The Road Ahead for Wal-Mart

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It's been a long time since I visited Arkansas. Growing up in Louisiana we would wander up there from time to time, but it's been quite a while since I spent any quality time in "The Natural State." As my plane touched down at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, I looked forward to slipping into a car and driving the backroads to Bentonville, where I was to meet the next day with Wal-Mart CIO Linda Dillman.

At this time of year the Arkansas countryside is lush and green, and driving at sunset – with the windows down, of course -- is a real treat. Not to mention, when was the last time anybody can remember staying at a good hotel (with free Internet) for $60 a night?

I was excited to meet the leaders of the Wal-Mart IT team. In December 2004, this team earned InformationWeek's IT Team of the Year award. Linda believes that senior executives need to become personally involved in recruiting and retaining more women and under-represented minorities in the IT workforce, and she had gathered her IT management team together for a several-hour discussion about NCWIT and the issues we're addressing.

As part of our conversation, we talked about the need to reach out to rural communities and schools, as well as to understand the barriers to job re-entry that women face in IT. These are both areas that NCWIT needs to address, and the conversation was thought-provoking and timely. Wal-Mart has agreed to join the NCWIT Workforce Alliance and I was thrilled when Linda agreed to be on our Executive Advisory Council.

Wal-Mart's headquarters is well-known for having one of the most advanced data centers in the country, and my technical side yearned for a tour of their facilities. Nancy Stewart, VP of their Information Systems Division, offered to show me around. Together we visited several of Wal-Mart's different IT sites, spread all across Bentonville and the surrounding countryside.

At one point we were standing in a 22,000-square-foot data center with more processing power than you can imagine, terra-grid computing, at least quadruple fail-over, enough power backup options for a whole city, and 24/7 monitoring for the slightest hiccup in their international operations … what can I say?

The road ahead for Wal-Mart, which has spearheaded the drive to use RFIDs in retail, will necessitate another quantum leap in their technical infrastructure as the radio tags are used to track inventory and the movement of goods on a global scale. Wal-Mart's is one of the largest technical infrastructures in the corporate world, and it's mind-numbing to even consider all of the transactions occurring every second in what must be a "never fail" environment.

And the frosting on the cake? Their CIO is a woman!

(I just had to say that.)



Lucy Sanders is Co-founder and CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT.)