Innovation is a bit of an obsession at Walmart, and Katey Barron is here for it.
Years ago, Katey helped to bring time-saving technologies, like the Auto-S shelf scanner, to Walmart. Today she’s also behind the unfolding of many spaces where teams work to make innovation happen. Officially a director who’s helping manage Walmart’s migration of its thousands of enterprise applications to the cloud, Katey recently helped with a transformation of a very different kind: acting as designer for her team’s new tech headquarters in Austin, Texas, which is now in the running as Austin Business Journal’s “Coolest Building in Austin.”
Flashback to the year 2012, when Katey was just hired as a temporary worker in Walmart’s then-new Innovation Lab (which today has evolved into an incubator called Store No. 8). Her job at that time was to give company leadership tours of the futuristic technologies that could help empower associates and make different areas of the business more efficient, like machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Over time, Katey realized she had an interest in serving the startups that were presenting their technologies to Walmart.
“I was spending a lot of time with startup founders, and I fell in love with their passion for ideas,” she said. “These people are proud and excited to come into work every day and collaborate. That self-starter energy is something I wanted to expand on.”
While working at Walmart headquarters in Northwest Arkansas, Katey helped with the renovation of the David Glass Technology Center, and designed Exchange in Bentonville, a venue that offers free workspace to startups in the area and connects them with other enterprises so they can innovate together. When it came time to start designing the space for Walmart Tech ATX, a home-base for the company’s highly-skilled tech professionals, it was clear that her experience could be valuable.
“My passion for design comes from wanting to serve startups and give them what they need – and really, I’ve just always loved furniture. At Walmart Tech, these associates genuinely enjoy being around each other and diving into the work they do,” Katey said. “We wanted to make it a space they could be comfortable in, proud of and enjoy coming to work every day.”
The headquarters in downtown Austin, which opened in February, carries the sleek, industrial feel of its former warehouse, which at one point was the original location of the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater chain. Katey’s favorite part of the space – a mural by local artist Mike “Truth” Johnston – blends the heritage of both Walmart and the city of Austin, with iconic images like Sam Walton’s red pickup truck, the Austin skyline and the Alamo Drafthouse.
“We did an open floor plan designed around flexible spaces, where different teams can rotate and work.”
Katey outfitted the office with an eclectic color palette and furniture from Hayneedle, Jet.com and Walmart.com. With no single style dominating the office and pockets of seating space for different teams, the office comes together as a space where associates say they feel comfortable and enjoy spending time with one another.
"My whole team here in Austin feels really connected — with each other and with the local area.” said Jason Norris, senior director of engineering for Walmart Technology. “We partner with local startups and other interest groups to host meet-ups in our office, and it’s really building that sense of community. I think my favorite part of the design is the flexibility that allows us to host these kinds of after-hours events, while also providing our team a productive working environment during business hours."
These experiences have paved the way for Katey to work on an even bigger collaborative project: leading a team called 4.co, in which Walmart and Microsoft engineers will work side-by-side for the first time ever to accelerate Walmart’s transformation to the Microsoft cloud. And of course, Katey is helping design the space within Walmart Tech ATX where 4.co will operate.
“The power of the project is that we’re co-locating top engineers from both companies,” she explained, “and the result will be a more connected, seamless experience for our associates and our suppliers.”
Whatever Katey’s project, it’s clear that collaboration and innovation are at the heart of both Walmart Tech, and her career.
“I’ve always taken the attitude that you may have to teach me some new things, but I’ll jump right in, I’ll learn, and I won’t say no to a new opportunity,” she said. “I’m glad I have, because it’s allowed me to follow my passions and build a career I really love.”