Home Depot’s Jennifer Simile and Paul Wakim on Developing Software, Developing People

by Dan Roberts

This installment of HR2IT Trailblazers packs a double punch: We connected with The Home Depot for a chat with two veteran technology business partners. Paul Wakim, Sr. Director of Human Resources for Finance, Human Resources, Legal, Public Relations and Technology; and Jennifer Simile, Sr. HR Director, Online and Marketing. Paul joined the Home Depot in 2005 and was the HR business partner to Technology from 2008 to 2014, and still has the Technology team in his portfolio as a senior director. Jennifer moved into the tech space in 2014, and last year was elevated to her current title, with a continuing role in assuring workforce success in Online and Marketing.

 Their crisscrossing work history speaks to the culture of growth and development at the Home Depot. It is common within the company to move people around to broaden their experiences, to keep them growing and moving up in the organization. It says a lot that they’ve both been with the company so long, and even more that CIO Matt Carey has been there almost 11 years.

 The Home Depot is a fascinating company, and a fascinating technology shop. With an emphasis on creating differentiation through software development (among other strategies), the company is doubling down on hiring talented developers to continue the retail giant’s digital success.

 Our conversation started with Jennifer’s interesting background. She’s a lawyer, and was practicing employment law when she joined the Home Depot in 2006, in a role that straddled HR and Legal. Over time, she found herself gravitating to a pure HR role, and my first question was …

 Q: Jennifer, how did HR overtake your interest in the law?

Jennifer: I transitioned out of a local firm because Home Depot has such a strong brand in the Atlanta community and in the nation. It really attracted me from a culture perspective — I wanted to be part of a broader organization that has significant values and a great culture. I made the full transition into HR primarily because I wanted to have a more positive and proactive approach to how we help our associates. Rather than, as an attorney, investigate and defend employment decisions after they’d been made, I wanted to get in up front and help people make the best decisions. I wanted to positively influence our culture and associate development on the front end versus trying to explain decisions on the back end.

Q: That makes a lot of sense. And after four years supporting Finance, you became the HR partner to Technology. Was that the luck of the reshuffle, or was the Technology HR role of particular interest to you?

Jennifer: It was what I wanted to do next in my career. I saw that technology was the way that our future was headed and that we needed to be able to grow and evolve our technology organization to meet the ever-changing needs of a digital world. So I really wanted to be able to help our leaders have a strategic approach to dealing with the talent and culture challenges as we continued to transition into the digital age.

Q: And I understand that one of your biggest challenges was helping Home Depot’s Technology organization become an agile environment.

Jennifer: Yeah. Technology was more of a waterfall shop, and we had just recently hired a few leaders who were advocates for a transition to agile. I was able to really partner with them as they made that transition. From my perspective, the transition to agile was all about shifting the mindset and the culture. There was a lot of heavy lifting from the HR team to support that shift. Everything from making sure we clearly articulated new roles and responsibilities, looking at more of a generalist engineering background, down to our space layout to be more open, inviting and collaborative. And then going forward, it was about making sure we invested in our current associates to help grow and develop them so that they could help us with this evolution, as well as supplement with agile-experienced new hires.

Q: Can you tell me more about how you managed that shift in culture and mindset?

It’s a journey, and we continue to learn as we grow. A key tenet of the agile methodology is to test and learn. With thousands of technology professionals and tens of thousands of business partners, it’s all about applying the principles, driving awareness, and showcasing the successes: Learn, repeat.

Q: That’s never an easy transition, but was it successful? Did it keep Technology on a growth path?

Jennifer: Absolutely. During that four-year transition period, we doubled the size of our technology organization. It was really cool to be part of rebranding our talent acquisition, talent management and communications teams to market the Home Depot as a technology organization, not just a retailer. We made people think of the Home Depot as that technology shop. We now have more than 3,000 full-time technology professionals across the Home Depot.

Q: Paul, I understand that Home Depot takes a more centralized, less siloed approach to HR. Rather than each business partner having a small support team, there are shared resources that pitch in where needed, right?

Paul: That’s right. While there certainly are functional lines in HR, it’s really a “one HR” concept. When you need comp, comp comes in. When you need learning, learning comes in. When I need help from Jennifer, Jennifer comes in, and when she needs me, I’m there.

Q: It’s really interesting that the organization proactively shifted people out of roles in which they were being successful, creating a bit of disruption, to help them grow. That kind of cultural value has to affect and shape your own approach to HR.

Paul: Totally. It’s a value the company places on individuals: The more you move, the more you know, and the more value you provide, the more problems you can solve. It’s just bred into our company. That’s how our values really take shape. If you read the Home Depot book, you’ll see a quote from Bernie Marcus: Take care of our associates, who will take care of the customer, and the rest takes care of itself.” We live that. There are countless stories of associates who started in one area and now work in a completely different department. Our EVP of Stores started as a cashier. My boss started as an intern; now she’s VP of HR.

Q: How did that aspect of the culture affect the approach to evolving into agile, and the continuing evolution into an increasingly digital world?

Paul: One of the values our CEO and other executives talk a lot about is the value of being curious, of always being in a learning mode. In the shift to agile, for some companies a total revamp of the IT department could mean many things. For us, it meant building a balance between our current associates, helping them, reskilling and training them, while also bringing in new associates who can help with that transition. Our associates are what sets us apart from our competition.

Q: That’s fantastic. You know, Home Depot is not a typical retailer in the way you operate. How has your unique approach gotten you to the point of doing your own software development as a differentiator?

Paul: Our philosophy is that where we can get a competitive advantage, we build technology in-house to customize to our size and scale. Where we won’t, we don’t. Take payroll systems, for example. A lot of companies do payroll systems really, really well. We’ll leverage a third-party package for that. We don’t build technology for technology’s sake. Technologists love to look at emerging technologies and solve big problems with technology, but we have our eye on customers and what they want.

Q: When you’ve made a commitment to build a strategic, premiere development team, how does that affect your recruitment and training?

Paul:  In order for us to help the company deliver on our promises, we all have to be driving to hire the best available talent. That includes being creative in our approach to finding and sourcing talent. As part of this, diversity is key. Hiring people is a balance between finding really smart people but also people that will fit into our amazing culture. Our software engineering teams build across the full stack of development languages and platforms. Because of our size, scale and the amount of data we work with, our teams get to use the latest technologies and techniques, and can see them in production by walking across the street to one of our 2,200+ stores or online. Seeing results and features that associates and customers actually use is a key differentiator.

Q: Jennifer, having held the role most recently, what are the unique nuances or challenges of being the HR business partner to the CIO, to Technology?

Jennifer: I’d say that our innovative CIO and our strong leadership team are the tech experts, and they heavily rely on us as true business partners for HR decisions. I’ve always felt that I have the support and the autonomy from the leadership team to be able to help them lead strategy.

Q: Let’s talk about your proactive talent pipeline strategy. I love that you put an office — not just a recruitment office, but a workspace — on the Georgia Tech campus there in Atlanta.

Paul: We sure did. We have one of the finest universities in our backyard, and they put out, among many other things, some great technologists. So we wanted to be the forefront of recruiting top Georgia Tech talent. We have a very strong intern population every summer. We hire a great many interns and provide them with real-world experiences. We get a great 12-week interview with them, and they get 12 weeks to interview us, so that when we do make a full-time offer, we know, and they know, exactly what to expect. We’ve been very, very successful in that regard.

We have a facility on campus where interns can work with us side-by-side on projects and yet still be in school. They can work year-round without having to get in the car and drive all the way to our office. This benefits us not only from a hiring perspective, but in terms of innovation. They’re very creative and innovative, and they’ve given us some really fantastic ideas. We give them resources and empower them to be innovative and man, it’s just amazing how great things happen.

Expect great things to continue to happen at Home Depot. At No. 23 on the Fortune ranking, the retailer has set a bold revenue target of $115 billion to $120 billion for 2020, and technology is key to that plan. Jennifer and Paul bring almost a dozen years of continuity in strategy between HR and IT; add to that a powerful culture and a very forward-thinking organization, and you’ve got an unbeatable combination. 

If you are interested in learning more about the HR2IT community please contact Lorraine Ludwicki, HR2IT Executive Director, at lludwicki@hr2it.com.

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