CTO Sessions: Aaron Harris, Sage

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? “I think the bigger challenge is knowing when to insist on absolute adherence to the strategy and when to allow exceptions.”

Headshot of Aaron Harris, CTO at Sage

Name: Aaron Harris

Company: Sage

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: April 2019

Location: San Jose, US

Aaron Harris has more than 25 years of high-tech engineering experience in business applications and software development strategies. For more than 15 years, Harris led the product vision and technology direction for Intacct, prior to it's acquisition by Sage in 2017. A pioneer in cloud computing, Harris helped Intacct (now Sage Intacct) build the world's first cloud architecture delivering on-demand financial applications. Prior to launching Intacct, Harris was a member of Arthur Andersen's Developers' Coordination Council, where he evangelised emerging development technologies, established best practices, and built infrastructure software development tools, focusing on remote data access and web services technologies.

What was your first job? Dishwasher at the Dog Team Tavern in Middlebury, VT.

Did you always want to work in IT? I’ve always loved IT but wasn’t certain I wanted to make it a career until college.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? Bachelor’s in accounting and Masters in Infosys from Brigham Young University.  I’ve never really sought out certifications.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I joke I have a very short resume.  I started a construction accounting software company while still in university but didn’t have the guts yet to be an entrepreneur.  Instead, I went to work at Arthur Andersen.  It didn’t take long for me to realise Arthur Andersen and I were not a fit.  A colleague at Arthur Andersen told me his uncle was up to something cool that may be right up my alley in late 1999.  Two months later I relocated from Chicago to Silicon Valley to join the founding team at Intacct. I was CTO and VP Engineering until we sold the company to Sage in 2017. I joined the Sage leadership team as Global CTO in 2019.

What type of CTO are you? With the help of a lot of very smart people, I craft a technology vision for the company, I lead the teams building the enabling technology, and I evangelise the vision internally and externally. It’s my job to drive a tech strategy that creates competitive differentiation and enables our corporate purpose to knock down barriers so that everyone can thrive.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Blockchain, though if you Google what I’ve said on the topic, you’ll see I initially thought it was a solution looking for a problem. I now see it as civilization changing in a very positive way if we can cut through the hype and demonstrate real solutions that make a difference.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Robotic process automation or RPA. I understand its value, but it’s essentially extending the shelf life of dated technology. It automates workflows designed for humans using tools designed for humans. Digital Transformation of those workflows will drive much better outcomes.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? Our new Employment Verification service. Using our Digital Network architecture, we created a shared ledger between employers and employees that empowers employees to digitally share their pay history with lenders without requiring the employer to verify the data. We believe Employment Verification is a small but important win for eradicating bias from lending decisions with the help of technology. I've written about this in a blog post on LinkedIn titled, "How SMBs can help remove bias from consumer lending."

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? We have multiple digital transformation activities at Sage targeting both outcomes. We have very clear strategic initiatives that drive investment allocation decisions as part of our regular planning process. At the heart, our approach is guided by meeting our customers’ needs. Our ambition is to be the trusted network for small and medium businesses providing an integrated experience of digital and human connections via the Sage Digital Network.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Our technology vision is to enable our customers to digitise their business, elevate the work of humans, and enable environmentally and socially responsible growth. So, supporting them on their digital transformation journey for accounting and finance workflows is paramount.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? I have to be very connected to both the commercial side of the business as well as the product development side of the business. As we move from the SaaS era to the Digital era, technology strategy, commercial strategy, and brand strategy have to be fully aligned and integrated to support our purpose.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? I think the bigger challenge is knowing when to insist on absolute adherence to the strategy and when to allow exceptions. Another important challenge is knowing when to optimise for scale efficiency and when to optimise for agility.

What makes an effective tech strategy? It accelerates the broader corporate strategy, it meets our customers’ needs, it creates a platform for telling a compelling tech story and it leverages the company’s assets and opportunities to create competitive differentiation.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I joke that the CTO is the one employee who can explain to marketing what the engineers are doing.  As we progress through the technology eras, technology strategy, commercial strategy, and brand strategy will be more and more aligned. We’ll start to see CTOs in the future that come up from marketing or finance.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Persevering to build the Intacct business and its ecosystem.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? We don’t have time for that. I’d love a do over having all the experience I’ve gained making mistakes over the last 20+ years.

What are you reading now? Ironically, I’m reading The Revenge of Analog.

Most people don't know that I… grew up in Vermont and take every opportunity to escape there as often as possible.

In my spare time, I like to…Cycle, hike, ski, and enjoy my growing vinyl collection.

Ask me to do anything but… Role play or read from a script.