Walmart touts career possibilities in technology to Northwest Arkansas students

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,183 views 

A Northwest Arkansas high school student tests a virtual reality headset trying to pick an item off of a Walmart store shelf as other students watched on screen. The exercise took place at Walmart’s Career Exploration Day for STEM-related professions on Wednesday at the retailer’s home office in Bentonville. Walmart uses VR technology to train employees at the store level.

Roughly 40 high school students from Northwest Arkansas took part in Walmart’s first career exploration event for STEM-related professions on Wednesday (June 26) at the retailer’s home office in Bentonville. The participants were the children of Walmart employees or close family of employees who were invited to take part in the day-long event.

Walmart said 50 invitations were sent and 38 students took part in learning about the technology being used at Walmart, from virtual reality and self-driving cars to automation and robotics, architecture and 3D modeling. A session on voice technology was closed to the media as was a presentation by Mark Ibbotson, executive vice president of realty and central operations at Walmart.

Daniel Shepherd, a senior manager of customer experience at Walmart, spoke to the students about the retail giant’s use of virtual reality in training. He said each store has between two and four virtual reality headsets that do not require a computer to operate. Shepherd said VR has been used in the training academies to simulate events like Black Friday or hazardous spill clean-up but more recently the technology has also been used to access whether an employee is ready for promotion, by putting them in situations and then evaluating their reactions through the use of VR.

Shepherd said he began his career at Walmart 11 years ago as an hourly employee to fill a gap while he looked for a teaching job shortly after graduating with a biology degree from Texas A&M University.

He told the students a job that was supposed to last three months has ended up being an interesting career at Walmart. Shepherd spent five years working in stores through the management ranks before transferring to the talent growth program out in the field, which was eventually replaced by the Walmart academies.

For the past several years, Shepherd has worked on the customer experience team where he helped to develop Spark City, a video gaming application that is used by employees to ready them for promotions to department manager and up the ladder.

He said Walmart made the game available to the public in Apple’s App Store and Google Play. While the gaming developed by Walmart thus far has been for internal training, Shepherd said there are plans to develop gaming content in the future that could be sold.

Walmart announced in October it was exploring other revenue streams with content it creates or has created for resale with a partnership with U.S. movie studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer. The content would be streamed on-demand on Vudu. Walmart acquired Vudu in 2010 has not yet focused on original content streaming. Walmart said the move was not to create television shows, but is more in line with boosting its video-on-demand business and offering family-friendly programming for customers in rural areas.

Rachel Griffin, a senior manager of autonomous transportation at Walmart, talked to the students about Walmart’s use of self-driving vehicles to move online grocery pickup orders from the pickup dark store on I Street down Walton Boulevard to the Neighborhood Market also on I Street where they are picked up by customers.

Using what she called a hub and spoke model, the autonomous vehicles are programmed to take a certain path, but because they are autonomous they can move around obstacles. Griffin began her career at Walmart on the merchandising team and worked in apparel before transferring to the autonomous vehicle team. Her advice for students was to not be afraid to pivot and new jobs as opportunities present themselves.

Ragen Turner, a fulfillment engineer for systems and technology at Walmart, told the students she always knew she wanted to be an engineer, but she started her career at Walmart as a replenishment manager in 2015. She said by mid-2016 she was setting up and running the automation in fulfillment centers. That technology includes autonomous robots as well as robotic machines like the new storage bot used in Walmart Store No. 5260 in Rogers for the busy online grocery business.

The team that works in 3D design and modeling spoke about how Walmart uses VR modeling to plan out store modulars.

“It takes us about a week to build out a virtual store in 3D and to build one, in reality, takes an average of three years,” said Kendall Wilcox, one of five employees working on the 3D modeling team for Walmart. “Virtual reality is the future for how we get things, but for now, we reside within the merchandising division and our work mainly revolves around store planning and layout.”

Several students got to try the VR headsets that put them in a store setting. They were told to try to pick up items off the virtual shelves. The task was more difficult than it seemed.

Wilcox said the 3D modeling his team does involves four architects and one coder. He told the students there are shorter routes to his job than the one he took which involved a five-year architecture degree. His advice was for students interested in 3D modeling was to learn the software and be able to write code in Unity or C++, the two programs Walmart uses the most.

The last session open to the media involved a presentation from project managers who made a case for students wanting to direct the flow and take projects from start to finish. Karen Slatton, a project manager in Walmart’s reality division, said she oversees projects such as the addition of 500 more self-checkouts coming to stores this year. The units are built internally by Walmart. Other jobs include overseeing the construction of a new fulfillment center or replacing the roofs on existing stores.

Slatton said the role of a project manager is a taskmaster who can excel at relationships. As a civil engineer herself, Slatton said it is possible for project managers to be directly involved in a project in some capacity as well as being responsible for the oversight of the entire job.

She told the students not to get unhung on what job title they want to do someday, but think about what they really love doing and then try and find a way to make their profession. Slatton said Walmart is a huge company and there are vast opportunities to grow careers inside the business, no matter which path they choose after high school.