Target IT boss says retailers must narrow technology focus

When Mike McNamara began his new role at Target 18 months ago, the chief information and digital officer gave each executive five post-it notes and asked them to right down their technology priorities. One executive told him he was crazy and asked for the whole packet.

"I know what these guys are like with lists and PowerPoints," he said. "But I held firm. I probably wasn't the most popular person in the room – in fact I know I wasn't."

The reason McNamara conducted this ruthless process of prioritisation was because when he arrived at the business in 2015 – after 17 years at Tesco – the found the US retailer was running 800 different technology projects.

"Target is a big company, but no company should have 800 priorities," he said. "I wanted to do fewer things better."

The executive directors asked McNamara what he needed to be successful in his new role and he replied: "less money and fewer people".

McNamara says this wasn't to reduce technology costs to be financially prudent, but because too many people and too much money means the retailer works on too many projects that do not matter. "And things that do matter get lost," he said.

Following this meeting, he set out the technology agenda for the entire year. "It was the first successful step in changing the mindset at Target," he explained. "Sometimes in tech, less is more. And engineering resource shouldn't be squandered but directed to strategic priorities of the business."

When McNamara joined the business, Target had only been running its own website in house for five years after taking it off its the AWS platform and it was still licking its wounds following the 2013 data breach which impacted 40 million customers and cost the business $39 million in settlement fees.

"We were the poster child for data breaches – that's a tough history," he said. "And in 18 months we've moved from being a laggard to a leader in technology, now we're best in class for cyber security and running a digital store front."