'Four-in-a-Box has created the ability to be agile and fast'
Hari Vasudev, Senior VP and Country Head of Walmart Global Tech India, on how it is innovating continuously for Walmart across businesses and geographies.
Since 2007, Walmart Global Tech India (WGTI) has evolved into a strong technology and innovation hub for Walmart, the retail giant that clocked $555.2 billion in revenue in fiscal year ended January 31, 2021.
In this interview to EnterpriseStory, Hari Vasudev, Senior VP and Country Head of Walmart Global Tech India, describes Walmart's Four-in-a-Box model, how WGTI has expanded to employ more than 7,500 employees—and the genesis of Converge@Walmart.
EnterpriseStory: You have a front-seat view to so many Walmart markets from WGTI, and by extension to different applications of retail technology. Give us a sense of what you see.
Hari Vasudev: The Walmart Global Tech team in India is spread across three locations: Bengaluru, Chennai and Gurugram. One of the unique things about the India location is we have teams representing every part of the global technology organisation.
Therefore, we are working across the entire gamut of technologies that are used in providing services and products for customers across many different markets.
In many ways, it gives us a very unique perspective of how those technologies are helping shape businesses in different markets. It also allows us to focus a lot on what’s essentially been Walmart’s strategy—even inside global tech—which is to build foundational capabilities and basic building blocks, and drive more leverage for the business globally.
By virtue of having all these teams working closely under one roof, it also allows us to look at how we can derive benefits for one part of organisation from work that is going on in another part of the organisation.
Of course, India has a vibrant technology ecosystem. There is so much innovation going on with regards to consumer behaviour in retail that being in this location allows our global technology teams—our engineers working on those products—to also think about how we can build things from India that will serve our customers across the globe, whether it is Mexico, Canada, Chile, or South Africa.
These are all markets for which we are building technologies from India.
EnterpriseStory: You have headed WGTI for four years now. How long did it take you to understand the complexity of problems from region to region?
Hari Vasudev: A lot of what has been happening to the business since I started at WGTI is bringing together the online and offline parts of the business—bringing the technology teams to be truly omni-channel.
If you look at the evolution that has happened—both on the technology and business sides—in the past four years, the teams are becoming a lot more omni-channel. We are no longer working across rigid boundaries between ecommerce (online) and the brick-and-mortar business (offline).
Increasingly, the idea is to put the customer front and centre—to think back from what the customer needs. Customers are looking to have an experience that is very seamless, has very little friction. The experience needs to factor in when they want their orders, where they want it, and how they want it.
So, it is incumbent on us to make sure that the technologies that we are building essentially cater to that customer demand. To be available where the customer wants it, and when they want it using multiple delivery channels.
For example, if a customer orders something, he may choose to have it shipped to his home, or choose to drive to a store and pick it up—especially because 90 percent of households in the United States live within 10 miles of a store—or, they may choose to pick it up from a store on their way back from work.
Or, if the customer chooses to return a product, he could just drive to the nearest store, drop it off, and walk away with an immediate refund. More and more customers are thinking about the shopping experience in a very seamless way.
"What we want to do is to be there wherever the customer wants us to be, and use the basic building blocks of technology to build those seamless, frictionless experiences for our customers."
With COVID-19, a lot of those behaviours have accelerated. As customers have been more home bound, their needs—for household and dairy goods, consumables, and even pharmacy products—and the need to be able to have those things delivered to them, or ready for a pickup from a nearby store without any contact has become even more critical.
We have scaled up those capabilities a lot during the pandemic to be able to serve our customers in a frictionless way.
EnterpriseStory: Even within Walmart, there has been a change in the technology organisation in the past two years. What has changed?
Hari Vasudev: If you look at Walmart five years ago, we had started to make investments in ecommerce. Originally, they were separate from the very large and scalable brick-and-mortar Walmart business.
At the time, we wanted the online business to grow rapidly and independently in terms of growth.
But, what we increasingly realised was that the customer really doesn’t care whether it’s online or offline. Those boundaries are not meaningful to the customer. We focused on creating omni-channel capabilities and experiences for customers, which means our approach to technology has also changed.
So, we have brought our technology and product stacks across these two parts of the business to be a lot more singular and merged.
"In the past two or three years, we have focused on a few key things. One, building foundational capabilities or building blocks that can scale very well and deliver omni-channel experiences to our customers."
And in order to be able to do that effectively, we also needed to focus on accelerating the modernisation work that will allow the business to grow faster.
Our mantra has always been around innovating with agility for the business, which means we need a very modern tech stack with foundational capabilities, which can be used in different parts of the business and different geographies.
Ultimately, we want to be able to use those capabilities to continuously improve the customer experience. So, we work very closely with the business teams, measure the efficacy of everything we put out, and focus on continuous improvement.
During the pandemic, we have innovated for contactless delivery, which allows our associates in the last mile to be able to leave the ordered goods at the customer’s doorstep, and ensure that the customer knows that the items have been left there.
We created special shopping hours for high-risk groups like senior citizens to be able to shop at our stores, in our warehouse clubs, while ensuring they are safe. We also allowed customers to come and pick up items from the curbside without having to come inside a store.
These innovations were rolled out on top of the foundational building blocks and capabilities within weeks and, in some cases, in a matter of days, at scale.
EnterpriseStory: If the pandemic required you to build products in shorter time lines and from India, what is the framework at WGTI to ensure this happened seamlessly?
Hari Vasudev: Two things have really helped. Our focus has always been to create very empowered and cross-functional teams, no matter where they are.
So, product, design, technology and, in some cases, operations work very closely. As we have scaled up our teams in India, we have paid particular attention to make sure we are not building teams with just engineers in them.
We have hired product managers. We have a product management team that is as strong—in terms of numbers and skillsets—as the team sitting in the US.
We have invested significantly in building design capabilities, whether it is in our international segment, Sam’s Club segment, or global technology itself. We have also invested in hiring senior architects, principal architects, data scientists, and so on.
"Investing in cross-functional teams has enabled us to take end-to-end ownership and accountability for all aspects of the product or service we are developing."
We are able to move at a very quick pace without having to worry about a 12-hour time difference. And globally, we have created this construct of Four-in-a-Box to create a very strong cross-functional leadership team.
This typically includes a member each from technology, product, design, and business operations, and can provide leadership on every aspect of the product or experience without having to go back to their constituent leadership.
As a cross-functional team, they are fully empowered to look at all the data that is coming in, and take decisions that are most apt for that particular product or service.
The Four-in-a-Box construct has created the ability to be very agile, nimble, learn continuously, measure what we are doing, and then apply that learning to continuously evolve our products and services.
EnterpriseStory: What was the catalyst for Converge@Walmart?
Hari Vasudev: Suresh Kumar (Walmart’s Executive Vice President, Global CTO, and Chief Development Officer) joined the company in July 2019. He visited India in November that year, and again in January 2020, before the lockdown began here.
During his second visit to India, he was very keen to tap into the broader India talent ecosystem. He is one of the key folks who wanted us to look at expanding in India in a really big way—both in terms of the technology teams, and by growing in the right way.
The idea is to make sure that we are building full teams that have complete ownership, and are accountable for what they own. He was very focused on creating a strong brand for Walmart Global Tech in India.
WGTI has been at the forefront of tech innovation for Walmart, and the retail space. Given that we have been working closely with our partners in the larger ecosystem across businesses and across the globe, we wanted to talk about the opportunities for the broader ecosystem to come and partner with WGTI to work and deliver their innovations to a global customer base.
"The startup ecosystem in India has tonnes of innovation happening in a very constrained market. If a startup is able to innovate and develop services for India, the likelihood of success in other markets is very high."
From a technology landscape, innovation from India can be relevant to other global markets like South Africa, Chile and Mexico.
There is obviously a lot of focus on India itself because of Walmart’s investment in Flipkart and PhonePe. They are run as separate entities, and are doing a fantastic job of innovating for the India market.
The idea was also how do we leverage innovation that is happening in the broader ecosystem in India through WGTI, and make that available for other markets of Walmart’s businesses.
Converge@Walmart summed up omni-channel retail, of how online and offline are converging to create a very unique experience. It is also about how we can create a convergence between our technology teams and the broader ecosystem to derive and deliver the benefits of that to our global customer base.
Technology is playing a major role in not just retail, but also the adjacent spaces like fintech, advertising, marketplace, or data commercialisation. Retail by itself is very broad-based—supply chain, merchandising, sourcing, pricing, demand forecasting, customer experiences.
The idea of Converge@Walmart is to create a forum for a broad-based set of conversations around how technology is shaping not just retail, but also the adjacencies—and how technology will be a game changer for any company.
We want this to be an annual platform with visibility to the ecosystem who can partner with us to take their products and services globally.