Following the feedback from our readers and to raise more awareness on the profession, we decided to launch a series of interviews with women in tax technology. These inspiring women will share details about their careers, what they have learnt and provide advice for new starters in tax technology.
It is with great pleasure that we welcome Isabelle Desmeytere. With over two decades of experience working in tax technology, Isabelle is one of the pioneers of the industry and one of the heavy contributors to where it is today.
Isabelle, for those who don’t know you, can you introduce yourself?
I am 44 years old and VAT Technology passionate, having spent 21 years – this is nearly half of my life – in VAT Technology and still finding it the most interesting discipline to work in.
I am based in Brussels, living 8 minutes from Brussels airport, currently working as a freelance Tax Technology consultant.
Thank you, Isabelle. Why did you choose to specialise in Indirect Tax automation?
I didn’t really choose to specialise in Tax automation; it rather just happened. And it happened to be the right thing for me. When you automate tax decisions and tax reporting, you must come to a black or white outcome, unlike in consulting, where often many grey areas are left in the open. When automating taxation, you must determine the result, there is no room for ‘should it be …’ or ‘unless …’. I am a very analytical and logical thinking person, so analysing tax legislation to program a VAT engine or VAT reporting system was very much the right challenge for me. Even when implementing VAT automation solutions with large multinational customers, I often had to decide on the spot about the VAT treatment, heaps of experience, in depth VAT knowledge and an analytical and logical approach do help a lot to make those decisions.
And that’s exactly what Tax Technology is about! How would you describe your taxologist journey?
I started my career in Tax automation right after leaving university. I did a Master degree in Taxation and at the same time I was working as a researcher at the uni’s tax department. Straight after this academic start, I started VAT Applications in 2000 together with Stijn Saelens and Patrick Wille. I took up the VAT analysis of all worldwide legislation and the translation thereof into software programmers’ language. Furthermore, I also did implementations of our VAT automation and reporting software with our customers. This gave me a great insight in how VAT transactional flows within business work and it also gave me a lot of insight in different large ERP systems. Down the road VAT Applications was sold to Avalara in 2015, my contract ending in 2018. Thus, time for new challenges and opportunities. Hence, I started as a freelance Tax technology consultant in 2018. A great decision. I gained a lot more insight in SAP and especially SAP/HANA and the move towards it as well in Vertex. Assisting on worldwide projects is fantastic. Next to analysing new legislation and directly interpreting it into adaptations of the ERP system is so challenging and so rewarding when it works well and you can harmonise certain issues. And then, there is the human fact too: having contact and discussions with people from around the globe is so enriching. It does help that I speak six languages, I guess.
Not many can claim to have such depth of experience working with tax and systems. Do you see many women working in Tax Technology? Has it changed since you started?
There are still rather few women working in Tax Technology. You come across quite some female VAT consultants or VAT compliance consultants, but as soon as some IT skills are needed, then a lot less women seems to be interested. I also noticed so when hiring staff in the past. Women, even young girls were far less interested in IT than men. I still don’t know why. I guess it is fairly typical for me to be interested in “a man’s world” discipline, I do have my private pilot licence, and when I started flying 15 years back, it was really rare that a women took the controls of a plane, today there are more, but still very few though.
I have noticed the same sourcing candidates, there are less women specialised in tax technology, a trend which I hope will change, hence it is good to raise awareness on this profession. In your opinion, what are the main trends in Tax Automation?
It is clear that the focus has increased over the years on the automation of the determination of the VAT regime of transactions; 10 years ago, this was hardly the case, about only the automation of VAT reporting was in the scope of businesses. VAT reporting automation is still very much wanted of course, but from a regulatory perspective, we do see a big move towards transactional reporting. I deliberately do not use the term real-time, because to me, whether data is monthly or daily passed on to the authorities is of lesser importance to the fact that the level of detail of the data passed on the authorities is dramatically increasing. Therefore, what matters most to me is the level of details authorities get, and today the trend is more and more going towards transactional reporting: deliver all details of a certain transaction. This also implies that more than ever, today, business must ensure that the determination of the VAT is correctly done for every single transaction since all that data is communicated to the authorities, so all that data can be checked by the authorities’ automated systems as well. Moreover, if short/real-time filing obligations exist, there is not much time left for business to check or correct data before filing.
I agree with you on the transactional reporting trend. What would be your main advice for someone who wants to start working in Tax Technology?
If I were to hire somebody, I’d ask for somebody with the following skills:
– to analyse a law text: from the very first paragraph until the last one (unfortunately, from my experience this is not necessarily a skill which is acquired when studying law… mathematicians might do better)
– to analyse business flows: ask around, and see whether all information obtained via different departments or colleagues makes sense. Make sure to have all information when setting out the flows: from the first until the last step.
– because what you read on the internet, is not necessarily correct: make your own analysis.
– because information provided by different colleagues may be incorrect and contradictory: keep on asking until you get the right information and ask for underlying documentation until you are sure the information is correct.
Learn as many languages as you can:
– Since legislation is (almost) always published in the language of the jurisdiction itself, in case of doubt you will need to understand the text.
– When discussing with people from around the globe in a common language, mostly English of course, you may be speaking of completely different things using the same word: any idea for how many different situations the term ‘withholding’ is used, or the term ‘exempt’?
Have a good taste for IT: you don’t need to be a computer nerd, on the contrary, just being affectionate towards IT and willing to be able to understand how the reasoning works will get you pretty far. If you hate computers, don’t do it.
Thank you for those valuable advice. Soft skills are as important as core technical skills. Can you share on the international aspects of your work?
I came across VAT legislation from across the globe and also analysed transactions taking place anywhere in the world. You get to see many differences between VAT systems, but you also discover quite some unexpected similarities from time to time. Very handy when you want to automate! Sometimes, it was also striking how different similar transactions were dealt with across the globe due to different procedures, regulations, even habits. To me personally, as said earlier, the personal interaction is also extremely rewarding; I have travelled independently more or less half of the world, and those interactions make me feel like traveling whilst I am working.
Is there anything you would do differently if you would start a tax technology project within a company?
What I often see is that Tax automation projects are still or even more and more IT driven, since the project sits on an IT budget. Decisions are taken without first consulting the business and then, many extra hurdles need to be overcome during implementation. Business and IT should first sit together and discuss the upcoming – often very big – project in order to make the right decisions. During the planning phase business is often left out and only step in very late in the project. This is very unfortunate.
When it comes to hiring, it would also make the job description more accurate! Too often, that step is missed. Clients start defining the role while interviewing candidates and end up changing the role, which explains why some roles can take up to a year to be filled.
What is your biggest achievement?
Selling our business.
Even though we are seeing the end of the lockdown, going forward, it looks like there will be more working from home. How do you find working from home? Does it come with challenges? Any benefits?
I have always been a big supporter of home-office. Not just to put in my washing machine when I take a break. I do tend to work a lot more efficiently and faster; fairly normal, I assume, since there is like nobody to disturb you. People think twice before getting in touch when you work from home it seems. But still, there is a big BUT for me: you do need to have a lot of experience in your domain before you can work from home. When people who are still too junior work from home, they may lose a lot of time over simple issues they try to figure out, whereas a one-minute question may answer their problem and get them going in the right direction again. Juniors don’t know yet the exact scope of their knowledge, they don’t know up to what point they are able, or should be able to solve the problem themselves, versus where their knowledge finishes and they should seek help from more senior people. And this help is often more easily sought when people are in the office. But then, you must have enough seniors in the office to help out the youngsters.
Having this said, I am also an absolute fan of regular high level face to face meetings on technical project issues. A one hour face-to-face discussion with a colleague may replace 10 video-calls.
As with many things, it is all about finding the right balance.
In the current climate, we hear how important is to maintain a healthy lifestyle and life balance to strengthen the immune system, is this something you have time for?
A healthy lifestyle … yeah right, I know, I try not to eat too much fat, because if not, I just put on weight. But I am not really a health freak; I like enjoying life too much, I guess.
Thank you Isabelle for sharing your Taxologist journey, you shared many valuable advice which I hope will inspire others and hopefully more women will follow this path.