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How Levi’s AI Bootcamp Homegrows Data Science Talent

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In what may be a sign of the times, Levi Strauss & Co. launched a first for the denim company: an artificial intelligence and machine learning bootcamp. But this one’s not necessarily just for its engineers or tech developers — it’s also for the nontechie set in areas, like retail.

Started in May 2021, the program saw its first wave of students graduate and take their training to different areas of the organization.

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The company marked the moment in a blog post published Tuesday. In it, Levi’s described the Machine Learning Bootcamp as “an intensive, full-time, fully paid eight-week training program where [participants] left their day-to-day jobs to complete this unique program. In the bootcamp’s inaugural cohort, we trained more than 40 employees — 63 percent of whom were female, representing 14 locations around the world with employees from corporate, retail stores, distribution centers, and data centers.”

The very existence of the program — which was created to “upskill” staffers, according to Levi’s Katia Walsh — speaks to how tech has moved closer to the center of the fashion and retail business. Especially at the company.

An expert in data and AI with a background across technology, financial services, telecommunications and now apparel, Walsh leads strategy, data, analytics and artificial intelligence at Levi’s.

“And what I can tell you from all that experience is that, at Levi’s, we are revolutionizing the apparel industry,” she told WWD. “What is now happening through this intersection of digital data and AI is nothing short of a revolution, it’s the biggest need to have occurred since the Industrial Revolution.”

While tech bootcamps and data science training are nothing new, such efforts are typically targeted toward budding developers and engineers, bringing in students and placing them in tech jobs across different sectors. Take CodeBoxx, for instance. The training program, backed by Madaluxe Group, aims to give women, people of color and veterans their start in coding and a launchpad for a technology career.

In contrast, Levi’s program focuses on its own internal workforce, whether participants aspire to careers in tech or not. It’s a second-stage move — if stage one could be considered the race to grow or shore up tech talent. What naturally follows is the need to ensure others in the organization have the data literacy to connect with these data scientists, coders and others, or prime them to fan out and bring innovation and efficiency to every corner of the company.

Think of it as a sign of an organization’s tech maturity.

Levi’s is known for tech partnerships with the likes of Google or retail giants to reach across social media — such as last year’s Kohl’s virtual Snapchat closet stocked with Levi’s apparel — as well as internal development that birthed innovations, like laser-finishing on its denim. Now it’s turning its eye toward boosting its workers’ data and AI skills.

“Every company is a tech company now — and so, it is apparel’s turn,” Walsh continued. The goal, she said, was to “democratize machine learning as a skill.”

Forty-three participants entered the bootcamp with no background in coding or statistics, and after nearly two months of intense training, emerged as tech-savvy employees “who know our company, know the business and now also know data science, and they’re applying these skills to actually change the industry,” Walsh added.

One application of the skills at the store level equips managers like Sandy Perko to make her Broomfield, Colo., location more efficient.

Perko had no desire to become a data scientist, but “what drew me to applying for it was just kind of the idea that I could learn a little bit more and utilize my business experience in a different way,” she told WWD. What started initially as a stressful experience soon gave way to excitement, as the training connected the esoteric material to Perko’s store experience — with abstract Xs and Ys set into context, like denim sales.

The curriculum covers lectures and group breakout sessions, before segueing from the theoretical to real use cases using Levi’s data. The last half of the bootcamp, according to participants, included weekly Friday presentations to instructors, stakeholders and managers, leading to graduation, when students presented a summary of the different concepts they learned.

“I came back to my function really kind of looking at problems, solutions through a completely different lens, a completely different viewpoint, and with the ability to make things easier through computer science,” she explained. “Sometimes there are simple things, gathering reports digitally in a way that [otherwise] might take quite a bit longer. One of the bigger projects I’m working on has to do with some future forecasting, in terms of inventory and … getting things to the store.”

That’s precisely the sort of scenario Walsh envisioned. Inventory control, demand forecasting and other predictive applications are where data science shines. The other benefit, from Levi’s point of view, is how such efficiencies help reduce waste.

“What used to be manual is now digital, automated and, more importantly, what used to be intuition is now very precise, we can and are predicting everything we can predict,” said Walsh. “And because of that we are able to know exactly what we will be able to sell when, where, in what quantities at what prices and that certainly cuts down on waste, and is helping us become a more sustainable company.”

While Perko brought her skills back to her Broomfield store, Michael Buchanon had other goals in mind.

A longtime Levi’s employee with 15 years under his belt, he started out as a lead stock associate and worked his way up through the ranks to become store manager of the Torrance, Calif., location. But Buchanon, who had previously taken some coding classes and learned Pascal, C and C++ in high school, wanted to dive into the “fourth industrial revolution,” the tech and business sector’s reference to the AI era.

The pandemic had given him plenty of free time, which he used to take up Harvard’s CS50, a free online computer science course. Then in December, he saw the internal posting for the bootcamp.

Having survived a difficult period that once even made him homeless, Buchanon appreciated the bootcamp as an opportunity to follow his passion for technology.

“You’re learning like, maybe a year’s worth of content. They’re cramming so much in, you really just have to go along for the ride,” he said. “I think the main thing to understand in the beginning is, no, you’re not going to come out of this like an expert, and you’re not going to be at the same level as somebody who has a master’s degree in this.

“But it was really, like, ‘OK, what can I learn in order to hold a conversation with somebody and speak that same language, [and] also get my foot in the door to understanding some of these concepts?,’” he added.

Now, having completed the training, he’s an associate data scientist at the company. His first week on the job was focused primarily on orientation, but he now works alongside degreed data scientists and other tech experts and developers.

Buchanon also discovered that the bootcamp benefited more than just the participants.

“I’m obviously the new guy, but what I bring to the table — and really what one of the points was — was my experience in the retail stores,” he said. “So far, it’s helped to provide a lot of clarity and insight and context for these people who don’t have experience with retail.”

Now Levi’s is prepping the bootcamp so it can welcome its second class. The company promises that it will be “even bigger” than the last.