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Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 87: Meng Chee Discusses Being the First Chief Product Officer at Walmart With Guest Host Brent Williams

September 02, 2020  |  By Matt Waller

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Meng Chee is Walmart’s first Chief Product Officer. Prior to Walmart, Chee worked for Nokia, Samsung USA, and JPMorgan Chase. Chee has a bachelor's degree in computer engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a master’s in software systems engineering from Boston University. Chee leverages technology to create outstanding customer experiences.

Brent Williams is the Associate Dean for Executive Education and Outreach and Garrison Endowed Chair in Supply Chain Management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Brent works to connect the Walton College with the business community and industry professionals in Northwest Arkansas.

Episode Transcript

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00:08 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today.

00:27 Brent Williams: This is Brent Williams, Associate Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. And I'm sitting in for Matt Waller on this episode of the Be EPIC podcast. Today, I'm talking with Meng Chee. Meng is the chief product officer at Walmart. Meng, thank you for joining us.

00:48 Meng Chee: Thank you so much for inviting me. It's really an honor. I'm new to Walmart, but also to the Northwest Arkansas Community, and hopefully also the Razorback community. So thank you very much for having me.

01:03 Brent Williams: Absolutely. Well, Meng, we'll talk more about his background, but Meng is one of the executive vice presidents at Walmart and the Chief Product Officer for Walmart, and so we wanna talk more about what does a product approach look like? What is product management? But maybe before we do that, could you walk us through your journey to getting to Walmart?

01:27 Meng Chee: Yeah, absolutely. And if it helps any, I think I should also highlight what product is at Walmart, so I'm actually the first chief product officer at Walmart, and we as a product organization we're very focused on creating products, services and platform capabilities that address the needs of our customers and our associates. So in terms of how we work and our role in the company, product at Walmart is defined very much like what product does at a tech company. So back to your question. My first job out of school, I was actually in a master's program, was at Lotus, where I worked as a software engineer. Shortly after I joined, IBM acquired us to develop software solutions for the enterprise, recognizing even then in the mid '90s, mid to late '90s that they were the world's tech hardware giant, but software was already gonna eat the world. So I stayed there with the now called IBM Lotus for about two years, learning as much as I could, starting to integrate the early internet, even. After that, moved on in my career, which led me to increasing complexity and accountability roles from software engineer to product manager, to CTO roles at startups, but also Fortune 500 companies as well. I've led strategic innovation initiatives for Frog Design for Nokia globally, Samsung, and JP Morgan Chase, and now happily at Walmart.

03:03 Meng Chee: Also throughout my journey I've maintained a connection to the academic world, not to mention my parents are actually professors. So I am a lifelong learner, and so I didn't stop with a bachelor's in computer engineering and master's in computer science. I've continuously enrolled myself in certificate programs in places like Stanford, MIT and Austin, Texas, and covered things like general management, design, innovation, and lately in machine learning.

03:39 Brent Williams: This idea of being a lifelong learner, certainly near and dear to our hearts in the Walton College and the University of Arkansas, but it's becoming more and more a mindset that's needed in companies, both big and small, how do you work with your team and helping to facilitate them to be lifelong learners?

04:02 Meng Chee: A lot of it starts with daily practice, we cultivate a culture where we are able to ask each other why a lot, and also modeling for the team and encouraging learning programs, frankly. We live in a world that has a very rapidly changing landscape, and so in order to do our jobs well and understand how to make the right judgment calls, we really need to learn the implications of a lot of things.

04:35 Brent Williams: You've worked for lots of different types of companies, JP Morgan, Samsung, I was wondering what attracted you to Walmart, both the company, and at this time?

04:48 Meng Chee: It was really a sense of purpose, and I felt very strongly that leadership also embodied the purpose that I was wanting to pursue in life. Walmart very much wants to use and uses its footprint to help communities through our country, and we say, "Save Money, Live Better," but I think we do a whole lot more. And that is very important to me personally. I want to build things that really matter to our daily lives, and I wanna create solutions using the experience I've had for large scale and economic and national problems, and it's very exciting to be able to tangibly do those things with a great team. So I get the chance to basically take complex scenarios, try to simplify them, create benefit from them, and also work with leaders who deeply believe in that use of innovation for the benefit of the country.

06:00 Brent Williams: Yeah. Well, the purpose of Walmart is one that helps every one of us as individuals that live here. I was thinking some as you were talking about your tech background and the product approach really being born in tech, I think. What does that look like in a large enterprise like Walmart or retail enterprise?

06:28 Meng Chee: Having a tech background, I think really helped. Tech underpins a lot of how we get things done and how we interact with our tools and all the services that we need. In terms of how it helps in retail, a lot of industries traditionally, and it's much less so today for the companies that are successful, but traditionally, we're control tower driven, and the product approach is one that's like a football or basketball team, where it's really a diverse team of players in full contact, fully, fully sleeves rolled up and really engage with what the problem is and solving it through learning as well, and I think that is especially important, necessary and helpful right now in the retail industry.

07:26 Brent Williams: Yeah. I know you've only been at Walmart a relatively short time, but this approach, this different way of working, what are some of the benefits that you're already seeing?

07:35 Meng Chee: Well, to start with, because of the approach, we're inherently now driving being more user-centric, so an end user could be an associate and/or a customer as well. Or a supplier. And so that alone is pretty exciting, but also we're really embodying multidisciplinary collaboration, we're minimizing planning now in favor of learning by doing, and we've created the environment where there are single points of accountability within an organization that is less in the control tower, like I said, but more on the teams. And so that allows us to be nimble and really much more responsive because we'll have an appropriate level of autonomous decision-making as well. And that helps unencumber the talent that we have throughout the company to really solve the problems that they're actually closest to anyway, and understand.

08:32 Meng Chee: So the results that we're starting to see now, and it's very exciting, we recently were able to deliver express delivery, for example, something that in a traditional model would have taken months and a whole lot of planning, but we did it in weeks. It's just really gratifying, but it's also solving things that matter.

08:54 Brent Williams: Yeah, solving things that matter for the customer, or as you said for the associate, but in a much shorter time frame, is pretty amazing, as that's a lot of value you can deliver as an organization. I guess I've got a pretty simple question in some ways, but several of our students or several in our audience might be wondering this, you mentioned you're a product manager in your career, and obviously you've got product managers on your team, what's the role of product managers and what are the different types of people and functions that they work with?

09:33 Meng Chee: A product manager is the tiebreaker. The way of working that we have really makes decision making something that honors the intelligence and wisdom of different disciplines. So at the table, we will have a technology leader, usually an engineering manager, or even a CTO, depending on the level of problem, we will have someone who is either a general manager or even a C-level individual or business owner in the company, we would have for sure someone who understands and can articulate and defend the needs of the end user, so we would have someone who is a product or a service designer as well, and then we have the product manager who needs to understand enough to know how to navigate the dialogue and how to at the end of the day tie-break anything.

10:35 Meng Chee: The product manager is also accountable for progress, so knowing what is important to do first, next and so on. We often use the term road map, but that's actually a living entity in and of itself, and it's the role of the product manager to know how to continuously define and articulate that road map, so people know where that team is going, what value they're creating, and in a large company it's even more exciting because the product manager has to also make sure that their road map links well to other road maps so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and things aren't done in silos, and in fact you can multiply value creation that way. So it's actually a very exciting job, but it takes system thinking, T-shaped individuals, a lot of things.

11:30 Brent Williams: As you talk about the role of a product manager, I think this is the type of role that really is going to excite lots of our students, and at the Walton College, the McMillon Innovation Studio is the place where students from... Actually from all over campus, can get exposed to the product approach and get to work with the product approach, but as those students begin to think about their careers, if they're a sophomore, whether they're a sophomore engineering student or a junior majoring in business, what would you suggest to those students in how they prepare themselves and build their portfolio and capabilities for a career in product management?

12:24 Meng Chee: That's actually a really fun question. I'll say maybe a little, quite a bit. [chuckle] So at the personal level, know what products you love, why you love them, talk about it with people, ask them what they like and what they enjoy, and it builds the ability to create judgment. Some of the best product managers I've worked with are also very entrepreneurial, they're both pragmatic and entrepreneurial, and they understand the intersection of business viability, technology, feasibility, and design desirability of products as well. Another thing I feel strongly about at least, is that technology now matters a whole lot and cannot be ignored, even to be in this field no matter what business domain you're in. One way to understand that is if you go to the World Economic Forum and look up, say, Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is one way of describing where we are today. It's a starting point for learning and understanding which trends resonate with you and that you might wanna follow for the sake of your career. But basically encompasses everything like artificial intelligence and how everything is now connected.

13:41 Brent Williams: One thing as I was thinking about the product approach and thinking about Walmart, one thing that I've observed with Walmart is just how well they've worked with partners like suppliers to ultimately deliver their value to the consumer. And this product approach, how do you think that that might enable collaboration in the future across business partners, maybe differently than they've collaborated in the past?

14:16 Meng Chee: I think it really does apply and will help tremendously. Think about the product approach as a way of working and evolution in how humans collaborate for a common purpose, and even how humans, how we can establish a common purpose, then it makes sense that it would increase and help with the relationship and collaboration and the results with suppliers as well.

14:43 Brent Williams: As you think about the product approach and maybe just industry trends, if you will, this seems to certainly be growing across enterprises of all different kinds, how does a product organization like yours fit into the overall corporate structure of Walmart particularly, but maybe even across the industry?

15:06 Meng Chee: Yeah, within Walmart, our leadership has absolutely paved the way. So part of that is with the creation of the role that I get to do. It basically creates the multi-disciplinary seat from the very top level decision making of the company, and we propagate that through how we work all the way through the organization. As far as with the partners, since this is an increasingly technology-driven world, or people are for the sake of addressing the pressures of globalization, high speed competition or disintermediation threats, all of the above, and also what technology is doing across all industries, this way of working also exists now in a lot of companies, so having that common nomenclature, common way of working also helps in partnerships as well.

16:04 Brent Williams: That completely makes sense. Well, I can't not end, I think, with a question about technology. You've mentioned that a couple of times, just how fundamental and key it obviously is and how that's growing. As you're looking at the next couple of years, from a technology perspective, what's really getting you excited?

16:28 Meng Chee: I have to think through the list. [laughter] As a technologist, I actually like to dabble. Absolutely robotics as an extension of what allows us as people to do more of the things that are high valued, and quite frankly, also help us approach the speed of which we have to operate for the immediate future being digital first, but it's not just gonna be phones anymore, it's gonna be your car, your fridge, your watch. So I think that machine learning and some level of artificial intelligence would definitely be... Is absolutely fascinating as well, and we're working hard to find ways to practically apply that, and there are just so many already.

17:16 Brent Williams: Obviously, we're in a time of transformation, but I think just, again, observing Walmart just recently, a number of innovations that you see that's impacting customers, both online and in the store has just been tremendous, so thank you for all that you're doing to make our lives better.

17:40 Meng Chee: Oh, thank you so much. Thanks for being part of the Walmart world.

17:46 Brent Williams: Absolutely.

17:47 Meng Chee: From our customers and so on. And it's a team effort. It really is.

17:54 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching beEPIC Podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now be EPIC.

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Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.

 

Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.

 

Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.

 

Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.





Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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