Power players, Leadership

Target’s Jodie Kautt: Fostering her team’s ‘North Star’

Jodie Kautt, vice president of cybersecurity at Target, has led a team that secured 17 patents to date, with more pending. (Target)

When people think about Target, they may think about any number of things. Convenience. Variety. Efficiency. Perhaps more recently, toilet paper.

But they often don't associate Target with tech innovator. And yet, under the leadership of Vice President of Cybersecurity Jodie Kautt, the cyber defense team secured 17 patents to date, with more pending.

And those patents were to the benefit of the community at large — not just Target.

“You have to be really intentional about getting out of their way so that they have that time to innovate," she said. "In order to differentiate yourself in the services you provide, you have to be a tech company under the hood.”

Interestingly, a lot of the solutions Target will develop, then open source to share with peers, including one coming out to help the industry with detecting digital skimming. The goal is to drive market-wide progress, versus enterprise security enhancement. That's a concept that drives more commitment among a group inspired by impact. “My part's easy," Kautt said. "It’s about getting out of the way of these really smart people on my team."

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Kautt support various efforts to enable exactly that. First, Target offers what is known as 50 days of learning, where every tech team member is asked to take one day a week to just step out of their day job and focus on building their skill set. There are also demo days once a quarter — basically a science fair where all of Target’s tech team members get to show off their cool work to one another. That, in turn, “has that snowball effect of sparking further innovation,” Kautt added. And more specific to her team are skunk works projects — where the team members pick those "really crazy problems that don't seem to have a solution," then sign up to figure it out.

“All of a sudden you find yourself with these new cross-functional teams of people that typically don't work together, they have different backgrounds, and new and interesting solutions come to light,” Kautt said, adding that those skunk works projects have driven a lot of the patents. “Don't get me wrong, a ton of those never see the light of day, but a lot of them end up being our most innovative projects.”

Kautt also decided to unite Target cybersecurity and fraud functions — making the company one of the very few retailers to do so. Right after Target merged its capabilities, the Secret Service did the same.

“We can apply our cyber capabilities to fraud in a way that's never been done before,” she said. “And it allows us to then think more effectively about where we put those speed bumps, those roadblocks, that friction; where it looks like it's bad or anomalous behavior."

Ultimately the effort positioned the company to be more effective in protecting customers, while making it as easy as possible for them to shop at Target. "Having such a clear North Star like that made it really easy for us to keep pushing the gas."

Jill Aitoro

Jill Aitoro leads editorial for SC Media, and content strategy for parent company CyberRisk Alliance. She 20 years of experience editing and reporting on technology, business and policy.

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