TECHNOLOGY

Walmart gets creative with new tech design center in downtown Austin

The world’s largest retailer has opened an engineering hub that features all the perks you’d find at a young, cutting-edge startup.

Posted February 8th, 2018

The latest corporate giant tapping into Austin's tech talent pool just happens to be the world’s largest retailer. 

Walmart has opened an engineering hub downtown that features all the perks you’d find at a young, cutting-edge startup.

Located at the former home of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at Fourth and Colorado streets, Walmart ATX will develop emerging technology such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, blockchain and Internet of Things for use across the company’s global operations. 

PHOTO GALLERY: CHECK OUT WALMART’S NEW DOWNTOWN AUSTIN TECHNOLOGY CENTER

The newly renovated 8,000-square-foot space, which was home to several nightclubs after Alamo Drafthouse closed a decade ago, features a sleek design, with lots of open space, exposed brick walls and ceiling beams and long wood tables for collaboration.

The space, which was once a warehouse and then a parking garage, includes a full kitchen with cold brew coffee and beer on tap, a stocked refrigerator and a shuffleboard table. 

A wall-size mural by local artist Mike Johnston pays homage to the original Alamo Drafthouse, Barton Springs, the downtown skyline and Willie Nelson, plus the red Ford pickup driven by Walmart founder Sam Walton. In the entry way, free community bikes hang on a rack for employees who want to take a spin outside.

Jay Janner/Austin American-StatesmanThe lobby at Walmart ATX in downtown Austin.

The decision to invest in Austin is part of a strategy to recruit skilled tech workers by locating where they are, said Jason Norris, Walmart director of engineering and Austin site lead. 

“At Walmart we are really changing the way we work in a lot of ways,” Norris said. “Austin is a really unique city in that you have a very deep pool of that talent, but you don’t incur some of those higher costs of living that you do on the West Coast and East Coast,” Norris said. 

A bonus, he said, is that Austin is in the same Central Time Zone as Walmart’s corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. The company, which posted $485 billion in revenue in 2017, has more than 1.5 million employees worldwide.

Walmart’s entrance into the Austin tech community follows a number of other corporations that have opened technology design centers here, including USAA and General Motors.

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“Austin has many characteristics that make it appealing to major corporations looking for deep technical talent,” Austin-based industry analyst Patrick Moorhead said. “Technologists like to live in Austin because it’s “happening” with music, festivals and downtown life as well as being affordable. Employers like it because technologists like it, it’s much less expensive than other tech hubs in New York and Silicon Valley and there is a large pool of talent.”

Walmart ATX is the first office outside of Bentonville that is focused on emerging technologies for the company’s Global Business Services division. The Austin team will develop technology for the company's enterprise operations, such as finance, governance, human relations, employee training and manufacturing.

Norris is currently hiring in areas including data sciences, machine learning, Internet of Things and mobile engineering. He said he expects his team, now at 13, to reach up to 60 people in six months. 

Walmart ATX will also serve as a community space for tech gatherings, Norris said.

“One of the cool things about Austin is the technology scene is very collaborative and supportive,” he said. “It’s a crazy meet-up city, and we want to be part of that. We don’t just want to take, we want to be active participants and give back.”

Jay Janner/Austin American-StatesmanThe break room at Walmart ATX in downtown Austin.

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