Ask Jeff Freeland about being a Cisco VAR, and he'll be happy to tell you "been there, done that." He'd probably say the same thing about the traditional services model for systems integrators -- as president and CEO of Astreya Partners, he's done that, too.
But what's kept the 10-year-old Astreya not only afloat but growing revenue by double digit percentages year-over-year for the past three years isn't a strict adherence to tradition. Astreya, based in Santa Clara, Calif., isn't reinventing the wheel when it comes to integration and staffing services, but it is doing something many integrators only talk about: hanging its entire reputation on the quality and prowess of its engineers, not its vendor relationships.
"The secret sauce is quality first," said Freeland in an interview with CRN. "It's not just providing services and finding engineers. It's finding the top 10 percent of engineers -- the best of the best. There's always room in a tight market for hiring the best you can possibly get. And that doesn't just mean the book smart ones, either."
All of Astreya's staff engineers are just that: staff. To hear Freeland tell it, they're not hired guns that come in as part of a pool of staffing talent, they're fully supported, extensively vetted employees that are brought up to represent Astreya as a budding services powerhouse. Astreya is now represented in 22 countries, and looking to hire more than 60 engineers in calendar 2011. That number may climb over 100 depending on international opportunities, according to the company.
Credit Freeland this: He saw the services shift happening in the channel early on. Before Astreya launched in 2001, he was president and founder of Planetary Networks, a Cisco Gold partner that hit it big during the early stages of Cisco's channel transformation.
"I was all Cisco all the time," Freeland said. "The margins on hardware were pretty good, but I sold my interest in 2001 and moved on."
It took Astreya some years to get going, and before long, Freeland said, it was clear the most lucrative channel business was headed decidedly toward services. In 2006, he converted Astreya into primarily a services business, and also one with a particular hook: he would hire and staff only the best engineers out there, in hopes of separating Astreya from the staffing services pack.
Taking the time and expense for an intensive hiring process meant occasionally missing out on some business opportunities where a quickly plugged-in engineer or sys admin might have worked, Freeland admitted. But if channel business is built on relationships, Astreya needed a reputation.
"We're too small a company to do everything well," Freeland said. "But we can afford to discriminate."
Engineer recruiting for Astreya is done in several layers, each more rigorous than the next to isolate the better performers. According to Jim Illson, Astreya's COO and CFO, that screening is necessary to determine not only an engineer's technical prowess but also whether he or she will be a good cultural fit for a client organization based on Astreya's knowledge of that organization. Much of Astreya's reputation as a services provider, therefore, is staked on how an engineer performs in both areas.
The technical screening is a two-step process: an initial assessment, followed by an intensive, one-on-one interview with a senior Astreya engineer that according to Illson usually lasts several hours. The interview will often include assessment techniques, but also a list of questions Astreya developed with clients from prior field engagements to gauge how the engineers think and apply themselves.
Another big difference between Astreya and traditional IT staffing firms, according to Astreya, is how it presents prospective engineers to clients. Most firms offer a slew of prospective candidates to a client to see who "sticks," according to Illson. But Astreya largely makes that determination for the client, having intensely vetted the short list of potential engineers itself.
The cost for an Astreya support package -- which includes the staff and technical resources needed to complete an assignment -- varies widely, and is custom-priced. The determining factors are the scope and length of the assignment, as well as the number of engineers required and the technical depth needed, according to Astreya.
The company is privately held and declined to discuss exact revenue, but according to Illson, more than two-thirds of Astreya's revenue comes from infrastructure staffing services and consulting. Product solutions, he said, constitute the remainder.
Astreya overall grew 15 percent from its fiscal 2009 to 2010, and is projected to grow 33 percent from its fiscal 2010 to 2011. Among the company's market- and technology-specific specialties, Illson said the fastest growing opportunities are in security, virtualization, project and program management and mobile applications. Its full complement of services extends to technical staff augmentation, infrastructure maintenance from e-mail to security and backups, and all different forms of infrastructure development services, and its engineers quality as systems administrators, network engineers and system and network architects.
Next up for Astreya is something that Freeland and Ilson call Astreya University: a certification and federated training process that will in essence formalize how it grows and takes to market its engineers. The design phase is done, and the first pilot program is coming, said Illson.
"Our objective is to provide professional education and development which enables our engineers to remain technically current and advance their careers in a variety of technical disciplines," Illson explained. "We believe by doing this, we both improve employee retention and also offer our clients a consistent high quality engineer who performs to mutually understood standards."
In the meantime, Freeland said Astreya will focus on building its ranks, piece by piece.
"It's really a different type of person and sales cycle," he said of services-focused channel business. "You're not walking in with a huge vendor behind you, you're walking in as an IT consulting company. You're really only as good as your last referral."