The supply of software developers in Northwest Arkansas hasn’t met the demand, leading companies to look outside the area to fill the talent gap. But technology executives for Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services and Bentonville-based retailer Walmart said if they can get that talent here to show them the area, they are often convinced to take a position with the company.
Gaven Smith, vice president of engineering and technology for J.B. Hunt, and David Morales, senior director of software engineering for Walmart, were among a panel of five IT executives who took questions about their business as it related to technology, software programming platforms and recruiting efforts for their Northwest Arkansas companies. The NWA Tech Panel was a two-part segment of the Nowhere Developers conference hosted Thursday (March 15) at the Record in downtown Bentonville. The aim of the conference was to attract developers from outside the region to work and live in Northwest Arkansas along with creating a network for them in which to tap.
“Once you get them to Northwest Arkansas and you can explain this culture and sell this area, it sells itself,” Smith said. “Especially when you get down to cost of living, when you are competing against the Googles and the Amazons, that’s something you’ve got to push is the culture and cost of living — just the quality of life that’s available here in Northwest Arkansas.”
Kanat Bekt, software engineer at SupplyPike in Fayetteville, said the idea for the conference stemmed from challenges the supply chain technology company faced in recruiting talent. The conference had 230 registered attendees, with another 50 people on a wait list but weren’t able to attend because of space restrictions. Whether the conference will be an annual event has yet to be determined.
Bekt and Michael Paladino, chief technology officer at software development company RevUnit in Bentonville, asked the panelists questions before attendees had the opportunity to ask. Along with Smith and Morales, the panel included Mark Brandon, CEO and co-founder of Qbox and creator of Supergiant; Shawn McDermott, manager of software engineering for Collective Bias; and TJ Sangam, chief technology officer for SupplyPike.
Walmart Labs, the retail giant’s technology segment, uses software from Cobalt to “the highest distributed systems you can imagine,” Morales said. The business segment does a lot of data mining, works on the cloud and looks for open source and distributed systems.
“Our objective is to bring artificial intelligence to the stores.”
J.B. Hunt is working to migrate from mainframes to the cloud and to automate its systems to allow the company to continue to grow without having to add buildings, Smith said. The carrier recently began construction on a 132,883-square-foot Training and Technology Center that would allow for more than 1,000 occupants.
The company has about 1,100 IT employees, and more than 500 of them are software developers. Over the past year, the company has doubled the number of developers it employs, he said. Two years ago, the company hired former Microsoft executive Stuart Scott as the company’s chief information officer. “You don’t hire a former Microsoft CIO unless you want to change your game and step up.”
PRODUCTS, NOT PROJECTS
Walmart Labs doesn’t do projects, Morales said. It focuses on products, and its engineers work in small teams of eight to 12 people, working on one product.
“We are looking for people to ask the question, ‘Why not?” he said.
J.B. Hunt is working to improve the agility of its software developers, Smith said. They must be prepared to throw away the menu after three months of working on a project if needed. As the developers have begun to find success, they are buying into the agile mindset. This has allowed them to see a change as it’s coming.
“We separate the what and the why from the how and the when,” Smith said.
Each team has six developers and an associate manager who runs the team daily. In May, the company plans to add 40 new developers. It also has about 25 interns, and finding new talent has been a struggle, with Smith saying the “supply is nowhere near the demand.”
SupplyPike, as a smaller organization, is flat in its hierarchy, Sangam said. And this has allowed its junior developers to express dissent more easily. Also, the company has a robust intern development program, and its hire rate is between 60% and 70%. Because of the pace of change in the technology industry, it focuses 10% of its time on research and development and has tried new software to see if it will work better than older software. It’s invested into blockchain, which is a distributed ledger that cannot be amended unless all parties of it agree to the changes, and SupplyPike recently launched Ship, the first transportation marketplace to accept cryptocurrency bitcoin, Sangam said.
Collective Bias in Rogers, purchased in 2016 by North Carolina-based retail technology firm Inmar Inc., underwent changes in the merger such as the addition of a chief technology officer, McDermott said. The company didn’t have the position previously.
Qbox was established five years ago and has 14 employees, Brandon said. As a result of its size, the company cannot say ‘yes’ to a lot of things. The company has two people to whom employees report, and new employees start as a support engineer before advancing. One thing the company doesn’t do is overwork its employees as it doesn’t see any more productivity from an employee working 70 hours a week as an employee who works 40 hours per week.
“We pay market wages,” Brandon said. “There’s no Arkansas discount. There’s no startup discount at Qbox. We don’t do the chair massages or foosball tables. Those are just ways to get you to stay for four more hours.”