San Francisco: Walmart Labs, the technology unit of the world’s largest retailer, is looking for tech acquisitions in India, a top executive said.

In May, Walmart Inc. agreed to buy a 77% stake in online retailer Flipkart for $16 billion. Its tech acquisitions will be of a much smaller size—Walmart Labs is mostly looking for acqui-hires and niche tech-product start-ups here. Acqui-hiring refers to the practice of buying a company in a cut-price deal primarily for the purpose of “hiring" the company’s founders and key employees.

“We got close to doing a couple of (acquisitions)… nothing that was a perfect fit. There were a couple that would have been interesting additions to our competitive intelligence platform. I’m looking at (acquisition candidates) in merchandising, machine learning right now," Walmart chief technology officer Jeremy King said in an interview at the company’s office in Silicon Valley.

Walmart Labs set up its centre in Bengaluru, one of its three main offices globally, in 2011. Since then the Bengaluru office has rapidly added staff and expanded the scope of work that it handles. It now works on payments software, machine learning applications, supply chain systems, tech work for a Walmart-owned retail chain Sam’s Club and its UK supermarket chain Asda, among others.

King said that Walmart Labs will hire 2,000 engineers across the world, including India. Last year, Walmart Labs hired Hari Vasudev from Flipkart to head its Bengaluru office. Vasudev is also now acting head of data science for Walmart globally. Walmart Labs will hire more senior tech talent in Bengaluru.

“The initial team in Bengaluru was only 30 people and now we have several hundreds. We’re hiring machine learning experts, anyone who’s got merchandising and supply chain experience, data science and cloud experts… just high-quality engineers. We also have some product openings," he said.

He added that after Walmart completes the acquisition of Flipkart, which is expected to be wrapped up this quarter, Walmart Labs will work closely with the tech team of the Indian online retailer.

“Walmart tries to keep a hands-off approach at first because we’re big. Even with Jet (an online retailer Walmart acquired in 2016), we let them be on their own for a while because you don’t want to kill a good thing. But just like with Jet, Asda and others, with Flipkart there are places where we can collaborate."

American retail and tech firms such as Walmart, Amazon, Uber, Target and others have tech centres in Bengaluru as hiring engineers here is far cheaper than in the US.

When asked about tech talent, King said India has a large pool of quality engineers but it lacks sufficient product management talent.

“The math and the data science side is really strong (in India). We have some product managers but I think we need more. The world generally needs more product managers, but India in particular needs a little bit more discipline in (developing product managers). We also need people who can think of scale. Where do you get senior engineers that really understand how to deal with scale? That’s a constant struggle—the senior engineer problem," he said.

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