How to build fast without burning out: 6 tips from Target’s SVP of Product Engineering

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As the pandemic took hold in the United States, every retailer had to act quickly to adapt to a completely new reality, one that came with an intense new focus on digital operations. Target was one of those companies that rose to the challenge, rapidly rolling out new features to its employees and customers at scale.

His hard work paid off: Target’s same-day services grew 45% last year — and that’s on top of a 235% jump in 2020. The Target app is now used in nearly 70% of all digital controls, compared to 30% in two years. from. Annual revenue has exceeded $100 billion, and the company is currently investing up to $5 billion to continue scaling its operations this year.

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At Target Tech’s Product Engineering Conference, I spoke with Nancy King, Senior Vice President of Product Engineering at Target, to find out how her team quickly responded to deliver new features at scale, without getting exhausted. Watch the video here for the whole conversation, or check out the highlights of the conversation below:

To move forward quickly, you have to lay the foundations.

When the pandemic hit, Target was prepared with seven years of technology investments, King said.

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“We had taken aggressive steps to build a world-class engineering team. We moved to an agile and product model, we introduced new roles and new ways of working with our business partners. We invested heavily in the intentionality of our architecture and moved very strongly into a distributed set of microservices-based capabilities. This investment — in our tools, our platforms, and our team — is what allowed us to respond the way we have done over the past two years.

Be ready to collaborate with teams across the company

Rapid product development requires a thoughtful approach and collaboration across the company, King said.

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“The hardest thing we’re still learning right now is how to prioritize most effectively and really stay aligned with the business,” she said.

King gave the example of working with teams across the company to make Target’s Drive Up service work. When the pandemic hit, Target quickly expanded drive-in parking spaces, so customers could order items online and have their order delivered to their car at the store of their choice. The service has been hugely successful – it grew over 600% in 2020 and then another 70% in 2021. However, the service initially ran into some issues.



“We learned that as a team member brought the order to the guest in their car, more often than not we lost the ability to check them because our wifi signal was not strong enough in the parking lot….And sometimes the permits to change parking lots to be able to have parking spaces were the longest pole of the tent, so parking spaces were all over the place…

“To be able to get our networking team and our real estate teams to make the right investments there, that’s a powerful product of the operating model, but it’s also something that we have to continually work on because the product at scale, in a company the size of Target is hard. There’s just no getting around it. It’s hard to bring all of these pieces together. So the learnings are really about trust and interaction and ensuring that when we encounter something, we can quickly rally and pivot.”

Stay focused on your end users

“Everything we do is in the service of the guest,” King said. And thanks to Target’s investments in its infrastructure, deployment pipelines and security, King’s team can deploy ideas in a single store, a single register or even in a single employee’s handheld device.



“So we have the ability to take an idea at a very nascent, very small phase and present it to our end user. And that’s really important to us because that isolation allows us to move faster, but to do that responsibly and safely When you think of something like Drive Up, we iterate very quickly… When you deploy capacity to 50 million guests downloading their app, you have a different feedback loop and operational complexity from the ones you get when you deploy something to a team member.

“So when we started, we put the team members’ app on their mobile device. And we started asking team members, does this feed make sense? What information do you want to see more or less?And through that back-and-forth, we framed and organized what then became the Drive Up app suite… You let the end user manage the backlog themselves in the feature list of what’s most important to him.”

Start small, keep testing and learning

In response to social distancing and safety guidelines, Target rolled out its Virtual Line feature on, nationwide, in less than a week.

Still, “we’ve gone through several different prototypes over this time, and it’s become extremely useful to us in safely managing crowds in some of our busiest stores,” King said. “While we were developing this app, we were also developing another idea, which was to allow guests to make appointments [for the Virtual Line]to come to the store at a certain time… We’ve rolled this out to a few stores, and what we’ve seen is that it actually introduces more complexity than help – now team members were running a queue in front of the app-based store…but they also had guests coming to reserve a spot…And so that was an idea that didn’t go through, and we have some learned a lot.”

Fostering a culture of care, supporting intellectual diversity and curiosity

Even when you’re moving fast, you can’t lose sight of the well-being of the team, King said.

“There’s this narrative…that you have to have this ‘go ahead and conquer’ mentality,” she said. “And there were certainly aspects at the start of 2020, where we were running as fast as we could… But we do it in a very focused way. We always put our team at the center of what we do, and there there are no exceptions.” .

“A key part of preventing burnout, she said, “is the psychological safety and camaraderie of your team… Not all ideas will be winning, and you need to have the support, the intellectual curiosity, divergence and diversity of thought across the team to throw lots of ideas out there. And we all know what it’s like when we’re in a room or a setting and you have an idea, but you don’t really feel comfortable presenting it. Or you are more concerned about the response you might get.

“Having this culture of care within each of our teams really brings out the best ideas, and those ideas come from every engineer within the group – not from the top down… So this culture of irreproachable curiosity and Learning from our mistakes for the benefit of others really helps us move forward quickly, but doesn’t do it in a way that takes away the experience of our engineers.”

Invest in professional development

King herself has worked for Target for 16 years. In addition to creating a supportive culture, she said the company invests in the skills of its employees.

“You can’t just tech,” she said. “What you know today is a legacy of tomorrow. So we need to cultivate a culture of curiosity to learn.”

The company has implemented programs such as “50 days of learning”, which allow engineers to devote approximately one day per week to their personal development. It also organizes hackathons and demo days, to which all company employees are invited.

It comes down, she says, to “helping engineers and team members build their careers and technology for the long term. Part of what drew me to Target 16 years ago was the idea to solve really hard problems with really smart people”.

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