More trouble at WalmartLabs?

Internet Retailer is reporting this morning that Sri Subramaniam has left WalmartLabs, where he was vice president, for a position with Groupon.  Subramaniam joined WalmartLabs in May 2011, when Walmart acquired the startup Kosmix, where he had been vice president of engineering.

Subramaniam’s exit follows the much earlier departure of two former Kosmix colleagues who were briefly seen as central to Walmart’s planned eCommerce turnaround.

Walmart bought Kosmix – subsequently re-branded as WalmartLabs –  to provide the technological and organizational foundation for a drive to re-start its failing eCommerce operation.

At the time, industry observers speculated that the real prize of this acquisition was not any particular technology owned by Kosmix, but the engineering talent at the company. Kosmix founders, Anand Rajaraman and Venky Harinayan, are legendary for having developed the technology that powered Amazon’s early success.

About a year after the acquisition, however, Rajamaran and Harinayan quit WalmartLabs. As Fast Company reported, their hasty exit suggested trouble in an operation that Walmart had been working overtime to present as a technology paradise:

To many outsiders, the abruptness of the founders’ departure seemed troubling. It had been only a year since the acquisition, and they hadn’t completed the “earn-out” phase, meaning they wouldn’t receive their full share from the sale.

Rajamaran and Harinayan denied any problems, saying simply they wanted time to pursue other interests. But this didn’t stop industry wags from wondering whether Walmart could hold onto the talent it was bringing in through a string of acquisitions.

Tobias Peggs, another key WalmartLabs engineer, was brought into the fold via Walmart’s acquisition of his startup, OneRiot, in September 2011. Peggs left a little more than a year later. In a blog post published at the time of his departure, Peggs hinted (politely) at some of the headaches that working for a corporate entity such as Walmart might present to top engineers.

We don’t know why Subramaniam decided to leave, but his departure may be an indication that Walmart continues to struggle to develop an internal culture hospitable to top engineering talent. Only 49% of Walmart eCommerce employees posting reviews to Glassdoor would recommend working at the company to a friend. That’s a good bit behind even troubled Yahoo (70%) and way behind top tech companies like Google (90%), with whom Walmart is competing for engineers.

What do you think?