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Zoom on Graham Tilbury, Tax Technology Guru

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 and how they adapted to it.

We are pleased to welcome Graham Tilbury, Managing Director, FTI Consulting London. Graham leads FTI Consulting’s Tax Technology Advisory Service, he has significant experience working with businesses on a wide variety of tax technology projects, including Tax Technology Consulting, Tax Automation, Tax Data Analytics, Tax AI, and Online Filing.

Graham Tilbury, Managing Director, FTI Consulting London

For those who do not know you, can you introduce yourself?

With pleasure, I’ve been a Tax Technologist for the whole of my career. I joined Arthur Andersen’s Tax Technology Team in January 1995 where I took my CTA qualification and learnt how to be a tax software developer.  I’ve spent the majority of my career inside Professional Service Firms, but I’ve also worked in-house, for a tax software company, and was a self-employed consultant for a couple of years. I’m married with 5 children, am owned by 2 Norwegian Forest cats, and relax by playing board games. Also I’m vegetarian and have been for 33 years!

Thank you Graham, can you explain why you chose to specialise in Tax automation?

Firstly throughout my education I have never wanted to only do one thing. I didn’t want to restrict myself to just one subject or area of study; I kept my options open by building new combinations of courses and by working with multiple supervisors. So when I was coming to the end of my Master’s degree the usual graduate courses weren’t always appealing. Did I want to be just a management consultant or just a banker?  Then I found a role where I could have a career in both Tax and Technology and the rest, as they say, is history.

However that’s not the whole of the story if I’m honest. My father is a chartered accountant (retired) and back in 1979 he took the hugely bold decision to automate the finance department of the high-street retailer he worked at. That Christmas he bought an Apple II computer home to the house whilst he taught himself how to use a spreadsheet, and when he wasn’t studying VisiCalc I would be playing Space Invaders and then picking up a book on programming for the Apple II. So I guess even from that young age my future had already been set.

It is fair to say you got into Tax Technology pretty early! I am glad you mentioned it’s about tax and IT as some professionals less familiar with the industry still think a tax tech job is a coding one. In your projects, do you get involved more in Direct or Indirect Tax automation?

Both.  As a Tax Technology Advisor I am able and happy to consult across all tax areas. Over the years I think it is fair to say that direct tax was the first area of focus with applying technology to tax, but over the last decade the importance of indirect tax has grown hugely; a combination of the increasing power of the technology and the changing focus of tax authorities.

Also I don’t think you can really advise people without looking much more holistically at tax data. One of the trends that I’ve seen in recent years is an increased likelihood of tax authorities comparing data points between direct and indirect taxes, and also supply chain and logistics data. This focus has meant that I am increasingly looking at tax data quality throughout the procurement to pay and especially order to cash journeys. If the data is wrong or insufficient before it gets to finance and tax then you have no hope in achieving satisfactory Direct or Indirect Tax automation .

The tax authorities’ approach to working with businesses and their data has changed indeed, hence data and its quality is now the focus. We see a growing trend in tax with relation to data analytics and AI. Some say it will compete against compliance and tax engine solutions, what is your take on it?

This is probably the most interesting question in Tax (and beyond) of the last few years; though I want to put out a couple of caveats. Firstly, AI is a huge umbrella term that different people take to mean many different things, so I’ll try to be clear on what I’m talking about. Secondly as soon as you mention AI the debate often collapses into pictures of The Terminator along with doomsday prophecies of SkyNet. I’d rather focus on the reality of what technology can do.

AI in tax compliance is still a long way off in my opinion. There have been some good inroads in cognitive linguistics and natural language processing that make it easier to understand the inputs into ERPs and accounting systems, but they are by no means perfect and require people to program, maintain, and update them.

Machine learning to try and replicate or improve on a tax engine is likewise not there. The effort to try and teach the machine is high and only ever as good as the training set of material. Data quality is perhaps more of an issue to address if we want better training sets, though if the tax data was better we would have fewer issues with our existing rules engines! Also tax law has a habit of changing quite regularly, which potentially means a lot of re-educating your ML tools.

That doesn’t mean there is no value in these tools and technologies – just that you have to use them judiciously and with open eyes.  AI isn’t going to replace tax professionals this decade or next, but Machine Learning can help you identify anomalies in your data that need to be investigated by a tax professional. NLP and Cognitive Linguistics can help you digitize the myriad of important documents that are still only in paper. Data analytics can move you from sample checking to a comprehensive review. But I wouldn’t throw out your rules engines.

I agree that we are only at the beginning of discovering what technology can do for tax. Change takes time, hence excel is still the main competitor of other technology. What would be your main advice for someone who wants to start working in tax technology?

Do it! 

When I started to work in Tax, Tax Technology was viewed as the least exciting place to work, but now it’s the new mainstream and the place with all the growth and excitement and buzz. Tax practitioners and accountants are already seeing the acceleration of change in their working practice and environments, and with the advanced technologies becoming ever more useful and smart, tax technology is absolutely the place to be.

Also please don’t think that you need to be a software engineer or computer scientist to get into Tax Technology. Firstly coding can be taught just the same as tax and accounting can be taught, and secondly its increasingly rare to need ‘coders’ in a professional services consulting department. When ever I have recruited I’ve always been looking for people who are excited about the potential of technology in tax; the enthusiasm for the job cannot be taught, but smart people can pick up anything.

Plus the world has changed significantly in the last 25 years, and the last 5 years even more so. The technology knowledge of people entering the profession is incomparable to yesteryear. I was odd for owning a computer and the partners at Arthur Andersen were still sending audio tapes to a typing pool and having their emails printed out by secretaries each morning and delivered with their post! Today’s accountants and tax professionals grew up with tech and use it constantly throughout their lives. Tax technology is rapidly becoming the whole of tax.

Indeed, and that’s applicable in other industries, head-hunters used to send CVs by fax or couriers, sometimes it was down to the one who could cycle the fastest to the client with the right CV! We often say that tax technology involves a holistic approach on projects, can you share about the international aspects of your career?

I’ve travelled to a lot of countries over the years as a Tax Technologist, I guess because Tax Technology is less focussed on specific national tax rules but is a reusable set of skills that can be applied anywhere in the world. What sticks out for me of the places I’ve visited, stayed or lived are the people, and the power of technology to collapse the globe to a single digital village is one of the most amazing things that technology does for us all.

Today I have been working with colleagues across our Global Tax Network, from North America, Europe and Asia. I’ve been chatting with friends and former colleagues in Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden and Germany.

Contributing to EU taxation through interaction with the Directorate-General TaxUD (Taxation and Customs Union) has also been a highlight. The recent conferences on Digital Taxation were fantastic opportunities to try and move the agenda on tax technology forwards and focus on how it can ease administrative burdens on honest taxpayers whilst still reducing fraud and criminality. I feel lucky to have been in business whilst we had such open borders that I could participate in work that impacts our whole continent not just the UK.

Graham Tilbury home office and Dante, his Norwegian Forest cat

That sounds exciting! Now we are confined with Covid-19, how do you find working from home? Does it come with challenges? What are the benefits if any?

Working in London has always been wasteful of time commuting, perhaps more so than most other cities in the country. Working from home has really been a positive experience in that respect. I can put more time into my job and have more time with my family as well.  Something that was impossible for most people even in recent years or could only be done infrequently.

Being relatively new to my role and colleagues (4 months in before lockdown) I found no downside with respect to day to day interactions. Instant messaging, email and video calls all allow us to keep our usual working patterns, and actually make it even easier to work flexibly with colleagues who have different working patterns or schedules.

I think the challenge will really come as our new joiners come into the organisation in the next days and weeks. Will we feel that human connection with a new colleague just from a video call, or will they only feel 100% a part of the team once we’ve met them in person? Even if that becomes true, it is hard to see a return to 5 days a week expensive office spaces after this massive forced experiment into permanent homeworking concludes. It does feel like the future working practices are going to be redefined for an entire generation.

We have definitely entered a new era and remote working makes it easier to manage projects across  different time zones. 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?

I’ve never been a Gym person – my parents bought me up to believe that exercise meant getting out in the garden or taking a walk to the beach (I grew up on the Sussex coast) so I guess I’ve always railed against the idea of going inside a building to keep fit. What I have done for most of my working life though is made sure I walk plenty. Walking to the station to start my commute to London, and walking from the train station to the office. With the advent of smartphone apps, I can say I usually got my 10,000+ steps that way. Plus I’ve always felt that being vegetarian gave me a health advantage over my omnivorous colleagues, though I guess that’s what the vegans think of me now (it’s certainly what my vegan son tells me!)

Since lockdown started I’ve been able to enjoy the sun and the air more than I would have done in a central London office; and the extra time with my family also makes me feel happier which I’m sure helps to boost my immune system. I must admit though I noticed how little I was moving around during the day and I was missing my daily walking. However I didn’t want to spend an hour plus outside the house; it felt too long in the circumstances. All of which spurred me on to start the Couch to 5k challenge, compressing the benefit of my previous daily walking into 30 minutes of walking and jogging. This morning I just began week 4 and did more jogging than walking for the first time. I am even thinking that by the end of this I might be able to go out for a run with some of my kids and keep up with them, so another benefit and encouragement for me.

Thank you Graham for sharing your experience, your thoughts and new routine, I am sure it will inspire others to join you on the tax technology path! It was also good to hear how you adapted under the lockdown, perhaps one of the main benefits from the current situation is for tax professionals to be able to lead projects in a more holistic way across time zones while being able to spend time with their family.

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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