Interview headlines Todd Cameron shares his experience.

Liz Kallas

Tell us a little bit about yourself and experience journey at a vertex?

I was initially hired as a multimedia designer to develop e-learning modules, but over time I’ve evolved into product development. I’ve been at Vertex 20 years and I’ve never had the same year twice. We all know the world has changed dramatically in that time and the rate of change is increasing exponentially. When I started at Vertex, mobile phones, and internet access were luxury items. WiFi didn’t exist. Today, all these things are now commoditized. It makes you wonder which of today’s tech will be tomorrow’s commodities and which ones will be obsolete?

That’s where Vertex Innovation Labs comes into play. We started two years ago to not only explore new technologies and their relevance to the tax world but also to respond quickly to changes in the economy and marketplace. We’re given the autonomy to function like a startup within Vertex. To address these challenges, we’ve been trained in Scrum, Design Thinking, and Lean Startup. We use all of these methodologies, to collaborate with clients to develop and validate potential new products.

Liz Kallas

What do you see as the interdependencies between Innovation and Digital transformation of businesses to solve problems?

Innovation is a form of change management and innovators are not only developing new ideas but also shifting mindsets. When we think of innovation, we think of new products, but it could be a new process, it might be rearranging steps of a process to make it more efficient and may not even have a digital component. Sometimes I start with just a pencil and paper or a whiteboard. Innovation is trying to look at things in a different way. It’s more than being creative to invent something new; it’s about engaging all the stakeholders who have some experience with the problem and are open-minded to take different approaches to solve those problems.

Inclusion and diversity are very important in innovation. If I tried to innovate only with people who are like me, with the same experiences and biases, it may be more challenging to come up with something new, and it won’t be as much fun. This is a function of combining technical expertise, accounting expertise, economic expertise and getting insights from all of them to create something new, improving on a process or potentially developing a new solution.

Liz Kallas

How important it is to transcend co-innovation beyond the organizational boundaries and involving suppliers, partners, academia everyone?

At the very core, I am data guy, analytics-driven and always looking for that single source of truth. Getting everyone on the same page – from a supply chain perspective – your sales team, logistics team, tax team, operations, procurement and vendor teams is critical for an effective supply chain. Seamless flow and exchange of ideas are very important so that everyone sees the same problem and is driven to solve the problem together as a team.

Regarding academia, continuous learning is crucial to innovation. Quickly ramping up on new tech and rapidly responding to market externalities, requires us to be agile learners. We partner with several universities for both research and intern talent.
I believe that we learn as much from our interns as they do from their experiences with us.

Liz Kallas

Vertex is taking bold steps and making the right investment in Innovation. Tell us what you can share. Why is it important to have a separate team focused on Innovation?

We need the full-focused effort. We have the core product with release schedules. I consider our team as Innovation Ambassadors to our customers, partners, the rest of our organization, and even the tax technology industry. Years before we started Innovation Labs, I acknowledged the people across our organization who have done original and brilliant things to recognize them. Innovation is more than sitting behind closed doors and coming out with the next iPhone. Sure, a lot of it is ideating, but it’s also revisiting processes, making them more efficient and recognizing the patterns and opportunities that might surface.

Liz Kallas

How do techniques such as Scrum and Lean start-up play into the building or accelerating an innovation culture?

It comes back to the point I made earlier, being on the same page. I love leading the daily scrum stand-up, which is a brief (less than 15 minutes) meeting, in which each participant stands as he or she updates the team. This real-time update is a very important ceremony of Scrum. Lean Startup enables organizations to look at problems and opportunities through an external lens, the same way an external advisor might. When you apply these methodologies to the same problems that you have experienced before, you could come up with fresh insights due to the emphasis on data-driven problem definition. Defining the right problem and being on the same page is very important. Getting there is a very important milestone.

It can be achieved with new ways to leverage data and insights that exist across the ecosystem within and outside the enterprise boundaries. I have conducted multiple design thinking sessions both internally and externally. If you do it right, it’s very rewarding to see each of the participants carry back new insights and paths forward to their areas. Ultimately, it’s about asking the right questions.

Liz Kallas

In your experience, is it essential to customize design thinking methodology to a function such as supply chain, taxation or procurement?

It is always helpful to consult with subject matter experts if the design thinking workshop is targeted towards a specific function. For example, if I were to do a design thinking session for a tax team, I would consult them ahead of time about the issues they face to ensure that we are asking the right questions.

Liz Kallas

In your current role, what are the top 2-3 challenges you face?

My biggest challenge is trying to not to get too attached to a cool project that doesn’t show strong market potential. I led a blockchain-supply chain experimental project that could be implemented effectively without blockchain. But I really wanted the answer to be blockchain and our team had to zoom out and reflect, which made us realize that we shouldn’t do something just because it’s cool.

The next big challenge is finding the right context – something that will resonate with tax pros. The recent Supreme Court decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair, which redefined nexus laws and makes sellers responsible for collecting sales tax in each state they sell goods in if they meet set thresholds, has created numerous tax innovation opportunities. It’s changed our industry. It is something that people are interested in talking about. I want the quietest person up there to open and provide their insights.

Liz Kallas

What are the opportunities for your industry and incentive to motivate?

Me, you, everyone, everybody, every industry, we have to get better at understanding data. We need to get better at considering the principles of analytics, statistics, visualization, meaningful facts. I suggest the book, Factfulness by Hans Rossling. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and optimistic book that uses data visualizations to prove that the world is far better off than we think it is.

The main idea is that it’s fundamental to explore and better utilize next-generation technologies, like AI and Machine Learning, so algorithms can interpret data better.
People are leary of automation and believe that due to the increased capabilities of AI and machine learning, we will lose our jobs. I took the “AI for Everyone” course taught by MIT’s Andrew Ng who said not to worry about the elimination of jobs, but approach AI as a means to eliminate repetitive tasks. Think tasks, not jobs. If you are an insurance claims adjustor, 10 years ago, much of the job was repetitive and maybe 10% was reviewing the most complex cases. But with new technologies, many of the repetitive tasks can be handled by machines while you can focus time on more engaging or strategic tasks.
I will end by saying, although I love Terminator movies, I don’t think Skynet is coming any time soon.

Liz Kallas

Tell us a little bit about Vertex?

Vertex, Inc. is a leading provider of tax technology and services, enabling companies of all sizes to realize the full strategic potential of the tax function by automating and integrating tax processes while leveraging advanced and predictive analytics of tax data. Vertex provides cloud-based and on-premise solutions that can be tailored to specific industries for every major line of indirect tax, including sales and consumer use, value-added and payroll. Headquartered in Pennsylvania, and with offices worldwide, Vertex is a privately held company that employs approximately 1,000 professionals and serves companies across the globe.

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