. Thanks, Saam.
Saam Motamedi: Thanks, Diane.
Evan Reiser: That was Diane Jurgens, CIO of the Walt Disney Company.
Saam Motamedi: Thanks for listening to the Enterprise Software Innovators podcast. I’m Saam Motamedi, a general partner at Greylock Partners.
Evan Reiser: And I’m Evan Reiser, the CEO and founder of Abnormal Security. Please be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. You can find more great lessons from technology leaders and other enterprise software experts at enterprisesoftware.blog.
Saam Motamedi: This show is produced by Luke Reiser and Josh Meer. See you next time.