Bryan Pirtle, SDM ’13: Mixing Wine and Engineering

Bryan Pirtle By Tom Kadala
February 5, 2013

A native Californian, Bryan Pirtle earned his electrical engineering degree from California Polytechnic State University and has spent most of his working career moving up the ranks at E&J Gallo Winery. Early on Gallo took him in as a summer intern, which exposed him to many aspects of the business. He discovered that mixing wines with engineering had far greater appeal socially than the hard drive design job he turned down to come to Gallo full-time.

E&J Gallo Wines offered Pirtle an unprecedented opportunity to evolve into one of the company’s most valued young technical gurus. Over time he became the go-to person to apply innovative solutions to complex control system engineering problems. One such project that earned respect from his peers involved coordinating 20 mobile pumps with nearly 500 wine tanks. His challenge was to monitor the flow demand of stored wine from each tank to multiple filters, use the machine data to improve efficiencies throughout the system, enable flexible connection, and display timely data and feedback on human interfaces.

Pirtle explored an innovative Bluetooth solution that sold for less than $100 per unit from a connectivity company, but ultimately implemented a hard-wired solution to ensure reliability. He wrote software that collected and transferred data from pump to filter to control system with split-second precision. His black box solution included clever algorithms that independently managed over 600 built-in controllers. His new system replaced a wireless product (that had not been working well) with a custom-developed, data routing network, one that offered Gallo far greater processing flexibility. His colleagues summed up his ingenuity and foresight with a simple statement, "only Bryan would have thought of using such innovative techniques".

An innovator at heart, Pirtle’s personal drive to remain in-the-know of global technology transcends his work at Gallo. At home he works on numerous projects of interest, pours through electronic journals, and keeps up his personal blog. One project involved rewriting the firmware of an Arduino board that could manage various appliances and devices in his home from a web page. After selling a few similar systems to friends, he considered starting a new business on the side.

Over time, Pirtle’s career path at Gallo led him away from programming to project management. Unlike his previous projects where he could easily apply technology to improve a process among machines, he recognized that designing a ‘circuit board’ of people, budgets, and ROI’s rather than chip-sets and software would require new skills.

MIT’s SDM program not only fit the bill for him but offered an unprecedented opportunity to attend classes with his peers while sitting in a Gallo conference room. "I am not much for watching taped lectures, but when I heard how interactive MIT’s remote classrooms were set up, I was hooked," he explained. Gallo’s HR director and his colleagues have supported his decision wholeheartedly and for good reason. Pirtle will not only learn state-of-the-art systems-thinking theories while working at Gallo but will also have a chance to apply his newly found knowledge on-the-job while maintaining access to MIT professors.

For Pirtle, however, SDM’s on-campus component offered an additional benefit. Instead of reading about new technology breakthroughs in trade magazines at home, he could now knock on the doors of the very same MIT labs cited and speak directly with the people behind the inventions. He summed up his excitement in just four words: "How cool is that?!"

Bryan Pirtle
Photo by Dave Schultz