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The Secret to Success for SAP Professionals in Finance

David Burns, CEO, Prime LLC, Shares His Insights

insiderPROFILES, Volume 6, Issue 1

December 23, 2014

David Burns

Gain expert insights from David Burns, founder and CEO of Prime, LLC, on how to expand and maintain your SAP financials skillset. Learn about the biggest changes in finance over the past decades, what skills are most valuable today, and what we can expect from the future of finance.

 

David Burns

David Burns
CEO
Prime, LLC

     
 

For this guest column on strategies for improving continuous education, insiderPROFILES recently spoke with David Burns, the founder and CEO of Prime, LLC, an SAP consultancy focused on SAP ERP Financials and financial integration. David shares his insights on what has changed in finance in his 25-year career, and how this affects the approach that consultants and SAP professionals in the finance space must take to sharpen their skills and stay up to date in their respective areas of expertise. David is also a contributing author for SAP Experts. His latest financials-focused article on the use of incompletion statuses to improve financial performance and reporting is viewable at www.SAPexperts.com.

 
     

 

Q: How did you get your start in the industry, specifically in the SAP area?

I graduated from the University of Arizona in 1990 with a degree in economics and finance, and I went to work for the US Department of the Treasury for a few years. I then got my MBA and started in the software business with CheckFree Corporation (now Fiserv) implementing bank reconciliation software. In 1998, SAP recruited me to attend one of its eight-week boot camps, which had an intensive training curriculum. We covered just about every financial course that existed at the time. It was a really good indoctrination into the SAP world. That’s how I got started, and I never looked back.

Q: In your experience, what is the biggest change that has affected finance organizations in the last 15 years? Has there been a watershed disruptor that has forced universal change?

The biggest change, by far, is the global movement toward greater transparency in financial reporting. This movement has transcended traditional geographical and institutional boundaries and even breaks down the barriers between the private and public sectors. Constituencies today are demanding ever-increasing accountability, which translates into accurate and understandable performance measures and financial data.
  
As for watershed disruptors, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has had the greatest impact. Overall, there also has been a steady movement toward demystifying financial data; the financial scandals that occurred in 2000, 2001, and, of course, 2008 placed more accountability on auditors than ever before, which started the trend toward having much greater scrutiny of financial information.
 
Q: How do the skillsets needed to succeed in the field now compare to when you started your career?

When I first entered the market, it was sufficient to be knowledgeable in one SAP area. It was enough to be proficient in accounts payable, accounts receivable, or the sales and distribution module, for example. Now there’s a lot more emphasis on business processes; I emphasize to the people I mentor the importance of focusing on business processes as a whole, and that means breaking down the module structure of SAP software. For example, SAP Supplier Relationship Management (SAP SRM) and the shopping cart experience have a financial impact. Finance consultants don’t necessarily need to know how to flip the switches to make SAP SRM work, but they do need to understand the whole framework in light of the business processes. So they need to know what SAP SRM does, what value it adds, and how that integrates with core SAP ERP Financials.

There is also a greater emphasis today on knowing the business. Talking to SAP customers about how SAP software works is no longer sufficient. Those who gain credibility are people who understand business processes and can present options for the solutions available in the SAP suite. Furthermore, you have to stay on top of the trends and regulations as they make their way into SAP roadmaps. Ultimately, finance consultants today must be partners in helping SAP customers achieve their business objectives. 

Q: How are finance organizations finding those new skillsets, especially with new technologies like SAP HANA changing financial reporting?

There will always be some level where people are responsible for downloading and manipulating data, even though today it’s less about getting the data integrated, which was the crux of it when I came into the field. Today, with technologies like SAP HANA, it’s less about integration and more about time to delivery. So there certainly is more data available than at any point before, and there will always be a market for people capable of interpreting that data.
 
Organizations are struggling to have enough people available who fully understand the sources of the data. So when questions come up and when the numbers aren’t looking right, they need people who can troubleshoot and resolve those discrepancies. Over the last five years, I’ve seen more organizations questioning their financial reports than ever before. While 10 to 15 years ago, CFOs were happy just to be able to receive a certain report, today, they’re more focused on scrutinizing that data, and what’s important at the personnel and consulting levels is being able to instill confidence the data is correct. And that takes people who truly understand the whole throughput of transactional data that ultimately leads to the end state of the financial reports.

 

It’s a different environment; now, it’s all about in-memory, mobility, business intelligence, and reporting.

David Burns, CEO, Prime, LLC

Q: Does the speed of technological advances highlight the importance of continued training? Does it also make it more difficult to stay current than in years past?

I don’t think it’s more difficult to stay current today. But there have definitely been changes in how to keep your skillsets up to date. It’s a different environment; now, it’s all about in-memory, mobility, business intelligence, and reporting. I always say that if you’re going to focus on SAP software, you have to be prepared to be a student for life. You have to think of yourself as always needing to read up, do research, and look at new functionality such as SAP HANA and mobility. Also, while it’s great to learn about new products, you need to be cautious about branching out just to follow the trends — because some of those areas might not necessarily stick around for the long term. Core finance will always be at the crux of running an organization so, for me, focusing on and staying up to date with my core competency has always served me well. The amount of personal attention people give to their own education and knowledge makes the difference between a good consultant and the best consultants.

Q: What recommendations do you have for young SAP professionals just starting a career in finance?

First, keep your eyes open for opportunities, because they’re out there. If you go to work for a company that runs SAP software, there will be a point in time where there’s a need, and all you have to do is jump in. This is a terrific way to develop skills specific to SAP ERP Financials. Taking ownership is a great starting point; that’s how you learn the business processes and come to understand policies, best business practices, and regulatory impacts. This gives you the broad context you need to build your skillset up to where you become the go-to person whom the company relies on to identify the options and make recommendations on the best course of action.
 
This coupling of SAP expertise with the business know-how and the business processes is what I believe customers are looking for. Anybody can go in and flip switches. And while that’s a valuable skill to have, at the end of the day, if you sit down with CFOs or business managers and talk about flipping switches, they won’t understand what you’re talking about. They know their business processes, metrics, and reporting requirements. You need to act as a translator between the system and the business, and to do that, you have to learn their job and understand why they’re asking the questions they are asking. Understanding all those component business requirements and then layering them on top of SAP financials is the key.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve received in your career?

I had a mentor back in 1999 and 2000 who was a very savvy woman; she knew the world of SAP financials and also had technical skills. She told me to have depth in a specific SAP area but to also have breadth, and I’ve always kept that in mind. Say I am at a customer site and am working on a particularly troublesome task; I have to keep that task in the context of the larger business process and examine all aspects of data integration.

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