Walmart plans 2 Texas offices to focus on tech

Texas is quickly becoming another hotbed of technology-related activity for Walmart Inc.

The Bentonville retailer opened a technology incubator in Austin late last year, and recently revealed plans for an office in Plano opening April 5. Each tech hub will employ between 50 and 60 workers who will focus on emerging technologies for use in Walmart's stores and enterprise operations.

Carlos Riojas, who is leading operations in Plano, said he had hired about 18 workers for the new space as the retailer tries to get closer to the tech talent located in the state.

"We've been [in Texas] a long time," Riojas said, referring to the company's 600 stores throughout the state. "Now we're including Texas in our technology footprint, not just our retail footprint."

Riojas said the Plano hub will expand on the tech work taking place at other Walmart locations, including the company's home office in Bentonville. Walmart also has large tech operations at its e-commerce headquarters in San Bruno, Calif., as well as Hoboken, N.J., and Reston, Va. The company also opened Store No. 8 -- a retail technology incubator -- in Silicon Valley last year.

The company believes opening offices in growing technology centers like Austin and the Dallas area helps them recruit skilled tech workers.

The Austin tech incubator, unveiled as Walmart ATX, is in a recently renovated, 8,000-square foot space that was once a warehouse, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Riojas said the Plano office will be located in a co-working space called Common Desk.

In addition to the Plano hub, Walmart also has leased space at nearby University of Texas at Dallas to give students a chance to work with the company.

"We knew that we wanted to get a closer connection with some of the schools in the area," said Riojas, who had recently taken a recruiting trip to Texas A&M in College Station. "And we also wanted to expose Walmart to some technologists that maybe aren't looking, in a competitive market, to initially move. They'd like to stay in the area."

Pete Poorman, director of corporate relations for the School of Engineering and Computer Science at UT Dallas, said the student population at the school is heavily drawn from Texas. So there are students who would like to work for a large company like Walmart, but want to stay in the state.

He said the Walmart offices open opportunities for students and bring awareness to the size of the retailer's tech efforts.

"If your company name is Apple or Google, they know what your business is," Poorman said. "If it's almost anything else, you need to tell them you're a tech company. While I'm sure people who are further along in their industry are well aware of the technology leadership that Walmart has shown, students might not be. So it helps every company to get in front of our students and make them aware of the opportunities."

Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas Walton College of Business, said it's no surprise Walmart is opening offices in Texas because of its need for tech talent.

Moving into the state will put the retailer closer to a pool of skilled tech workers who might not want to move to Bentonville, or live in Silicon Valley because of the high cost of living.

"I think we've already seen quite a bit that Walmart has had to do because the tech talent was not available here," Jebaraj said. "I think there's a lot of talent in a lot of different fields, but we're still playing catch-up to some of the big areas in terms of tech talent."

Riojas said the work conducted in Plano and Austin isn't being taken away from Bentonville. Instead, he called them additional projects. He said the proximity to the home office -- a short flight or a 5 ½-hour drive to Plano-- is beneficial as the group will work closely with the Bentonville team.

The technologies Riojas' group is working on in Plano will primarily be used to solve problems -- like detecting spills faster -- in Walmart's stores. He also said the group is working on energy savings projects, using machine learning to make decisions about the right temperature or lighting for stores.

The large number of stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth area gives the company a wide variety of places to test projects. The Plano group plans to work closely with a supercenter located near its office, but has plenty of other options because of the concentration of stores in the vast metro area.

"Walmart is definitely a global company, but I feel like expanding in our region -- I consider Texas and Arkansas part of the same region -- is really important," Riojas said. "It's a big deal in these two cities."