June 22, 2021
From Hamerschlag Hall to HBO Max
Alumnus draws on his engineering skills to revolutionize entertainment
By Elizabeth Speed
TV remotes used to be simple devices to change a channel, but now they are gateways to the entirety of global entertainment and culture in a click. One of the people who has turned our remotes into magic wands of media is Andy Forssell, who earned a B.S. in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering in 1987. His influence on content strategy helped grow Hulu into a billion-dollar company, and now he’s carving out a spot in a crowded market for the recently-launched HBO Max.
But he’s doing this all with a background in electrical engineering? Well, yes. Get to know Andy and it makes perfect sense.
“I love that combination of creative and science-driven engineering endeavors. And leadership is always fascinating to me because it's a combination of engineering and the arts. As humans, we are incredibly emotional decision-making machines, so as a leader, you have to motivate different kinds of people in different ways to get to a common outcome for whatever that team is,” Andy says. “Whether it's a tank platoon in the Army or a business team working to find a better way to deliver great storytelling, you’re almost always going to have a mix of creative people and more technical people working together. I’ve always loved the challenge of making that kind of mix pay off.”
Currently, Andy is executive vice president and general manager of WarnerMedia Direct-to-Consumer. His focus last year was launching the HBO Max streaming service in the United States. For the next year or two, he’ll be rolling it out internationally. He’s building on the expertise he gained at Hulu, which was launched on the forefront of streaming capabilities and led the revolution in how to watch TV.
“We asked back then, if you were going to watch TV or movies on the web, what would it look like if it was IP delivered? The answers weren't that hard to come up with, but as soon as you saw them, you're like, ‘Well, yes, that's how you should watch TV,’” he says. “It takes a good engineering mindset to say, ‘What is that better way, and then how do we make that better way really happen?’”
For HBO Max, making it happen means entering a crowded and competitive market of on-demand media during a global pandemic. It’s a move that WarnerMedia is in a unique place to make, by changing up the way their first-run movies are released, moving away from the traditional theater-based opening model.
“The whole life cycle of these pieces of content are very defined. We've tried to push that with movies this year, right? They're on HBO Max the same day they go in theaters, and that caused a lot of consternation for understandable reasons. But especially in a COVID-19 year, it was the right thing to do,” he says.
The right thing to do...or more technically, the better way to do it… is the kind of question that’s defined Andy’s career. In streaming media, and software engineering before that, as well as service in the U.S. Army, he credits the genesis of his drive for problem solving to his undergraduate experience.
“I think there's a lot that I learned at CMU for that mindset. Sometimes, you're a little crazy because you're looking at how something works, in a store and wondering, ‘why am I waiting in this line, they could do this differently. This could be better.’ There's always a better way, and in class after class after class, I think of that engineering mindset for me as really coming from that campus.”