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How has the role of CIO changed in the last 20 years, and how will it change going forward? I had the pleasure of talking with a second-generation CIO, Eric Tan, for today’s episode of Mayfield’s CXO of the Future podcast.
Eric is Senior Vice President of Technology at Coupa, a global technology platform for business spend management. He oversees global business technology and is responsible for the internal deployment of Coupa’s business spend management products. Prior to Coupa, Eric served in leadership roles at PwC and EY.
Eric grew up in Malaysia in a very traditional Asian family where the priorities were hard work and learning as much as possible. His passion for technology started when he was 12 or 13 years old. His dad was the CIO at a bank in the 80s and had access to a lot of the latest technologies (like laptops!). He learned how to assemble computers from scratch and built his own 386DX-40–and even remembered following his dad to the office to look at another new technology, which was called the ATM.
Eric went to school in Melbourne Australia, got a taste of Western living and a preview of the world of possibilities, like being able to have two jobs on the side while he was in school. One job was as an accountant and the other was assembling computers for a coffee manufacturing company. His first job after graduation was at a startup in Southeast Asia.
His company raised 20 million but spent 25 million, and Eric realized he wasn’t that great of an entrepreneur and transitioned into 15 years of consulting, a great place to learn, by seeing how a lot of different companies are run. He joined Coupa five years ago and it has been a great ride ever since.
For Eric, the term leadership has changed quite a bit, in his view, over the past 20 years, especially in the role of I.T. The CIOs from 20 years ago were viewed as autocratic. They had all of the answers. They weren’t always the smartest person in the room, but they had access to a lot of information. Today, the CIO role is all about partnerships.
I don’t think you can be a successful CIO today without meaningful partnerships across the board with the different stakeholders, within the business units, with your peers, with your leaders and with the people you support. I think that shift has happened quite dramatically. The CIO of 20 years ago was in command of an orchestra. But the CIO of today is more like a conductor. You’ve got all these different teams playing to a tune of all of the technology landscape that you’ve architected.
Advice for Building Effective Partnerships
Eric believes that building effective partnerships means investing in relationships up front. Failure comes in when people don’t take the time to just build those relationships.
Eric provided a clear example of what not to do: “I was having lunch with another CIO the other day and we were talking about how you only go to your CFO or your business partner when there’s a problem. And guess what? That’s all he associates you with. ‘Eric is coming to see me because he’s going to tell me he needs more money to solve a budget. He’s got a problem because an implementation is not going well.’”
It’s important not to be in that spot. So taking the time to invest in relationships, and getting to know the other person, is very important. It’s a people business, and those relationships matter more so than ever before. So it’s okay to sometimes have a coffee, learn about someone’s history and background, and not talk about work. Those conversations go a long way. And when you do eventually need to ask for money or forgiveness on a failed project, it’s a lot easier.
When it comes to innovation, Eric looks for companies that solve his customers’ problems. Coupa attacks spend management for the enterprise, and their primary focus is on the procurement to pay cycles. If you look at the acquisitions that they’ve made in the past 12 months: a German payments provider in the treasury management space, and more recently, a company in supply chain AI technology, you wouldn’t think that those two would naturally fit into the spend management space. But they do. And that’s what Coupa’s customers have been asking for.
Eric thinks that in terms of innovation, you’ve got to listen to what your customers are looking for. Coupa’s customers–CFOs and CPOs–want to maximize every dollar. And to them, the natural evolution of Coupa is: “How do you make your supply chain more efficient?” In that context, innovation is really important.
Most recently, they’ve started Coupa Ventures and allocated some funds to invest into technologies and companies that they think should co-exist with them.
Internal innovation is also something else that is near and dear to my heart. Every year Coupa sets aside between 10 to 15 percent of our budget to allocate for new emerging technologies. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the AI space, the go to market space or even network observability. We’ve invested in a bunch of different things. Some work, some don’t work. But those are things that we feel are necessary to continue to help Coupa scale.
Advice for Startups
Be authentic. Too many times founders oversell their company. Buyers know that you’re a startup and that you don’t have all the right controls in place. They know that you’re not a thousand-person company. You are probably eight guys in a garage or something. That’s OK. But by being authentic, and by being transparent about who you are and what you are, it helps enable the buyer to make a judgment call on whether or not it’s the right bet. The worst thing you can do is paint a picture that’s rosier than it is. Once you get into that business relationship and time goes on and the buyer uncovers stuff, that usually never goes well.
Get right into the meat of things. Make good use of that 30 minutes that you have of the CIO’s time. A CIO can decide in the first five minutes if they’re going to make a bet or not. Too many times, founders just go on and on, spinning around their story and the background of how they founded the company. What does the tool and technology look like? What problem are you trying to solve?
- Be authentic with your interactions. People can see through you if you’re faking it.
- Give others the same experiences and opportunities that you’ve had during your career. In today’s day and age, people are just looking for good experiences and authentic relationships.
- In your role as a CIO, it doesn’t matter how many people you have. It matters how you use technology to enable the success of your company.
Eric Tan is SVP, Technology at Coupa Software Inc (“Coupa”), Nasdaq listed business spend management platform. He is responsible for the company’s internal innovation, leads the global information technology and business services organization. Prior to joining Coupa, Eric served in various senior leadership roles at consulting firm, PwC.
Eric is actively involved in the venture community which provides him a platform to pursue his passion of helping early-stage companies grow. He currently serves as a board advisor to several tech companies in Asia and the US.
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