June 8, 2022

Tech Leaders Hiring Well featuring McMaster-Carr


Episode Highlights

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In the Tech Leaders Hiring Well series, Zac Colip, VP, Tech Practice at Hirewell chats with technology leaders to understand their leadership style and the differentiator that sets their business apart from others.

In this episode, Zac hosts Mrunil Champaneri, VP of Information Systems at McMaster-Carr, an e-commerce supplier of hardware, tools, raw materials, industrial materials, and maintenance equipment. They dive into how a tech career at McMaster-Carr means getting exposed to all parts of the business and how they have approached prioritizing DEI initiatives. 

Episode Transcript

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All right. We’ve got another episode of Tech Leaders Hiring Well. I want to welcome Mrunil Champaneri, Vice President of information systems at McMaster-Carr, an e-commerce company focused on industrial parts for manufacturing companies. Welcome Mrunil! Thanks for joining. Thanks Zac, excited to be here. Yeah. I’d love to start by learning a little bit about you.

You’ve been at McMaster-Carr for over 26 years. That’s really impressive! Something we don’t see a whole ton of in the tech space. So bravo! Can you tell me about your career and how you ended up in this position? Sure Zac. So I started at McMaster-Carr in 1996, right out of college.

Do not have a background in computer science or software development, but started with this sort of industrial supply company that I had sort of never heard of because I didn’t want to go to grad school. And in that role, I started to work on systems for the company.

So my first set of projects was about some sort of back office systems. Billing and financials, work with the company and through that process I got to know and learn a lot about McMaster-Carr. As I advanced in my career, I’ve gotten the opportunity to work on lots of different kinds of systems with McMaster-Carr. So we are the kind of company that does a lot of IT in sourcing.

So we have our own data centers. We write most of the software that we use in our internal systems, in our contact centers and our fulfillment centers, our website, the servers and networks, all those systems we’re on top of, we kind of manage all of that. So in my time here I’ve worked on things as varied as systems that automate the entry of email and fax orders. I’ve worked on systems that handles our disaster recovery among our data centers. I’ve worked on systems that handle our website, and through that process I’ve gotten to learn quite a bit about McMaster-Carr.

How we think about sort of our business, our place in the marketplace. Very much through the lens of our systems and rules, controls, ideas that we codify, in our systems. And it’s been a really great and rewarding journey enough so that I’ve decided to stick around for 25+ years.

That’s amazing. That’s amazing. It sounds like such a huge kind of technology footprint that the company has, a lot to manage. I’m sure you have your hands full. I’m interested, what are you excited about in the technology space right now? Is there something exciting out there that’s really gotten your attention?

Yeah Zac, it’s such an awesome time to sort of be in technology. I will say that throughout my career, you have different waves of technology. So early on in the 2000s, it was, there was so much new.

The internet was sort of very new and different, lots of new things emerging all the time. And I kind of feel like personally, we’re in this space that’s a little bit more stable. There’s this huge suite of awesome technologies that are mature and available in the marketplace.

And I will say the thing that really excites me about where we are now, is we can take this sort of huge menu of awesome mature technologies and apply them to the large business problems that we have at McMaster-Carr. So an example would be, we are really interested in investing in automation, in our distribution centers.

And so that is a huge sort of technical problem, right? It’s sort of, how do we get all this technology that controls mechanical systems like conveyors elevators, robotic arms, and those sorts of things. And how do we get them to fit with our systems and processes at McMaster-Carr? The melding of those two ideas provides incredible business value to McMaster-Carr. At the same time, with a really meaty technological sort of problems to solve and so something like that is really exciting to me. That’s so cool. I mean, automation is just so hot on the market right now, too.

So it’s really interesting to hear that you guys are so involved in that. Yeah and another one that I’m really excited about is we’re one of the engines that drives our business is our e-commerce site. And we have this idea of, we have hundreds of thousands of industrial products that we want to try to get customers to.

And we think of ourselves as a publisher. We want people to get to the product that they’re interested in. And that is a really awesome and interesting technological problem. And there are so many awesome technologies from web technologies, design technologies that are there to help customers find what they need.

And we are kind of in the middle of kind of remaking our publishing systems. Those are systems that have clear, direct contact with our customers and is sort of the driver of growth in our sort of value proposition to customers and so that’s another huge one that we’re investing in.

And the way we invest in that is, for the longterm we’re a company that’s been around for a hundred years. We intend to be around for a hundred more. And so the way we build and develop these systems is with an eye towards the future. Okay. Great! Great. And I mean, I’m sure it’s been an interesting evolution that you’ve seen with just how the tech team has grown.

What is the current tech team look like? Do you guys have like a lot of developers on the team, system engineers? What does it look like? Yeah, we have 200 person plus department. So I will say that the way that we tend to organize our work is in sort of project teams.

And so we have four to eight person project teams and we organize around projects. So it’s sort of what is this team trying to accomplish? And sometimes it’s oh, we want to upgrade our networking technology to sort of implement Cisco’s ACI software defined networking technology.

Sometimes it’s we have a project that is aimed at recognizing more terms that people type into our search box. And so typically we have a manager, we have engineers that are working with the appropriate people outside of the tech team to build the system that we need done.

Okay, great. Amazing. And as far as like how you build out your teams, what does that look like? How do you build your team as a manager and how do you prepare people for growth? Yeah. Zac, one of the things that we are interested in at McMaster-Carr and this is actually very different than the rest of the tech world is we intend for people to spend their career at McMaster-Carr.

In order for that to be rewarding for people, we really want to invest in people’s sort of professional development and growth. And often over a career, we think that means not working on the same thing for 25 plus years. So one of our ideas is, have people get reps and go deep on a topic and then move to an adjacent topic and work on a different project and continue to learn kind of what the business values and how that matches up with various kinds of technology.

And so in the end, what that ends up doing is it provides, folks with a career of varied experiences and professional development, whatever that sort of means to them. Yeah, that’s really cool. I mean, you don’t hear a whole ton of companies out there that are doing that. It really seems that a lot of companies have people really siloed into one thing, right? Which is interesting, but you know, I would imagine you have a better well-rounded picture of the company and can make more of a contribution if you have worked on several different things. So that’s amazing.

Now, when you’re talking about getting people involved in different things, so does that mean that people have the ability to grow into like project management, technical leadership or both? Absolutely. Absolutely. One of the strengths of the department is the fact that we have so many different folks who are good at different things. And so as a leader, I don’t think about or look for, oh we need expertise in this particular technology. We really value capability.

And so what that means is there are lots of folks who want to sort of say, oh, I want to grow. And I want to grow my sphere of influence. And I’m really interested in starting with this sort of business problem and figuring out how to apply technology to solve it. We have other folks that are really interested in going super deep into a particular technology.

And so there are technologies where we have the need for that too. Because of the way that we’re set up, we have the ability to sort of help people grow in the mechanism that they want to grow in. Okay. Awesome. That’s so cool. Now, what technologies are you guys working with now? I’m just curious, like what application frameworks? We have lots of operating system and server technology and automation in that space. So that’s Linux and Windows and Terraform and those sorts of things.

And for our e-commerce site, we have a lot of, sort of your standard front end frameworks, with React. And on the backend, we have a lot of Dot Net and various databases like SQL server and Mongo DB. We have some more standard systems, ZOS and DB2 and MQ from IBM. And I would say the hallmark at McMaster-Carr is really picking the right technology for the problem we have. And so as a sort of a large e-commerce company that has our own call centers, our own fulfillment centers, we have a wide, wide suite of technologies. Okay, great. Great.

Now, what is the culture like at McMaster-Carr? What is it like working there? What do you enjoy about it? I’ve been here 26 years and so kind of the way we work really resonates with me. And I will say, one of the awesome things about working at McMaster-Carr, as opposed to let’s say a startup culture where speed is not the most important thing here at McMaster-Carr. Building a good quality system

is the thing that we’re after. Because we want these systems to last and be able to evolve and we think a lot about sort of the design and edge cases and corner cases and creating software that’ll last. And so that’s what we really aim to value, and so are our projects sort of emphasize that.

In the end, it is a very satisfying experience to look back on systems that you’ve built and say, wow, that is really well done and well-built. I will say personally, I worked on systems as a developer 20 plus years ago that are still kicking and then have evolved to meet the needs of the business.

And I find that to be a really satisfying sort of experience. Wow, that’s incredible. Amazing that you can have like a contribution that will be that long lasting and you can kind of see your fingerprints on something like that. Wow, that’s great. Now, I understand that DEI is part of your guys’s recruiting plan. I was curious, at your take on how you guys are getting involved in that and what kind of your role has been? Yeah. So I will say, we start from the point of views act that diversity is a really important element and it’s a core strength of how we develop technology and systems at McMaster-Carr. One of the things that we do is

we don’t exclusively recruit people who have a background in software development. And most of us in technology know that kind of what you learned at school is not necessarily kind of what you do in your job. Technology changes all the time. And so we really recruit people who are interested in technology and a lot of learning happens on the job.

And one of the things we love is sort of diverse points of view, diversity of opinion, thought, folks that can say, oh there are three or four ways to solve this problem. And how do we think about those alternatives and how do we choose among them? And that we believe is kind of one of our core strengths.

I will say diversity has always been an important value and McMaster-Carr. Taking a step back over the past couple of years, I’ve been very involved in sort of the company at large is DEI efforts. And I will say that, that is been quite challenging. DEI is not something that is a simple and to solve and it is complex and nuanced.

And so what our company has done in the past couple of years has started with sort of a broad framework of listening and kind of understanding where we might be falling short on expectations to create a fair and equitable workplace. We focused. We couldn’t solve every problem that we had, but we ended up saying what are a few core things that we really want to focus on to help employees, to create a workplace where employees can thrive?

So a couple examples I’ll mention is, one of the learnings that we had out of our listening was that we needed to create more support systems for employees to feel like they were part of something here. And there was two elements to that. One was about professional development, about sort of understanding how does McMaster-Carr work?

How did things get done? How does my word fit in with other efforts in the company? And so we created a mentoring program that’s company wide that has some structure, that is aimed at helping people figuring out what people want out of a mentoring relationship and then matching them to the right mentor and then giving that pairing tools to help them advance in a relationship.

And so we felt like that was a really nice step in along the lines of professional development. On the other side, we ended up creating a structure where employee resource groups to create spaces for employees that want to organize around a particular kind of identity to feel supported, not professionally, but within a larger environment and community at McMaster-Carr.

And so those are a couple of examples of really impactful ideas that we’ve implemented in the past couple years. Okay, good. And I mean, it’s really amazing to see companies like yours really making it a core initiative to what they’re doing. So it’s amazing that you’ve been so involved in that program and best of luck as you continue to evolve it.

I know it’s a definitely evolving thing within the tech industry in general. But love to see the efforts. I just wanted to wrap up by asking you, I know Hirewell has been involved in helping you guys with a lot of recruiting initiatives. You guys are hiring a ton.

What are some core positions that you are looking to hire on right now, that maybe we could highlight? Yeah, we’re looking to hire some software engineers, some network engineers, infrastructure engineers. And I would say, back to sort of the value proposition that we’re after is, we want folks who are interested in growth and learning and folks who see themselves being able to work with lots of different kinds of systems. We’re interested in not being super pigeonholed into one kind of one very specific kind of technology. We want to create a space. We want people with the interest in capability to be in an area and grow in terms of the kinds of technology and systems that they want to achieve mastery over.

Okay. Great! I think that’s really cool. I think offering a position that gives you a kind of a multifaceted view of a career is something that you don’t see a whole ton out on the market. So really, really exciting stuff. Well, hey thank you Mrunil. Really appreciate you jumping on here with me. It’s been great chatting with you and best of luck as you continue growing your team! Thanks Zac, it was a fun conversation.

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