Securing Hybrid Work: Venki Krishnababu, lululemon
Bret Arsenault: Hi, I'm Bret Arsenault, Chief Information Security Officer at a little company called Microsoft. Recently I was approached by some customers who are really struggling with the complexities of the security threat landscape, in particular, just looking for practical advice. With the increase in threats, with the changing landscape in visual transformation that's going on, people are really trying to understand from experts, what could they do practically that will actually help them in this new threat landscape we're living in today. I realized how fortunate I am to have met with some of the sharpest minds on this topic. Whether it's competitors, vendors, internal Microsoft people, government people, who all share a vision for a mission on how to better protect ourselves. This created an opportunity to take some of those learnings and share them in this pod-cast series. Hopefully you'll find this interesting. I know I'll learn a lot from it.
Bret Arsenault: Today I have a special guest joining me: Venki Krishnababu. Venki is the Senior Vice President of Global Technology Services at Lululemon, the Authenic Pearl Company based in Vancouver, VC. Venki is a transformational, business savvy tech leader with extensive global technology experience. He's been at Lululemon for three years and was previously the CTO of Premera Blue Cross, where his leadership was pivotal to their digital transformation. Before that he was at Nordstrom for 17 years where he led the company's service-based architecture strategy. And also, for those who don't know, it's been over a year Venki lives in my neighborhood, and yet we are doing things remotely still. We haven't had a chance to meet in person. So I hope soon we can actually meet in person.
Venki Krishnababu: Yeah, likewise Bret. I'm definitely looking forward to meet you, as we are, it's such a great neighborhood. And thank you for having me in your first podcast. I never see that as a risk at all because I know you Bret, so glad to be here and join in and learn and share.
Bret Arsenault: No, I appreciate it. I think today would be great as to discuss some of the biggest lessons learned from the pandemic in terms of having to send employees home overnight, to remote working, not being employed, and it's just an amazing time. I think, a lot of people talked about it, but, understanding what it means for you at Lululemon as the senior leader you are and then to how the people can learn from that. I think you know, for me personally, someone recently said, "yeah, I'm working from my home office" which I believe you may be doing today, and I realized I was blessed enough, one; to have a home and two; that if I have a office that means I have a job. And I know that's not true for everybody during these times. So, I'm not confused by how fortunate we are. But I would think it would be a great session for us to have a conversation on how we're making these things work for our respective companies.
Venki Krishnababu: Yeah. Absolutely. And I share the same sentiment, Bret. Very grateful to have a home and have a office and have a family under one roof. And very, very blessed to be here and be part of this podcast.
Bret Arsenault: That would be great. Before we get into the topic though, maybe you can give me a little bit about how you got into the tech industry and a little bit about your career path, because I think it's a pretty interesting background.
Venki Krishnababu: Yeah, sure Bret. It's been coming at the cusp of around 27 plus years I'm in technology. Predominantly it's all about enabling retail business with strong engineering and technology teams. I started out as a hardcore database engineer. That's where I started. And, and worked in different roles in almost two decades at Nordstrom, different type of roles. Architecture, engineering leadership, production support, operations contact center, Omni, all kinds of you know, experience, all stemmed up to one thing, which I'm very passionate about, which is leading and supporting people and delivering-- delivering some great values for retail business and enabling them. And that's been my entry into technology. And I love technology. I love people, working with people and creating some great stuff together.
Bret Arsenault: It's a truly diverse background in all the different roles that you've had. So I think you're exceptionally qualified for the conversation today, which is even with 27 years of experience, I don't think any of us predicted this situation we have. Even when I was table-topping pandemic exercise, I didn't see it the way this happened out. But I think as people come back to work, it's one thing to think about sending people home, but as we start you know, working on people coming back and how we do productivity, how do you think about companies truly embracing this hybrid work environment? And what does that look like for Lululemon and the retail industry?
Venki Krishnababu: Yeah, and it's such a-- an interesting time as we live in Bret, as you said, no one was ready to prepare to face this global pandemic. And it hit us so fast. It came like a flash on us. And since pandemic, many companies have pivoted and successfully shifted and shifted their business to digital, work from remote. One thing pandemic has done has demystified this work from home. And it's also set ultimatum for leaders like us, which is remote work or no work. I mean that's the kind of the ultimatum. So frankly speaking, Bret, to answer your question about the hybrid, mileage you know, varies. It depends from company to another company and we are in the early stages of exploring hybrid enrollment.
Venki Krishnababu: And we also leaning in and learning from our peers and especially technology industry, like yours Bret, Microsoft and other top technology companies, are kind of in the forefront trailblazing it. They are also learning and watching the industry. To me it's we are as I said, in the early stages. I'm a strong believer of test, learn, let the data and experience drive the decisions in how this hybrid work is going to set. But we are definitely exploring hybrid work environment.
Bret Arsenault: That's amazing. And you're obviously a unique company in that you're a tech company. You do retail, you have manufacturing and then this you know, with the recent acquisition of the Murpark, you also have a hardware line. So, as I think about it, I'd be curious, this is a practitioners forum, so what would be in your mind, the biggest lesson you learned this past year during the pandemic? What would you do again and what would you do differently? If we could focus on those two areas, that would be super helpful for probably me and our listeners.
Venki Krishnababu: Yeah, oh boy talk about lessons. [LAUGHS] There are many. We as leaders and humans, I truly believe I am a student forever and we are continuous learners. And that's a mind-set I come in every day. And this pandemic has taught us a lot of stuff and one thing which stood out for me, besides technology, besides creating a scale of remote shift and all this stuff, one thing really, really stood out for me, which is people and how resilient and the adaption and adoption to this new way of working, shifting. And doing that in less than three, four weeks, to be honest, I'm humbled, at the same time incredibly impressed and thankful in how our team here rallied. And within three weeks we are, three to four weeks our entire corporate functions, we call it SSC, which is Store Support Center. Everything we do revolves around our guest and stores. We call it Cell Corporate Headquarters and Store Support Centers.
Venki Krishnababu: So what we did is, we shifted almost 2,000 plus workforce, corporate functions completely remote work. And that's just the-- the tip of the iceberg, right?
Bret Arsenault: Mm mm.
Venki Krishnababu: So then if you take the next step, as we go through the pandemic, like March, April, like pretty much the entire economy, or the entire market, everything was shut down. I mean we have to close our stores. So then what happened, business shifted. So we started to go full on digital and as a result, if you look at our contact center, we call this The Guest Education Center, GEC. We used to have almost 400 folks concentrated in one full building to serve our guests. This is the guest first in our contact line, right? Anything wrong with order or if they need any help, or event for something they want to buy, so many functions and services GEC performs. We shifted them to work remotely. The entire GEC workforce. And that happened in less than four to five weeks.
Venki Krishnababu: And this all things, like you said, right? We are not prepared. There is no step by step play book. For global pandemic it's exactly these are things you had to do. What we did is, having a resilient team and all leaders and the team putting their heads together, had one goal in mind; how do we enable our people? How do we serve our guests in the best possible way? And business continuity. Keeping these three as priority we made several decisions and we implemented several technologies and we enabled this remote workforce. So that's what I would say the biggest learning for me is the resiliency and when committed people put their heads together and how they evolve out of crisis, it is mesmerizing for me to watch and share very, very fortunate to be part of that journey. That's the first thing I would say at micro level, for me learning is about how to be adaptable.
Venki Krishnababu: And then the secondary set of learnings, right, there are technologies, there are platforms and the demystifying of working from home. We-- we enabled many collaboration tools and that also includes our teams-- who full-- full on teams enterprise level. And on top of that, security. Once we go remote, we are no longer protected by the-- you're-- you're very caught with that and you're expert in that area. We are no longer protected by the parameter of our SSC and all the security is out the window now. We need to pivot and how did we pivot? Ensuring that we have a large scale cloud centric scalable VPN platforms. We realized another example, how did we enable our GEC workforce? So many companies have gone through several ways to enable their workforce and keep the business running and humming. One thing I can tell about the second part of the question you asked about is we are definitely much better prepared. My biggest wish is we don't want to go through this again. [LAUGHS]
Bret Arsenault: Yeah.
Venki Krishnababu: As the pandemic subsides, we got a lot of community learnings as well. Also social behavior learning, hopefully we learn and apply them so we don't have to go through it again. But, in the case, for-- for a better reason, if we go there, I would say, resiliency planning. In my books, it's a never-ending process. It's always have to happen in continuum. So what we have learned, create a play book, whatever you have, we have, we rely and lean on that. And improvise further, is what I would say I would do differently. Learn, apply, improvise, iterate, and make it even better.
Bret Arsenault: That's great! I think to your point around people being resilient, we also got resilient systems. But I think we've learned a lot about people resiliency and in particular, the impact on managers. For a minute on the tech side, I'm curious though, you did some pretty interesting things with RFID at Lululemon through code. I think that really helped. Can you explain a little bit about that?
Venki Krishnababu: Yeah. So what we have done is we have rolled out our RFID platform which is truly helpful in store operations. Normally for store operations, all our OMNI fulfillment functions. So, during the pandemic, what we did is, we were able to continue to provide, of course, with safety first and all the social distancing precaution and we followed all the regulations and rules. What we did is, we used those platforms to unlock many new capabilities. To start with our store fulfillment and ship from stores, we were able to pivot and shift digital orders and fulfill E-COM orders from stores as an example. And then as the pandemic start to somewhat subside, we start to slowly open the stores based on the capacity and the guidelines of the local government there, right?
Venki Krishnababu: So we unlocked many new capabilities in preparation to provide that great service to our educators in a socially distanced manner, at the same time and save them some other technology like Curbside Pickups. And then virtual wait list which is digital appointments, contactless payments and the list goes on and on. It's because of some strong foundational platforms we put in place which allowed us to create new many technical capabilities to help our educators, we call our Sales Associates educators. So educator in store empowering them with some powerful technology that enabled them to serve our guests, in store guests, in a much secure socially distanced manner, without compromising the service.
Venki Krishnababu: So those are some technology unlocks we have done and the foundation which we put allowed us to do our main fulfillment, the buying and pick-up in store. Buying and pick up at door is another one which we enabled. And gift tubs during holiday seasons, we created less dense packed gift tubs which is focused only on gifts. So it was-- it was quite a journey and we did all that in like three, four months. Flash speed, I would say.
Bret Arsenault: So here's my question then, do you think that you used to go too slow?
Venki Krishnababu: Oh wow! The thing is, speed and...
Bret Arsenault: That was-- that was-- that was kinda mean, but I was just-- I look at-- I look at all these digital transformation, I even look at us, and I'm like, why didn't I push on some of these far sooner?
Venki Krishnababu: [LAUGHS] No, what happened is, it's everyone rallying towards the same thing, right? And all of a sudden you get this momentum, the fly wheel affect, but you're right. The entire world digital acceleration which is supposed to be in five to 10 year happened within one year because pandemic forced us.
Bret Arsenault: Yeah, no, and I think in fairness, it's sort of a teaser question which was, some of the things that you did, wouldn't have worked had it not been for the pandemic. Like people in the in-store experience and everything else. And one of the things I was curious about in that scenario, if we could, so you have the things you did as it happened and as you were in the middle of the pandemic. Now we have, as you said, more places coming online in different capacities, in this hybrid workforce, what's Lululemon thinking about the models going forward? Is it, nobody's coming back? Or certain roles are coming back? Or it's 50/50? Or what? What's your-- what's your principal view on that?
Venki Krishnababu: The principal view on this is as I mentioned earlier, Bret. We are in the early stages. We are definitely in our exploring our hybrid work environment. Our SSC's are still there, which is our corporate headquarters are, the tech hubs, our other hubs. We are a global company and we have SSC's across the globe. So, what we are doing is, it's definitely we're going in with the mindset of explore this hybrid environment and understand how this works for us. And then adjust as needed, as we go, right? And this is very, what I truly believe, let-- let the data and let the experience dictates how we evolve.
Venki Krishnababu: The percentage of 50 here, 50 there, is somewhat secondary. What primary is there is no one size fits all approach for this. Some companies might go 100%. Some companies might say, "hey you ought to be 80% here and 20% there". So for us, we have not decided on percentage, rather we have more of a test and learn, explore, understand and also we are keenly leaning on other industries too. And this is where, Brey, I would love to hear from you also, turn the question back to you, like how you are seeing it and hear from you as well.
Bret Arsenault: Hey, you don't get to do that to the host. [LAUGHS] I think adapt and adopt and adopt and adapt model, that's a virtuous cycle that you have to think about and I think that's a smart way to think about it. I think for me, I mean a digitalized balance view. So the question is, there's companies in some industries are more prone and capable to be able to do this, but, where you have full on prem-- department that does a pendulum swing all the way to the right, or it's how far do you swing that pendulum. And I think much like you, our-- our view is we certainly have seen that people have the capability to be productive remotely, in many other roles. And we will continue to embrace and support that. But we'll also use the data to make sure. I look at the daily data on our productivity, on our collaboration capabilities, on the wellness of our employees. And if we start seeing it get out of whack, or frankly if we see competitive pressures, we'll react to those as well.
Venki Krishnababu: Mm.
Bret Arsenault: But, for sure the two things I would say we've been seeing is; we've seen a new model that can work and be very affective both for our employees and our vendors. And we'll continue to adopt more of that. And then we will continue to use like you said, the data to let us know whether it's still working or if we've gone too far.
Venki Krishnababu: Yeah.
Bret Arsenault: And I think that's gonna be super interesting. But, it's I think the biggest issue, and I'd be curious of your view on this, is how to help manage and be affective in that model? Like I see the individual contributors. It's not so hard to go do, but we've the data showing us the managers really bear the brunt of time zone changes in their workforce. Or trying to be more available and they take a lot more of the hit. So, how do we make sure that they don't have biases in that space? Or that we arm them to be super affective. I know we've talked a little bit about that in the past. How are you thinking about that with enabling your managers to be affective managers in this scenario?
Venki Krishnababu: I think it is important to ensure that we providing the necessary support and the guidance for our-- our leaders. Right? I would start with first, ensure there's proper logistics and infrastructure which includes security is in place, right?
Venki Krishnababu: Yes.
Bret Arsenault: So make sure that's there. And be clear about what the policy, the why behind it and be crystal clear about it. If you leave gray area, it's a slippery slope. So you got to be clear about that. And then followed by do not lose sight of culture. The-- the culture is also important for any-- any company and it's very important in continuous feedback. Gathering and creating active explicit listening sessions. Understanding what's going on at the ground and that beat, listening is important. And then correction followed by the continuous feedback loop. In a technical term we call the SICD loop, right?
Bret Arsenault: Yeah, right.
Venki Krishnababu: It's the same way-- same way we need to have that continuous agile feedback loop, to make micro corrections as opposed to waiting for something big to happen and make new macro corrections, which would be painful. And again, the second part will be leadership, leading people, leading teams, supporting them, even in the pre-pandemic time. In a global multinational workforce like us, it's never an easy task. Right? We are highly distributed. We are a global multinational company. I have teams in-- in global and different locations, so some level of careful and thoughtfulness is required, even before this pandemic started.
Venki Krishnababu: Now with this pandemic in mind, we need to make sure inclusivity, equity and all the stuff is part of, and I'm being explicit about it as it is important. And last but not least, I would say, definitely empathy. Creating that empathy and leading with empathy and extra empathy at this time, for our people. It's extremely important as we navigate through this pandemic.
Bret Arsenault: Thank you. Let me come back to a comment you made about getting data and being empathetic, you know we refer to it as digital empathy and I think...
Venki Krishnababu: Yeah.
Bret Arsenault: ...these times have shown us that's super important. Not looking for an advertisement for Microsoft, or any other company, but I am curious like, what are some of the tools you're gonna use to actually help people be productive in a hybrid workforce? And what are some of the tools you're going to use to really build a-- collect that data that people could learn from on the-- on the call?
Venki Krishnababu: So another good question, Bret. There are some tools, and I personally use it for my personal effectiveness. We use the 0365 suite quite a bit. The my analytics part which clearly...
Bret Arsenault: Oh yeah.
Venki Krishnababu: ...tells me okay, how much time I'm spending on meetings. How much think time I have. And who are my top collaborators? All those things are really intriguing to me sometimes. So I go on to this deep introspection, why did I do that in our last week for that long? Right? So it allows me to understand, how do I balance my time and-- and a lot of other folks within the company also use it. And I also use screen time for my mobile devices and that's another way to look at it. I'm a big believer in data but there's only one area I don't measure things with data, Bret. This is going to be somewhat related, and at the same time why I believe technology data and analytics is going to help us provide insights and-- and become efficient continuously. There's no question about that belief. But what I believe beyond that is, we as leaders having the right team, right people, empowering them, creating the friction-free platform for them to collaborate.
Venki Krishnababu: And we do all those things and keep an eye on those things productivity becomes an automatic outcome of that. And so that's where I pay close attention to the-- the stress levels of the team. I-- I'm in the meeting I explicitly ask for, let's have the video, let's have, especially one on one. We need to be able to read the body language, understand how our people are responding. There's so many things you can pick up as human, which machines have still not learned yet. So...
Bret Arsenault: Yeah.
Venki Krishnababu: ...it's a combination and balance between leadership, the human empathy and connection followed by take advantage of the rich data and analytics and tools, which allows you to create more effectiveness. And also make course corrections and adjustments.
Bret Arsenault: Yeah, I think it's a-- it's a great comment. Even where data has shown us that, I look at you were entering workplace analytics and I look at two party calls and how much they've gone up. Which is really it's a replacement for the hallway conversation, that really subtle little thing, like, "hey how did you do this?" But now it requires a call. So you see those things go up and I think having the ability to still do those is important. And then for me, sadly, I get the "hey you sent this thing in off-hours" I'm like, "no I didn't, I was in a different time zone." but I haven't been able to trick the system into that part yet.
Venki Krishnababu: Well the technology Bret, really helped me. This is my personal story I'm sharing. I'm a-- I'm a runner. I love to run and-- and what happened during the peak of this pandemic, I lost sight of that and meetings after meetings, back to back, back to back, back to back and then I look at it and then they use this working analytics data there's no breaks, and I'm going like crazy. This is not sustainable. So, what I did is, took the data, worked with my personal assistant, then ensured that incorporate stitch deliberate breaks, that lunch time is sacred time. Unless really, really some major emergency, that block is for me and I'm going to go a run. That really helped me to get that mental balance.
Venki Krishnababu: So same I encouraged my team also to ensure that your deliberate breaks. Watch for data, watch for how the pattern changes, so definitely technology does help and we also have to explicitly watch for it too.
Bret Arsenault: Yeah, and that's a great example on the taking the lunch break. I think that's super important. One of the things that I think about in this scenario is just from knowing you perspective, I have this standard set of questions that I ask everybody, so do you mind if I run through a couple of them?
Venki Krishnababu: Yeah, sure.
Bret Arsenault: Alright. What's a book you're currently reading and what's a book you would recommend that people read?
Venki Krishnababu: Oh wow! The book is Brave Leadership by Brianna Brown. It's really, really a good book on leadership. I really dig a lot of, I believe the number of leadership books was this technology book for me, it was like 60-40. [LAUGHS]
Bret Arsenault: Yeah, yeah.
Venki Krishnababu: So, and then I'm also on the technology side, it's more of Bret, you might notice this third parties of like chain software, right? I'm reading more on the industry. How that's fast evolving industry and fascinating at the same time. So I'm reading about that. I definitely would recommend the Brianna Brown's book, if you're a really a big fan of leadership and wanting to incorporate some-- there's good leadership lessons incorporated which we all can learn and apply. And it's very practical.
Bret Arsenault: That's great. And I love practical leadership books. But I think that's a-- that's probably one of the most important ones for me. That's super helpful, thank you. I just like to think from a priority-- you mentioned supply chain. It's obviously a growing risk area in terms of impact, amplitude, frequency and tight exploitation. So what I'm wondering from you, you don't have to be a supply chain but just the three things that people or practitioners on this phone should think about in order to make sure that they can secure their hybrid workforce? And then the one thing they should avoid? So three things they should do and one thing they should avoid from the perspective of you as the senior vice president of technology at Lululemon.
Venki Krishnababu: Three things I would say is, I always look in terms of three compartments of anything I do. One is, start with people. The people making sure the wellness and education and how they're adapting. I'm taking it in fact, your question a little bit more into macro level, Bret about with this hybrid workforce, one of the three things we as leaders need to watch for and do right? So working with our people, understanding how they are working with their teams, especially for leaders who are leading other leaders, it's extremely important to get the pulse. And then training and wellness, listening, all those things got to be incorporated from a people stand point. And how do you ensure that the digital fatigue is not getting the best of you? And that's going to be the million dollar question every day, every leader, when they wake up need to answer.
Venki Krishnababu: And what am I going to do today to reduce that digital fatigue? So, that's one on people. Then on process, right. So if you look at process, there are many processes got naturally evolved, and some of them pandemic driven. So, we have launched the save buildings when you come in, operational capacity matters. Where you sit matters. The social etiquette or social distancing matters. And some of them are technology driven, some of them are process driven. So, process driven are you have to ensure that you are declaring when you're coming in, setting some standards and workforce policies and that's the process aspect of it. And how do you gain access, is another example. You have to go through, especially being a remote, the computer you're using, the device using, the be why exploring on one end. How do you ensure that the new on-board incident things are it's super clear, it's super secure, right? Very well secure. Those are the things from a process stand point.
Venki Krishnababu: From a technology stand point, this is what-- what I would say is every day we got to look at, what platforms we use. What are the things we need to bring in? I gave examples last time Bret, that enablement of GEC workforce with Assure VDI, it's a big unlock.
Bret Arsenault: Yeah.
Venki Krishnababu: There is this balance between empowering and also securing, protecting our employees and our workforce. And there are tools which allows you to solve those. Right? And then you working on those technology, evolving technology and also meeting with industry exports and learning from them and incorporating them. So, technology is the one fast moving part of the three components. So, how do you keep pace with that? So keeping pace with it. One thing I would avoid is, this is an ultra marathon. Take pit stops. And ensure that you're taking care of yourself too. Don't get fatigue. As I said, don't let fatigue get the best of you, because once if your health is not good, you're done. So you can't think, you can't make the right decisions. It's so important for everyone and especially for leaders too. Find the way to de-stress yourself. And it's running for me, yoga for someone. Who knows? It depends on each one. So that's what I would avoid. Avoid that fatigue and watch for the stress signals carefully.
Bret Arsenault: Yeah. Totally agree and understand the different points you're bringing up. And I like the people, the process and then the technology piece. And I think this avoiding thing, I think people become far more mindful, I hope, that sustains posts in the pandemic situation, I think. Like I said. The only think you know you can take into retirement or anything else you overdo, is your health. So I think that's a really good way to think about it. Is there anything else you want to add, Venki that just free form that you'd like to add or things you wanted to portray as a message?
Venki Krishnababu: Yeah, I mean this is more of an opportunity for me to share. We here at Lululemon, we are I would say, in a great spot of innovating. We are a very good product brand and we are OMNI channel and multinational global company and technology is in it's current center of enabling. And we doing some innovative work and innovative work in terms of new technologies, new platforms. Either it's our finding or it's block chain or it's data match in as your data analytics, as your data breaks. I mean we are doing some several technologies, building some great stuff and doing some wonderful work in-- in the Cloud. So we are hiring. So would love, [LAUGHS] for folks to look at us more of an innovative technology as a company, as well as in addition to being a vertical brand.
Bret Arsenault: That's a great way to close it up, because I think it's one thing for people to get to know your company and I think people could think of you as a retailer and apparel company when the reality is you're so much more in the terms of you're digitally transformed. You're doing even hardware work in the way you think of the value of how you pull together data customer experience and all the other work. It's-- it's a testament to a great-- a great business and how every company today is both technology company and more.
Venki Krishnababu: Yeah, thank you Bret.
Bret Arsenault: Thanks so much.
Bret Arsenault: Thanks for listening. I look forward to our next episode. Remember stay safe, and stay secure.