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 Laura Plummer, Laura has been working in Tax Technology for over 2 decades, she has had an impressive career which started in the US, she now works and lives in the Netherlands where she recently joined FourQ Systems.
For those who don’t know you, can you introduce yourself?
Of course! My name is Laura Anne Plummer, I live and work in the Netherlands. For the past 20 years or so, I have been working in the tax technology space. I am currently the director of tax development, working with a startup company, FourQ Systems, but I have had the great privilege of working in many different environments including corporate and consulting. Each position has been challenging and gratifying in its own way, but in general, everything has the tax technology theme.
With such a diversified background, why did you choose to specialise in Tax Technology?
Like many in tax technology, I came into this space by accident. Tax Technology is actually my second career. My first was in academia where I was a university instructor as part of a physical science PhD programme. In completing my dissertation work, I used early data analytics tools to assist me in the synthesis and analysis of my data, only to realise that I found the use of technology exciting. With this idea in mind, I decided to change my career path. I did this by taking a 2-year certification in code and software development.
My first tax technology position was with Vertex as a technical instructor. This position allowed me to investigate the software development processes and learn the various aspects of technology and tax. My training position led me to the consulting world where my goal was to apply my knowledge to solving client problems.
Next was a move to a more leadership-oriented position within General Electric. GE was a great way to learn leadership skills and project methodology. Tax in GE was vast with more than 1600 tax professionals, including a substantial Tax IT group. Working in such a skilled and driven environment forced me to learn the best ways to manage tasks and people. This changed with the Insourced Tax Solutions (IST) group where more than 640 tax professionals moved to PwC. Most of the Tax IT group was moved as part of the acquisition, but many of us performed as if we were still within the GE support structure.
So many great tax technologists have said they fell into the position by accident, you are a good example of how it is possible to retrain and have a successful career. Do you see many women working in Tax Technology? Has it changed since you started?
Within the US where my career started, my perception is that the ratio of men to women was fairly equal. Since moving to the Netherlands, tax and IT are still male-majority fields. This is changing with social pressure in the Netherlands, especially around university programs and recruiting. I think it will take some time to filter up the ‘professional’ ladder to leadership positions. I see similar trends with international and cultural inequalities. There are numerous and targeted initiatives at companies trying to increase diversity at all levels. We will see the impacts in the coming years and hopefully, programs will increase diversity to reflect the global nature of large companies.
Right now, I am experiencing and viewing an immediate change in enrolment at the university level. In the Tax & Technology program at Vrije and Tilburg Universities, where I am working as an associate professor, there is a 50/50 male-female split, with a 40/60 split between international/national students.
It is good to hear the diversity between men and women is growing, on the recruitment side it is still work in progress but as you said, mentalities are evolving. In your opinion, what are the main trends in Tax Automation?
What I am seeing today is the proliferation of new and different tax analytics tools. There is a trend towards more user-friendly tools such as Alteryx, Power BI, and QlikSense. These tools, some of which are free, allow tax and financial management professionals to create basic analytics tools on their own. Many resources are then able to create transparency in their financial process which is specific to their needs.
There is also a lot of ‘noise’ around new and emerging technologies and how these solutions will impact tax technology.
Trends in technologies such as robotics, AI, and blockchain may revolutionize the way tax and finance processes are implemented, but further experimentation and an increased depth of knowledge are needed. Success in the application of these technologies is yet to be seen on a large scale.
I really see the trend on my side in data analytics; many are taking training in Alteryx. What would be your main advice for someone who wants to start working in Tax Technology?
Be a self-starter!
Learn technology on your own. With so many certification programs in all technologies, just start developing on your own to see if it is something you enjoy. Technology is not for everyone and there are both functional and technical avenues of employment.
Focus on a single ERP!
I have found that if you try to learn all systems, you become an expert of none. Sometimes it is better to be good at one function, rather than knowing a little about them all. It is important to never have a false sense of security in STEM. It is impossible to always have to answer and it is better to be humble about your knowledge. Solutions are found in working together with other professionals, not in isolation. No one is expected to know it all in tax technology.
Read the instructions!
Systems and tax regulations are extensively documented. Take the time to open a manual and learn how to configure the system. Once you can configure a system, then you can build on that knowledge foundation. Take the time to review a new tax jurisdiction change and discuss the impact. These discussions expose differences between tax advisory and business applications.
IT professionals are often resistant to changes in functionality and technology. While this may seem counter-intuitive, it is human nature. Learning a new system or process is time-consuming, but tax technology is very dynamic with both the technology and Tax components changing with increasing speed. Keep learning. Attend all the free seminars possible.
Those are words of wisdom and taking a certification to start is a good first step. What is your biggest achievement?
My biggest achievement is my ability to teach and mentor newcomers to Tax Technology. This path allows me to use my skills to benefit others, rather than just advancing my own career goals.
Last year I started working with a Tax & Technology program in conjunction with several Dutch universities. The program, which was started in 2018, is designed to provide technology-related experience to fiscal law and economic students. By the end of 2020, just two years in the program, they will have graduated more than 200 students. The program is a master’s degree minor and also has a post-master program.
It’s like planting the seeds for the new tax technologist generation! How do you find working from home? Does it come with challenges? Any benefits?
Personally, working from home is the best office environment for me. Most of my professional employment has been with virtual teams. I am lucky to have worked in my home office for the past 10 years, so for me, it is not new. Telecommuting was always part of my job description and can be successfully implemented in any technology environment.
Some people do not enjoy working from home, but I find IT is never a set schedule. I have found it is important to be flexible in daily working hours. Weekend and night hours are often required, especially when working with global teams. If a static, predicable 9-5 working day is important, then IT is not the field for you.
The benefit of working from home is many including being able to spend more time with the family and working from any location, so you can extend vacation time. Also, being able to do basic personal tasks during the week, rather than on the weekend. Of course, there is a downside if there is a system emergency and while these difficulties are relatively rare, I missed some holiday dinners early in my career.
We hear how important to is maintain a healthy lifestyle and life balance to strengthen the immune system. Is this something you have time for?
As women, I think it is expected that we will need to effectively balance a family and a career. Being able to achieve this balance definitely impacts physical and mental health. I think it is always important to set expectations for those around you so that you do not feel additional pressure to be all things to all people. Especially when you work from home.
Even when my family was young, they knew when to expect me to be at my computer or on the phone. It is more a time management issue, or an addiction problem if you cannot turn off your phone and devote a certain amount of time to your health and that of your family. It would be good to see more programs dedicated to optimising personal life goals, as we do in professional life so that one can have the best of both worlds. The efficient methods of calendars, tasks list, and other tools can be utilised just effectively. My husband and kids all get a copy of the family spreadsheet before the holiday!
Thank you Laura for sharing your journey, not only have you managed to build an impressive career in Tax Technology but you are also giving back to the new generation through teaching which is inspiring. Maintaining a balance with family isn’t easy; I love the idea of the family spreadsheet!