From its pioneering work with open source platforms like Kubernetes and OpenStack to the disruptive technology that enables its industry-leading brick-and-mortar customer experience, innovation is at the core of the Walmart brand. It’s also at the heart of Jeff Gorman’s day-to-day responsibilities. Gorman is vice president of innovations for Walmart’s central operations, a role that spans the gamut from human resource planning to portfolio management to call center administration.
Across each of these areas, Gorman’s job is to come up with new ideas and deploy technologies that ultimately enable Walmart customers to save money and live better. We recently caught up with Gorman to chat all things innovation.
Tech Better: The word “innovation” gets thrown around a lot in the tech industry. What does it mean to you?
Jeff Gorman: Innovation in my mind is when you solve a problem or change the way somebody thinks about it. From a tech perspective, it’s really looking at new systems and new ways of thinking that are relevant to the goals at hand. Those could be anything from eliminating work, making people more productive or improving the data we collect. Personally, my team is looking at ways to optimize the process of getting the right associate in the right place at the right time to best take care of the customer. The problem we’re trying to solve is, “how do we provide management teams with the right data to enable them to schedule associates in the most efficient manner?”
Tech Better: That sounds like a win for the customer and the associate.
Gorman: Absolutely. There’s definitely a component of, “how do we improve our brand as a company and continue making Walmart a great place to work?” Are there better ways to approach scheduling that give more control back to the associate and help us become a better place to work?
Tech Better: What are some of the most innovative initiatives Walmart has taken in recent memory?
Gorman: I think from a customer perspective we are definitely looking to streamline checkout. As you’ve seen with Sam’s Club (and now testing at Walmart) we have the ability for customers to come in, scan merchandise with a smartphone app, and then simply pay via their phone and walk out. There’s no longer a need to wait in line. We’re also working to better integrate our e-commerce side with our brick-and-mortar stores and make that as seamless as possible. We’re testing new technologies that allow our customers to seamlessly pick up online orders in-store, in some cases, eliminating the need to have an interaction with an associate.
From an associate perspective, there are also things we’re doing to improve the inner store in terms of enabling associates to be more efficient through apps and general mobility. We’re moving all of our reports out of the back room onto the floor, where associates can access them on iPads and BYOD devices. It gives them more freedom to walk the floor and spend time with their customers. I would say mobility as a whole is equally important for the associate as it is for the customer.
Tech Better: In your six years with the company, what are you most proud of?
Gorman: I’ve really been able to grow with the company. I started as a senior director. I’m now a vice president, and I’ve done it in, I would say, a relatively short period of time. The advantage of working for a company the size of Walmart is that it allows you to really have a lot of opportunities and I’ve been able to take advantage of those for the most part. That part I’m proud of personally.
From the company side, I recently spearheaded an effort to refresh a lot of our brick-and-mortar front end, so things like checkout and the service desk. I was allowed to spend a significant amount of money to improve those processes, which ultimately is a commitment from our leadership. It makes me proud because they basically turned the keys over to me and the funds that they spent, which is pretty significant.
Tech Better: For students looking to get into STEM disciplines, what advice do you have for learning to think outside the box and innovating with business goals in mind?
Gorman: I would say that any time you want to do anything, you need to be a student of your environment. If you want to innovate, you’ve got to deeply understand the problem you’re trying to solve. I think a lot of people try to innovate with solutions that don’t really solve the root cause of the problem. You think there’s merit, but ultimately, you don’t see a benefit because it really didn’t solve the problem.
If you’re going into retail, you need to deeply understand the retail space. Don’t just observe it; you have to physically do it. If you’re working in the merchandising group, sit at that buyer’s desk and get engaged in the calls they make.
Tech Better: What are some of the things developers can look forward to in terms of working at Walmart over the next five to 10 years?
Gorman: The speed of change these days is amazing. What we know today is going to be vastly different in two years or three years, and so to me, that’s extremely exciting. From an operations perspective, we are seriously looking at everything our associates do in the stores, and if we can automate any of that through technology and it doesn’t negatively impact customer experience, then by golly we’re going to do it. That gives a ton of runway for our technology associates because there is definitely going to be job security as technology continues to build on itself.
I love where the company’s headed. I love how our leaders are thinking. They’re definitely giving us autonomy to drive innovation, and that’s something that will appeal to any technologist.