After working 9 years in finance at Cisco, I was ready for a change.
It was the early 2000s, a time when on-premise bloatware gave way to Cloud SaaS. SaaS was revolutionizing business software and innovative ISVs were flooding onto the scene.
I became increasingly convinced then that agile teams no longer burdened by IT infrastructure constraints could quickly introduce lightweight commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) apps. These apps could rapidly iterate into powerful tools that knowledge workers could access on their mobile devices.
This opportunity aligned with what I was looking for: a role that allowed me to be a part of highly collaborative project teams that could enable businesses to transform their operations and achieve key objectives.
By no means was this transition easy to make. I didn’t go from a senior finance role at Cisco to an enterprise systems architect at Cloudera (where I am now) overnight.
Based on my experience, I’ll offer some tips for switching over to a business systems and processes role. But first, I’ll share how I made the transition.
How I Transitioned to Business Technology
While working in finance, I participated in projects that focused on DW/BI, demand forecasting, and enterprise planning. I enjoyed the diversity of these projects and the opportunities they provided for innovation and collaboration. With the advent of SaaS apps, it became clear that less technical yet business-savvy individuals could contribute further. That’s when I knew business systems would be a great fit for me.
I have to credit a recruiter who knew the CFO of a recently IPOed company called Salesforce. This connection helped me land the role of Director of Finance Process Management. The position allowed me to couple my knowledge of finance and accounting with my evolving interest in business systems. I oversaw their core accounting systems and processes, including the GL, procurement, accounts payable, procurement, planning, and HR.
Since then, I’ve continued my journey in business systems by expanding beyond financial systems into many different domains. Now, in my current role at Cloudera, I oversee our IdM and integration tools while also leading various finance, PS, HR, and Training projects.
3 Tips for Making the Switch to Business Technology
If you’re considering a career in Business Technology, here are 3 things I recommend doing:
1. Understand what it’s like to work in Business Technology to ensure you want to make the transition.
Several facets of working in business technology aren’t immediately obvious from the outside looking in. Here are just a couple things about the function that can help you assess whether it’s right for you:
- Rather than owning a defined set of operational duties, you are project-oriented. The business process owners allow you to make enhancements to their processes. You temporarily assume control, but once the project is finished, you move on to another one with new business owners and project teams.
- Instead of being governed by the month-end close, your life mirrors the ebbs and flows of your projects’ life cycles.
- Teams are flat, not hierarchical, and each person plays a specific role. Influencing and organizing skills are crucial.
- Many people resist change, so you must be an advocate for change, and be able to convey the benefits to them on a personal level.
- You must be prepared to adapt. Each project is unique; each vendor’s products are unique; and the pace of technological change is rapid.
- Processes are interconnected, so you need to be a sleuth to find out which process preceded yours and which will follow. Process flowcharting and entity diagramming are important skills.
- In addition to coordinating your team, you need to establish robust, two-way relationships with your vendors and SIs.
2. Consider if you want to be a specialist or a generalist.
If you decide it’s time to move to a new company, you’ll need to think about how big or small of a company you want to work at. A smaller company may give you the opportunity to encounter and be responsible for more things. You won’t go into depth on every topic, but you’ll be exposed to more domains and hopefully have a chance to implement new systems rather than just maintain them. Depending on its success, smaller companies may offer more growth opportunities.
At larger organizations, you can specialize in certain areas and explore specific processes in depth, allowing you to develop domain expertise. If it is run professionally, they will teach you best practices. At a small company, you will likely be a big fish in a small pond. At a large company it’s just the opposite.
One type of organization isn’t necessarily better than the other. It depends on the types of experiences you’re looking for and where you are at in your career vis-a-vis your career objectives.
3. Take every meaningful learning opportunity.
Especially as you begin your career, search for senior managers who are approachable and have specialized knowledge in the career you are pursuing. Find an opportunity to ask for an hour of their time (lunch?) to advise you on your career every six months or so. If the relationship flourishes, nurture it over time. Retain your favorite mentors by staying in touch, especially once you leave that company.
As you interview for positions, ask whether the firm offers rotational opportunities for workers who deliver satisfactory results. If so, once you have established your credibility in that role, you may begin conversations with your boss about which rotations would be beneficial for both you and the company. For example, during my nine years at Cisco, I progressed through five roles in Finance. Having one or two specific senior level positions in mind facilitates such discussions.
Many vendors offer conferences that provide useful content related to their platforms. These include, Workday Rising, Salesforce’s Dreamforce, and NetSuite’s SuiteWorld.. For a vendor-neutral conference specifically focused on Business Technology, there’s Biz Systems Magic.
The networking opportunities at these events are equally exciting, as you can meet and build relationships with thought leaders in the industry.
Many hub apps also offer user groups online. These groups allow you to get your questions answered and see how business systems professionals approach their work. You’ll also better understand what the applications are capable of when members start highlighting use cases and best practices.
You can get updates on specific companies and technology you’re interested in by using Google Alerts. I currently have eight Google Alerts that I read every week.
Gartner and Forrester
If you’re looking for the big picture of the business systems industry, try and find free copies of publications from analysts like Gartner and Forrester—especially Gartner’s Magic Quadrant. They explain the nature of a market niche, identify and rank the players, and list the criteria for evaluating vendors.
Their content provides valuable context for strategic discussions at work, and they are an invaluable resource when interviewing.
I longed to be part of a network of business systems peers earlier in my journey. Finally, I’ve found that in the Systematic Community from which I have learned so much.
The community is what I’ve wanted for 25 years: a way to socialize with my peers and learn best practices from them. If you are making the switch, learning from a community of like-minded individuals can be extremely valuable.
Project Management Skills
Getting a PMP certification or a similar qualification will be extremely helpful. The organizing methodology will help you better sort and prioritize tasks. If your company provides sponsorship, you should take them up on that offer.
Moving Forward: Technical Skills & Certifications
Acquiring further technical skills in your field of choice clearly demonstrates your commitment to enhancing your skills and learning the latest technologies. It makes you a more valuable employee and may be added to your resume as a marketing skill. Always ask whether your employer will subsidize training that is directly related to what you do.
Business Technology is the Future
If you are ready for a change, you may want to consider a career in business systems and processes. I hope that I have given you some idea of what it’s like to pursue such a career and the types of knowledge and skills that are needed.
Since making the leap in the early 2000s, I’m still thrilled with my decision and am fascinated with the variety of people and topics I encounter on a daily basis. SaaS is taking over the world, and business systems play such a key role in the growth and efficiency of today’s modern businesses.
Connect with Jim Burtt on LinkedIn.
Curious to see how other systems leaders made the jump from a functional role? You can ask them by joining the Systematic community! Request to Join.