hirobe talks: Brett Birschbach on Building & Retaining your Team

Part 1: Building & Retaining your Team 


Hey, everyone, it's Tom Johnson at hirobe. And welcome back to our video series. Today, we're joined by Brett.Brett is VP of AEM Engineering at Bounteous, an Adobe Platinum solution partner. He has been with the business since 2008 and has built and led the AEM practice from its infancy, just five short years ago. 

I think many of you will know Brett in the industry and seen Bounteous around. It's a highly recognised and successful business within the Adobe platform world, so I wanted to invite Brett here today to tell us a little bit about that journey and how they've been so successful. So, Brett, thanks for joining me. 



Yeah, absolutely, certainly happy to be here. As you mentioned, we started our Adobe practice, five short years ago with a handful of folks internally that we could barely spell AEM, and we started organically for a bit. Then after we were maybe around a dozen or so people we did an acquisition  which is pretty common in this line of business  and it's something that many people are going to encounter as they're growing their team.  

So, we did an acquisition overnight, which basically tripled our AEM team and brought together two teams that were successful in their own right - and that had its own share of challenges. But we worked through that and since then, we've doubled the practice, actually more than doubled it again. So really, if you go back to Bounteous classic or Infield Digital classic, those folks are just a fraction of our current practice today.  

They'll never say that we've done everything perfectly here at Bounteous, you know, in terms of growing a successful practice, we've been through a lot of the same steps that anybody that's looking to grow a practice is going to have to go through. But we can certainly help out and offer our perspective on what has worked for us. I would say what hasn't worked, but frankly, a lot of it comes out as we hit those things. Especially with acquisitions, like that's always one of those interesting situations like okay, well, hey, we've put a couple people together, how do we work through these things? But they're all good challenges to have, all good people challenges, and we've dealt out a pretty happy family here, and one I'm pretty proud of. 



Absolutely, and I think one thing that I wanted to touch on as well that you touched on with the acquisition side is that there are a lot of businesses in this space, that are trying to scale, trying to grow. It's a very competitive field, and a very interesting field as well, for a lot of reasons. But I would love to understand how you have been so successful, and the challenges you have overcome along the way? Because another point that we'll get onto later is that a lot of your team is remote, which is really valuable, definitely for the current times. Are you able to share a little bit about how you have built that team and been successful on that side? 



Sure, absolutely. And I know you recently did a recording with Tadd Reeves and there was some discussion around the challenges sometimes in the area of Adobe hiring, and it's not quite as big a pool as other technologies that you're looking to hire for. It's not something that anybody could just pick off the shelf and teach themselves, and then go into the field. They kind of have to get into a company that does it already. And a lot of the projects when you're running, it's hard to bring those folks along if they don't already know AEM so, you know, a little bit of HR 101 - keeping your team is obvious.  

So, rule number one is, don't lose the team as you're putting them in. And so, things like having a healthy and excited workforce is important, it's just not optional in the AEM space. The fact of the matter is, well, number one, Tom and hirobe wouldn't exist if it was easy to hire in this area. And number two, people are trying to hire your people every single day in this area. I have no doubt that every single person on my team is getting recruited on a weekly basis. So absolutely, you're going to need to compensate people correctly but that's just the entry fee to get into building a team 

In the AEM space, you're really going to have to figure out how you can go above and beyond and make sure that you're actually doing it. So like, it's interesting here at Bounteous, we've won many of these best place to work awards and we've got a 95% or 94% retention rate. It's easy to read our press clippings, and be like, yeah, we're great, you know, we're a great place. Look, they told us we're a great place to work, you know, we've got a paper that says we're a great place to work, but it's got to go deeper than that.  

It's not just, hey, let's throw a bunch of talented culture events at people, give them a bunch of benefits, you know, put slides in the buildings and all that stuff. Well, that's great, although now it's obviously not even applicable. But I mean, there's a lot of things that can make it seem like you're doing a good job. But you know, looking at that next level deeper of like, do we actually have a healthy work environment? Or do we just have a few people here that are filling out the survey the right way that make it seem like it is, but you know, maybe there's a little bit of rottenness underneath? That stuff's got to get routed out when you're building an AEM practice. 



Absolutely. I think from that side, you've mentioned that it's been a process. And I've seen some of your external recruitment videos that you put out there, and they're always put together so well, but that's been something that you've built up over time. What was the process? When did you kind of realise that you needed to put some more time into that? 



I mean, basically, right away. So, we got into the industry with a handful of folks internally, we had an awesome opportunity for a client that we've worked with in the past. They said, hey, we know you guys don't know anything about AEM but we trust you to build it. And we had a hell of an opportunity, and we had to take it on. But as soon as we finished that we had one team, you know, that basically can do AEM, and then eventually we had two teams, you know, around 10 people and boy does that make this type of work really hard. Generally speaking, in the AEM space you get a project, they're not two months of two people, they're generally six to nine month projects of a good chunk of folks. 

And so, you're under this feast or famine. Everybody's busy, and then everybody's on the bench. Unless you have continuation work, which is a very important thing that you need to do. But as you start getting into that situation, you're starting to bid for new work, and it's like, oh, boy, how are we going to do this work? It's not just, sell a job, and then one or two months later, have staff to do it If you don't have your hiring wheel going, really, your only options are going to be in the short-term to go ahead and find some professionals in the area that can hire immediately. And maybe you won't want to do that for your whole course, but you're going to need a few leads on your project to be able to be successful. So, rule number one, don't lose your people. 

Rule number two in this space is don't fail a project. If you ever find yourself on the end of a project that gets out into the public in terms of the client's unhappy, Adobe's unhappy, it's such a small space in AEM that you're not going to be able to hide. You really have to make sure that every single project that you do comes off extremely successfully. And so, it's a little bit of a challenge, because you've got to have the right people. And you've got to balance that with not getting overly heavy and hiring a bunch of people to your bench. As you're a small team, this is a little bit of a challenge. So we knew right away that we had to figure out how do we do this effectively, in ways that aren't just hey, go to the shelf and get some people, because it's just not possible in AEM and so we've approached it in a few different ways. 

Of course, we've got our own hiring folks, but there's definitely been times where we've needed to call in the recruiters to get somebody in quick. Then also at the same time you need to play the long game. And this is something that I'm pretty proud of. What we've been able to get rolling in the AEM practice here at Bounteous is a full-on training programme. Where we're able to bring in folks that are fresh out of school. That's something that traditionally in the agency environment is not always the easiest thing in the world. A lot of times it's very easy to say, you know what? No, we need to get senior AEM developers right off the shelf that can hit the ground running. But there is some super awesome talent coming right out of school that you can train up to become AEM developers and train them the right way, like right off the bat, and they could be at a really good spot, because they've not learned any bad habits, they've got a lot of energy, and they're excited to be in the workforce. 

And the other piece of that too is if you're looking to build diversity in your teams, you know, diversity is a hot topic right now, for very, very valid reasons, right? In the AEM space, I'm going to tell you, it's not very diverse. And I won't say what people groups make it up mostly. But it's not, not a tonne. If you're looking to build a truly diverse workforce, it's one thing to talk about it, it's in vogue to talk about it, right? It's another thing to actually invest in it, and actually do it. And I'll tell you, an apprenticeship programme, where you're training folks up fresh out of school is an amazing way where you can give opportunities to folks that haven't otherwise had those opportunities. 

And so, you kind of play all the games at the same time, right? All the rides, you know, because you're going to want to have those pipelines constantly producing if you're looking to grow your team at a reasonable pace. Like I said, we've grown pretty quickly in the five years that we've done it, you certainly don't have to go at that pace. But I will say there comes a point, you probably at least want to get 20-30 people if you want to be able to comfortably run a practice long term without having this big drop off, and then trying to find somebody for the next project. 



Definitely. And we actually shouted you out, in the video with Tadd Reeves, about the training side that you were being really successful in that space. And that's something that again, I think from the business side, you have to have your culture tied down, you have to be on it with how you're treating people, because it's going to be out there. That's a big fear for businesses, like if I invest so much in training these people up, in such a lucrative and competitive market, they're just going to leave and I'm going to supply the next business that's coming on with that. So, what are some of the ways that you've built a healthy and excited team in order to scale and keep them? 



You're 100% right, Tom, it’s a very valid concern. But it's also something that people shouldn't be afraid of, to the point of not doing it, but it's like my dad always told me when I used to do roofing projects with him  I used to be in construction when I was a kid  you don't want to fear ladders to the point that you're going to be unsafe on them, but you do want to fear them enough that you're going to force yourself to be safe. So, there's that healthy balance of knowing that this is not an option. Things like having an actual healthy work-life balance. It's very tempting in this industry when you're battling against other agencies, it's very easy to sell projects for lower than they're really going to take and put that all on the dev team, and the dev team just crunches it out. We have all been on those projects. If we're in this industry, we know there's a work hazard there that there are times where we've got to ramp up to 50-60 hours a week to get a project done. And if that is the norm for your products at your company, that is going to be really tough to maintain. Because again, your best people are going to start looking for areas where they can actually do this job and do it in a way that can be done in a healthy manner. 

And I'll tell you it can be done. It does start from the BD perspective, and making sure that your business development teams are on board with selling projects in a healthy way. And then managers in your competency. And again, this isn't just AEM specific, but it's extra important in making sure that you're monitoring projects, making sure that we're not going regularly over 45 hours or so. I mean, most people can maintain 45 hours if they so choose, but once you start hitting 50 hours regularly, it's something that needs to be looked into. I always tell people, it's something that can be the exception, but it can't be the plan. If we're doing the last two weeks on project, no problem that happens. We've all been there. If we're doing it three weeks in with three months to go in the project, then that's a problem. I think we need to handle this a different way. So that's, you know, one area. 

Another area that was brought to my attention was that it's very easy in the AEM space, and many other technology spaces - you've got architects, you've got developers, you've got junior developers, even tech leads maybe that you'd say are maybe more effective than your standard developers - and making sure that you're not valuing people differently. Now this isn't to say that you're not compensating them differently, there's the idea of the business value that they bring to the table, and obviously people get compensated according to that. But in terms of not making little clicks in your AEM competencies, so for instance at Bounteous we've got a Slack channel. It's got everybody in it and when we create a Slack channel for let's say, some of the principal architects, we don't create that as a little private group, so we have our little private club where we make all the decisions for the competency. We still purposely invite the principal architects to the channel, and we try to keep the chat in there so things are organised and people that don't care about the conversation don't have to be in it if they're in the normal AEM channel, but we still let people know like, hey we've got this channel over here. We've got nothing to hide, these people aren't better than the other people, they're not more important, they're just people. 

So, there are some very subtle ways where it's easy to start treating people differently based on their business value and that won't resonate obviously with your folks, so as much as you can, you need to treat people as people. Doing the work and execution in some ways is the least of your worries. I shouldn't say that, it's table stakes, you have to do that but there are some very programmatic ways of doing that and I think the people part of the puzzle is definitely the more interesting part. 

I know there was one time I hired somebody, and they'd had a short stint at another agency and of course I'm going to ask why they left because I don't want that to be what happens here. So I'm like, hey what happened there? And this person started going through, and of course I'm not going to name the agency, but he's like you know I went to work there and everybody I worked with was phenomenal. But we all went to work, we did our work, and we all went home, and nobody cared about each other. And that is way more important than you might think it is in this industry. Especially as we're all working remote right now. That ability to connect people, and value, and love people equally regardless of what their position is so important. So that's just a couple things in terms of just the people side of it. 



Yeah absolutely, I don't want to take this down this one route too far, but I watched a really interesting video recently with Google and that was about how they hire and how they go down that same path. I've been a strong believer in this for a long time, that hiring is ultimately the most important thing that a business can do, and that's probably rich coming from a recruiter that makes a living off hiring people, but ultimately, it's really impossible to grow without the right people and having the ability to keep them. 



You're not wrong, Tom. 


Enjoyed this session? Watch the video in full over on our YouTube channel or read the rest of our chat with Brett by clicking into the topics below: 


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10th May

hirobe talks


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