What we learned building our digital product teamPath 2

What we learned building our digital product team

by OJ Hornung and Angela Wong

H-E-B isn't your average tech company. And it's not your regular brick-and-mortar grocery store either. Roughly one year ago, we decided to borrow from the startup world and do a little disruption, this time to ourselves.

The growth of our Curbside service was so dramatic, we decided to push it further and significantly bolster and accelerate our investment in digital—to create a customer experience that sets us apart from the competition, not just by honing our focus on pickup, delivery, and the operations around it, but by investigating and innovating every part of the H-E-B experience, just like we do in our stores. Our team grew by nearly 200 members in less than a year. 

Two of those "new hires" are our Design Directors — Angela Wong, leading Experience Design, and OJ Hornung, leading Product Design. One year in, we asked them to reflect on what they learned and how they plan to keep building a best-in-class team focused on changing the world of retail. 

Angela: Year One! We did it. What three words would you use to describe Year One at H-E-B Digital? 

OJ: Uhhh. Laughs. Have much patience. 

Angela: Laughs. 

OJ: Yeah, I mean when you're trying to do something different at an organization that's over 100 years old, there's a lot to learn. There's just domain expertise you don't have yet. Having patience is key for understanding those new and complex problems. What would your three words be? 

Angela: Hmmm. Learning. Iterate. Learning. 

OJ: Care to explain? 

Angela: Well, the space that H-E-B operates across is so vast. There's so much to learn and you have to have curiosity in spaces that are totally unfamiliar. Having the posture to be able to adapt and try things again or try them differently is important. Overall, there's a lot to learn and build on.

So of course, one of the first things we had to do in Year One was build out the team. What was that like for you? 

OJ: Well, I've built a smaller team before, but this is a whole different world. You're never not learning here. Every month I look back on the last month and it feels like it's been a year. Sometimes you say one thing and then you learn something else, and you have to change the whole process. That's good — the whole team has come on board knowing that's how it will go. It's not just me and you building the team. In a lot of ways, it's the team building the team. 

Angela: Dang! That’s deep, OJ. I think that's such a good point though, because we're always adding new people now and so the team is always changing. It's dynamic.

OJ: You have to be OK with resetting your expectations. We're all learning from each other's mistakes and using each other's insights. We work within a community that is ultra interested in providing and sharing perspectives. 

Angela: And to add to that, the problems we're trying to solve are challenging, but it's incredible to see what is possible when such talented individuals come together. 

OJ: Everyone is here because they love H-E-B. We have so many fans. They're rooting for us! You get to be the good guy here!

Angela: And that's a big responsibility too! There's a mission-based aspect of what we're doing at H-E-B Digital. We're feeding Texans and reaching out to the community. We want people who really value that, and who are willing to adapt because they know at the end of the day, we are working to serve our customers' needs. We're looking for people who have that curiosity and humility to learn. 

OJ: You nailed it. We do things in a unique way in a lot of cases, so you can't hire someone from another eComm platform who will just sit down and say, "Oh, I got this." We don't want that. We want someone who wants to be both a teacher and a student.  

There was a lot on our plates during Year One, but what do you think was the biggest initiative that the team was really focused on? 

"The problems we're trying to solve are challenging, but it's incredible to see what is possible."

Angela: This year is focused on finding the right way to solve problems. There are a lot of layers of processes and communication. We're creating digital products that are not just digital. In many cases, it's the store, the space, the product on shelves and we've really had to learn how to be fluid between digital and analog. 

What do you see for the team in Year Two? 

OJ: It's not so much about building the team anymore, the focus is shifting toward getting better at our craft, while still moving forward on every one of our projects and priorities.

Angela: We want to get things out there and ensure that they are continually getting better. We want to iterate and scale. As designers, we're excited to get these experiences into the hands of our customers. 

OJ: This year is about building the foundation technologies for all that we're going to do. Year One was, what does the foundation for scale look like while also operating a $26-billion-dollar business? Now we want to take it further. We want to say we worked on something that your parents, your friends, your neighbors are using that's making their lives a little easier. 

Angela: We're really here to redesign what's in the world in a meaningful way. We're not a lab. We aren't here to experiment and innovate just for the sake of it, we're designing things to really help our customers. That's been really important to me, so I'm excited to see what the next year brings us.

OJ: If you want to be a part of something bigger, this is it. You can work at a place that's full of soul but it might come with really tough challenges, and honestly, I'd pick that every time. It's an exciting time to be a part of H-E-B. 

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