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What Will Retail Look Like Post-COVID? Gap Inc.’s VP of Engineering Has Ideas

smiling person with long brown hair and an orange shirt with flowers
Sharmeelee Bala, Vice President of Engineering at Gap Inc.
| Courtesy of Gap Inc.

It’s rare these days for someone to stay at the same company for decades, but Sharmeelee Bala clocked almost 20 years working at Walmart before making the leap to Gap Inc. in 2018. What finally enticed her enough to make a big change, she says, was both the role and company leadership.

“As advised by one of my mentors, I always look at who I’m going to work for, and I was excited about the diversity of leaders I had met at Gap Inc. during my interview process,” she says. In addition, the women seemed both supportive and driven, “and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Fast-forward two years, and Bala is leading a global team across a portfolio of brands. As the Vice President of Engineering, she’s responsible for the teams that support all systems “product to market,” which includes designing, sourcing, planning, pricing, and working out the logistics systems needed to get products into customers’ hands.

Here, Bala (who was recently named one of Girl Geek X’s 60 Engineering Leaders to Watch) shares how the engineering field has changed, where the retail industry is headed, and why equilibrium is impossible with work-life balance.

You have a strong background in tech for retail businesses. What interests you about this particular industry?

It’s an industry that’s always evolving, and there’s a lot of space for creativity and innovation. In retail, you’re not maintaining systems; rather, you’re always looking for what’s next and using technology to help redefine the way people shop and engage around the world. Outside of innovation, your work is directly tied to customers and it makes the work much more interesting. You’re working on technology that you, your friends, and your family can experience and that’s really rewarding.

What are you responsible for in your role?

Technology in retail spans far beyond e-commerce and in-store checkout and is truly integrated into every step of the product development process. We oversee technology to help us source and design the products, appropriately plan and allocate them to different channels, operate our distribution centers to fuel our stores and online business, and more.

For example, with the increase in online demand from our customers this year due to COVID-19, my team worked with the distribution center operations teams to open up an online distribution center that is truly automated. It’s designed to be our highest capacity fulfillment center with integrated automation and robotics to process 1 million units per day. 

In addition to robotics technology, we implemented an automated storage and retrieval system with 425,000-case storage capacity with automated cranes that can quickly race up and down 24 aisles of storage space to stash away or retrieve thousands of cases. We also implemented Kindred SORT Orbs technology, which houses a robotic “arm” surrounded by a sphere of cubbies, and can quickly and accurately sort batches of units destined for multiple online orders. This project was a proud moment for the technology team at Gap Inc. and truly was a unique opportunity for us to learn and grow in new ways, especially during the pandemic.

What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?

There are quite a few—let me focus on the one that excites me most, which is our data strategy. To further leverage our scale and reach, we are building a global data platform that will elevate data and its use across the company. It will more easily bubble up the data we have to allow us to build even more personalized experiences for our customers and help us continue to be a data-driven company. The more we can stitch together the knowledge we have about our customers, the better we can tailor the shopping experience and make it smooth and convenient across our channels. And the opportunities here are endless. As one of the world’s largest specialty retailers, we have the resources and scale to redefine the way people shop.

How has Gap Inc. helped foster your growth and development?

At Gap Inc., I don’t have the fear of saying something that isn’t in agreement with everybody else. I’ve always felt heard and fairly assessed in our performance-driven culture. I don’t always speak up as often as I should, but I have leaders who push me to speak up and have a voice. In addition to the culture, the work is really exciting. The company has allowed me to do new things and stay engaged to grow my career.

What have been the keys to your success throughout your career?

Mentors have been a big part of my success. Mentors give honest, direct feedback and can give advice your direct peers can’t. When looking for a mentor, look for people with diverse backgrounds—different roles, industries, etc. Keep in mind, your mentor doesn’t need to work with you necessarily. They could be somebody at another company or a previous employer who provides valuable insight as you look to grow your career.

Engineering is widely known to be a male-dominated field. What advice do you have for women who want to follow a similar career path as yours?

Continue to stay on top of the technology changes and trends that are relevant to your business to help build your confidence to speak up. Remember, if you are invited to a meeting, you have earned the seat at the table. If you have a point of view, make sure it’s heard. If you don’t agree, speak up. If you speak up and your idea doesn’t land, it’s OK because you will always learn something from that experience.

How has the engineering field changed since you first entered the industry?

When I started in technology 20 years ago, the business drove our technology roadmap and strategy. Today, technology is leading the business strategy because it’s an enabler for our business partners and customers to think differently. We are at the forefront and in many cases are driving innovation in the industry. The digital transformation has driven us to be more customer obsessed than ever.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

Keep in mind that work-life balance is not 50/50. Somedays you might be 90% work and 10% life and then the next day the inverse. Figure out your non-negotiables, such as your child’s basketball games, and build your work-life balance around that. Oftentimes you can’t do both at 100% every day, and that’s OK. You don’t have to give up your career to be a mom and you don’t have to have to give up being a mom to have a career. You just have to figure out your own pace to get to where you want to be.