“Be adaptable and empathetic” – Russell Cooper, Chief Product Officer, AccountsIQ on why a product mindset essential to building a software business

CEO Q&A, Interviews, Partner Content, Thought Leadership | Mon 23 May | Author – Business & Finance
Pictured: Russell Cooper is Chief Product Officer with financial management software provider, AccountsIQ

Russell Cooper is Chief Product Officer with financial management software provider, AccountsIQ. Here he answers questions about how the software industry is changing and why his job is to make accountants smile.  

What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

Product management is much more about people and solving problems than technology and product features. There’s a well-known saying in the software industry, ‘no-one wants to buy your tech’. What they want are solutions to their problems in a user-friendly format.

As a product team our goals are to develop a deep understanding of our target markets and then prioritise our internal resources to deliver solutions that solve their problems. There are often multiple options to achieve that. One of the jobs of product management is to tease that out; to gather the ideas and to keep asking ‘why?’. 

What are the trends and challenges facing the software industry going forward?

The product function is getting a lot more visibility at C-level; that needs to continue. Software providers are really starting to understand that they shouldn’t just build features and ship them. They need to think about the optimum way they can solve their customers’ problems. 

Achieving that depends on finding people with what I call a strong product mindset. That involves curiosity, good communications skills (especially listening), a logical, analytical brain and relationship building skills. It’s a surprise to some people, but a good product person doesn’t necessarily need strong technical skills.   

Our role is to be curious, to ask questions and gather evidence from multiple sources: internal data on product and feature usage, support tickets and feedback from sales and customers. Then we look for patterns in that data. Too much unstructured data can be another challenge. 

It’s almost impossible to get all that data into one system.  We’re trying to do that at AccountsIQ. We put as much of our data and insights as possible into a system called Dovetail, for anyone in the company to access.  

As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market?

Probably less than in other areas, such as engineering. I think that’s because we can upskill people from a variety of backgrounds. I’ve had people from project management, data analysis, account management, customer support and marketing move into product management and be very successful. 

In fact, in a previous company, I brought someone in from a QA role. They were an engineer, but in the interview, they blew me away with their product mindset. They demonstrated a strong desire to deeply understand and empathise with our target market. 

I generally recruit more for mindset and potential than technical skills.

How do you keep your team motivated?

I generally recruit more for mindset and potential than technical skills. I care more about a person’s desire to keep learning than I do about their background. I then work with each team member individually to find out what they enjoy doing and where they feel they should be developing, and we discuss how that brings value to the company.

How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your sector?

We don’t just research product usage, we research the environment people are using the product in. As so many finance managers and accountants are working from home, or transitioning to some form of hybrid working, that environment has changed massively. Now we need to understand the problems they have in their WFH environment.

For example, they don’t have colleagues sitting next to them to ask questions. That has an impact on product development and design, as the product has to be even more intuitive and user-friendly. We’ve also looked at ways technology can compensate for not having a colleague sitting next to you, such as our e-learning portal, AIQ Academy. 

The way we conduct our user research has also changed. Pre-pandemic, we would go into offices and test the product in a group environment. We’d see first-hand the messy desks, hand-written post-its and paper tools or clunky workarounds that teams were sometimes using for things the product could do. 

We’d also get a feel for their working environment challenges, such as interruptions or tech that’s nothing like the high specification machines used by developers and product designers. I think that level of group observational research may not come back to what it was before. So, now we’re looking at tools to enable online versions of this kind of research.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

Be adaptable and empathetic. Try to understand where people are coming from (and demonstrate that you’re trying to understand). Never assume you know the answer; always look for alternatives, ask questions and take a broad view.

What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

I joined AccountsIQ in lockdown, so it was great to get the Product team together for in-person workshops recently. Lots of our work can be done very effectively remotely, but there are times when nothing beats gathering around a whiteboard and thrashing stuff out in person. I’ve also loved working with people from around the company; running regular company-wide product updates and getting them involved in the product process.  

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

I would love to be in a position where employees, customers and prospects are all saying: ‘Wow, that’s a great product, I actually enjoy using it’. Currently, our customers tell us it’s a great product because it solves their problems. I want to take it a step further, so they say they love using it. 

I distinctly remember, a few years ago, using a log analysis tool call Splunk. I was just typing in questions, and it knew what I wanted. I remember actually smiling and I felt great using it. AccountsIQ is a completely different (and already feature rich) product, but if we can make people smile when using it, that would be awesome.