Retailer Walmart has a 25,000-strong IT team and it is big on technology. Enterprise business services is effectively the IT department at the retail giant. Headed by senior vice-president David Glick, the department’s role is to support employees – or, to use Walmart terminology, “associates”.
“When you turn on your laptop, that’s part of enterprise business services,” says Glick. “When we close the books every quarter, that’s part of enterprise business services.”
The department also runs payroll. “We are involved with our associates’ lives on a daily basis. We lead all the technology that takes care of our associates,” he says.
Glick began his career 25 years ago at Amazon, where he was involved in infrastructure and setting up fulfilment centres. Looking back on this, he says: “It’s funny, nobody wanted to set up fulfilment centres, because supply chains weren’t cool 25 years ago.”
As Amazon Web Services (AWS) and the public cloud started to emerge, he moved into software. “At that time, I got the opportunity to move from infrastructure to software, and the boss who hired me said, ‘I have lots of people who can write code. What I need is people who can get things done’. That’s always stuck with me.
“I made the transition into automating systems at Amazon, to order inventory and do things like set prices.” In Glick’s experience, this not only works in operations, but it also works in enterprise business services.
When asked how Walmart competes for tech talent with the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft, Glick says: “For people who love technology, love operations in the physical world, and love taking care of customers, you can’t beat Walmart. We’re the biggest retailer and we are big in tech. Walmart is like one of the biggest tech firms – our technology is used by millions of associates every day.”
For lower-level positions, Glick uses recruiters who trawl LinkedIn and do searches. For more senior hires, he looks at his network. “That can be people you’ve worked with in the past or people who have been referred to you. I’ve met many amazing people and built a great network,” he says.
Build or buy
Under the leadership of chief technology officer (CTO) Suresh Kumar, Glick says Walmart has transitioned to building software in-house rather than taking the route of sending out a request for proposals (RFP) and bringing in software providers.
He says many off-the-shelf products are unable to meet the scale the business requires: “We need to be able to customise exactly what we need, and it needs to be resilient and stay up 100% of the time.”
“Generative AI comes up every single day – you read about it on Twitter, you hear people say it’s going to change the world and reduce headcount by 30%. But at Walmart, we’re actually trying to use it”
David Glick, Walmart
Glick says Walmart has invested a lot of dollars and engineer time in moving off the mainframe into the public cloud and its own premises cloud. “We have a platform called the Walmart Cloud Native platform, which we use to abstract away which cloud we’re on, or if we’re on a mainframe, or anything else, so that we can deploy software quickly,” he says. “That’s allowed us to move much more quickly with advancing our technology.”
One of those technologies is artificial intelligence (AI).
Looking at the noise across the industry surrounding AI, Glick says: “Obviously, generative AI comes up every single day and you can read about it on Twitter. You can hear people say it’s going to change the world and reduce headcount by 30%. But at Walmart, we’re trying to do is actually use it.”
Glick says that within Walmart’s enterprise business services team, there is a two-pronged approach to generative AI.
“One of the things we want to do is go from the top down and pick an application to see how it goes,” he says. As such, the company has developed an application to help augment the employee benefits helpdesk. It works by listening to employee questions and then helps the helpdesk agent provide answers. “Who’s better at memorising a 300-page benefits guide? Is it a computer or is it a person?”
Glick says the business is also taking a bottom-up approach to generative AI by “crowdsourcing ideas for generative AI”. Walmart has introduced an AI assistant as part of an app, providing what Glick sees as a “safe and IP-protected way” to try things out. “We can monitor those queries and monitor what they use the AI for, which tells us what’s important to our users,” he says.
This informs the enterprise business services team at Walmart on what purpose-built functionality to focus on. It has found that security and protecting the company’s intellectual property ( IP) are “super important”.
Walmart uses both public cloud providers and its own in-house generative AI technology stack. “It’s paramount for us that our user data or customer data and our IP stays within our firewall and isn’t used to train other datasets, so we spend a lot of time figuring out how to do that,” he says.
This effectively means Walmart needs to work very closely with its public cloud providers to ensure commercially sensitive data remains within the company’s network. But the company also runs its own graphical processing units (GPUs) for AI within Walmart datacentres.
Over time, Glick believes public cloud providers will have to come up with a way to protect IP out-of-the-box. “We’re right at the cutting edge of a generative AI, so we’re working very closely with both of our cloud providers to make sure that between what we have in guardrails and what they’re doing, none of our IP leaks into the public domain,” he says.
Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from the conversation with Walmart’s Glick is his acknowledgement that the industry does not have all the answers. Off-the-shelf software is unable to scale to the level required by Walmart, and the limitations of public cloud providers’ generative AI offerings means Walmart has had to build and manage its own enterprise systems and AI infrastructure.