At Summit: Elwin Loomis hails from the Store of the Future

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Title says it all

Elwin Loomis isn’t your everyday Director of Engineering. In fact, he’s not the Director of Engineering. He’s Target‘s Senior Director, Store of the Future. This unique title is important to him, because it symbolizes doing things differently. And Loomis is all about doing things differently.

Elwin is an engineer, a creator, a doer. But he’s no longer just hacking code—he’s hacking culture. Doers like Elwin get to ask the questions that he was asking the Summit 2016 crowd:

“What does your ideal workplace look like? What is the work that you do? Who do you want to work with, mentor, and be mentored by? What causes do you support?”

How business used to be

In the past, if you wanted your business to grow large, it took considerable investment in physical and digital resources. Infrastructure was the barrier to entry that kept the competition at bay. For a retail business like Target, these barriers included the supply chain, real estate, and relationships with manufacturers.

Today, these barriers are breaking down. The internet and other technologies bring improvements to manufacturing, creating, and funding businesses that make it possible to start up cheaply. And the amplification effect—how Loomis describes the ability of small teams to behave like big teams through repeatable processes, self-service, and automation—lets even tiny organizations appear quite large. If big companies cannot match these nimble upstarts, they will die.

We are the ones who MAKE the MACHINE. We are not cogs. - Elwin Loomis
Illustration by Libby Levi.

What does talent want?

To succeed, organizations must transform (though I think Loomis would appreciate if we all found a new term to describe this change). Executives like Loomis and our own Jim Whitehurst recognize these disruptive forces as an opportunity. As every business becomes a digital business, IT talent is in demand. And there is one thing that we have to figure out.

The questions Loomis asked in his opening are the keys. The opportunities he had at Target and throughout his career relied on surrounding himself with similarly passionate and smart creatives. But he didn’t always have that opportunity.

What happened to Elwin Loomis?

Loomis started at Target in 1993, a jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing doer in a thriving ecosystem and a fairly open (if hierarchical) culture. He felt at home as part of an involved team serving their local community. After a 13-year initial career with Target, he pursued other adventures, working as a CIO for a Hong Kong retailer for a few years before returning to the US to other executive and architect opportunities. But he didn’t forget about Target. In 2012, he returned to the company as Director of Software Engineering, though he found the environment much different than when he left.

Target had changed in order to grow. Gone were the T-shirts and jeans—even for the engineers. The retailer now had 1,800 stores but was bound by a fear of change and a relentless commitment to collaboration. With so many participants, it was hard to make decisions quickly (if at all). They were spending so much time defining their problems, that there was very little left over to actually solve them.

One day, during a meeting, Loomis looked around the room and realized that the passionate creatives wearing T-shirts and jeans were from the company they were buying. He—and his all of his colleagues—had become the guys in the suits, standing in the way.

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The RAD teams form fast and work together on an accelerated schedule to accomplish important tasks quickly.

How he (re)built a healthy Target ecosystem

Everything changed in that moment. He had to find ways to bring the business and the technologists back together. To create a culture that didn’t separate their strengths. And to attract doers of all kinds with a culture of real openness and trust. The journey for Target, and for Loomis, isn’t over. His new title is only a few months old, but Target’s initiatives are changing the way they innovate. Open source software, agile practices, and rapid iteration are solving problems quickly and expanding their cultural opportunities. New, radical team structures support this kind of work, and a rebel alliance of sorts helps the doers identify one another and quietly encourage the cultural resistance.

These new radicals are developing their manifesto, and Loomis left us with their words:

We do meaningful work that makes people’s lives better
through personal problem solving
with humility and optimism
in a united team effort.
We are you.

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