A conversation with Schalk van der Westhuizen
Finance roles have seen some of the greatest amount of change over the last few decades thanks to technology. It started with fairly simple software that altered the way people performed their roles and is now expanding to actually change the way the roles are defined.
I want to share this conversation with Schalk van der Westhuizen, not only because he has seen this with his background as an accountant, but also because he’s currently working through it in more recent roles as Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer of global companies.
Here’s what he had to say about the impact of technology in his world and also his outlook for the future.
Where do you work and what does the company do?
I work for three companies at the moment. The biggest company is ASAP+, which is an independently owned digital marketing agency based out of Shanghai. We’re China focused, but we’re a global company. China has a whole different ecosystem of digital tools and social media. We specialise in helping Western brands market their products in China.
And we have two other businesses.
Connect+ is a software as a service (SaaS) subscription platform where Western clients can sell their products to Chinese consumers directly using WeChat and e-programs.
Stackchat is based in Sydney. It’s a software service that focuses on conversational marketing – essentially chatbots. It’s an enterprise-grade solution that allows businesses to start up their own chatbots in a short timeframe. It’s a subscription model, rather than charging thousands of dollars to build a bespoke chat platform.
I have a Chief Operating Officer role that encompasses finance, human resources and IT relief. We try to make everything run as efficiently as possible and also grow the business as quickly as possible.
Have you always been interested in tech?
Yes, very much so. I’d probably call myself an ‘advanced user’ before I say I’m a ‘techie’ or ‘programmer’. In the finance and accounting world you’re always looking for ways to automate things. Tech has been the number one solution for all of that.
Whether it’s automating processes or making things more geographically independent through cloud-based services, there’s just a natural synergy there for finance and tech to work together to drive efficiencies.
What technologies do you see shaping our future?
We talk a lot at Stackchat about how AI is going to impact the experience that consumers have with brands. One of the things we’re seeing is Gen Y want to have interactive experiences with their brands. People want to ask direct questions and have the answers come back to them. AI will be essential in anticipating what people will want. This means things like FAQ pages that you have on a brand’s website will disappear.
So you’re going to have a much more instant and more focused interaction with the companies you buy things from. You can already see this through companies like Amazon and Google.
And then there’s voice chat. Anyone can see that Google Home Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa are becoming prevalent everywhere. One of the more interesting elements of voice technology is it’s a much more natural way for someone like my mum to interact with her device than to sit there and type. So you’ll see the older generation linking it up a lot easier than they would other technologies. All that natural language programming and the AI behind that will drive a new kind of interaction for a different generation and reshape the way they buy and sell things.
What changes have you seen in your career?
Tech is changing things all the time. In many ways it makes life much more simple, giving you more time to focus on the more interesting parts of the job. When I first started you would sit and type in a trial balance at the audit client and it would be two pages of numbers on the left and two pages of numbers on the right. Somebody would spend half a day typing these numbers in. Then it graduated to someone needing to upload a CSV file. Now financial statements can be spat out fairly automatically by a system.
So, all those things have changed, but the one thing that has stayed the same is you still want someone who can analyse and interpret the results and give you insights based on the numbers. That’s the one constant I’ve had in every job interview I’ve had. Every time someone will say, “Give me an example of how you’ve interpreted results and given insight to influence a business outcome.” It’s only becoming more and more important. Essentially they’re asking, “Are you just a bean counter or are you delivering business value as well?”
What is it that excites you or makes you nervous about the future?
I don’t think anything makes me particularly nervous, it’s more exciting. The ability to have richer data at your fingertips is probably the most exciting thing. A couple of years ago people would spend millions of dollars tying different systems together to try and make sense of things. Now you’ve got all your systems plugged in together and they’re all subscription based so they’re not particularly expensive. For small businesses that’s a real win. Previously you may not have had the capital to do that.
What is the future of your type of role?
I think there’s going to be an increased amount of automation, which will see traditional roles shrinking. People talk about how accountants won’t be necessary anymore and I think to an extent that’s true. It’s things like the accounts payable role and accounts receivable role that will be consolidated.
However, in finance you’ll still very much need to understand the principles. So that part won’t really go away – the balance sheets, the profit and loss statements and cash flow statements. But what you want to be doing is understanding automation a lot better than we were taught – especially digital automation and digital controls that you would have around finances internally.
I think the finance role will remain very important, but it’s going to become more entwined with the IT role. We see a lot of finance director roles where they’re in charge of IT as well. That’s just going to become more common. CFOs will be focused on different facets of their business and on digital because it’s going to impact everything they’re looking at.
What advice would you give to young people deciding what to focus on?
Well, what not to focus on is anything that’s repetitive, anything that doesn’t involve enough critical thinking. Like any industrial revolution we’re seeing the most manual and the most repetitive tasks replaced. You want to think about where you want to be in 20 or 30 years – don’t just try get a job for tomorrow.
Focus on digital, design or something creative. And design and creativity aren’t limited to traditional fields like writing, fashion or music. You can be creative in the way you analyse data, code programs and also design new products for a digital world.
Thanks to Schalk for sharing his thoughts and insights.
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