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Zoom on Catherine Light, the progressive tax data strategist

To raise more awareness on the profession, we decided to launch a series of interviews focusing on women in tax technology. It is with great pleasure we welcome Catherine Light. Catherine is a progressive tax technologist with a passion for data, she believes it is the key to any tax transformation project and it is essential for businesses to have a tax data strategy.

This inspiring woman shares about her career, diversity in the workplace, balance between work and personal life and provides advice for new starters in tax technology.

Catherine Light

For those that don’t know you, can you introduce yourself?

Hi, my name is Catherine Light. Two years ago, I packed up my family from our home town, Pretoria South Africa, to pursue a position as a director in the tax transformation team of KPMG Singapore.

Prior to joining KPMG Singapore, I had spent ten years in the Audit, Tax Consulting, and Tax Technology departments of KPMG South Africa. At present, I am working on establishing an innovative tax technology line, including the development of key data analytical solutions for the markets. In the course of my career, I have had the privilege to hone and utilise my diverse skills set to deliver upon numerous tax technology-related engagements across various industries and large multinational corporations. 

This has been an exciting journey with no regrets

That is such a brave move to bring your family to Singapore for your next career step! As you progress in tax technology to senior roles, it is often a must for candidates to relocate to grow, but with a family, easier said than done. Why did I choose to specialise in tax technology?

That’s always an interesting question and the truth of the matter was that it happened by accident mistake. As an auditor by professional training, followed by a career as a tax consultant, who would have thought that this was the next step in my career.

It all started when I returned to work following maternity leave after my second daughter. I had a strong desire to look at the world of tax from a different angle. My clients at that time seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time trying to perform significant manual processes to deal with their tax obligations, on time and accurately. Revenue Authorities are ruthless to say the least. This was not sustainable in the long term and our clients knew this. Technology was seen to be the way of solving this challenge whilst providing insight and visibility into their tax affairs.

Fortunately, this did not go unnoticed by my senior leadership at the time, and they responded to this by embarking on a tax technology journey. Our data-driven approach to dealing with these indirect tax risks was an interesting presented a new opportunity for me. My prior experience in performing audit reviews, tax secondments, and my love of data analysis meant that I was a perfect fit for the task. I spent five years in the role developing, deploying and delivering on indirect tax data driven engagements across various industries.

My time in South Africa enabled me to become an active member of both the local and global data analytics networks, and ultimately spread my wings to embrace an international opportunity with the firm in Singapore. I am honoured to be a part of an extremely strong and diverse tax transformation team, continuously developing new solutions for our internal use as well as delivering value to our clients using the right technologies.

That was very innovative in the South African tax industry for your firm to deploy solutions to automate processes, it is great you could be on that journey. Do you see many women working in tax technology? How has it changed since you started?

I was in the fortunate position to be trained by an exceptional female tax technology leader, Madeleine van Zyl, during my time in South Africa. She was instrumental in further developing my passion for tax technology and transformation, and ultimately my successful career.

Over the last few years, the tax technology opportunities have significantly grown and, with that, the number of women in this space. If I consider the Asia Pacific region, I am in a privileged position to have several female colleagues and friends who hold tax technology and transformation leadership roles across our organisation.

Catherine Light with her family

That is truly nice to hear that your mentor was a woman and you work in a diverse workplace. Being a wife and mother to two young girls, do you find it challenging juggling a role in tax technology and a balanced family life?

In my mind, any job has its challenges finding the right balance between work and family life, especially when you are passionate about it. At the end of the day, it boils down to discipline, respect, and mutual compromise from both employee and employer. Both the employer and your family need to have the assurance that they can rely on you when they need you; it’s about reciprocal trust. One of the most important lessons I have learnt is that sometimes you just need to say “no” to ensure that you can perform at your best for yourself, your family and your career.

There will be times when there will be tight deadlines, the technology not working the way it should, which means I need to pull out all the stops to meet the objectives. Such are the times when my family supports me, understands the situation, and most importantly, understand that it is only temporary.

On the other hand, there are those moments where I have had room to breathe and could watch my girls in their school dances or swimming galas. I am grateful to have support from my employer through their family-orientated approach with flexible working hours and family-support programmes.  

Flexibility in the workplace has never been so important, I like what you say about trust because if employers want to attract the best employees, flexibility is no longer a nice have but a must have.  Have you had many mentors that have inspired you?

Yes, I was very fortunate to have a strong, passionate leader who inspired me to become part of this new trend in tax. When I think back five years, it could not have been easy for her to drive a new business area forward without prior reference. She had to remain passionate, determined, and most of all, optimistic about the potential. She had a saying: “The squeaky wheel gets the oil”. We just had to keep on communicating about what we were doing.

Over and above her significant influence, there are other colleagues, both in the Singapore office and the global network, who continue to mentor me on my career journey. I am privileged to be part of a global network of tax technology professionals that I can depend on when the going gets tough, collaborate with on developments and projects, and share experiences.

Being an industry pioneer is incredibly hard, it is in peoples’ nature to resist to change. That is also what can make tax technology projects challenging, especially if you are working as an external part to the business, getting people on board requires best in class communication skills.

Based on what you have seen happen globally what do you believe are the main trends in Tax Automation?

Recent trends indicate that tax automation is a key element in the creation of an effective and efficient tax function of the future. Today it’s about filing returns as quickly as possible, with enough supporting detail and coverage to avoid audit/queries from the revenue authorities. There is a combination of areas that will drive this change, namely; data management, process automation, the use of tax compliance engines, intelligent tax analysis, and the use of tools for optimised decision-making.

We often hear how tax and finance functions spend 80% of their time extracting and manipulating the necessary data for use in their tax obligations, and only 20% of their time applying tax logic. In my experience, the cornerstone of this tax function transformation is data management. The mission is to shift the dial so that tax functions are spending 80% of their time analysing, interpreting, and applying the tax legislation, and 20% of their time obtaining the data in the format that they need.

Without the right data, other transformations will not be possible or make sense. Given that data volumes are expected to double every two years, and our clients are expanding both their business lines and their presence in jurisdictions, developing a tax data strategy is fundamental. This should include the extraction, manipulation, and use of the key data points within an organisation.

Catherine Light home office

It is baffling that businesses can only spend 20% of their time applying tax logic. I agree, data is the starting point before even starting a tax transformation project so it can be used as a true strategic asset. After an exciting career to date what would be your main advice for someone who wants to start on the tax technology journey?

My advice to a novice in tax technology would be to jump in and get their hands dirty as fast as they can. It’s about getting as much exposure to as many projects as possible. In this way they can determine where their interests lie and which area that would like to specialise in. This is an area that is constantly developing and requires an eagerness to continually acquire experience and skill, learn from failed deployments, and a passion to bring about change.

Your involvement could be on large-scale implementations of accounting systems or tax engines, or as simple as automating a simple tax process using tools such as, Alteryx, PowerBI, Qlik and Tableau. There are options for everyone, and you don’t necessarily have to hold a specific accounting or IT degree to pursue a career in this area.

True! It is good you mentioned the industry is fast evolving, at CBO we have been working on roles I never thought we would, these roles have involved data analytics, NLP and robotics for example. Working from home has become the new normal, how have you found it? Have there been any notable challenges or benefits?

In the past, I had worked from home on the odd occasion, especially those time where I needed to buckle down and get work done. Then Covid-19 came around and I have been working from home ever since. In all honesty, I have enjoyed working from home -the last few months. This has provided me with the opportunity to spend more quality time with my husband and daughters whilst still ensuring that I meet my work obligations. Having those extra two hours a day where I would normally be commuting has made a significant difference all round.

There have most certainly been challenges with the increased work load due to demands for more effective and efficient processes from our clients. On top of increased work demands, there were the trials of trying to manage my children’s home-based learning commitments from school whilst both my husband and I working full-time.

That cannot have been easy, well done you and your family for making it through. Now that the lockdowns are starting to ease, how are you and your business approaching it?

The easing of the restrictions continues to be met with caution and KPMG continues to put the safety of their staff first. As such we are encouraged to continue to work from home where possible, with the support of our IT infrastructure. Certain staff who experience challenges in performing their work from home may return to the office on alternate weeks with prior arrangement, if necessary.

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?

Health and wellness are key to being a successful wife, mother and employee. I believe you have a responsibility to yourself to ensure that you maintain a healthy lifestyle. As a family we have tried to be intentional about exercising at least twice to three times a week, be they on-line exercise classes, skipping or swimming a few lengths. Now that the lockdown has been lifted, we have enjoyed regular outdoor walking and cycling as well.

Another important consideration of wellness is a sound-sleep routine. We have made a concerted effort to go to bed at a reasonable time, which allows for an early and productive start the following day. This is sometimes achieved, and other times life or work just gets in the way. It’s about being mindful of your physical, mental and emotional wellness, and being true to yourself.

Thank you Catherine for such an honest, well thought through and inspirational interview. There are many learnings from what you said, I particularly enjoyed what you said about the data and highlighting how automation can reverse the time spent analysing it, so businesses can take better decisions. It was good to hear how you have successfully managed the balance between professional commitments and family life and how you received support on both sides.

Are you a Tax Technologist? We would love to hear from you and share your story with our global tax network, for more info, please contact Candice Bordeaux at cbordeaux@cbosearch.com

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