Rutherford Cross Consultant, Christina McLean, recently caught up with Russell McCoull, an expert Financial Systems Accountant who has given a valuable insight into his life as a Career Contractor. Christina shares some highlights from their Q&A below.
1. At what point in your career did you realise that you weren’t a typical ‘Business as Usual’ Accountant?
“From a very early stage in my career, I was drawn to the technical / systems side of accountancy; understanding the flow of data, the processes, and looking for opportunities to make these more efficient by creating automations and reducing manual effort. I did this while working in traditional BAU management accounting roles, involving the usual month/quarter/year-end cycles, across a range of sectors.
“Whilst I enjoyed these roles, I was keen to move into a more systems-focused role. An opportunity came up at Castle Computer Services (now Kick ICT), a software consultancy firm, and I joined them as Financial Application Consultant in 2008.”
2. How long have you been contracting and what were your motivations for entering the contract market?
“I started contracting in 2011 when an opportunity arose for me to take on a role at RBS as a Business Analyst on a large-scale finance, risk, and treasury programme. One of my main motivations for entering the contract market was a reduction in the amount of business travel required. In my prior role I spent the majority of time onsite with clients throughout the UK and with a young family this was not ideal.
“I was also conscious that a successful contract with RBS could open up other opportunities within RBS or others in the financial services sector. Leaving a permanent position to take on the 3-month contract was a bit of a gamble; however, it was a success and I ended up working across several high-profile change programmes at RBS until leaving in 2019.”
3. What has surprised you (if anything) about the contract market?
“One of the things that surprised me about the contract market was the number of really strong relationships I built. I had expected that the more temporary nature of the work would limit that; however, I worked with some exceptional people and still count many of them as friends.”
4. Which role has added the most value to your career so far and why?
“I’d say that the role that added the most value to my career would be my very first role in accountancy, back in 2003. I was taken on as a trainee accountant by a sole practitioner Chartered Accountant and I started my AAT and CIMA journey there. However, the reason I’ve selected this as my most valuable role is because of what I learned from working closely with the owner, Thomas Denholm. He was (and still is) just incredibly passionate about new technologies and how these could be used to improve ways of working to benefit the firm and its clients.
“If I can be a bit cheeky and add a second role, it would be my consultant role with Castle. This was my first real customer-facing role and required me to present to senior stakeholders, including requirements-gathering sessions and delivering end-user training. This was a definite push out of my comfort zone but was a real confidence boost when I discovered I could handle it well… and actually enjoyed it.”
5. You’ve done a lot of great work within Financial Services over the years, what draws you to this sector?
“The range of opportunities and variety of work was a big draw for me. For example, I started out analysing financial data on mortgage systems but moved onto a debit card reissuing programme and also spent time on a project introducing new accounting standards. I enjoyed the challenge of gaining skills and experience from a contract and using those to find the next opportunity.
“Due to the scale of some financial services programmes, there is also scope for progression. I joined as a Business Analyst, then held some Senior BA roles, before moving into my first Project Manager role.”
6. What is the greatest challenge you have faced in your career and how did you overcome this?
“Keeping my skills and experience up to date and relevant has been a challenge throughout my career: from the earlier days with a young family, studying AAT and CIMA at night classes; gaining my PRINCE2 qualification and completing Agile courses; and, in recent years, gaining certifications in Microsoft Power Platform and building experience using tools such as Alteryx. All of these have been important in making sure that the skills I have align with what employers are looking for.”
7. What advice would you give to someone considering contract work or at the early stages of their contracting career, particularly within Finance?
“A – Find a mentor. Not necessarily in an official capacity, but someone who has some experience of the route you are wanting to go down. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some extremely good people managers over the years, and they’ve supported me and helped shape my own career.
“B – Build a strong network. At some point it’s inevitable that a contract will not be extended, or you may decide that you want to move on for a new challenge. An effective network (quality over quantity) will help keep you aware of opportunities, particularly where contacts have personal experience working with you.”
8. What skills or key attributes do you feel will serve you best and will be required to meet the demands of finance in the future?
“Keeping up to speed with advances in Finance technology will remain important – these can be finance-specific systems, but also tools that can be used to help finance systems interact with others or to analyse or report on finance data. AI and machine learning have massive potential for changing how finance departments work. As the technology underpinning finance departments becomes increasingly complex, the ability to act as a translator between finance and technology will become more and more valuable.”
If you are interested in finding out more about the interim and contract market, or you would like to get involved in our interview series, please contact [email protected].