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Raja Hammoud has been Coupa’s vice president of product management for 3 ½ years, growing the team from a handful to more than 20 people and expanding from the initial procurement product to a unified spend management suite. Raja is instrumental in how Coupa thinks about product and development. Ahead of Coupa Inspire Paris, where she’ll be speaking on “Driving the real math of customer success,” we sat down to talk with her about consumerizing the enterprise space, her approach to innovation, how developing in the cloud is different.
Coupa: Consumerization of the enterprise is a big trend in business and technology today. How has that impacted spend management?
Raja: For a long time, spend management vendors focused on optimizing the experience for back office professionals and forgot that to realize savings, you need all your employees and your suppliers to adopt the system. Giving them experiences that require a lot of knowledge and training often results in abandonment of processes all together, since spend management is not a core part of their day-to-day jobs.
At Coupa we're saying, "Get to the heart of the matter. Adoption is critical. As a matter of fact, it's the key to success.” One of the ways we help customers succeed is by bringing the same ease of use people have come to expect in their consumer lives to their business lives.
Bear in mind, bringing ease of use is not always about creating great user interfaces. In many cases, the best UI is no UI at all, as Rob, our CEO beautifully articulated in his article, “No User Interface.”
Who cares about a flashy UI if there are still too many steps to do something? What have you accomplished?
What if you predicted people's needs based on all the data that you have and used automation to eliminate some of those steps all together?
Smarter Trip, which we announced earlier this year, is a great example of this. With one click in the Coupa mobile app, a traveler can indicate the start of a journey. From there on, Smarter Trip takes over. It records locations visited, durations of the visits and mileage incurred, and intelligently predicts which activities may need to be expensed. It then presents expense report items to the traveler, who can approve them in one touch.
The future of product management
Coupa: Can you speak to the evolution of product management as a discipline? Where has it come from and where is it going?
Raja: On one end of the spectrum, you still see product management functions that report to development. This happens in technology-driven companies where decisions get made based on what is feasible and what the technology team is driving to. Product managers generally don't have a strong focus on the market, and they listen most to incoming escalations from their larger customers and working to meet that segment’s needs.
On the other end of the spectrum are companies like Coupa, where product managers are the “CEOs” of their product. They are accountable for its overall success and play both inbound and outbound roles.
In the inbound role, they define product strategy, distilling it into product roadmaps and designs and executing on them. They carefully balance innovation, customer and market driven requirements. They are regularly doing business reviews in their product area, identifying areas of improvement and executing on them. In the outbound role, they evangelize and train the company at large on the new offering.
In my experience, companies are most successful with the latter approach. Over time, I definitely see software companies moving in that direction.
The wellspring of innovation
Coupa: Where do innovation ideas come from?
Raja: They are triggered by a deep understanding of the problems people are trying to solve. There's no recipe for it other than to immerse yourself. You look at the market. You have a lot of discovery meetings with customers. You do ‘day in the life’ sessions where you sit with them and observe the challenges they encounter. You learn their business processes. You acquire a lot of domain expertise.
A big part of our innovation at Coupa has come from getting this deep understanding, and applying the latest technologies to solve the problem. For example, back in 2012 when we were designing our sourcing application, it became clear we had to address one problem sourcing managers had: identifying the right sourcing projects to focus on out of a mountain of possibilities.
Since we have real-time data on spending that’s happening across a given organization, we realized we could use this information to proactively recommend what to consider for sourcing.
As we did this, we were essentially working toward a whole new concept we introduced in the industry, which we refer to as “one stream”.
In spend management, vendors often talk about upstream and downstream. Sourcing managers do “upstream” work--sourcing commodities and negotiating contracts. In another “downstream” system, these contracts are deployed so people spend against them to save their company money. Business intelligence tools are then used to analyze past spend data to guide sourcing managers on what to source next. There are so many silos, and artificial boundaries. Why?
Those are really legacy ways of thinking. To us, there is no upstream or downstream, only one process flow that should be automated elegantly. In this case, we have people trying to source for their company, so they should know what people are spending money on every single day. If many employees are suddenly requesting a new hot item that hasn’t been sourced, let’s get out ahead of it.
Innovation is really about getting back to the root cause of the problem and challenging the way things have been done for years, by asking “is this the best way to do it?” Then you come up with fresh ways to address the problem using the latest technologies.
Coupa: What kind of obstacles have you encountered in asking people to rethink, "Is this even the best way to do it?"
Raja: Perhaps the biggest obstacle is when when you work with prospective customers who are replacing a product, and they had some feature before and they want to know, "Why don't you have that?"
For example, people often ask why we don't have a workflow for parallel approvals. Lots of systems have that and prospective customers want us to build it. Instead we explain: The reason you needed this in the past is because the systems were hard to use and had low adoption. It was taking forever to get people to approve on time. So, instead of addressing the root cause, which is the problem of people not adopting the system, vendors built parallel workflows. That is obviously not the best way to address the problem.
There are two things I usually say in these conversations: First, I say try it and you’ll find out that with Coupa you don’t need that.
Second, we have the data to prove it. We have 17 hours average approval time across the entire Coupa network. We can show you the data. As a matter of fact, when you start using Coupa, you can not only see--live in your dashboard-- average approval cycle time across the whole community, but you also see how your own approval cycle time compares to the rest of the community. If you are doing better, you are in the green zone. If you are behind, you are in the red zone. It gives your teams information and incentives to drive faster approvals within their organizations, and constantly re-examine their business rules around who truly needs to be an approver.
Developing in the cloud
Coupa: How does the cloud inform development? Is developing in the cloud dramatically different from how you worked in the past?
Raja: It is dramatically different from development of on-premise software, which I was doing up until 2008. Having operating usage data is a phenomenal thing. I still remember one of my very early days in product management back in 2001.
We had acquired a company and created a new unified architecture that brought the technologies from the two companies together. I was in charge of creating “Migration Tools” to migrate over 400 customers to the new release, as the prior products were drastically different.
Because these customers were all on-premise, we had no way to see usage patterns across the board. What this meant back in the day was doing a ton of customer research to understand the features that were being used in the sunsetting products. I ran a massive survey of the global customer council and followed up with many in-depth customer meetings.
With the cloud, our product managers and I feel like kids in a candy store. You want to know how something is used? Just login and see for yourself.
I'll give you an example. We have a feature that enables side-by-side product comparison. It's very consumer-like experience. We thought it was really cool, but when we looked at usage analytics, we saw that people were not finding it. Now, one of our UX designers is actively working on the design to make it easier to discover.
It’s really fun building products in this new world. You can push a feature out and get instant gratification seeing people start to use it.
Agility, momentum and confidence
Coupa: How are you able to release new features so quickly?
Raja: There are two factors: the cloud delivery model and also agile development, which is an approach that embraces collaboration between teams in a way that fosters rapid delivery.
Before agile development, we did what was called waterfall development. We built all of the designs for every single feature before we even talked to development. We spent months and months designing these beautiful documents. Then you throw them over the wall to development, figuratively speaking. The first time through, the developers look at it and say, "Oh, you haven't thought about this or that." In some cases you had to go back to square one. It took really long time, about 9-18 months, to get software releases out.
In the agile model we use at Coupa, we do two-week sprints. Every functional team sets goals in terms of new features they can complete within that timeframe. They deliver on them, and then go on to the next, and so on. Before you know it, in three or four months, we have a release of 60+ features ready to deploy.
Agile development for me is so similar to what happens in our personal lives when we break big daunting goals into smaller ones. As we check off bite-sized goals, we build momentum. We develop confidence in ourselves and our ability to achieve more, so we have this spring in our step. We constantly grow, and set bolder goals.
This is exactly what happens for development teams when they constantly deliver new features every two-weeks. It’s pretty amazing and highly rewarding.
Raja Hammoud will be speaking at Coupa Inspire Paris on Thursday, October 22 at 11:30 local time.