BR’s technical director Birgit Spanner-Ulmer: “I always come up with something new again.”

Since 2012, Birgit Spanner-Ulmer is in charge of leading the Bayerischer Rundfunk into the future at the technical level as the director. Before that, the graduate engineer with a PhD and a professor at TUM, designed innovative car models for Audi, and built up the Faculty for Work Science and Innovation Management in Chemnitz. Birgit Spanner-Ulmer always gives 100% to achieve each single one of her tasks, she stands firm in her convictions and remains stubborn in order to drive optimizations forward.

Professor Spanner-Ulmer, what do television and radio broadcasting look like in the future?
Both will change massively. A cultural change has already taken place simply by virtue of the fact that today, everyone who has a smartphone can become an editor. Everyone can make some kind of little movie and put it on the Internet. Today, users have the possibility to immediately pass on information and do this with minimum effort, something that used to be the domain of traditional media.

What does this mean for public service broadcasting?
We have to be much faster than before and still deliver high quality. We are committed to reporting 24 hours a day and seven days in the week, and in doing so, complying with the journalistic basic principles. As part of the public service media, our mission is to generate reporting and entertainment that is competitive, but that is still serious. This has become more difficult because we no longer have a monopoly on information, but that is exactly why it is all the more important. Only in this way can we create the urgently needed counterpart, for example, to fake news, that is, false news, which is frequently circulating on the Internet.

How do you implement this as technical director at the Bayerischer Rundfunk?
We bundle our resources in the entire BR and no longer work as before separately according to radio broadcasting, television and online, but instead in a cross-media way and we offer our topics on all channels, independent of time and place. For the segment of topicality, this means, for instance: When an editor is currently reporting on the finding of a bomb, he then makes the O tone, TV picture and posts the information in the app, i.e., online, in parallel, too. At the technical level, I must make sure the editor has the right equipment to be able to operate all three output paths. Today, the technology backpack that colleagues strap on and which is equipped with four SIM cards frequently replaces a broadcasting van.

What you do there does sound very practice-oriented.
That it is. You might have also heard that BR will soon be moving to Freimann. Here too, we have to plan how many radio broadcasting studios we will need in the new buildings in the future. I’m in charge of everything that has to do with radio, television and online production at the technical level – that is, I’m responsible for the infrastructure with which we bring contents to people and for the technical staff. I’m quite close to the operational business and simultaneously always try to think in a forward-looking way. The days are not short, but they are incredibly exciting.

Where do you get the drive and energy for this?
Something different happens every day so it never gets boring. And I’m a woman of conviction. I always think: It can be done even better. There is nothing that has already been fully tapped. I simply love to come up with ideas. I used to get upset when I had the feeling someone “stole” my idea, for example, for a presentation. Today I tell myself: nice when others implement my ideas, I always come up with something new again.

A great attitude.
First off, it sets me free and secondly, it is an intellectu- al challenge because I am allowed to be creative time and time again.

You studied industrial engineering and then earned your PhD in mechanical engineering at TUM. How did this come about?
I knew quite soon that I’d simply have to be a little bit better than the male colleagues as a woman in engineering. You could also say: have to be more visible. That’s why it was already clear to me during my graduate studies that I wanted to get my doctorate. And I knew I wanted to concentrate even more on the engineering subjects. At that time, my student research project was oriented towards production technology, more in-depth studies then focused on manufacturing technology. I wanted to qualify myself further in this area and delve into it more deeply. In doing so, the interface between humans and technology was especially interesting to me.

What do you mean by this?
My doctoral supervisor, Professor Bubb, actually ignited my fascination. He is one of the foremost researchers in the field of vehicle ergonomics. I was interested in how the human thinking patterns work and how you have to take these into account when designing products so that a product can be operated in a safe and intuitive way.

Do you have an example?
This can be the cockpit in the car that must be designed in a certain way so that we immediately understand what is being shown right now. In my doctoral thesis, I focused on the compatibility of control devices. The reason for this at that time was a plane crash whose root cause analysis determined that the pilots were not able to congruently operate a control device and the display. This triggered an operating error, which resulted in the accident. I thought the question of how you can prevent this human error was absolutely exciting. I had a fantastic time during my doctorate studies.

Is there an experience while you were working on your PhD that particularly sticks in your mind?
I was allowed to help Professor Bubb in highly diverse research projects and industry collaborations. He already gave me jobs with a lot of responsibility at an early stage. This made me proud and self-confident. Something I’ll never forget is, for example, a truly large-scale vehicle test for unintentional acceleration with 100 test subjects. I was allowed to organize everything: find a car dealer, choose a test route, coordinate modification of the car, win over the test subjects and develop the test design. This was a huge thing for me at the age of 28.

Your doctoral exam, too?
It was chaired by Professor Joachim Milberg, who went to BMW shortly afterwards and later became the chief executive officer. And then, of course, my doctoral supervisor and Professor Heinzpeter Rühmann as the assessor were there as well. Professor Milberg especially wanted to know more about the practical applicability of my work. It was really interesting to talk about the way in which you could further develop my considerations. It meant a lot to me that my research was taken so seriously. After the exam, my father and my boyfriend – who later became my husband – welcomed and congratulated me outside. And I even got a great surprise.

What kind of surprise?
Professor Bubb, together with the team, put together a wonderful doctoral hat for me. A model of the robot with which I conducted the analyses during my doctoral work was at the top of the hat. It was battery-driven and could rotate. It was the best doctoral hat that I have ever seen. I’m still happy about it today and am very proud.

And these positive experiences during your doctoral work were why you then went on to Eichstätt for habilitation?
I had the desire to qualify myself further scientifically, but there were very practical reasons, too. At that time, my father was no longer doing very well. We had a close relationship: ever since my earliest childhood, I already helped my father in the garden. When he was tinkering around and making something, he let me roll up my sleeves and tackle the project. In the course of his life, he went blind and needed more care. Since my parents’ house was in Eichstätt, this was easy to combine with my work at the university. I was able to make sure my father was doing well. This was important to me.

Would you still have habilitated if these private reasons had not existed?
No. At the end of the day, the habilitation didn’t hurt me. But it was a time that clearly pushed me to my limits. If you were to ask me when I got my first gray hair: It was then.

My habilitation was located in the philosophical-pedagogical faculty. I didn’t really like it that much due to technical reasons alone because work there was done more with models from which several are applied at the same time, and there are seldom clear-cut solutions. During this time, my father and husband encouraged me positively and said: “Don’t be like that, just get on with it, things will work out.” And I didn’t give up. There are moments when you have to struggle your way through. Not everything in life is just “wishing for something.” My decision to go into the industry after the habilitation was much easier for me afterwards.

Did your social environment see it this way, too?
It was not easy. I was already 37 and many people advised me to stay in the field of science because I was overqualified for a job in the industry. But I didn’t want this. Then I got lucky and was invited to an interview at Audi where someone sitting across from me said: “I’ll take her.”

So was it like you imagined it would be?
It was even much better. I started in the production business unit and learned the ropes very quickly. I could even use parts of my scientific work. But in order to improve processes on the assembly line, I first had to understand what exactly happens there. So I assisted there on a trial basis.

You stood on the line?
Yes, my former boss was in production almost every day and I accompanied him. After the first half year, I then pulled on the boiler suit myself for two weeks and helped out in the assembly process. Three or four days later, my husband asked me if I was no longer cleaning myself because I was black all over. But actually, those were bruises I got because I always had to lean into the vehicle. I really looked terrible. Nevertheless, it was one of the best experiences I have ever had. Definitely two well-invested weeks.

Did you not have any difficulties being accepted by the colleagues?
Of course, at the beginning they thought: “What does the doctorate want there now?” But I was able to convince them of me relatively quickly and then we helped each other out a lot. It was tougher at the management level. I was immediately perceived as a competitor there, or to formulate it negatively, as com- petition. I had to assert myself the right way.

How did you do that?
Women, and this also holds true for me, tend to not enter into direct confrontations, but instead say: “Then I’ll just do it better.” But this also means, you must …

… work twice as hard.
Exactly. Early on, I got into the habit of simply doing more. The fellow competitors didn’t exactly treat me in an oversensitive way. However, it was often the case that someone at the next level or next higher level noticed my work and supported me, or opened up new opportunities for me with special projects.

It was like this at Audi, too?
Yes. One year after I started at Audi, when I was 38, I was already in the management. And three years later, I was asked if I didn’t want to switch over to technical development. By the way, that was TUM professor and alumnus Peter Tropschuh, who wanted to have me on board for the concept design. This is the most exciting department of all because here, you can focus on the question of what the car of tomorrow should look like.

You left Audi after five years to accept an offer for a professorship in Chemnitz. But you did not want to enter into a scientific profession?
I had a great time at Audi. I then became aware of the tender for the new professorship for the science of ergonomics in Chemnitz. An exciting field, my curiosity prevailed here. I applied, was at the “audition,” and I came in first place there. The other six behind me – they were all men.

So you gave up a well paid job in the management of a globally active carmaker in order to become a professor at a mid-sized university in eastern Germany. Wasn’t this a tough decision for you?
Yes, but so far I’ve been able to experience so many great things and I thought an own professorship could be the next exciting task. I knew I can realize my ideas here, I can do something of my own again here, there are creative possibilities here. And this is how it was then, too: We brought numerous industry cooperations on board, which enabled us to quickly generate re- search projects. Within a very short time, the chair was enlarged to comprise 45 employees.

You came to Munich in 2012 and started your job with the Bayerischer Rundfunk. At the same time, you were appointed as professor for production and technology in the media industry at TUM. What do you want to get across to the students?
Digitalization and innovative technologies make a lot of things possible. For me, it is important to talk about the impact on companies and the society with regard to the chances and risks. I want to stir up the students’ enthusiasm for this.

Scientific research, university teaching, industrial development – which one of your diverse experiences do you draw on most frequently today?
Ulrich Wilhelm, the director of Bayerischer Rundfunk, told me on my first day: You will need everything that you have ever learned in this job. And he was right about this.

This means you benefit today from the fact that your curriculum vitae was perhaps not quite so stringent?
I can only recommend everyone to not just stay with one thing, but to gather as many impressions in life as possi- ble in the scope of their field of competence. It would be good if universities and companies would reciprocally open up to each other to a greater extent. The TUM is at the forefront there with a wide array of initiatives that promote interdisciplinarity. The transparency of careers between industry and science should become even higher. Those who want to take huge steps forward have to gain insights into all aspects of the world in which they live. This is my firm conviction. It is enriching for me and I am very thankful I can do it this way.


Prof. Dr. Birgit Spanner-Ulmer

PhD in Mechanical Engineering in 1993

Birgit Spanner-Ulmer was born in Bavarian Eich- stätt. After graduating from high school, she studied industrial engineering in Karlsruhe. She earned her PhD at TUM in the field of mechanical engineering and habilitated in Eichstätt in the specialist area of the science of ergonomics. Her career took her from science into the industry and then back again: After her habilitation, she worked for Audi in the manage- ment, initially in the production business unit, and then in the technical development division, where, among other things, she made sure ergonomics were enhanced in new vehicles. In 2004, she was appointed professor for the science of ergonomics at the Technical University of Chemnitz. Since 2012, she is the director for production and technology at Bayerischer Rundfunk, where she is responsible for all matters related to production and broadcast technology as well as distribution and their planning. At TUM, she also holds the chair for production and technology in the media industry, where she is currently on a leave of absence from her job at the Bayerischer Rundfunk. The Association of German Engineers presented Birgit Spanner-Ulmer, as the first woman, with the Golden Ring of Honor for her “outstanding technical know-how.”

This article was published in KontakTUM 2/2018

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