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Everyone Can Innovate

At Coupa, Eric Tan serves as the VP, Business Services and IT. In that role, he leads IT at a company where every employee is considered an IT worker and where innovation and new ideas can and often do come from every corner of the organization.

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Show Notes

Eric Tan (LinkedIn) has been on both sides of the IT coin as a consultant and now in an operations role as the VP of Business Services and IT at Coupa.

In this episode of IT Visionaries, Eric discusses how he grew up destined to be in IT, even though he started his career as a CPA. He also details what it means to join and lead a company that has doubled in size twice since he joined the organization. Eric reveals the challenges growth presents, but also the excitement that comes when innovation happens in every part of the organization.

Topics Discussed: Cloud technology, AI, machine learning, UI, CIO, growth, innovation.

Introducing Eric — (1:15)

  • Eric helps build the IT architecture and infrastructure for a rapidly-growing organization.
  • He is also responsible for bringing innovation into the company and into the hands of the customers.

Eric’s background in IT — (2:35)

  • Eric’s father was an IT professional  — he worked his way up from meteorologist to CIO at a bank — so Eric grew up with the latest technology all around him.
  • Even still, Eric’s father will try to help Eric solve some of the IT problems he’s currently facing.

Eric’s past experience in tech — (4:50)

  • Spent two decades helping companies build internal IT architecture.
  • At PwC, Eric was helping companies work in the cloud when they were just trying to figure out how and why they would use cloud technology.
  • There were some struggles in moving from a consulting position to an operations roles.
  • “I thought had it. I had been very successful in implementing IT strategies and ERPs. When I got to Coupa, what I didn’t realize was how hard it was because Coupa was growing fast.”
  • In the span of a couple of years, Eric’s employee base doubled, Coupa acquired four other companies and an entirely new leadership team was brought in.
  • “Imagine coming into a company having the expectation to build the architecture for a growing company then having all these changes happen and guess what, you don’t have the backing of 200,000 people like do you did at your previous company. You have this IT budget and have to make things work.”
  • Eric has a background in finance and accounting and is a certified CPA.

How to look at UI and adoption rates — (10:55)

  • Coupa has one of the highest adoption rates in the industry.
  • “We believe no UI is the best UI.”
  • Customers who use the Coupa platform enjoy the experience because a lot of the thinking has already been done for them.
  • Anything you want to buy or spend, you can do all of that on the Coupa platform.
    • In the background, the Coupa infrastructure and tech is doing risk assessments and comparisons on whether what you are purchasing is a “good buy” or not.

The amount of time spent with customers vs. in-house — (13:25)

  • Eric does 70% in-house work and 30% with customers.
  • There are many internal processes that need to be automated and/or fixed, so there is a lot of technical debt that needs to be addressed.

IT culture at Coupa — (14:30)

  • IT was aggregated and the function of IT was spread across all the employees at the company but there was no governance, strict policies or processes. And it is similar today because that allows a bit more room for innovation, however there are more safeguards in place.
  • “Every employee at Coupa is, in fact, an IT person. We still encourage innovation across our 1,300 employees. Innovation should come from your team.”
  • Coupa just recently hosted its fourth hack-a-thon to promote problem-solving and innovation throughout the company.
    • During the hack-a-thon, a 20-year-old with no coding experience and by using Apex in Salesforce, he created 36 lines of code that has helped the company reduce customer service tickets by 130 per year.

Forming a community among IT leaders — (20:50)

  • There is a community of CIOs, especially young CIOs in Silicon Valley, who help each other and discuss common problems.
  • When he wants to implement a new technology or idea, the No. 1 question Eric gets from the CEO or CFO is, “Where has it been done before?” Having a network of IT leaders to tap into and learn from helps him answer that question.

Becoming an IT Leader — (23:45)

  • “I’ve always had the mindset where I can solve anything and everything. I think that all changed when I was in the driver’s seat and realizing that resources are not unlimited and a company’s priorities change. Being able to be nimble enough to change and make quick decisions was eye-opening.”
  • 50% of IT projects are not about IT, it’s about change-management, navigating people to rally toward a specific mission and adoption.
  • The five-year roadmap isn’t helpful when innovation and change happens in a matter of days, weeks or months.

Coupa Pay — (31:30)

  • Launched in 2018 to solve two problems: 1) Payments in the B2B space. 2) Supply and Finance
  • Coupa has a supplier network of four million suppliers.

Working with AI and machine learning — (33:40)

  • “I still think AI and machine learning are in their infancy. Without data, AI and machine learning are not going to work.”
  • Over the last 10 years, data has evolved so much. We have such a wealth of data that deploying technologies such as AI and machine learning makes predictive capabilities so much more powerful.”
  • All the data being collected can be used to tell stories about how and why people are buying and make the experience better.

Lightning Round — (37:45)

Conversations with Fortune 100 Tech Leaders​

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