Becoming a Taxologist

What is a ‘Taxologist’? And how do you become one?

The roles and responsibilities of this function have caused much speculation. I frequently see it doing the rounds on LinkedIn threads and it’s a common talking point at tax events.

With 2019 being the most dominant year of tax technology recruitment by far, it’s only fitting that we conclude this year’s ‘Becoming’ series with an exploration into taxology through the journey of Andrew Bohnet.

Andrew shares an incredibly insightful perception on the topic and I do not doubt that it will begin to bring clarity for those looking to venture down this path.?

Andrew, thanks for joining us on this edition of our ‘Becoming’ series. Having interviewed many tax leaders, we’re yet to speak to a Taxologist. Even in a digital age of tax, we have a real issue in pinpointing who or what a ‘taxologist’ actually is, so I’m looking forward to sharing your journey and bringing clarity to such a speculative area. Before we explore this, please can you introduce yourself to those who don’t know you?

Thanks Alex. Well this career path started when I was implementing Oracle Financials, often on a global platform. This not only introduced me to the Oracle in-house tax engine but also to the importance of a holistic approach to any solution design, including the implementation of the right processes and the importance of good data – both of which are critical to tax automation and compliance.

When I started Innovate Tax, it was to provide a service that I felt was missing on the market. There were plenty of consultants claiming to know how to set up tax automation, but there’s a huge difference from setting up a tax rate and rules to setting up a tax solution  and an even bigger gap for a global tax solution.

I estimate, based on what I’ve seen, that 95% of tax solutions are badly set up! Over the years, my goal for Innovate Tax has changed from just the implementation of a tax solution to be the tax technology partner for our clients. This means that they can come to us for anything that’s IT related and involves indirect tax and we’ll make sure they get the right answer. In most cases, we’ve implemented their tax automation and compliance and we make sure that the solution we implement is as good 5 years later from the day it was introduced. This takes a lot of effort from our side as we’re focused on ensuring our clients maintain their tax control framework. We’ve had to lead the market in many ways to achieve this position.

I’d like to think that I can see, both from my own experiences and from listening to our clients, where the demand is for technology in tax and we then go ahead and try to create it before the market actually asks for it. I know that the passion I have for tax technology is shared by the rest of my team as we’re always delivering and innovating.

Outside of tax, I try and spend as much time with my family and help with coaching my son’s mini-rugby team.

So, I’m going to jump right in and ask the million-dollar question. Andrew, what is a ‘taxologist’? 

The label ‘taxologist’ originated from the global tax and accounting firm, Thomson Reuters (TR), and has since been trademarked. TR define the term as a tax professional that excels in the use of technology to maximize tax function effectiveness and confirming the expectations we may have of a taxologist, Thomson Reuters state taxologists improve data quality, automation, and efficiency.

As a technology professional known for excelling in the tax field, I can’t help but question, does that rule me out as being a ‘taxologist’?

Personally, I think anyone who’s passionate and knowledgeable in the uses of technology in tax can call themselves a taxologist in its purest sense but, if we look at a taxologist from an employment perspective, here arises a difference.

How is there a difference? Well, if a company produces an advert looking for a taxologist is that what they’re really looking to recruit or are they looking for a tax technology transformation specialist?

I think the term taxologist should not be confused with any job or position which requires a taxologist to provide and maintain a transition to tax automation and control using technology.

This is a refreshing perspective as I hear a lot of talk in the market of the exclusivity of being a taxologist, some of which isn’t particularly inviting to different skill sets. At the same time, I’ve also experienced the confusion of hiring managers when trying to distinguish what they want. 
Factoring in your interpretation of the role, what movements in your career led you on the path to becoming a taxologist?

Like most that have just graduated from university, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I’d been working 3 jobs throughout my journey during university, with one of my roles being a ‘Credit Controller’ for a small local firm. Whilst working there, I realised I didn’t want to do the same thing every day, every week, every month, every quarter, every year, which is often the case with accounting jobs they endure repetitive cycles and I soon realised that wasn’t for me.

So, after graduating with a degree in Finance & Accounting, I took the opportunities presented to me a lifetime safari trip to South Africa with my grandpa followed by a rugby tour to Thailand and then a 12 month around the world backpacking trip.

I’m proud to say that each one of these eye-opening trips taught me something new, leading me to one of my philosophies in life:

‘You need to take the opportunity when it arises and if the opportunity is not there then you need to create it yourself. You won’t win the lottery if you don’t buy the ticket.’

I think having this outlook has helped me throughout my career as I’ve always pushed myself and looked for the opportunities, tax technology being one of them. I made sure I got myself on the first Oracle R12 project in Europe based in Germany and this is where the Oracle eBTax module was first introduced.

Prior to eBTax, I’d run a mile whenever implementing Oracle and tax came up, as back then it was just a complex and scary area that I had no clue about. This soon changed with Oracle R12, after the introduction of a new module caused me to conduct research. That was when it slowly but surely began to make sense.

Swings and roundabouts after becoming a master of knowledge in the Oracle R12 field, I was forced off the project I was working on because of my lack of German speaking skills, but a good friend of mine stayed on the project. I later landed myself a project in Finland for one of the Big 4, running the tax config on an Oracle project. So, I took it knowing that my friend was still on this German project and that they had Oracle designing their tax solution.

At this stage, I knew I was just pretending to know what I was doing and so I managed to get the config documentation from that project (after some begging) and once I received it, I was surprised at how bad they were and straight away told my friend to reject them.

Oracle at the time came back and said what they’d done was best practice and that this was the only way to configure tax. This inspired me to write a 2-page document outlining all the issues with the solution for my friend. Once he’d gone through my document with Oracle, they agreed to make the changes. It was at this point I knew I was good at what I was doing and it was almost a eureka moment for me as well as a huge confidence boost learning that I wasn’t pretending to know how to set tax and was actually better than most.

I gained assurance and self-belief and became the go-to consultant for eBTax config, enabling me to gain extensive amounts of experience. It was then when I was asked to join a project where the client had asked for 2 tax consultants.

Why? the reason for this being down to the company contracting 3 resources over a 9-month period, all of which called themselves ‘experts’, despite nobody being able to solve the issues they had around tax. In just one week on site, I had solved all the issues and identified a big area of risk they hadn’t previously seen.

I soon realised there were a lot of people out there saying and, in most cases, believing they were experts in tax config, but few really were. It was at this point my career changed to purely implementing tax technology and the original Innovate Tax was born.

You’ve mentioned to me before that ‘tax is like a sudoku puzzle’ and that ‘no matter how complex it is, once you start completing it, it gets easier.” With the tax industry continuously evolving, I’m wondering whether you can apply the same analogy to your career in tax technology. For instance, was there a point in your career when you connected the dots and things fell into place with your understanding of what services and products the market needs? Or do you feel that you’re constantly on your toes? 

Absolutely, but, this comes down to the understanding of the data and its flow. At Innovate Tax, we’ve almost finished our currently ‘under-construction’ exciting new tax reporting platform, which has been built on a ‘data lake’. All the modelling we’ve conducted ensures we can best meet every new requirement that’s been announced, so stay tuned!

But, those familiar with Innovate Tax will know, we already implemented this feature within our tax logic. We spent a lot of time refining the global structure and once we nailed that, it meant that adding any new countries to our global offering or changing the logic to meet the legislative changes become an easy and simple task.

Unfortunately, we see many badly set up tax solutions where the consultant is purely meeting the ‘need now’ tax scenarios given to them by the client that, as a result, fall apart when changes are required.

Indirect Tax is not a new concept, therefore we’re only limited by our imagination on how we approach the task ,I think there will be an introduction of new technology, offering a challenge. But at the same time, we’re also limited to the technology we currently have, maybe blockchain will change things for the better.

With the market continuously evolving, what do you do to ensure you’re staying ahead of the curve?

Firstly, we actively encourage all of our team to challenge what we do and how we do it. Having said that, due to the complex data universe we operate in, we always seek the approval of the global architect team before making changes or modifications to our systems. This is because, whilst something may be a good idea at first sight, we have to consider all of the knock-on impacts.

We also heavily invest in product design, something that hasn’t been requested, but instead we believe is needed – so far, the new products we’re launching have been very well received.

I know it may sound a bit cliché as we call ourselves ‘Innovate Tax’, but that’s core to our company, we don’t just follow the money , we truly want to make a difference, which is why we try and lead from the front.

Within the industry, do you have any career inspirations or professionals that you look up to? 

In the world of tax technology, there are many names that come to mind when I think of who I highly regard, all for different reasons. I think my personal admiration for successful industry leaders stems from my father, who taught me to work hard in order to succeed; which really put into perspective how essential it is to be determined if you want to conquer this industry.

I learnt a lot from the original Oracle Tax Guru, Alex Fiteni, (now President of Fiteni Enterprises Inc) who undoubtedly holds a wealth of knowledge in all areas of Oracle and is known for his innovative ideas in solving problems.

Another tax technology master and renowned taxologist, Geoff Peck, who’s ‘been there, done that’ when it comes to being a taxologist, previously working at global tax services firm Ryan as well as Ernst & Young. Not to mention, Geoff has even extended his skills to writing about tax technology in a recent online publication ‘Taxology Stumbles and Evolves‘  a must read.

A huge career inspiration is Stephen James, Chief Executive Officer at ONESOURCE implementers, Cordiance, who I’ve gladly been acquainted with for many years. Steve was responsible for exposing me to the greater tax technology world, a true expert in his field, previously being responsible for indirect tax at Deloitte and KPMG.

Lee Holloway, currently Tax Partner at Grant Thornton holds many years of expertise in all things tax. Starting his career in tax at financial services giant KPMG, Lee is a great person to have a conversation with. Not only is Lee an insightful person to listen to, he has a knack for getting people to listen. With an ever growing following on social media, there’s no doubt Lee has great ideas and sees things in the right light when it comes to tax technology, so, if he’s talking about it, then I want to know about it.

Undoubtedly one of the most well-known professionals in the industry, Richard Asquith, a well-regarded speaker and credit to Avalara. Richard not only collects and presents topical tax rate updates in a brilliant way, he has his finger on the pulse when it comes to all things tax and tax technology. So, if you want to make sure you’re updated with all the relevant industry knowledge, it wouldn’t hurt to follow Richard.

That’s certainly a good list of names there, some of whom’s work I follow to educate myself too. 
Education is an interesting topic in this space. Whilst there’s a lot more that can be done by tax bodies and organisations to educate in tax technology, there are some promising signs coming from several Dutch universities who now offer various Tax & Technology syllabuses. Despite this, it seems to me that the formal education in this field isn’t evolving as quickly as the industry itself. What are your thoughts on this? 

This is always the case! I remember my GSCE Business Studies coursebook and it focused on ticker tape, and there was me wanting to know how to program my own version of doom!

But, the education in this field is to teach you what came before and I think this is important with any of the tax technology courses offered. It should make you think, allowing you to see what’s possible and what’s been done in the past, what’s worked well and what didn’t.

I think technology modules taught to tax people should focus on the principles and concepts more than trying to teach people to take on a tax transformation role, I think you can only do that after gaining valuable experience within the field. I believe any university offering a tax technology course or module will do well as this is an industry that’s exploding!

If you were sitting in front of these undergraduates today and they asked you what the best route to becoming a taxologist is, what advice would you give? 

Consider applying to join the big players in the market like Vertex, Thomson Reuters, Sovos, Avalara and so on, as well as looking for positions in the Big 4’s tax technology departments.

Having a background in general tax is a great place to start and there are plenty of avenues to explore. Once you’re offered a position and secure a role, work hard and try and get as much experience as possible, always taking opportunities to work on side projects such as RPA, so you understand the technology side. You can then apply your findings to what you’re doing in the tax world. For example, if you’re working in a tax department for a multinational firm and can demonstrate how RPA can improve processes, you may get your shot to implement a technology project – now you’re on the road!

Following from this, where’s the skills gap in today’s tax technology market and what can tax professionals do to bridge this gap? 

This is a difficult one, the gap is actually in experience, because most tax solutions tend to be set up by people doing it for the first time, which often results in so many key concepts being missed in areas they should have focused on.

Many people will only look at what’s in front of them rather than focusing on the future too. I always say that any tax solution designed by a tax advisor will fail and this is because they approach the design completely differently from that of an IT person. Maybe that’s where we should start, the gap is the bridge between what’s technically correct from a tax legal perspective to what’s correct from a system perspective, in understanding the data.

To fulfill the role as a taxologist, is it imperative that one remain systems agnostic? 

No, I began working on the Oracle tax engine and learnt a lot but can take that knowledge to any ERP system and to any tax engine, to any tax discipline for that matter.

But one needs to know what’s on the market. Unfortunately, some companies will push one product over another due to incentives but, as an independent tax technology professional, you should remain unbiased and at Innovate Tax we won’t take commission if we’re advising a client on technology to buy.

Humans are creatures of habit too, so it’s always good to get different opinions from a variety of people before investing in any tax product. The reason for this is that people tend to stick to what they know which means they may miss out, purely because they didn’t know about the technology available elsewhere.

Shifting away from the role of a taxologist to tax technology more broadly, what do you feel are the core competencies needed in a successful in-house tax team that are harnessing technology? 

You want a person that’s not only ardent, but has huge amounts of self-belief in order to successfully lead a tax technology team. They need to be able to get the ‘buy-in’ from the rest of the business, proving that what they’re doing is important by demonstrating the benefits that can be achieved, including the financial benefits, so getting approval becomes critical in this area.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Carolin Symmons, Global Indirect Tax Director at Spotify, who embodies the perfect in-house taxologist. Her market knowledge enables her to know what’s available and what’s possible and, even though she conducts a lot of her work internally with her team, she knows when it’s best to reach out for help, often to seek confirmation that they’re doing the right thing.

But, Carolin’s main advantageous characteristic is that she comes across with confidence and passion that’d challenge anyone to say ‘no’ to her ideas and, as a result, she has the support she needs and the respect she deserves. Being such a determined individual is paying off as, from our previous discussions, I’m under the impression that she’s making great progress.

And in what instance do you and Innovate Tax see tax teams failing to harness technology? 

A recurring issue that we often find is when tax teams have been doing the same thing for the last 50 years and they rarely have any budget to make fundamental changes.

I think for every CFO out there, if your tax manager isn’t pestering you everyday to improve your tax solution, you should be asking why and start to push them to look at what can be done to move forward. It’s often a case of lack of funding or lack of knowledge.

As many have now seen, Innovate Tax now has a brand new tool on the market – LimeLyte. What does LimeLyte bring to the tax software market which we haven’t yet seen? 

When most companies think of compliance for VAT they often wrongly assume they need better tax reporting but, in nearly every case, it’s the quality of the data that’s poor. This means it doesn’t matter which level of reporting you receive because garbage in equals garbage out.

LimeLyte is designed to give tax managers and/or their team the visibility and transparency of the data they crave, and it does so in real-time. Transactions entered within a potential tax issue or discrepancy can be picked up on within the freshly designed dashboard in as little as 10 seconds, allowing the tax department to react as fast as they need to.

It turns out that you can no longer wait until the end of the month to do your tax return in certain countries now, including checking for errors because the tax authorities are looking at every transaction for every tax payer for every tax return. Therefore, any mistakes are going to get picked up on, even if you make the relevant corrections. We considered this setback and developed another popular feature of LimeLyte, which is the ability to allow tax teams to find the data anomalies as they happen and before a transaction has been paid.

We discovered that, generally when a user is alerted on an issue, they’re unaware they were doing anything wrong. LimeLyte gives the education required to stop errors being repeated and usually tax teams who know their activity on the dashboard is being monitored are far less likely to make the mistake again. With one client we found that the number of tax issues had dropped 95% in 3 months from implementing our tax automation tool, LimeLyte.

As well as your new tool, you’ve also made some new key hires! What’s next for Innovate Tax? 

Other than world domination? Our ultimate goal is to become your tax technology partner, effectively determining everything around tax technology is managed and supported by us at Innovate Tax.

We wish to continue providing the highest level of service to our clients, giving peace of mind that their investment is going to be working as productively in 5 years’ time as it is now. We’ll keep ensuring that any new changes introduced by governments or new technology on the market is covered under our partnership, but exciting changes are always being made at Innovate Tax as we continue to grow , so watch this space!

Finally, we’d love to create a reading list of books (fiction or nonfiction) suggested by tax leaders. What books would you recommend to a budding taxologist? 

Wow! Come to mention it, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book written by a tax leader. I did read a captivating book recently by Chris Anderson on ‘Ted Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking‘.

I found that the concept of Ted Talks is to talk about versatile and often unrelated topics to your audience, but with the objective of discussing a seemingly insignificant subject that then potentially sparks an idea, inspiring to the role they work in. I think the same can be said for taxologists; your role is to keep listening whilst discovering new technology and how it may be of benefit.

Andrew, it’s been a pleasure to hear about your journey and what one can expect on the road of becoming a Taxologist. You’ve shared some fascinating thoughts and reflections on what constitutes this highly speculative role in today’s tax market – thank you! I wish you & the Innovate Tax team all the best for 2020.

Are you at the senior level within Indirect Tax? If so, we’d love to hear about your experiences and share them with our global tax network. For more information contact Alex.

Alex Mann is an Associate Director in the Tax Division at Harvey John.

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