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How Walmart Builds Open Source Culture

Mitch Wagner
1/9/2017
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Technology transformation wasn't enough for Walmart to get the most from OpenStack and open source. Walmart needed to change its company culture too.

"We're trying to make open source part of your day job at Walmart, not something you do in your spare time," says Andrew Mitry, senior distinguished engineer for Walmart's Strati technology organization. "We're supporting people who work on open source projects even if it's not part of their day-to-day work."

Launched in 1962, Walmart has more than 11,500 stores in 28 countries, and ecommerce websites in 11 countries. It has more than 2 million employees, making it the largest private employer in the world.

Walmart's management backs open source, said Mitry, who presented at the OpenStack Summit in Barcelona in late October. We caught up with the Walmart team recently; they said their presentation then is still relevant.

Top management support is "cascading down" and gets people involved throughout the company, Mitry said.

But management support isn't enough. "It cannot be 100% management-driven. You have to have your teams on board as well," said Megan Rossetti, part of the OpenStack Operations Infrastructure team at Walmart, who delivered the presentation alongside Mitry.

Walmart has incorporated open source culture throughout the company: Implementing annual awards for open source contributions and projects; supporting team members working on open source projects, even if they're not related to day-to-day work responsibilities; and implementing open source goals as part of the overall technology strategy, with quarterly reviews. Open source goals are also included in personal performance objectives.

"Lots of companies have awards for patents and other innovation," Mitry said. "We have company awards at that level for recognition around open source contributions."

Walmart makes extensive use of OpenStack and Puppet, and has contributed two projects to the open source community -- OneOps, for application lifecycle management, and Electrode, an application platform. The company has 170,000 cores on OpenStack, and more than 60 open source products. (See Walmart Puts Cloud Platform in Open Source.)

To further open source adoption and direct the company's open source strategy, Walmart formed an internal open source team, which reviews projects to be released to the open source community.

Open source adoption is a big help for recruitment. Talent wants to work on open source projects, and open source work helps with retention. "It creates excitement within the developer community," Mitry said. "I'm part of something bigger. I'm not doing a small thing inside a big company that nobody's going to hear about. They become part of a larger community."

By getting active in an open source community, a person who might be working solo on a particular project for Walmart becomes part of a team of people working on similar projects at other organizations, he says.

"These benefits can be larger than the traditional benefits that have been used to create incentives," Mitry said.

But open source isn't without challenges. Vendor agendas can be a problem. Operators can propose change, and get opposition from vendors because it undercuts their agenda, Mitry said.

In the future, Walmart looks to add open source feedback to yearly managerial reviews; embrace an "open source first" mentality throughout development and review; continue to grow the number of projects the company open sources, along with participation in summits, conferences and meet-ups; and increase contributions to the open source community. It also aims to "[build] the Irresistible Developer Experience, making the process easier, not harder," the Walmart team said in one of its presentation slides.


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Walmart learned a number of lessons along the way. "Changing an existing culture can be difficult. Start with small wins," says one of its slides. "Show what works with an existing team, then open it to a broader audience." Open source engineers need to promote their accomplishments, and the company needs to trust its engineers.

Open source engineers also need to not fear failure, but instead view it as an opportunity to be better.

"Embrace the culture change," Rossetti said. "You have to be an advocate in the company. Talk to people about your wins -- what's working -- and share what isn't working as well."

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Kelsey Ziser
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Kelsey Ziser,
User Rank: Blogger
1/9/2017 | 2:52:14 PM
Cultural shift
"supporting team members working on open source projects, even if they're not related to day-to-day work responsibilitiesy..." -- that seems like it would be a tough cultural shift. I wonder how employees are working with managers to show that they're balancing required tasks with projects outside the scope of their workplan. 
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Light Sabre
1/9/2017 | 6:53:57 PM
Re: Cultural shift
It would seem logical for Walmart to adopt open source. The company is always looking for ways to cut costs, while still being ahead of the technology curve. My understanding is Walmart was one of the first retailers to incorporate purchasing data into things like inventory and logistics. Open source would just seem to me to be the next step. 
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
1/10/2017 | 2:44:40 PM
Re: Cultural shift
And Walmart is uniquely unable to outsource its cloud to Amazon. 
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
1/10/2017 | 2:45:23 PM
Re: Cultural shift
Indeed. Hard to get managers to support work that falls outside of core KPIs.
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