In this series, Tech Better takes a look at the innovative work and passion projects of Walmart Technology associates.
Ben Pellow likes to solve unique problems. One of his personal projects at the moment is an online mushroom vault that stores information to help foragers keep track of the fungi they discover out in the wild. As he explains it, you never know when you might stumble on a honey hole of chanterelles or porcinis worth hundreds of dollars, so you’ll want a system that can tag the location and guide you back.
Pellow, principal software engineer at @WalmartLabs, doesn’t work directly with mushrooms in his professional life, though he does work on solutions that enable millions of shoppers to seamlessly buy all the mushrooms they want. In fact, Pellow is part of a team building a personalization engine for Walmart Grocery that predicts whether a user is looking for mushrooms, or thousands of other products.
“It’s all about developing a long-term relationship,” he said. “What you eat is a deeply personal choice, and we’re building an experience that reflects that. Whether you’re enabling mushroom foragers or grocery shoppers, the more you know, the better you can serve them.”
The personalization engine powers home page customization as well as personalized search and browse, and is built into the checkout funnel. During checkout, it ingests information like shopping cart contents, past purchases and Walmart.com history on the fly. It can then suggest additional items shoppers might have forgotten they needed. This is called the Stock Up page.
“They didn’t realize, ‘oh, I’m out of paper towels, or I’m due to buy milk.’ But these are things we can help you remember based on the brands and products you’ve purchased in the past,” Pellow explained.
The system’s accuracy is evidenced in the high conversion rates on Stock Up and home page suggestions. But Pellow says much more is yet to come. Walmart Grocery’s most innovative work around personalization is still in the investigation phase. Pellow says multiple teams are exploring technology and techniques no other company are using.
In general, Walmart is surprisingly adept at staying ahead of the curve. All its new consumer-facing apps are written in React. AngularJS is considered legacy. That commitment to forward progress is one of Pellow’s favorite things about working there.
“If you want to find the cutting edge, look no further than Walmart Grocery. We’re in a phase of rebirth — throwing out the old, and embracing the new. We are making an enormous leap forward by working with, adding on and contributing back to the open-source movement,” he said. “We’re really pushing the bleeding edge.”
Over the phone, Pellow hardly contains his excitement about the work he’s currently embarked on and the work still to come. His passion is infectious and enviable.
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