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EPISODE 099 : 02/02/2023

Sravana Kumar Karnati

We welcome Sravana Kumar Karnati to the podcast today. Sravana is the SVP and CTO at Walmart International, the world’s largest big box retailer. He has a strong background not only in retail and technology, but also in agile methodologies and software development. Sravana is a former Amazon executive with experience managing global teams and leading technology transformation with a focus on improving IT service levels, product quality testing, and customer satisfaction.

Host: Ned Hayes and Kira Cleveland
Guest: Sravana Kumar Karnati

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Topics discussed in this episode

  • A programmer’s mindset around business requirements for retail
  • Scaling businesses from Amazon to Disney to Expedia to Walmart. 
  • Digital transformation at Walmart
  • The continued relevancy of physical stores in a changing retail environment
  • How small retailers can create world-class experiences by focusing on the customer

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Audio Transcript

Ned Hayes [00:00:00] Welcome to Spark Plug, where we talk to smart people working at the intersection of business and technology brought to you by SnowShoe, your smarter loyalty leader.

Ned Hayes [00:00:12] Sparkplug is excited to welcome Sravana Kumar Karnati to the podcast today. Sravana is the chief technology officer at Walmart International, the world’s largest big box retailer. Sravana has a strong background not only in retail, in technology, but also in agile methodologies and software development at scale. He’s a former Amazon executive with experience managing global teams and leading technology transformation. So welcome, Sravana. Really happy to have you here. 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:00:37] Really great to be here with you. And it’s been a while since we were together. Good to see you. 

Ned Hayes [00:00:42] Absolutely. Well, I think, Kira, you wanted to have the first question with Sravana.

Kira Cleveland: Yes, absolutely. You know, I’m fascinated by your journey that you’re started in tech as a software engineer, yet you now help run a global business. How do you bring a programmer’s mindset to business matters? Or alternatively, do you bring a business perspective to software architect? 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:01:03] Yeah, you’re next meeting as well. It’s a great question. You know, I get my my team all the time that to be a good software engineer, first of all, you need to understand your business. And if you understand your customer, then you need to understand your product and then your systems and in that order, explain. So I always had business on my, you know, on my radar always, and curious about how business worked and what customers needed in each industry that I went to. And those things have not changed. And, and to be successful, I think we need to continue to ask software developers and we need to continue to start to pay attention to the customer and the business needs. 

Ned Hayes [00:01:44] And as you know, we both started our career in different places. We worked together in the past, but you started as a software engineer and you had engineering management roles at Disney, Oracle, Amazon, and so now you’re in kind of a pole position at Walmart International. So how did all these various roles inform your current position in what you do today? 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:02:03] Yeah, that’s a great question. And that’s I would say, you know, I had increases in jobs or increases in scope as I went through my journey because I’ve been focused on customers something constant and they need me. So the business is something constant. But fundamentally, as software engineers and as business people, what we all do is to solve problems on a daily basis. So and that’s what I’ve done in the school when I got my engineering degree and then continued on in my early job and later in my profession as well. And that has not changed. And what has changed is the scope and complexity and the number of variables that I deal with. To answer the question very specifically as to what, you know, how how my experience at Amazon and other companies in Disney, etc. inform the work that I do. I always said, you know, at Amazon, I learned how to count numbers and how to run a business at Oracle. I learned how to deal with scale because the ERP system that they built that I was part of was massive and that you really needed to know many aspects of the history of the products that they had to be successful. And at Disney, I came very close to infrastructure and learned a lot about cloud at lower level media technologies, media play and frameworks and content distribution and so forth and all of that. That sort of helped me when I went to Expedia as a studio for one of the IT brands. And then my journey subsequently to that has been one of scale and solving new problems and new industries and dealing with more global sort of scale and so forth. And so it’s been a good journey. 

Kira Cleveland: [00:03:51] That’s fantastic. And it’s great that you can point to some specific things on how you gathered great experience throughout your journey for the position you hold now. I’m also intrigued by the fact that you hold a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. What what was the path that took you from chemical engineering to your current position? 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:04:11] Yeah, it’s a question that I get once in a while. And in fact, I was at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering when I went to wake up with BHP, asked me to come and give a keynote speech at one of the events Graduate Research Symposium. And this is the same question that they asked as well. You know, I would say, you know, I’ve not carefully programed my my career to to do chemical engineering first and decide to go into technology and become the CTO at some point. You know, like many people say, my advice to people would be, you know, be open constantly, you know, learn to be curious and be flexible because, you know, life takes you in directions that you may not be, may or may not have anticipated. And as new opportunities come up, don’t be afraid to take risks and embrace those opportunities. But, you know, in fact, chemical engineering is is a really solid degree. If I have to redo my career, I would do it again. I learned a lot of math, a lot of logic, a lot of problems. Solving. And a lot of the mad that we did that I learned and applied in chemical engineering back then are also the same math that goes into machine learning and AI and so forth. So there is a lot of applicability of what I learned in chemical engineering degree to problems I saw do in the industry, be it in our planning, scheduling of refinery operations or inventory optimization problems, test allocation type problems, and and now more recently, AI and ML. 

Kira Cleveland: [00:05:42] That’s really fascinating, the fact that math is the same all the way down, right? I mean, it’s the same, same sort of math that you’re able to apply in chemical engineering, in machine learning. That’s really interesting. So I’m curious if we could turn the focus from you to Walmart itself. I mean, Walmart is a huge business. It’s probably the most successful retailer on the planet today. So I’ll just ask the obvious question, why does retail matter? What keeps you motivated to continue to deliver excellence for Walmart? 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:06:11] Yeah, it’s it’s a great way to ask the question why does retail matter? And I would say one of the you know, our primary purpose and mission in our company is to help people live better lives by saving them money. Right. And we we live by it. We talk about low cost and everyday low price for our customers. So I think retail matters because we offer retail industry offers and choice to customers and access to products and services to customers. And if we do it right, you know, you can bring the prices or you can optimize the prices such that people can actually live better. So that’s why, you know, it really matters. And Walmart has done that for four decades and will continue to do so. 

Ned Hayes [00:06:59] Yeah, such a fantastic vision and focus there. I’m really interested in Walmart’s continued dominance even through the pandemic. You know, you joined Walmart a couple months before the pandemic started. So how did Walmart survive and even thrive during that time? What what steps did you and your team take to ensure that Walmart could keep offering retail services during that time of change? 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:07:19] Right. Yeah, so that’s a good question. So, you know, I joined the company in 2020, right before the pandemic hit and nobody could have predicted what is I got into, I myself thought it would be a 6 to 8 week deal and we’ll all be back to normal. You know, it took almost three, three years to really get some sort of normalcy, I think. So the way Walmart, you know, thrived during the pandemic is by really focusing on the customer. When it’s their customer, it is not just the customer who is getting into the stores, are ordering online. It is it is also our partners. It is also our associates. And at Walmart is, you know, 2.1 to 2.2 million associates strong. And we have a large population of associates and, you know, take care of your associates. Well, then they take care of our customers well. So we focused on these personas. And you know, something that Walmart has been doing for a while now is be focused on digital transformation, bringing advanced technologies to the solve retail problems. And as the saying goes, I guess, you know, opportunity and preparation, you know, coming together. So, you know, we prepared really well, I believe and Walmart is really awesome at pulling together a team of people, teams of people to solve problems. You know, we’ve done that during, you know, issues like Katrina and so forth. And so we’ve got a long history of doing that. And so we were able to quickly respond to the pandemic and in some cases adapt our technologies very quickly to meet the needs of the pandemic era. 

Ned Hayes [00:08:58] Right. And the thing about the pandemic is it’s not a single event. But as you mentioned, I mean, I also thought it would be over in six weeks. And here we are three years later, still grappling with it. But it’s not a one time event. It has come in waves. And Walmart then had to reopen and shift gears. So. So how did you deal with that kind of shifting that cultural shift away from in-person shopping and back to in-person shopping? That must’ve required a lot of load balancing in terms of payment and technology. 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:09:28] It did it. It was complex. We didn’t know what is going to happen. And, you know, pandemic did not hit everybody globally equally at the same time, right after we started seeing the effects of that in China. So we have a thriving business in China. So we learned from our market leaders over there what it means to respond to the pandemic. And, you know, and that’s okay. So it’s not the entire Walmart scale all at the same time. And then we started to sort of learn from that, adapt our methodologies and then propagate to the rest of the globe, whether it’s Argentina, Chile and Mexico and U.S.. Etc.. And so that that sort of learning from each other internally, you know, looking at the data and we do have chief medical officer and a strong team under them that that can decide for, you know, what this thing is and advises on what we need to do. And we had technologies such as a mobile checking that people didn’t want to, you know, couldn’t come into the store. But, you know, we have technology where as you come into the parking lot, you know, we can we can know that you’re there and the associate will rush to you and the contactless manner, you know, drop off the stuff in your in your trunk and and, you know, finish the kind of the, you know, transaction. So that is that is one example of that in in in in the stores and our distribution centers and so forth. You know, we needed to make sure that our associates have the time to care for this to their customers because of this increased sort of an A workload. And we rolled out technologies that improve productivity of our associates in the stores and distribution centers that allowed them to sort of do more with the same number of associates. So these these these kinds of, you know, capabilities and productivity enhancing tools helped our associates. And we’ve been also, you know, improving our strength in e-commerce and investing heavily over the past few years in e-commerce technologies. And, you know, the pandemic hit and scale on e-commerce grew. And we were able to sustain all of that and do really well because of these investments. 

Ned Hayes [00:11:42] Right. Right. Your comment at the beginning that reminded me in terms of the pandemic hitting in different ways and different effects, reminded me of William Gibson’s famous comment that the future is already here, but it is unevenly distributed. Right. So different countries, different geographies, experience this the same events very differently, and experience e-commerce and and all of these technological changes differently. 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:12:07] Absolutely. Absolutely. At once. And it’s it’s it’s a great way to think about that. 

Kira Cleveland: [00:12:12] You know so kind of looking at the future and past. Walmart is famous for starting a mom and pop shop and growing into the world’s largest retailer. I imagine that every time a company like that builds layers of technology that accumulate bugs and issues and dependencies, you know, how how do you deal with that accrued tech debt? As a senior person in technology, what’s the balance of tech debt versus new features? 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:12:35] Yeah, I a great question. I sometimes joke, you know, when a developer has a project, they already have better ways of doing it. So so there’s always more work and more architecture opportunities. I think again, I go back to what does the business need, what do the customers need? And I’m going to have a sort of product roadmap that is not just focused on and applied platforms and technology, but but take the customer, you know, initiatives and the platform initiatives, all of that into into focus and create and create a holistic roadmap that works because tech that depending on what kind of tech that you’re talking about in my view, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, you know, you still need to think about what is the cost of that can take that and how is that, you know, impacting the business? Does it impact the business or, you know, does it take more in a short term fixes or, you know, more more operational rigor to deal with some of the issues? But then you’re you’re insulating the customer from the impacts of it. Obviously, there are also a large, you know, architectural initiatives that into thinking about to prepare your platform for the longer term because you don’t know what business requirements you might have in the future. And what you need to have to be successful is not only sort of highly resilient and flexible workforce, but also a platform that is composed of sort of easily composable, you know, microservices, if you will, that can be put together very quickly to solve new problems. So I think, you know, you do need to focus on that long term as well, but need to take a look at all of those things through a business plan, through a finance lens and prioritize. And we’ve been doing that. We’ve got modernization initiative that we launched very recently, and some of our systems have been there for decades and they’re still doing really good work. And it speaks to the strength of those developers and and to have a vision to do it in such a way, using those tools at the time that they still do very useful work for us and we are highly dependent on them. But in some of those cases, we realize we need to modernize and again, to be more flexible, you know, in the future. So we have a number of programs where in each of the segments, whether it is US international, where I belong, or we have modernization initiatives in each of our areas to prepare for the future. And that’s that’s a constant. 

Kira Cleveland: [00:15:10] Continually rolling the ball forward. Right. So since you’ve been at Walmart, I’m just curious if you could discuss some of the major wins for your teams at Walmart International? And what are you very proud of in terms of your team’s accomplishment? 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:15:24] I think the you know, what I’m really, really proud of is the team. I would say just right off the bat. We’ve got an incredible team. We’ve got product managers, developers, engineers, you know, system engineers and so forth, data scientists and whatnot, because I’m proud of the team that we have very strong and distributed across seven locations at Walmart International in technology and technology for which I live is there’s a quite complex ecosystem where we we are in four continents, 22 countries, 54 banners, 5250 plus stores and you know, 550,000 associates. And revenues for international combined is more than $100 billion. Right. And we are modernizing the technology stack. As we said, we’re launching new capabilities for our customers. We’d also divesting of some of the businesses that would that we felt would be would try and do even better in a different in a management structure. So we’re it’s a complex ecosystem, you know, with all of these things going on. What I’m most proud of, the team that that we have, I’m most proud of how we took care of our customers, especially during the pandemic. I’m very proud of how quickly we strengthened our e-commerce in each of these geographies and launched the marketplace and Walmart for treatment by, you know, Walmart fulfillment services that lets sellers use the Walmart fulfillment capability to fulfill orders. And we launched our last mile capability for our for our clients that we can very flexibly, you know, deliver for them. And so I can go on and on. But it’s all starts with people and we’ve got tremendous talent on the team. So that’s what I’m most proud of. 

Kira Cleveland: [00:17:11] That’s fantastic. And that’s a lot to be proud of. Thanks for sharing that. What are some of the biggest changes in the Walmart international ecosystem with regards to customer satisfaction and technology? Like how do customer requests influence your technology decision? 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:17:27] Yeah, So we have, you know, product management teams both in the centers. So the way we’re structured is each market has its own technology and product team that either directly or indirectly report to me. And we also have, you know, product and engineering teams and UX teams in the center. So it’s it’s we we cannot given the complexity of the ecosystem, we cannot do all of this from the center, if you will. And so and our strategy really is strong local businesses powered by Walmart. And so true to that, we we travel to our markets very frequently and I’m on the road barely very, very often. And my Q1 calendar is already booked and Q2 partially is booked with a lot of travel. And we we work very closely with the market business stakeholders and the in-market product teams as well to understand what does the customer need in the market. Now retail is retail and the broad problem is that what we are trying to do is just by the there are nuances in in each of the markets, which are the markets. So for example, in Mexico, 40% of the population is not able to shop for basic baskets. But imagine that 40% of the population cannot afford basic baskets and many of them don’t have an account bank account and they’re on back and they’re ignored by the major institutions. And I already said, our problem is our mission is to help people live better lives. And so initially we started with offering access to products, affordable products. We continue to do that. But now we expanded that in in Mexico and in U.S. as well, to offer other other services and build out an ecosystem of services around those customers so we can do more for the customer. And a part of that was offering services, affordable Internet services in Mexico, right, Because many of those customers did not have mobile access to the Internet, was very expensive for them. So we found a way to offer inexpensive Internet services for those customers, then train them by putting kiosks in and in the stores to get them used to the idea of e-commerce ordering online. And now they are many of them have switched over to mobile and they’re there independently, you know, using those tools to do to do what they need to do. So so this just shows just an example of one example of how we we listen to our market needs, our customers in the market, and adapt our strategies and solutions for that market. And I started up powered by Wal-Mart and. It’s at the end of the day, retail is retail. You know, you’ve got sourcing, you know, merchandizing, you’ve got store operations, e-commerce and distribution centers, supply chain management, etc. Not to be forgotten in real estate, which is a big deal here. So all of those elements are present in each of the markets. So we don’t want to reinvent the wheel just because, you know, some there are some nuances in the requirements. So we we, we then partner with the U.S. and assistance U.S. teams to adapt their technologies and then stand on those stories, if you will, and then take it further for our market. And so that’s what we want. 

Ned Hayes [00:20:47] Well, so the company that we both work for, Snowshoe provides loyalty solutions. Spark loyalty is one of the leading solutions. So, of course, we care about loyalty. So I’m curious if you could discuss a little bit about Wal-Mart’s loyalty program. Can you tell us about Wal-Mart plans and Wal-Mart Rewards and how they might work in your context? 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:21:05] Yeah. So the Wal-Mart first of all, we are an ideal company. And what that means is that every low price, right? So we call it doing great job in retail, actually, in any business is to have the customer trust that the customer across you to treat them fairly for consistency and prices and quality and treat their data properly. So, you know, so the ideal piece is very core to winning that customer trust in the way we see it. But we do have Wal-Mart Plus in our program and we do have Wal-Mart rewards. That is also paired with that. And what this is, is it is really a the ability to sort of, you know, get products delivered, you know, very quickly so that you can you can subscribe to on a monthly basis that on a on a yearly basis at the earliest, $90 or so and monthly is strong 95 in the U.S. And then once you subscribe, then you have free shipping and three day shipping or whatever shipping speed is available. And you also have some access to some other, you know, promotional services, if you will. So, for example, you know, Paramount Streaming, you know, the basic streaming is available through that. There is a recently we announced free Spotify, you know, streaming service for six months once you signed on to Wal-Mart Plus and so forth. And then there are better fuel prices and so forth. So it is it is really building that ecosystem of services and offering more to customers and do better to serve them differently and on on specific items, products. You have the option to sort of shoot some rewards and those who want your account and you’re able to sort of use them for future purchases for any any any product purchases in the future. And all of these are accessible on your mobile and very easy to use. And you go to kiosk and link and mobile account to to the to the kiosk and then whatever is in the basket, you know, get a rewards credit or owns the rewards credit. So that’s it is in international. We are you know we do have different sort of programs similar to this depending on what works for in particular markets. Chile has its own lighting program and we got a delivery pass capability in Mexico that we launched. That again offers you better shipping delivery speed, you know, in conjunction with, you know, some of the stuff that some of the suppliers are doing over there. And it it is quite inexpensive and very affordable. And we’re seeing that successful with that. 

Kira Cleveland: [00:23:38] Great. Well, I’m curious if you see technology as enhancing actual physical customer loyalty or does it detract from the physical loyalty experience? 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:23:50] Just a question. I think, you know, we we we think, you know, stores, physical stores will always be relevant. And how those stores look in the future, that may change. It may be hubs of interaction, may maybe a place where people discover a typical Wal-Mart store in the U.S. and Supercenter may house about 150,000 products. And I’m constantly amazed at how good a job are. Do I happen to be vegan? So I think for very specific things and I’ve got a bunch of options. And so I think the discovery aspect and the experience aspect and physical experience aspect is always going to be there and we’re going to be doing more with that retail space, I’m sure. And it’s unknown as to exactly what that looks like. But at the end of the day, customers don’t want to interact with you just in one more. Right. So their families are getting busier and busier. Time is always short. They’re getting shorter and shorter and they’re always on the run. So, you know, they want to be able to interact with you in multiple ways, you know, on like mobile and on the computer. Maybe they want to talk to, you know, speak to a tool and then and then order, you know, come to order online, come to pick up, order online and get it delivered. And then they’re done. So all kinds of interactions are possible and being able to support them in with all of those. And most importantly, you know, having that trust that we we treat them consistently and fairly, whether it is products, quality prices or whether it is their data. I think that that really, you know is what best trust in the and and and both online and physical will be key parts of that. 

Ned Hayes [00:25:37] Yeah I I can’t agree more building trust with your customer is job number one isn’t it. 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:25:42] Absolutely. 

Kira Cleveland: [00:25:43] Yeah. Along those lines you gave so many great pieces of wisdom there. But just in case there is another nugget, I know our audience would love to hear kind of your number one piece of advice for retailers and maintaining customer loyalty. 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:25:56] I would say, you know, focus on the customer. And Sam Walton once said, if you don’t take over customer or don’t listen to your customers, somebody else will do. And so I think it’s really start with the customer and don’t approach it from what you know and what you what capabilities you have, you know, distance yourself from from that. Truly understand what the customer needs. Again, when you when you look at customer needs, it is not a matter of going to customer and always asking what do you want? You know, we all know for famously, you know, we said that if I ask people what they want, they would have said faster horses. And so it’s it’s a it’s really a blend of asking the right questions. And then, you know, from that gleaning what is the real latent need and then devising solutions to solve that need. And partnerships are going to be important. If you are a small business, you may not have the reach. And obviously a marketplace such as Walmart is a great, great platform to sort of get out there and reach millions of customers. And you can make it easy by, you know, by leveraging Wal-Mart fulfillment services and other services as well. But be be creative and focus on the customer and, you know, always be flexible. 

Ned Hayes [00:27:18] As we think about smaller retailers because the majority of retailers in this country, as you know, and probably internationally too, are small. They aren’t the kind of scale of Walmart. And yet Walmart started as a mom and pop shop. So I’m curious if you have further advice for small retailers who want to grow bigger. How can small retailers create world class retail experiences? 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:27:41] Yeah, it really comes down to customer demand. One thing that Walmart did super well is lean more towards the customer more than I think many others did. And and the other thing Walmart did really well is so they were willing to do stuff themselves. They were really very detail oriented about, you know, what stores did well, what stores did not do and why, and and took actions to adjust to changing, you know, buying habits or demographics or what have you of the customer. And so that flexibility and willing to disrupt the business every so often, you know is was key to their success in my mind. And so my advice to small retailers would be to focus on the customer, identify what is so unique about yourself and and bring that to sort of surface and to the forefront and and build build momentum based on again, its its customer focus, trust and flexibility. 

Kira Cleveland: [00:28:41] I really appreciate that perspective and you’ve been so generous with us with your insights and that your journey into the position you hold now as a little bit of fun looking back at you as an individual, Shabana, what would you want your legacy to be? What do you want to be remembered for. 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:28:58] And answer as to what is important to me? How is that, you know, in this audit, right? So first, as a family, I’ve got my wife something. She’s also a technology professional and we have two kids and others and both are also in the technology, one in product and the other one in engineering. So family is number one. So when I look back and I feel proud about I think it is in my kids and not because they they, they are technology professionals and they did well in education, but they turned out to be, I believe, a good citizen and good human being. So that’s number one family. And second is my my team and all the people I touched hopefully have done something positive to their careers. And it makes you feel good that there are a few examples where I have had a positive impact on their careers and they’re doing superbly well. And and all the learnings I’ve had from all my team members at all levels too. So I’m grateful for that as well. And finally, I would say the systems we’ve built in each of the companies, technology is constantly changing. And I’ve had the I’ve been fortunate to be at companies. I was doing something on the on the on the leading edge. And so the systems in many of those companies are still running that we as a team. I’m proud of that. But but those systems are built by people and I’m most proud of the teams that built them. So that’s all. Again. 

Kira Cleveland: [00:30:27] That was beautiful. And thank you for being so open about what’s important to you and the value that you see that you have taken from an ad to the world. 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:30:35] Yeah, I appreciate it. Yeah, well, we’re not alone in this one. We are always learning and behind every success that a lot of people. And it is, you know, some of your mentors and leaders that you work with and it is the teams that that that you work with and that are doing amazing things. So ultimately I had started. 

Ned Hayes [00:30:54] Well, thank you for your time today, Sravana. Great conversation. Really. I wish you all the best at Wal-Mart and thank you. 

Sravana Kumar Karnati [00:31:01] Thank you, sir. Really appreciate the time as well. I’ll end the questions. I enjoyed it. So best of luck. 

Ned Hayes [00:31:06] Sparkplug is a wholly owned property of SnowShoe. Copyright 2022-2023 Spark Plug Media.