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eCommerce Technology Insights: Interview with Harvey Bierman

This month, YOTTAA had a chance to talk to Harvey Bierman, former Vice President of eCommerce Technology & Operations at Crocs, about what it takes to lead brands through the ever-shifting world of eCommerce. During this interview, Bierman delves into his diverse levels of experience, key insights into technology team building, and what the future of eCommerce has to offer brands that are willing to roll up their sleeves and dig into digital.

Key take-aways:

Always growing, evolving, and changing

Tell us about your professional background.

I got into the eCommerce space as a result of a career in retail. I was Director of Stores for a skate and snowboard shop, which had about 21 locations throughout the Northeast. After that job, I went to a company, which at the time, was called Global Sports Interactive, as a buyer. So I was your standard, everyday merchandise buyer and planner.

As Global Sports Interactive evolved into GSI Commerce (now Radial), I had the opportunity to lead the implementation and management of eCommerce business for NASCAR, Major League Baseball, Timberland, as well as some of the biggest brick-and-mortar sports retailers at the time, and that’s how I ended up with some (early) significant credibility for launching eCommerce businesses. When you combine that with my time at Demandware, I have probably been a part of over 100 eCommerce business launches.  

Eventually I moved from GSI to Demandware for about seven and a half years. I was one of the first employees, and was the first person to work there that wasn’t your traditional “software person.” I stayed through the IPO of Demandware and then moved on to one of our clients at the time, Crocs, and was there for about seven years.

What about eCommerce has kept you in the industry for so long?

The fact that in a traditional retail environment, it can be very repetitive. Anyone who has worked in retail knows it’s a cyclical and annual business — it’s a “wash, rinse, repeat.”  Every year is the same. The merchandise changes but the methodology, the process, and the tools are incredibly repetitive. However, the digital space is always growing, evolving, and changing and you need to be especially dynamic on the technology side versus the business side.  

I have been able to morph my retail career into the technology side which I really enjoy. My undergraduate degree is in physical education so the fact that I work in “IT” is kind of ironic and funny. 

The eCommerce industry has embraced the Cloud, and therefore technology is focused on consumers and business users. So the “utility parts” of IT, (AKA the hardware and infrastructure components like the servers, the network switches, the bandwidth, the database layers) no longer create the value or differentiation, allowing us to really focus on the consumer experience and that is really fun.     

What have been some of your greatest accomplishments since being in eCommerce?

Being part of the Demandware team and taking that company public. It’s really not so much the objectified results, ie. going public and then being sold to Salesforce, but having the vision, sharing that vision with the founders, and being able to deliver and market a solution that actually fits that vision for SaaS provided eCommerce platforms. 

Another accomplishment is the network that I have been able to be a part of and the people I have been able to work with.   

Lessons from building eCommerce Technology Teams

What are the biggest takeaways from your experience building eCommerce technology teams?

That passion matters. Early on, the people that were involved in eCommerce technology were really passionate about it because it was not a career that someone chose, it was a career they happened to fall into. So again, passion matters. 

Once you have a good person on your team you need to do everything you can to keep that person on your team.  It will end up costing you more to have to replace that person than it would be to deal with whatever might be driving that person to be looking for new and different opportunities. 

As a technology team leader, try to keep things dynamic and engaging. You better keep the work/life balance positive, and the team growing. Otherwise, retention is going to be really hard. Once you have those things, it might not be enough. You have to continue to invest and drive relationships with them Inevitably you are going to lose some, but you are much better off trying to keep that team than going through a transition. Especially if the individuals are high performers.        

What core roles should brands focus on when building out their technology team?  For example, what departments and functions have reported to you in the past?

In my experience, the technology organization starts with your developers, and there are both your front-end developers and your back-end developers. When I say “front-end” I am talking about those that are dealing with front-end content, creative, and experience. Then you have your back-end developers who are much more about the data integrations and the system integrations between applications. From there it goes to your product managers, which is really the team that’s helping articulate how functionality is going to work. The Product Management organization generally encompasses project management, user experience, and business analysis or data architects. 

Also, somewhere in there is your QA organization, and then finally is your Operations organization. The folks that keep the day-to-day integrations running are very different from the developers that build new integrations. If you are using developers that build your integrations to do your day-to-day operations always (and they stop developing), you are going to lose that team’s interest over time. That really applies to the dev-ops concept that is starting to emerge as well.                    

How do you get the best people for those roles?

Be active and be networking. I would say that the vast majority of the people that I have been able to attract and retain are folks I had relationships with, or I had relationships with people who had relationships with them. The second one is actively networking to expand the pool of people you are interacting with. 

Finally, be open to people that don’t necessarily come into the office to work. Not just enabling remote work, but to adapt alternative work methods and timeframes. Just be focused on the tools, the technology, the process, and ultimately the result, not necessarily the optics of working inside a physical building with someone. I have been able to be very successful with that approach.           

How do you build up technology expertise on the eCommerce platform?  

Encourage relationship building. Introduce your tech team to folks you have worked with in the past, give them access to all that knowledge and experience. Afford them the opportunity to go to appropriate events, and they may not be the traditional events that you have thought about, like not just Dreamforce or Connections or Adobe Summit or whatever it might be. I have had success sending people to ADA conferences before, to Risk conferences, so get granular to the role as well.           

Do you try to hire people that have experience already?

Yes, you obviously want to get people that have experience, but what I’ve learned is that you might be better off creating your own talent than trying to poach somebody else’s talent. Especially in a space where the demand for resources is so great. I have had success taking people out of incubator classes that have done a certain amount of web development, but don’t have bias per se. Then using that raw energy and talent and understanding of the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) and web development technologies at a modest level, bring them into the organization as content developers and then evolve their skills, competencies, and capabilities so they can be core platform developers over time.          

What skill sets or values are most important for eCommerce technology teams?

I would say never being satisfied is a pretty critical one. 

Being open, honest, and transparent is the second one. 

The third one would be collaboration, so understanding that they don’t work in silos. They might work very quietly and very individually, and that’s fine. Ultimately their work product has to connect with a 3rd party integration, it has to connect with a data layer that they aren’t responsible for, and it has to support content that is ever-evolving and changing by people that change overtime, so they have to understand where they fit in the broader ecosystem. 

Tackling eCommerce technology, shopper experience, and site performance     

What are some best practices when you (and your team members) select a new 3rd party or change technology providers, and what is the process you follow?

First, make sure your team is part of the selection process. No one will be more bought into the technology and 3rd party applications that you use than those involved during the selection process. Giving them a voice on the selection criteria or the scoring methodology is by far the best way to do that.  

In terms of the actual selection process, there are two major variables that I use to do that. One is what I call “use case based decision making.” Try to define as explicitly as you can the three to five use cases that you are trying to solve. This will allow you to measure performance or objective/subjective perspective of the 3rd parties against those explicit use cases. 

Number two is to leverage a network. Ask around about who is using what, and what are their firsthand experiences, and honor those more than anything else. 

The last piece of the puzzle is to identify the technology company you think you can partner with the most. It is not necessarily most important to get the best technology because that is arbitrary and varies over time, but having a partner with you that you have a relationship with that transcends the transactions ultimately defines success.                    

Can you tell us about some “up and coming” 3rd party technologies or categories of technologies you think are most interesting?

I am really excited about what’s going on in the customer data platform space. I have also been fascinated with queuing technology like waiting rooms. The benefits of queuing experiences are pretty cool. It allows you to service your customers better, create a bigger audience, and build some buzz that you might not have otherwise. Whether or not you are protecting your technology is almost secondary, so I think that is pretty cool stuff.  

Also, contactless payment is very exciting for me. It was before COVID-19 and then — holy cow, I never even thought about the impact as a result of COVID.        

What is your perspective on the mobile shopping experience? What are the most required improvements that brands need to be making in that area?

The “mobile” shopping experience is the shopping experience. We need to get rid of computer monitors on desktops of eCommerce employees and replace them, or turn them on their side so that they are all vertical to reflect today’s experience. I think this is one of the biggest barriers.          

What is your opinion on the importance of performance (page load speed) for eCommerce sites, the shopper experience, and conversion rate?  

For me, performance is a variable of development, it’s a competency in the development life cycle, because it’s not just about the front-end page speed load test performance. So I really believe it to be a core principle of any good System Development Life Cycle (SDLC). 

I think performance impacts everything. It impacts your employee satisfaction, it impacts your dev team’s engagement, it impacts conversion rate or other onsite metrics, it impacts obviously your google rankings, it impacts your customer satisfaction or your Net Promoter Score (NPS). So it impacts everything.             

COVID Commerce and the future of retail

What are eCommerce brands struggling with the most during this global pandemic?

I think there is a reckoning. I think brands are struggling with that uncertainty of what the offline world looks like in the future and how that affects the online opportunity. 

eCommerce is generally a small part of a retail business, and it’s obviously growing and being successful right now, but it’s being successful while the vast majority of the assets (in stores) aren’t able to generate revenue. What happens when the entire company’s assets need to be justified as a result of only your online revenue? 

COVID has accelerated the merging of the offline and online experiences. Even just in modest ways for brands that have probably excused themselves from true omnichannel in the past, like grocery stores, restaurants, and smaller brands that don’t have huge store footprints.

Because we all knew eCommerce growth was a five year plan, in fact it was always another five years thinking there would be a tipping point, and it was this continually ongoing forever a “five year tipping point.” I don’t think that is the case anymore. I think that COVID-19 has caused that tipping point to happen and we are now going to see that growth and success in 18 months or less.  

Do you feel that this places a lot of extra pressure on someone in your role?

I would say in the near term it is more pressure, scrutiny, and failure but in the long term it is a total change of the C-Suite to digitally native executives. It’s soon going to be seen as a requirement to have a digitally native CEO. 

I call COVID-19 the “bulldozer.” We all knew there was this horizon. Let me borrow a little Colorado culture to paint a picture. It’s like a false summit when you are hiking a 14er — everytime you think you see the summit, once you get to that point, you realize there is still more mountain to climb. Ultimately, we have gotten to this theoretical tipping point that is often discussed.  But then COVID came around like a bulldozer and pushed us up and OVER the summit.                    

Do you expect eCommerce traffic to increase during the stay-at-home orders?

Yes! Duh.

What are the most important steps an eCommerce leader can take to prepare their site and maximize conversion when traffic increases, especially when the increase is unexpected?

Get back to the basics. Be in stock, be quick, get rid of all the distractions and pet projects that distract from these basic tactics, and focus on the KPIs. Whatever your KPIs are, focus myopically on them. So it’s back to basic stuff.   

What should brands focus on in order to navigate the current crisis? (short & long term)

I think there’s a myopic focus on the back-end, and setting expectations for logistics and delivery. For the front-end, be in stock, be well priced, have good content, and make it quick and easy to get to what it is consumers want. Don’t forget about your people. Work them hard, work fast, but then praise, appreciate, and reward them authentically.           

Do you think the percentage of eCommerce revenue (over total retail revenue including both online and instore) will increase at a much faster rate in 2020 and beyond than originally expected because of COVID-19?  If yes, do you have any predictions on what that exceleration will look like? 

Obviously, right now we have no idea what it is because the stores are all closed. So of course eCommerce percentage of total revenue went from the teens to 100% overnight. The question is, what is it going to come back to and normalize at? My assumption is it’s going to settle in the 30s or 40s, generally speaking.

This increase in percentage of eCommerce revenue to the 30-40% of total is a combination of eCommerce traffic and transactions being so much higher, and the bottom 10-20% of your retail store footprint never coming back — it’s just not reopening. So, likely businesses will not see much of their “bad” revenue come back, and the change in consumer behavior. 

Additionally a large percentage of consumers will not come back to physical stores at least for some period of time, and by the time they actually do come back they feel comfortable and safe with online shopping. We are in a different place than before the pandemic.           

How can eCommerce brands shine during these dark times?

Find a way to be meaningful. Obviously Crocs is probably the Northstar in this right now, giving away free shoes all day, everyday to frontline healthcare workers (this program ended just prior to June 1). But you don’t have to be doing stuff like that. You can be donating food if you are in the food industry, there are a million different ways it just depends what category you are in. It goes back to find a way to be meaningful and resonate with your consumers in a way that transcends the transaction.      

Where do you see the future of eCommerce heading?

To the commercial aspect of the retail business, eCommerce will not go back to being the last meeting of the day for revenue reviews or “oh let’s go talk about digital today.” It’s literally going to change to digital everyday in everything. Digital eCommerce will really become ubiquitous to every aspect of operations.