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WHRT 2019: How agile innovated Walmart’s hiring

The masterminds of Walmart's new ATS shared their story at the closing session of the Women in HR Tech Summit.
By: | October 1, 2019 • 4 min read
The closing session of the Women in HR Tech Summit featured remarks by Walmart’s Andrea Overholt, recruiting engineering director (from left); Nerissa McQuilkin, technical product owner for global recruiting technology; Kali Hayes, product owner for hiring; and Katie Taylor, senior director of software engineering, global talent systems. (Photo by Isaac Brekken for Human Resource Executive)

For four years, technologists at Walmart worked with a third-party vendor to design, iterate, build and test a new applicant-tracking system—yet, just four weeks before rollout, the project came to a screeching halt.

Katie Taylor, senior director of software engineering in global talent systems at Walmart, told conference-goers at the Women in HR Tech Summit—the opening event of the HR Technology Conference & Exposition in Las Vegas—that, when she came into her new role last year, she examined the project’s operational KPIs and system performance data. She determined that it wouldn’t be able to scale past the small group of 300 stores in which it was being piloted.

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“It was four years’ worth of work, a significant investment, massive training and change management lived, [and] full-blown communication to every facility in the field,” Taylor said about the challenges ahead of the team. The first thing they did was assess if the current path was recoverable—and were told it would take a full year to get back on track with the rebuilding work they needed.

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“We re-established our non-negotiables with our business partners, gathered top cross-functional talent all in one room and stayed there until we had a plan,” Taylor said. “What was the plan? We were going to build [the ATS].”

Building a new ATS in a set timeframe of 12 weeks would be no small feat—especially one designed to accommodate the hiring volume Walmart has: 40 million visitors to its corporate career site annually and 1.2 million employees across 4,200 stores in the U.S.

Doing so required a shift from a “waterfall” model of system development to agile.

“With agile, teams are resourced and structured in a much different way,” explained Nerissa McQuilkin, technical product owner for global recruiting technology at Walmart. “It’s more of an iterative process that allows for the ability to adapt to change processes, therefore meeting the needs of the business as they also change.”

To make agile a reality, the team decided to assemble the business-end users with the IT team in a “war room,” so that users could provide feedback and explain use cases immediately, as technologists developed the product. “That way, we could get decisions and design done rapidly,” said McQuilkin. They also brought in representatives from legal, compliance and UX. “Colocation—having all of these skills in the same room—was going to be key to the success of this project.”

At the start of each day, everyone on the project got together for 15 minutes and took turns sharing what they accomplished the day before, what they were planning to tackle that day and any challenges getting in their way.

“If you build it, you also support it,” added Andrea Overholt, Walmart recruiting engineering director. “There’s no throwing things over the wall for somebody else to worry about. Technical teams have to be fully integrated to see the health of the whole; how can you elevate a product if you don’t have a comprehensive view of the product?”

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The team ultimately met its 12-week goal. Kali Hayes, product owner for hiring at Walmart, said the architects of the ATS were particularly nervous about how the product would be received by the 300 stores that had piloted the previous iteration of the third-party-designed ATS—but they ultimately responded that the new solution more effectively met their most pressing needs.

“When it takes four years to deliver on a solution, it’s difficult to make sure that you’re solving for the pain points that your customers are experiencing along the way,” Hayes said. “The best thing that could have happened in our hiring space was that [original proposed ATS] failing.”

So, what does the new ATS look like? The application process has six steps to help gather candidate information—no resumes are required, as the team said many job candidates don’t typically use traditional resumes. Candidates can select the locations at which they’d want to work and then dive into the eight job families at Walmart—learning about each on custom pages that also include “day in the life of”-type videos showcasing real Walmart employees. From there, applicants can explore which job titles are available by store within each job family—and multi-select to apply for several at once. They’re prompted to provide real-time feedback about the process at the end of the application. A candidate-tracker system adds a level of self-service so applicants can stay apprised of their status and to enhance the candidate experience.

“Were there issues and failures along the way? Just a few,” laughed Taylor about the team’s journey to the new ATS. “But, the thing about failure—or, as we call it at Walmart, opportunity—is how you react to it. [React] fast, and teach your teams to do the same. Take your learnings and incorporate them into the next iteration. Did we know we’d be successful in choosing the path we did? No. It was one of the most stressful career moments in my life, but in the end, it was worth it—and we delivered what our customers needed.”

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]

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