As tax departments strive to adapt to the rapid pace of change, tax technology is key in empowering them to do so. We sat down with Catherine Light, Partner, Technology & Innovation, KPMG in Singapore and KPMG in the US colleagues Debs Watson, Senior Manager, Tax Ignition, and Sri Varanasi, Senior Manager, Tax Ignition, in honor of International Women’s Day. Read their stories or listen to the podcast to learn about how they came to tax technology, the challenges and opportunities they have experienced, the advancements seen in the industry and the important role they play as leaders in this space.
To start, can you each tell us about your career journey so far – where your career began, and the moves you've made to reach where you are today?
Catherine: My career kicked-off in 2008, when I started as an audit clerk at KPMG in South Africa. Little did I know at the time that this would become fundamental to my future career journey, with the first three years of my career being spent within Audit. I then moved across functions into tax compliance and advisory, where I worked on indirect tax compliance and advisory, as well as corporate income tax compliance and filing.
Following two maternity leaves, which welcomed my two daughters, I returned to work and quickly realized that there was a big opportunity for change, specifically as it relates to technology and the mundane tasks that clients were spending a large amount of time on – manual, spreadsheet-driven tasks, that gave them very little time to focus on what was important. At that time, technology was being rolled out globally throughout KPMG, predominantly in the Indirect Tax space, but I knew that this technology could also be implemented at KPMG in South Africa, and that’s where my journey in the tech space began.
I spent the next five years developing a data driven approach for indirect tax reviews, providing advice to clients based on system change and how to set up the systems that produced necessary results, as well as looking at how they could file and manage their risks more effectively. It was this experience that put me in a good position to apply for a job at KPMG in Singapore in 2018, and this is where I have been ever since, working on the development and expansion of KPMG in Singapore’s Tax Transformation department.
Today, my focus is on the direct tax space and looking at how to bring automation, process efficiencies, and data driven approaches to the practice. This experience has also allowed me to be a part of KPMG’s Digital Gateway – a single platform solution that is designed to give clients access to the suite of KPMG Tax & Legal technologies – and the rolling out of other significant tax transformation projects in the region.
Debs: I joined KPMG in 2009, through the audit ACA grad scheme in London, in the UK. I'm a mathematics graduate, and I love learning, so training to be an accountant seemed like a logical choice to me. And it was – I gained a lot of really great experience during that time. After qualifying, I was ready for a change. I was unsure of what direction to go in when I found out about KPMG’s modeling team. Building models requires a lot of logical thinking, comfort with data and numbers, as well as an ability to really understand your client’s business to help them solve their problems, and so this was a perfect fit for me. I could combine my math skills with my accounting skills into a role that previously I hadn't even known existed. I spent that time becoming an expert on water regulatory modeling, which hadn’t necessarily been my intention, but the skills I was learning were very much agnostic of function or industry and could be applied universally. I also gained a great mentor. He subsequently moved to the US firm to join their Tax Ignition practice and in 2015, asked me if I would move out to help grow the data and analytics team, particularly around modeling capabilities.
So, I arrived in the US almost six years ago now, and I've learned a lot since moving here, both around tax and around new technologies. My passion is really with the Microsoft’s Power Platform and empowering clients to become more tech and data enabled. I co-developed a number of organization-wide tools, including the ITRA tool which allows for extensive international tax modeling. I've also led several large technology projects with clients across the country.
Sri: My background is in technology, with a master’s in computer science. I joined KPMG in the US as a campus hire, starting in the Tax Technology practice and working as a developer on business process applications. As a result of that exposure, I began to receive opportunities to learn a more well-rounded approach to technology and how it gets applied to various business processes, from reporting to workflow processing to give users an end-to-end digital experience. I was in the US firm’s tax technology practice for about 8 years, and then transferred to the KPMG Ignition practice where I focused on emerging technologies. It was a great learning experience that allowed me to gain insight into net new technologies and how to implement them. I worked on a range of technologies from visualization tools to machine learning, and more recently, cloud.
Today, my focus is on creating the next generation of a document collaboration system that can be used for all of Tax practice globally via KPMG Digital Gateway platform.
What are some of the barriers you have faced in your career? And how did you overcome those barriers?
Catherine: Personally, it's the adversity that results from change. Technology is still somewhat new to the tax world, and it is often met with resistance. There’s the saying, ‘why change something when it's not broken?’, but in this case, I believe that the way we approach tax is somewhat broken, and technology is what is at the core of enhancing this and changing what we've been doing in the past. With this though, comes change, and change can be hard. It often takes a lot of convincing to make the business realize that technology can deliver the necessary results and streamline day-to-day tasks without taking jobs away or putting them at risk. There is an abundance of opportunities that can be leveraged to improve the day-to-day life of employees, and that doesn’t have to mean they will be out of a job. It's all about redefining who they are and using the technology tools available in order to deliver work more effectively and efficiently. It’s no easy task, and I don't think we’ve overcome it just yet.
It's still a journey, but in the last 12 years this change management piece has been a barrier I’ve encountered, but one that is being broken down as each day passes.
Debs: For me, the biggest barrier has been around a lack of confidence when looking at self-promotion, putting my hand up for things, and the feeling of imposter syndrome. I felt that I had to be perfect, and anything less than that was failure. The first thing that helped me to overcome this was just saying yes – pushing aside the self-doubt, taking on challenging and uncomfortable roles, and not treating imperfection as failure. This was essential to me as I worked to build that confidence and resilience, which allowed me to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone. The second thing that helped me was gaining a sponsor. I've been really lucky to have gained an amazing sponsor who guides me and champions my work, and that's made a huge difference for me from a confidence perspective.
Sri: In line with what Deborah said, one of the biggest barriers for me has been lack of confidence, which might be directly correlated with not having the right role models as women leaders in technology. So not knowing how to navigate this space and what it takes to be successful was a definite barrier. To this day, one of the things I do to overcome this is by looking at my male colleagues to see how they perform and approach things in the field. It is really important to take intentional actions in order to improve self-confidence. Continuously learning, trying different approaches and failing can only make you stronger. Not giving up, learning from my failures, and finally succeeding has helped me slowly build confidence.
What has been your approach to balancing personal and professional life, especially in the current environment where working from home has become the norm?
Catherine: I think any job has its challenges in finding the right balance between personal and work life. At the end of the day, it's about developing a strong employee-employer relationship based on the fundamental value of trust. Of course, there are still moments where it's incredibly hard to get that balance right, with work being incredibly demanding most of the time and a culture where our jobs are extremely important. Most of the women that I speak to in the tax technology space are passionate about what they do, but their family also remains a top priority. Often, it's challenging as women try to juggle being a mom, a woman with a competitive career who is doing the best they can to deliver and grow within an organization.
Personally, I’ve found I’m not very good at it, but I'm trying. I’m learning to say no to certain tasks, specifically when I just don't have enough time in the day. That’s not to say you should say no to every opportunity, it's just about managing what you can say yes to so that you can deliver on what is expected of you, both personally and professionally.
These days, with remote learning and working, homeschooling is often also in the mix, which adds another layer to the mix.
Debs: I think creating a balance and staying sane in today’s environment has been difficult for everyone. I find setting boundaries has been crucial for me. I make sure to block-out time on my calendar to focus or just to have time-out, which helps to make sure that I'm not just bouncing from call to call all week and then playing catch up on the weekend.
Part of managing a successful work-life balance is setting expectations and, as Catherine said, not being afraid to say no. I think women can have a tendency to want to say yes to everything to both help others and to continuously prove themselves, but it's not sustainable. It’s critical to know when to say no, to put yourself first, and to stick to those boundaries.
Sri: I agree, it can be very hard when it comes to juggling work life and personal life. I often find myself in situations where I’m my children’s primary caregiver and I have to figure out options that will fully support my kids, whether it be giving them attention, working with them on their homework or helping them build their confidence. I always use the mantra of “prioritize, delegate and let go”. It's extremely hard for any person to do everything all by themselves, so I try to prioritize what's most important. I have also tried to build a very strong support system around me – my family, my children’s caregivers, my strong network of friends, and even my cleaners and my meal prep service. I often depend on this support system to help me work through difficult times.
Of course, there are times when my children are looking to spend time with me when I also have competing work deadlines. In cases like this, they’re sleeping with me in the computer chair, while I'm pulling together what I need to deliver at work. Overall, it’s just figuring out what works for you. It's important to identify what your priorities are, what your purpose is, and what motivates you the most. Laying these things out has really helped me.
In your experience, what do you think makes a great leader?
Catherine: For me, an inspiring leader is somebody who has a clear vision and focus for their team – someone who knows where they’re heading and how they’re getting there. In addition to that, helping the team meet goals is extremely valuable. With a leader being a part of the working team, they take pride in all of the achievements, whether it be a team achievement or individual. One thing that really stands out to me are when leaders hire people that are better than them to do the job, and celebrate all the wins as a team. Also, leaders that are never afraid to take the step towards building a team that will be successful as a group. I look for a leader that who knows you, works with you, is smiling next to you, and drives the whole team towards success.
Debs: Being authentic and genuinely caring about your people are two of the most important things to me. I want my leader to connect with me on both a personal and professional level, and to feel as though they care about me and my career progression. That makes me feel valued and inspires me to work harder, and it also inspires me to pay it forward to the future generations of female leaders.
A great leader to me is someone who has a positive mindset and the ability to make bold decisions by leaping forward, even when it’s unknown territory.
It’s also important that they have honest and open communication with their teams, and provide real time feedback to help with career development.
How have you seen tax technology leaders put inclusion and diversity at the forefront of their agendas?
Catherine: In my opinion, inclusion and diversity means bringing the right people into the job, regardless of race or gender. It's about competence, skill set, and bringing in someone that's passionate about what they do.
I have seen how women can drive change throughout the organization, and how different ethnicities have been increasingly brought to the table for the sole reason that they are good at what they do and are the best candidate for that position. To me, that is critical. The best people will lead the best results.
Debs: This year in particular we're really owning the gender imbalance we have within our group. We know we struggle with equal representation when it gets to that manager and above level, and I think recognizing that and saying it's not okay and must be challenged, is really critical. We've done a lot already at the entry-level, and we hope that will pay dividends going forward, but the other thing we need to think about is retention. That's something we're really trying to focus on as well.
We’re creating different initiatives to help reflect and improve upon on our culture and the support needed to create an environment where women feel that they can thrive. As an example, we recently introduced a coffee chat series where, on a monthly basis, we connect women in the team in order to help them develop a network and provide a space to talk about particular challenges and successes. The goal of these chats is to connect and to empower the women in the group.
Sri: When it comes to inclusion and diversity, especially when focusing on gender balance and promoting female talent, our leaders are focused on creating mentoring, sponsorship and coaching opportunities for high potential women. More recently, we've been hosting women's coffee chat sessions to nurture female talent and their career potential. I've also seen multiple women receive the KPMG Chairman's awards at their local offices. I personally have been fortunate to work with multiple leaders who recognize my efforts, made me feel that my contributions are truly valued by giving me increasing responsibilities and opportunities to make big decisions.
And finally, based on your career journey and experiences so far, can I ask you each to pass on some advice to the next generation of female leaders within tax technology?
Catherine: It's about being passionate on driving change. If you're passionate, you can achieve anything. It's about getting the balance right between high level tax knowledge and good technology understanding, and embracing every opportunity that comes your way.
I would say be confident in who you are and what you bring to the table. Sometimes, when we have a lack of female role models, it narrows that view of what success looks like and can perpetuate that feeling of not fitting in or not being good enough. My advice is to not try to emulate what you think a successful person should be like – just stay true to yourself.
Sri: Be willing to take risks and push yourself outside your comfort zone, because that's where most of the learning happens. Be intentional with the kind of skill set and positive learning experiences you seek out. Most importantly, believe in yourself. Be aware of your limiting thoughts, because most of our limitations are self-imposed. And lastly, always surround yourself with big dreamers and make sure you dream big yourself as well.