C-suite career advice: Eric Tan, Coupa Software

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? "When it comes to both business and technology, 'The one constant is change.' "

Name: Eric Tan

Company: Coupa Software

Job Title: VP of Business Services & IT

Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Eric Tan is VP of Business Services & IT of Coupa, the world's leading Business Spend Management platform. Eric is responsible for scaling Coupa's global business technology and processes for business operations, sales & marketing and customer support. He oversees a team responsible for the internal deployment of Coupa products as well as identifying modern technologies to help advance the company's digital agenda. The first to hold the position post-IPO, Eric led Coupa through its Sarbanes Oxley and GDPR compliance programs. Prior to Coupa, for Eric served in senior leadership positions at PwC and EY. Eric founded PwC's Cloud Computing practice where he was responsible for developing solutions for entry into new markets, and he helped build EY's Cyber Security business unit. Eric received a Masters in Business Systems, Bachelors in Accounting and CPA from Melbourne, Australia.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? When it comes to both business and technology, "The one constant is change." If I had not taken this advice to heart, I don't believe I would have had the career that I have had, and more importantly the satisfaction of building teams. I started my career building risk management systems when Y2K was important. Then it was about large ERP systems, cloud architecture, and most recently payment systems. Today our team is exploring how new machine intelligence technologies can replace manual processes, reduce errors, and improve insights to serving our customers. Continue to be interested in learning.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? "Do what it takes to get the next promotion, even if you don't like what you do". You can do what you are passionate about after you get the promotion. I never got the promotion and spent too much time doing something I didn't enjoy.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Spend as much time as you can learning, doing, and being in the details. This will serve you well as you begin leading teams and problem solve in the future. You'll find in the later stages of your career that you don't have as much time to learn the fundamentals or be as close in the details. By investing your time in the details early, you will be better equipped for success.

Did you always want to work in IT? No. As a kid my ambition was to be an architect to design modern homes. As life would have it, I graduated in accounting, obtained my CPA, and my first job out of school was to head up a finance function for a search engine startup in the ‘90s. Twenty years later, I followed in my father's footsteps in leading a team of engineers that would help solve business problems using technology! I'm very proud of it.

What was your first job in IT? My dad was a CIO at a bank so growing up I always had been fortunate to be surrounded by the latest gadgets at home. As such, I've always been fascinated with technology. Upon completing my undergraduate, I wanted to further my studies and pursued my Masters in IT.

To pay for school, I took on two jobs. The first was as an associate lecturer in programming. The second was helping a beverage distributor implement its warehouse management system. I'm not sure which was more intimidating, teaching object-oriented programming to hundreds of students or designing a system that would eventually mix cocoa, milk powder, and other ingredients for thousands of hot chocolates daily!

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? The most common misconception is that working in IT is SEXY. When people think of IT, people frequently think of new systems implementation, cloud migration, or Machine Learning and AI. Unless you are a brand-new startup, the reality for most IT leaders is that you will inherit a Frankenstein (imperfect systems architecture that has not been well documented). At most well run technology organisations, there is typically a significant amount of non-sexy IT work that must be done, including ensuring data integrity, improving system performance, and ensuring that security is appropriately considered, that it goes unnoticed.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position?

  • Work hard.
  • Be honest.
  • Stay relevant.
  • The rest will fall in place.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? It's important that you always keep learning, stay hungry, and remain open to opportunities. My journey along this career path was not a straight line. From the early days of wanting to be an architect, to wanting to be a tennis instructor, to eventually following in my dad's footsteps to become a leader in IT, I am proud of what I have accomplished.

I may not have become an architect, but I did get to fulfill my other two desires. In addition to my role at Coupa, I also have the privilege of volunteering to teach kids tennis at Stanford. Seeing their passion for tennis and being able to provide inspiration and impart some of the life lessons that tennis has to offer is one of the most rewarding experiences I've had.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Yes. Coupa has given me a platform to do what I enjoy: building processes and systems to get the right information to the right people at the right time. I sit together with a team I love and am surrounded by people that appreciate my team's work. At home, I get up early—about 4:30 a.m., spend an hour planning the day, get a mini workout in, quick breakfast, and have an eight-minute commute from my house to the office. On most days, I pick my 4-year-old up from school, get home, cook, which I find very therapeutic, have dinner with my family, do a quick check for any critical issues or system outages and am in bed by 10 p.m.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I wouldn't change anything. I've had a fortunate career. I've had the privilege of working with some of the most innovative and exciting companies in the technology and payments industries.

I've made my share of mistakes, learned from them, and moved on. Both my managers and my clients have taught me the importance of hard work, humility, and perseverance.

Finally, I'm proud to see many of my team members find their own path and succeed in their area of expertise.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I've never been to a coding bootcamp so can't comment much on it. I can however, say that the six years that I spent in university helped shape the way I have approached both work and life. Not only did I learn the fundamentals of bits & bytes, but university helped me appreciate the importance of being disciplined, ensuring you finish well what you started, and learning to collaborate with others. These are all important life skills you will use throughout your career.

How important are specific certifications? Broadly speaking, certifications are relevant, but not overly important and it depends on what the certification is for. To me, it's good to know that an individual has taken some level of education, completed a test, and would likely be able to perform his / her job. However, what's more important, are the real life experiences an individual has had. The battle scars surviving that midnight call about a system outage and then recovering from it, rebuilding his / her rapport after a failed implementation, and leading cross functional teams through challenging moments.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? For me, having technical competence would be the ante to the table. After that, I would say:

1) Being realistic in commitments to deliverables and timeliness

2) Having a willingness to take calculated risks

3) Understanding the importance and having the ability to foster relationships upward, with peers, and with your team.

What would put you off a candidate? Being late and a lack of preparation. Everyone is busy. Make sure you figure things out to show up on time. Do your homework about the company, the role you are interviewing for, and why you think it would be a mutually beneficial relationship for you and the company.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Significantly overstating their abilities, whether it's in leadership or technical skills. Be authentic and share what you are really good at and what you are not good at. No one expects you to be good at everything.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? You really need both to be relevant. Without a good understanding of a company, appreciation of the nuances of the industry, the deployment of any technology solution would be useless.

Technology has evolved at such a rapid pace over the past two decades, if you do not stay abreast with the advancements in technology, your ability to solve today's problems will become antiquated. For example, if you are just in the process of considering a cloud strategy, you are five years behind your peers. If you are considering using some form of AI, you are two years behind. Focus on developing both technical and business skills to succeed.