A New Role

For the past two years, I’ve been working as a product engineer developing picture frames and limited time only products. I have been largely focused on the item-level details of our various assortments. I reported to a product development manager (PDM) whose job it was to lead us through the process of product development, and ensure every member of the team (buyers, packaging, engineering, design, leadership) were all producing the right deliverables at the right time. He managed our development calendar in order to anticipate obstacles, secure resources and create strategy. He facilitated the correct conversations at the correct time to create alignment with other teams and leaders. He was a program manager at the core, with additional responsibility for team and technical strategy. It was his job to keep the cross functional team running smoothly, producing great product and getting it to stores on time.  (He did great, btw.)

Well, now, it’s my job!

As of last week, I joined the Housewares team who develops kitchen tools & gadgets, barware, bakeware, cookware and cutlery. Target has tremendous breadth of product in these categories, and many different brands both Target-owned and national. Our part in this is the development of owned or exclusive brand offerings such as Chefmate, Room Essentials and Threshold. I also get to lead a team with incredible talent and guest empathy who weave user experience into everything they do.

As I onboard into this new role, I’m drawing both great strength and caution from my own experience as a Target engineer. I know the product development process in and out, and the specific ways I accomplished the job. In this role, however, I have to use that experience judiciously, because even a few weeks in I’m fighting the urge to solve – to prescribe – to execute! I’ve led teams and people before, but I was always alongside them developing product in a same or similar job. It was easy to lead by executional example. As a PDM, I step away from that somewhat and lead through other means. I must now use experience not to hand down solutions, but to influence, to organize, to build consensus and enable my team to bring their own experience to a better solution.

I’m excited to have the time to focus on team, resources, and grow skills in cross-functional leadership. It’s a natural next step given my background and future goals, even if it feels unfamiliar to step back from the day to day. Although, as exploration of unfamiliarity has been the goal of my Target experience, I’m still on the right track.

Interested in a career with Target? Learn more about opportunities in engineering or product design and development

Feed + Target

I hope by now you’ve seen that Target has partnered with Lauren Bush Lauren to bring a collection of products to shelves on June 30th. (FEED + Target is yet another example of Target’s commitment to giving back because the FEED + Target collaboration hopes to donate over 10 million meals through the FEED Foundation.) This collection has a ton of great items, some of which I was fortunate enough to help develop.

In some instances, PD+D teams will collaborate with design partners and help bring their product ideas to life or work through details. For Lauren’s collection, I worked on the bicycle, water bottles, iPhone 5 case, ceramic tumblers and baking dishes to name a few. At least, those are the products that have been made public at time of writing! Lauren is showing off the product in this video here.We were also lucky enough to meet Lauren and volunteer with her at a local food distribution center. Even Laysha Ward, our president of Community Relations, pitched in and helped out. Watch the video and look for the guy taping boxes. That’s me!

Working on the FEED USA + Target collaboration was an incredible growth experience for me and forced me outside my comfort zone. I’d never been responsible for development of bake ware, bicycles or water bottles, but I still needed to bring high quality product to market for our guest. Daunting as that seems, if you take this back to first principles, this is exactly what I do everyday – take partners into foreign and uncomfortable spaces to do something amazing. It seems counter-intuitive  but I could actually rely on experience because I did it when I worked on frames, and I did it when I worked on unmanned systems. Sure, the content was wildly different, but the underlying challenges and goals were the same.

Engineers out there, I really want you to hear me on that point. If you’re driven by creating great user experiences and products, be it in medical devices, software, or electronics, that skill set can be applied at Target. Even if you’re doing detailed hardware design, we’re still doing the same thing at the most basic level – solving problems and building things!

Interested in a career with Target? Learn more about opportunities in engineering or product design and development

From CAD to Ad

Product Design & Development delivers value to the corporation when we create products that delight our guests, and that they can’t find anywhere else. Unfortunately, the table frames that you saw in stores earlier this month were not unique in any way. They were old, tired, and frankly, weren’t delighting anyone. Furthermore, our guest had no reason to buy these at Target, because they could have gotten frames like these anywhere. As of this week, this has all changed! We just set close to 100% new table frames in the Room Essentials brand. Our new items are unique, exclusive to Target (’cause we designed them), deliver great style, great quality, and all at a tiny price point.

Now, with these items on the shelf, I want to show you some of the behind-the-scenes design process. Most interestingly, here is a complete set of 3D models I made when we were at the early stages of design.

  

I made these models almost a year ago when we were concepting new designs. This was a classic design exercise at Target – my design partner helped set the aesthetic while I defined the materials, detailed dimensions and created prototypes on our 3D printers. Over the course of the next three weeks, we played with the prototypes, collected feedback, revised the design and then sent it out for production.

Along the way, we had to overcome a few different challenges. I won’t describe them all, but to give you a look at the process, let’s follow how material for these designs evolved. First, the one on the bottom right was originally going to be aluminum. I had big plans for anodizing or applying a chemical film to register our seasonal colors. That was great, except that aluminum was tremendously expensive, and our manufacturers couldn’t efficiently execute that shape in aluminum. So, we looked to the oft-used polyvinylchloride; however, if you’ve ever seen a regular PVC frame, it looks cheap and disposable. They’re always glossy and they scratch easily. To solve this, I worked closely with our manufacturer to develop a brand new technique of finishing a PVC frame with a hard, matte surface – a technique that our manufacturer had never attempted previously.

Here we have an example of true end-to-end design where we went all the way from CAD (computer aided design) to Ad. We started with rough models, prototyped them, overcame a few production challenges and eventually set great product in the store. I know my last post (Full Circle) featured the weekly circular as well, but this highlights a very neat aspect of working in product design and development (PD&D) at Target.

Interested in a career with Target? Learn more about opportunities in engineering or product design and development

Full Circle

We made the cover! This is a big honor for our team because front cover space of the weekly ad is in such high demand.

In Product Design & Development, we start working on products almost a full year before they are scheduled to hit store shelves. (We designed the items in the above circular back in December and January of 2011/2012.) Because I’ve been in my job for about 18 months, I am now regularly seeing things my team created in stores and in ads. In fact, in just over two weeks time, everything in the picture frame section at Target will be the work of my team – nearly each of the 350+ items. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this is because of a major overhaul on this aisle, and the finishing touches will hit stores in just a few weeks. Of course, I will be right here with pictures, showing it off and encouraging you to go out and take a look for yourself.

Our designs are finally in guest hands and in their homes; they’re coming full circle.  Seeing your product being used and enjoyed by a consumer is a constant motivator for any engineer. I think it’s true whether you’re designing airplanes or picture frames, because the joy is knowing the work, thought and effort you put into something is being appreciated by someone else. Any engineer who’s known this feeling also understands it’s a bit of an addiction. A little positive guest feedback, and you need it again and again.

We got a hit of that feeling this week when Dana at housetweaking.com sent some love our way for our new fall picture frames. It’s so exciting to see something you designed being used and enjoyed, whatever it is, and especially if someone’s kind words end up on the internet. Engineering and designing products for a retailer gives us the chance to experience that feeling regularly because we touch thousands of products and reach millions of guests every year. I admit though, it’s a bit humbling and I feel the weight of that visibility when we send products to stores. It’s almost a higher call to performance, because you know just how many people will use and experience your design – success and failure of your work are extremely public. This stands in stark contrast to other industries where you may spend a career developing a small piece of one assembly that may only be used by a handful of people (granted, the stakes can be higher in those industries – rockets, per se). The reach of your work is yet another interesting point of being an engineer at Target.

Interested in a career with Target? Learn more about opportunities in engineering or product design and development

Line Reviews

3 cities, 4 days.

With no more than 24 hours in any one city, I spent all of last week on travel for Fall 2013 frames development. I visited some of our best vendor partners along with the rest of my team – sourcing, design and our buyers. We call these meetings “line reviews” and they’re an important touch point in our development process. Almost 6 weeks ago, we sent our vendors direction for next Fall’s products. By direction, I mean designs for all our frames – everything on how our frames should look, feel and function. We prescribe materials, assembly techniques, aesthetics, shape, etc. so the vendor can create products specifically for Target. Vendors use the time following release of product direction to create prototypes that we can see at our line review.

Often times, vendors will create 2 to 3 times as many products as we have room for, so we need to do a little pre-screening during the meeting. This is a highly collaborative time for the team as everyone has to agree on what looks right (designers), what’s made right (engineers), what will sell (buyers) and what we can afford and source (sourcing). Everyone reviews the prototypes together and contributes based on his/her area of expertise. We repeated this three times, once with each vendor. The picture above captures the mood of these meetings perfectly – dozens of products and much discussion.

From here, the team will request real samples of the items that best fit our product direction and the vendor will send them to Minneapolis in preparation for our first review with merchandising and product development leadership. Based on what we saw on travel, this review will be full of new, differentiated product that will ensure a successful Fall 2013!

Interested in a career with Target? Learn more about opportunities in engineering or product design and development

Overhauling

New Fall Frames

One of the things I admire about Target is the appetite for change, on all scales. Not only do I see a constant push for “newness” (a word to add to your Target lexicon), but an actual aversion to the status quo. I’m not quite far enough into my career to declare this as “unique”, but am experienced enough to call it “very uncommon”. We continually validate past decisions to ensure they’re still relevant to today’s marketplace and, when we find they’re not, adjust strategy accordingly. I have never heard the words “that’s how it’s always been done” used to justify a decision. One such example of this comes from our picture frames business.

Target frames have looked a bit tired in the past, and have been without a meaningful standard of quality or cohesive aesthetic. Our team made the case for change and we were given permission to launch a major overhaul of our category, touching everything from the way the product is displayed to the actual product itself. We started with intensive research to learn everything we could about our frames Guest and made those findings the basis for all of our product design and presentation strategies. My job, as an engineer, was to set our quality strategy for each brand and ensure that standard was reflected in every single new item we created. My design counterpart had the exciting (and, daunting) task of setting a new design vision for almost 24ft (that’s 5 Target shelves-worth) of product. And, by the way, we only had 2 months to design over 100 new products!

This overhaul also coincided with the launch of our newest owned brand, Threshold, where quality was to be elevated even higher. Responding to that challenge, we strictly enforced the use of only the best materials and construction techniques in Threshold frames – things like solid hardwoods and ceramics.

Here’s what this category looked like before our cross functional team started work.

Before!

And, after, as currently set in stores across the country.

After!

If you’ve shopped the category over the past few months, you hopefully noticed the drastic changes our team made. I’m proud to say that every item we created adheres to a superior standard of quality and design. This is a perfect example of what’s great about PD&D – you’re rarely confined to the item level. Engineers and designers get to partner closely with buyers, sourcing, marketing and packaging to consult on all aspects of the business and help make BIG changes.

Interested in a career with Target? Learn more about opportunities in engineering or product design and development

On Certainty

My ultimate goal by blogging is to raise awareness that Target hires engineers, and to do that I first want to compare and contrast a few things to shed some light on what it means to me to be an engineer at Target. In upcoming posts, I’ll show what day-to-day life is like in Product Design and Development to give you a more detailed sense of the experience.

Engineering at Target is unlike anything I have ever experienced in my previous work history and education. As an engineering student sitting through four semesters of calculus, materials science, physics and chemistry, I was always operating with the understanding that there exists one correct and final answer to any problem. Think back to any final exam you’ve taken in these types of classes – there’s no room for discussion, estimation or “feel”, only a problem to be solved and one correct answer. Right and wrong, black and white. To a certain degree, that carries forward into an engineer’s first job. While the problems are substantially larger and more complicated, we continue to operate under the assumption that there is one perfect design out there waiting to be uncovered through the right mathematical steps. We might never find it, but we know it’s out there. Assumptions like this are enabled by the fact that the universe is bounded by laws – it’s predictable and repeatable. If I design you a wing to lift 100 pounds, it will. In fact, I can guarantee you that it will because it’s bound by physical principles to do so. (My engineer friends will bristle at this gross oversimplification, but the point remains.) Furthermore, I can measure the design’s performance against an ideal state and gauge my success (efficiency).

Now, take for example Target’s core guest (Mom, roughly) shopping for dinner plates or picture frames. By what physical principles is she bound? By what mathematical formula can you predict her behavior? What is the perfect state of a dinner plate? Loaded questions, obviously, because there is no right answer. I can’t design you a lamp, formulate you a hand soap or knit you a sweater that I can guarantee will sell 100 units, let alone 10,000. Even if it sells 10,000 units, couldn’t it sell 100,000? 1,000,000? There’s no definite ideal and there’s no practical maximum.

So, what’s an engineer – trained to leverage predictability to his or her  advantage – do if there is no certainty, and no final answer?

Collaborate. We pick our heads up out of our notebooks and start taking partners. The category buyer knows what sells, the sourcing manager knows what it costs, the designer knows how it should look, and the engineer (that’s me) knows how it should be built and experienced by the Guest. In the absence of certainty, we collaborate with our teammates to arrive at a best solution, not a final solution. We consider indeterminate factors, make the best decisions we can, and apply our experience in subsequent designs.

Wrapped up in all this is the opportunity Target offers engineers – the chance to leverage your analytic thinking skills and inherent knack for problem solving to tackle soft, round, undefined problems. I can’t say that this is technically more difficult than building bridges or airplanes; it’s not. However, Target engineering experience is possibly richer because of what it lacks.

Interested in a career with Target? Learn more about opportunities in engineering or product design and development

Target Hires Engineers!

Last year I was invited to attend a career fair to recruit Engineering interns.  What struck me immediately was how so many young, bright engineers would stream past our booth and form long lines in front of Fortune-ranked defense, medical and industrial companies.  As I started to engage passersby, they would almost always say, “What? Target hires engineers??”, invariably followed by a”…to do what?”  From there it dawned on me, I needed to spread the message that Target hires engineers! To that end, I’ve been given this humble platform to spread the message, describe exactly what engineers do at Target, and why this is a pretty good gig if you are one.

As proof of the fact that  Target hires engineers, I, myself, have a degree in Aerospace Engineering & Mechanics. I worked in the defense industry developing small, unmanned surveillance aircrafts prior to joining Target. I did everything from wing and propulsion designs to live flight demonstrations for foreign governments. It was a great chance to do detailed engineering, and learn my trade. Eventually though, I realized that I wanted leadership opportunities, business experience and the chance to think BIG. Engineers generally face this fork at some point in their career path – leadership or engineering fellow (the highest strata of engineers within a major organization). For me, I want to follow the leadership path. Because I knew that I wanted to join an organization with dedication to developing leaders, a focus on personal challenge and growth and a fast paced schedule to bring innovation to market, I chose Target.  And when I got here, I realized I wasn’t necessarily alone – I work every day with Electricals, Mechanicals, and even a Civil engineer.

So, I’ve answered the “Target hires engineers?” question. Let’s tackle the “…to do what?” part.

Target hires engineers to design and develop owned-brand products, in dozens of different categories ranging from camping gear to dinnerware to sunscreen. Each owned-brand product has a team of engineers and designers who actually have to bring the product to life, just like any national brand. Room Essentials, Threshold, Xhilaration, Archer Farms, Market Pantry, up&up – the list of Target owned-brands goes on and on. Behind every product, in every one of these brands, are engineers and designers – right here at Target in Minneapolis. We develop these products for nearly 1800 stores in 49 states and generate billions of dollars in revenue for Target. At every step, we design these products to provide a great value and experience to the millions of Guests who buy them. Pretty neat if you ask me.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will continue to spread my message that Target hires engineers and share with you exactly what we do, and why this is a great place to practice the craft.

Interested in a career with Target? Learn more about opportunities in engineering or product design and development