Graham Tilbury picture

 

Interview with: Graham Tilbury - Tax Analytics Leader, PwC Zurich

Graham has specialised in tax technology for over 20 years.  He has advised across many domains of tax technology, including corporate tax, personal tax, XBRL and accounts production. He has worked at a senior level within the Big Four professional services firms, with a leading software business and as an independent consultant.  He is very much regarded as a tax & accounting technology guru, and has recently been appointed into a leadership role with PwC, based in Zurich.  

Q. You have recently joined PwC in Zurich as Tax Analytics Leader. Please describe further what services you will be providing, and which geographical region you are covering.

It is very early in my new role to be able to give you a definitive answer Simon, but I will do my best! Tax Analytics falls within the Tax Reporting and Strategy grouping, but we operate across lines of service to bring together the right teams to fulfil the client's brief. This could be in any area of tax and finance where the client has a technology or process issue that can be addressed through an analysis of their data.

We are combining traditional tax consulting skills with big data, analytics and technology to facilitate a modern response to the problems faced by the large corporate marketplace, today and in the future. Ask me again in 12 months, and I'll have some case studies for you that will explain the offering more clearly!

I will be operating within the Swiss marketplace.

Q. Your core background and career has been in tax & accounting technology. How does your current role link to that?

I started my career at Arthur Andersen in the Abacus development team with a strongly 'techy' focus. In the decades since, my career has changed emphasis, become increasingly client facing and consultative, with a focus on delivering solutions. Whilst this draws significantly on my tax and technology background, it is a broader approach than before, and allows me to leverage a wider team to deliver excellence to clients on a bigger scale than I could previously. 

Q. You have operated in the tax & accounting technology market for over 20 years, both within Big Four consulting and for a software house. What key differences have you experienced between these two environments? 

In spite of the sometimes significant overlap in people between the two environments, there are indeed differences, as both organisations have different focus and goals.

Software houses are organised to take excellent solutions to a marketplace, and to provide customer satisfaction through a predominantly 'standardized' solution set which meets or exceeds the customers' expectations through scale and robustness.

In that culture, bespoke solutions tend to disrupt the ability of the organisation to meet its primary goal and should be infrequently pursued as part of a product initiation process. In a Big Four environment, the opposite is true.

Professional firms are also driven by client service, but they provide it through more customer-centric and thus bespoke services. Here the client need is individual, often time-pressured and beyond a simple tool or product. The services are typically project based, requiring a team approach, and come with opinion and best practice, not just the technology.

Q. How well developed do you think tax technology is across Europe now?

In the nineties tax technology as a discreet service offering was seen primarily in the US and UK. It was initially a cost that was borne only in the bigger HQ centres, and by particular industries, whilst the majority of tax departments used generic tools such as Lotus 123, and then Excel.

Then moving into the noughties tax technology became more global, but was still accused of being US/UK centric, both in its origination and its delivery. However despite these perceived failings, tax technology was becoming increasingly ubiquitous, and with the initial adoption of digital & eServices by regulators, the direction of travel and the destination were clear.

If you look across Europe today, there are increasing demands for a variety of eFilings and eGovernment transactions. These are as likely to be seen across the continent, whether East or West, North or South. This is equally reflected in the increasing solutions offered by the large tax technology software houses, and in the building up of local teams in the large professional firms.

In an increasingly and rapidly accelerating Digital landscape, it is a very exciting time to be involved in tax technology in Europe.

Q. Tax Authorities around the world have also invested heavily in their tax data systems. How well do they compare / contrast to what large corporates have, or could have in the short term?

This is an intriguing area, as we see regulators implementing a variety of data collection and analytic tools in their dealings with large corporates. Companies have a legitimate interest in how the data will be manipulated and transformed by the different government departments that consume it. 

What a regulator has is Data; Big Data. This allows them to run a larger set of analytics than a corporate could in isolation. However, regulators tend to be mostly transparent, especially in Europe, and so most of the tests which a Government will apply can be pre-run on corporate data before submission as part of a validation and cleansing process.

This is also an area that fits the advisory part of a professional firms service offerings. By operating as a trusted advisor to many Large Corporate customers, they can provide that bigger view across Big Data. Equally by advising and working with Governments and NGOs, greater non-specific insight can be offered to improve data quality and compliance.

Q. How would you expect the tax technology world to evolve over the next 5-10 years?

I still remember sitting in Arundel Street in 1994 being interviewed by David Rowe, and being asked an almost identical question. I was finishing my Master's Degree at the time in computer modelling of knowledge, so he asked me if I believed that Artificial Intelligence would enter into tax technology within a decade. I made a somewhat verbose answer that could be summarized as 'no'.

Today I still think that true AI is more than a decade off, but there are a number of growing themes that will mature in the next 5 - 10 years. Blockchains are the up and coming buzz, moving out of crypto-currencies and into the audit trails of traditional Banks. In the next decade they could be used by business and regulator alike to provide a full finance audit trail.

On a more prosaic level, look out for ever expanding eco-systems of tools and products that will integrate seamlessly using highly available trusted data securely from the cloud. Encryption will no longer be talked about, as it will be embedded into all of the eco-systems. Data will flow from ERPs into management reporting, stakeholder analysis, regulatory compliance and forecasting as easily as you now share your search history between your phone, tablet and computer. The value add will then be how the analytics are applied to the data, and no longer about the data itself.

Q. How did you first get introduced to the tax technology world?

Throughout my education, I constantly sought out variety, so when I was looking to find my first real job from University, that was the thing I was looking for. Of all the jobs that were being advertised one caught my eye. Was I interested in a job at a Professional Accountancy firm, that involved writing computer software?

Of course not having to choose a single career in Professional Services or Software Development immediately appealed, so I took the train from Durham to London where I was interviewed by the TCS team at Arthur Andersen. The job sounded incredibly exciting, and the rest as they say, is history.

Q. What advice would you give to someone looking to enter and specialise in the tax technology sector?

When I am looking for a recruit in tax technology, I always have 3 things in my mind. Firstly, a self-starter who is not afraid to try things themselves and make mistakes. Secondly, someone with a strong educational record; staying on top of two disciplines is demanding. Thirdly, a passion for technology.

If you want to be involved in the tax technology sector, be sure it is for you & then go for it. There will always be a place in our industry for people who have the raw talent. Whether you choose to come to us as a fresh faced graduate (or post grad) or work through accountancy or tax training with a Firm first will not impact on your suitability or career.

The last 2 decades have been a challenging and exciting time for me in my career, and tax technology is just getting bigger and more exciting every year. 

Q. Outside of your professional work, what's your favourite piece of technology or gadget?

That has almost become a standard interview question from me, so I cannot complain about being asked myself. However, to demonstrate that I am not always looking for a favourite Smart Phone or Tablet when I ask that question, I'm going to choose something very different.

My current favourite Tech is the Airlander 10 from Hybrid Air Vehicles. Based in the historic Hangar at Cardington, this leading edge Airship combines almost enough Helium lift with an aerodynamic shape. The combined effect is a flying machine that can stay aloft for 5 days, has an incredibly low fuel cost (both financially and environmentally), and at 302ft long, it is the biggest aircraft in the world.