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Careers in Beer: What It’s Like Building a Tech Startup Inside Anheuser-Busch

Philip Theron (right), showing off his team spirit
Philip Theron (right), showing off his team spirit
| Courtesy of Philip Theron

Before the world went all-remote, Anheuser-Busch’s diverse product team had already figured out how to collaborate across continents, cultures, and capabilities. With employees based out of St. Louis, New York, and Bangalore, India, the storied brewery created an in-house tech incubator that’s a “total team effort,” says Commercial Analytics and Transformation Director Philip Theron. “We have a physicist, economists, and software engineers with such a wide variety of skills. And we try to get all of these fields aligned.”

Just a few years ago, Anheuser-Busch didn’t employ a single software engineer. Today, the company is rapidly building a global team. The possibility of an accelerated transformation and outsize impact is what originally drew Theron to the 165-year old beer brand. While a lot of his classmates went to work at traditional tech companies, Theron was eager to return to Anheuser-Busch, where he’d done an internship at subsidiary SABMiller in South Africa. During his stint, Theron came to appreciate the company’s longevity and compassionate work culture. “Our product has been around for thousands of years and it brings people together,” he says. “We’re old school in the product we make, but we are continuously evolving and doing better and inventing stuff along the way.”

Discover why Theron took the tech road less traveled, and follow his advice on how to find a fulfilling workplace.

Tell us about your background and career journey, and what led you to your job at Anheuser-Busch.

I actually did my first undergraduate degree in finance and was planning to be an analyst. My fourth year in college was 2009, and with the global financial crisis happening, I reflected on what I had been studying. I could do Excel, but realized that in order to do what I wanted, I needed to write code. So I graduated, and then I went back and studied computer science.

I did an internship at SABMiller in South Africa, a brewer owned by Anheuser-Busch. I put together some automation systems in the compliance department that were received quite well. Before I graduated, they reached out and told me: “Have a look at other employers, but we’d really like to have you. Because we’ve noticed that doing stuff in more of an automated fashion actually helps us.”

A lot of my friends were going to companies like Google and IBM. I took a chance with Anheuser-Busch for two reasons. One, I had come to know and respect the people that I work with and I got along with them very well. And I saw that they had this vision to improve and they also acknowledged that they were behind. That was a very encouraging sign: that acknowledgement of reality and that hope and that vision to be better and to keep up with times.

The second thing was there was so much opportunity to make a quick impact. And I chose the path less traveled because I felt that it was exciting. And I thought that it was something that no one else was doing.

What are you responsible for in your role?

I lead software engineering as a vertical for an internal product. This involves everything around the strategy for how we write software, how we organize it, and how we actually build and release the software.

Our team programs machines so jobs can be done at scale. For example, we built a program to comb through all the transactions we produce as a company. That was a big win for us in terms of saving both time and cost, but also huge when you think of sustainability.

What does a career in tech at Anheuser-Busch look like?

Three full years ago, Anheuser-Busch was not even thinking about hiring a software engineer. The company saw this as something you outsource. Compare it to right now, where we have created a startup in the Anheuser-Busch ecosystem. We are focusing on becoming internally independent, which means we are starting to move toward a space in which we can build any software without being dependent on third-party vendors.

We are building a talent pipeline. We are recruiting for a diversity of skills, including data engineers, front-end engineers, computer sciences, and data sciences—all the different types of disciplines that you need to build software.

What are some recent wins at Anheuser-Busch? How did your team accomplish them?

Our team has begun working very closely with our “customer”—the people who sell directly to retailers. We’ve been able to integrate artificial intelligence and software into their day-to-day operations that helps do things like make recommendations on what to sell, where and when, and how much. It doesn’t remove people from the process, but instead gives them a powerful calculator and constant customer support.

When we introduced this tool, people were apprehensive. However, over the last 12 months a lot of our customers have started to use the software on a regular basis. They’ve found they can refine the program so it works for them.

What are you working on now that excites or inspires you?

As a team of software engineers, our job is to help our business to be more informed, more data-driven, and more fact-oriented. So what do we do to help a business get through this global health crisis? In a very short amount of time, we’re able to create software products to help our leadership get access to data and information, and make sense of often conflicting pieces of information on the virus. It is incredibly fulfilling to focus on a problem which is real to the whole world and share information with our leadership that puts people’s safety first and helps them understand the impact of what is going on in the business.

What do you like best about the company culture at Anheuser-Busch?

One of the things that struck me about our company was that it’s not uncommon to meet someone who has been with the company for more than 20 years. This shows that Anheuser-Busch values keeping good employees around and that employees feel valued and want to continue working here.

It’s so insightful to work with people who have the benefit of knowledge from a 20-plus year career with the company. The most important thing about our people is that they care about the product and they care about the company. That’s always been the case. In challenging times like what we’re currently facing, people take ownership over their roles, and care for the people that we serve and the company that we’re a part of. This has always been our competitive advantage.