COVID-19 has impacted all of us in our personal and professional lives, we decided at CBO Search to launch a series of interviews with the main influencers in Tax Technology and share with our readers how this crisis has affected their work, how they adapted to it and with the ease of the lockdown what the future will be.
It is with great pleasure that we welcome Russell Gammon, who recently joined Tax Systems as Chief Innovation Officer, an interesting job title to say the least, Russell reflects on his new role, challenges ahead and his tax technologist journey so far.
For those who don’t know you, can you introduce yourself?
I’m Russell; I recently joined Tax Systems as Chief Innovation Officer (today is working day 5!). I’ve worked in and around Tax Technology for my entire career, which has been around 12 years to date. I worked in the Big Four for much of that, and more recently worked for a smaller Shoreditch start-up. I’ve joined Tax Systems to lead a new Innovation team. Innovation is becoming ever more important within the Tax arena, and it’s a real honour (and challenge!) to take a lead on this at such a well-known and established business.
Chief Innovation Officer sounds fun, what does the role entail?
That’s a good question! Broadly speaking it works on this basic premise; Tax Systems have great software that is widely used by a huge range of clients. However, as the technology landscape moves forward, so must our offerings, to ensure that we’re constantly meeting the needs of the market. My role is to therefore ensure that we’re offering best-in-class software, and continually innovating in the Tax market. There are several broad areas I’ll be looking at across our product suite, such as “Communication” – how does the modern Tax workforce want to work and communicate with the advisors, or “Data” – what can we do with all this data?
My career has always focussed about bringing Products to clients, and the chance to work with such a wide array of clients really appealed to me. Also the role – solely focussed on Innovation.
Does that mean you have to look outside of Tax Technology for inspiration?
In a lot of ways, yes. Other industries such as banking are being revolutionised with the emergence of FinTech and RegTech, working on the premise that technology can fundamentally change the way people work with money. I certainly look around at other areas to see how they’re working and what key themes are pushing them forward.
Successful Tax Technology has to bring together a number of skillsets. Obviously, Tax know-how occupies a big seat at the table, but there are others too that I plan to utilise to really change the way Tax software is used by clients. It’s an exciting time to work in Tax Technology – it will really transform how the industry deals with taxes over the coming years.
Changing the way Tax software is used, that sounds exciting, you have interesting challenges ahead! Why did you choose to specialise in Tax Technology?
I like to think it kind of chose me! I got a place at Deloitte’s summer internship scheme back in 2007, and when presented the Tax options to spend 3 weeks working on, the one with all the technology immediately appealed. From there, it really snowballed. I loved getting stuck in to the technology projects and was always interested in the processes people used to get the data from A, to B, to C and then out the door. When they offered me a full-time job after University, it was an easy decision.
I think with Tax Technology you have to have an inquisitive mindset, always wanting to know how something works, and being able to think how it could work better. That’s always appealed to me, as I take real pride in knowing something I’ve helped create is making somebodies work life easier.
It is true that a common personality feature for tax technologists is about making change happen, sometimes easier than it sounds hence the need to develop strong communication skills. Why and how did you specialise in a Product Lead role?
I love that fact that Product sits at the heart of a technology organisation, and it matched well with my desire to know most things that are going on. I never wanted to specialise in one area (I tried coding for a couple of weeks – it didn’t work out!), but instead I found my broad skillset worked really well in Product. To be good at a Product role, you need to combine business knowledge, with tech knowledge, and also User Experience. I’m not an expert in any of those, but would describe myself as somebody who “knows enough to be dangerous” in all three.
I also wanted to have control over the problems that the technology is trying to solve, and make sure that I combine as many opinions as possible to offer the best possible solution to clients. I’ve always wanted to work collaboratively with clients and I think that mindset of discovery, i.e. “I don’t always know best, please tell me what’s important to you” is key to success in Product.
That is a role which has become more common in software firms the last few years, we certainly have had more demand from our clients. In your opinion, what are the main trends in Tax Automation?
I’ve definitely seen Robotic Process Automation (“RPA”) begin to play a key role over the last few years; it allows firms to “plug the gaps” between systems and automate many of the low-value tasks that currently are often done by highly-skilled workers. A sensible application of RPA would be to use it as a good short-term fix and its one which I think firms will employ, especially with budgets squeezed in the post-Covid world.
What’s more interesting to me though is that I can see more mid-to-long term opportunities to really overhaul tax operating models and automate end-to-end processes. Automation has certainly been a kind of utopian dream in the Tax world since I started working, but I now think the technology and the skills in the industry are fast catching up to this point. Rather than talking about the “single source of truth” for Tax data as a concept, I think we’ll start to see that become a reality over the next few years, increasing accuracy and reducing workloads.
I’m sure everyone agrees the pace of change has accelerated in the last 5 years, if we can achieve better data quality, that will certainly make reporting in real time more achievable. What is your biggest achievement?
I’m really proud of the product that I established at KPMG, which actually wasn’t strictly a Tax product. I led that team for around four years; we took a new reporting requirement that the EBA mandated and from that designed and built a product. We took it to market, and established ourselves as the dominant market player. It was great because I got to run it almost as a “mini-business”, and ran everything from Product, Sales, Marketing, the works. We took that from a standing start to a product with over 300 clients in those 4 years, and when I left KPMG, it was the most profitable product in the UK firms portfolio. To this day, I know it’s widely used and liked in that industry.
It is great to have a legacy! What would be your advice for someone who wants to work in Tax Technology?
I’d tell them that they will go a long way by adopting the right mindset – something that’s commonly referred to as the “Product Mindset”. Think about technology as something that can solve a problem, or set of problems, and work out the requirements from that. Always ask “why”, and don’t be afraid to challenge people on their assumptions if you disagree with them. I think an outdated assumption is that you can build great technology for Tax just by knowing Tax – that isn’t true. It’s all about a combination of skills, so if you’re new to the industry, immerse yourself in as much of it as possible. Spend time understanding how Tax functions work, but also time working out how to build great solutions for those clients.
It’s also really important to remember that building great technology is very much a team game – you need to call on a number of different skillsets to make it happen. It therefore means you need to develop the softer skills too, not just learning how to code/understand Tax, etc.
It is good you mentioned about the softer skills, those are often the ones which make the difference between candidates. Now we are in this strange context with Covid-19, how was it to start a new job remotely? Did it come with benefits? Any challenges?
It certainly has been a bit strange! Tax Systems have been great and have arranged loads of introductions to all of the areas of the business for me, so even though it’s only day 5, I feel like I’ve got a good grasp of who does what already. The benefits have been that I’ve been able to spend a time thinking about areas I can make an impact, without getting too immersed the busy day-to-day just yet. The main challenge is that the best sessions I can have with my team have always been face-to-face. Tools like Miro and Draw.io do facilitate this remotely, but there is no true substitute for getting in a room for a few hours to solve the big problems. Likewise, I’ve already met some clients over Teams and Zoom, and we’ve had productive sessions, but for me these sessions will always be better in person.
How do you think Covid will affect the adoption of Tax Technology?
I read an interesting stat from the Big Four last week that 99% of industry firms expect Covid to impact their Tax operating model in some way, on an ongoing basis. To me, Tax Technology is one of the key areas’ businesses are looking at to transform their processes – so I do expect that Covid will accelerate the adoption of new technologies.
For me, there are a couple of important changes. Firstly, budgets will be squeezed, so Tax teams will be forced to do more with less. Technology can really help here, meaning Tax teams spend less time processing and more time adding value. Secondly, there will be more remote working, meaning a greater use of technology to ensure teams continue to work well together. If you consider that Tax Technology can encompass more than “just” the processing of data, is poses an exciting challenge to people like me – how do we ensure the technology enables and facilitates communication between teams, too?
We hear how important it is to maintain a healthy lifestyle and life balance to strengthen the immune system, is this something you have time for?
Well gardening leave, plus a spot in the next London marathon (whenever it might be!) have meant that I’ve been doing loads of running! 50km most weeks if I can. I’ve been training for around 9 months and have noticed a massive difference in my energy levels – it’s strange to think that exercise makes you more productive not less, but it does! It’s now part of my regime and I couldn’t do without it. I’ve really enjoyed the number of friends I have that have also used lockdown to do “Couch to 5k” or similar things, it’s really great. I’ve even been pacing my wife around the local park on occasion too!
Thank you Russell for sharing your story, views on the market and the impact of Covid-19 both in Tax Technology and personally starting your new role remotely. I am curious to see the impact of this pandemic on the use of technology in tax and how the ease of the lockdown will affect the market.