What makes a great software product leader? A passion for technology and people. In the case of Raja Hammoud, Senior Vice President of Products at Coupa Software (NASDAQ: COUP), a leader in business spend management (BSM), her youthful passion for technology transcended war and hardship and led her into a series of increasingly challenging engineering roles that eventually piqued an interest in product management. Her rise has been shaped by mentors and fueled by raw ability, hard work and a deep love for what she does.
“I’ve always pursued what lights me up,” says Hammoud. “I was studying math at the American University of Beirut when I took a course in programming Pascal. I fell in love with it. I was fascinated by how you could give instructions to a machine and have it do work for you.”
Midway through the course, the War of Liberation broke out in Lebanon, and class was suspended. By that time though, hard work and constant study had been hard coded into her DNA. “I was raised in an environment where huge value was ascribed to studying hard and being the best in your class. From a very early age, I studied on weekends, and late at night,” she says.
Homebound but undeterred, she solved all the problems in her Pascal textbooks, writing code on paper because she didn’t have access to a computer. By the time school resumed, she understood the material so well that she became a mentor to many of her classmates and changed her major to computer science.
She in turn found a mentor and advocate in her Advanced Algorithms teacher, Professor Shamsuddin, who was known for giving very difficult assignments and exams. “I did so well in this class, and was blessed that this professor recognized my potential and kept enlarging my vision for my future,” she says.
He gave her extra books and assignments, and one time she alerted him to an error in an algorithm book by a famous computer scientist. Later, she found out Professor Shamsuddin was telling the story of her discovery to other professors in the department, who were telling the story in their classes.
“His mentorship and pride in me gave me a lot of confidence and fueled me to excel,” she says. “I felt hungrier and hungrier for learning and growth.”
Hammoud always intended to satisfy that hunger by getting a PhD in computer science, but love and marriage, and another mentor, intervened. She came to the US with her husband and worked as a systems analyst at Eastman Chemical in Texas, and later in Tennessee. She carried her academic work ethic into the business world, even as a wife and new mother, adding C-libraries, Java, and DCOm to her skill set.
“I always signed up for new things,” she says. “I loved learning, and I wanted to grow, so I always ended up with lots of projects. A lot of my best work was created on weekends, where I could work nonstop on a requirements document, or a feature design. I would take my baby with me and I would buy all sorts of toys so that I could entertain him in the office while I was working.”
Eventually, Hammoud felt restless to take on bigger challenges. The family made their way to Silicon Valley, where she held a progression of engineering roles at webMethods, an early integration software company. When the company dissolved the division she was working in, she shifted to product management to pursue a growing fascination with it. Susan Ganeshan, then head of product management, inspired her and showed her the ropes, and she found her calling.
“What lit me up, and still does, is connecting with customers, understanding their problems, and building products to make their lives better,” she says. “As much as I loved technology for its own sake, seeing the pragmatic uses in people’s lives was the next new era of excitement for me, and one that I only saw in product management.”
After webMethods, Hammoud led product marketing for Adobe’s Business Process Management before joining Coupa in 2012. She was excited by Coupa’s vision to disrupt the stale procurement industry with modern technology to help employees spend their companies’ money in the smartest possible way.
In her current role, her focus is on organizational development and product leadership. That means hiring the right people and helping them develop their talent. “Product success starts with a strong foundation of people,” she says. She and her team decide what products to build and when, as well as how to balance customer needs, market opportunities, and pure innovation.
“The most exciting trend right now is applying the power of machine learning to a wide variety of problems,” she says. “We’re reaching a point in time where we have massive amounts of data and the computing power to mine them for patterns and insights. At Coupa we have a data warehouse of more than $570 billion in business spending transactions—data that is unavailable anywhere else. We’re using that to deliver what we call community intelligence–operational, supplier, and commodity insights that allow our customers to make faster, more informed decisions. This is incredibly exciting because we are doing things never been done before in this space.”
“It’s more exciting than ever to be involved with technology, with so many possibilities for applications that will change the world. It’s great to be working at a company where we have all we need to win in our market–culture, talent, technology, momentum, and successful customers.”