When speaking with Marc Kermisch, the genial chief information officer of Red Wing Shoes, he’s just as enthusiastic about primordial programming languages as the latest open-source software. But he’s not just waxing nostalgic or futuristic. The footwear company that was founded more than a century ago has major footnotes in its history, such as manufacturing boots for American troops back in World War I. It’s no surprise then that Kermisch believes in the importance of both the past and present when it comes to technology, manufacturing, and how his employees interact with one another.
Your dad brought home an Apple II computer not long after its release. What are some of your formative memories of using a machine that, at the time, was so unfamiliar to so many people?
Marc Kermisch: There are two things I remember most. One was public bulletins, where you could dial in to these bulletin boards, not quite in real time, but near real time. It was certainly a lot faster than writing letters. You’d meet people from all over the world. The other one was a programming language called Logo, where you made this turtle draw shapes via little lines on a screen. It was like woodworking, only I could do it faster and wouldn’t have my dad yelling at me.
Throughout your career, have you stuck with Apple or gravitated more toward PCs?
Kermisch: For the most part, my life migrated from Apple to PCs, certainly from an application development perspective. [But then] the Apple iPhone was released. Now you’ve got to circle back and create all these apps for an Apple-based product that’s invaded the business marketplace. Today, our employees get to choose whether they can have an Apple or a PC on their desktop. We certainly are building for a mobile-first world on most of our applications. We pick vendors that have a mobile-first strategy, so the devices are agnostic.
Before you came to Red Wing, you were a director of technology at Target Corporation. How does the technology and programming differ between a shoe company and a more diverse retail giant?
Kermisch: At Target, we would talk about this legacy of forty years of systems. We started opening up stores in the early ’60s with a lot of growth in the late ’80s and ’90s. That led to a lot of legacy technology, some of which got to Red Wing around the same time. But Red Wing’s processes go back 111 years. So, you have all this institutional knowledge passed down that invades a culture. Some of the tooling that we use to manufacture our shoes was [created] in the 1920s, so we had to build data collection systems that are retrofitted.
How do the older technologies and new advances fit together?
Kermisch: If you walk through our manufacturing plant, you will see machines from the late 1920s right next to a highly sophisticated, highly automated leather-cutting machine. Right next to that is a guy with a piece of iron shaped into a pattern that we want to cut out of leather. So you have a very interesting dichotomy of experiences that you’ll see as technology has invaded aspects of our business. But we still hold true to the handmade, craftsman process that’s made our boots what they are.
Does that same melding of past and present apply to your team’s work practices? Or does everyone mostly stay confined to their computers all day?
Kermisch: I’d rather get up from my desk, walk on the floor, and have a conversation than have dialogue through email. I try to push my employees to do the same thing. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had fifty emails go back and forth between two guys who sit ten steps from each other. If one of them would have stood up and said, “Let’s go for a walk,” they would have resolved the issue in half the time. Similar to other companies, [we’ve] embraced the open floor plan. We’ve taken down the [cubical] walls. People are sitting at common tables. There’s no privacy.
Other aspects of my organization, like my infrastructure team, are still very rooted to [their] privacy. But when there’s an issue on the network and the configuration goes awry, you have to remind them that they don’t work in isolation. I think with any IT organization, you need leaders who can be respectful of one’s introverted nature, but at the same time really enforce the need for human interaction. IT can’t show up with a computer, put it between them and their business, and say, “Tell me what you want.” They’ve got to have a dialogue and go through the messiness of human emotion to map out what needs to be developed for the company.