Risk Talk: How Data Drives Business

During the MSc IFM and MSc Finance alumni event in April, which the program departments organized in cooperation with Risk, the Risk Magazine had the chance to sit down with two of the alumni that were in the panel discussion of the event – Daniel Huizenga and Georg Suurmeijer. The topic of the panels discussion was “Banks are IT Conglomerates: study Finance/IFM or IT?”, so we discussed how their work is affected by the increasing importance of data and what skills they had to learn to manage it.

Daniel Huizenga and Georg Suurmeijer both graduated from the IFM double degree program, which is a one-and-a-half-year master with one year at University of Groningen and half-a-year in Uppsala, Sweden. They graduated in 2008 and have since then taken rather different career paths. Nevertheless, both of them have no-doubt set out for successful careers, which is probably also the reason for why both of them sit on the IFM program advisory board.

“I’m a very restless person […] and I think this is why consultancy suits me”, he says.

Georg Suurmeijer began his career in Copenhagen, working for an investment software firm and through this, in Europe as an implementation consultant. The skills he needed, to operate the vendor’s tooling, he learnt from scratch – all he had done when it came to IT before he started was an Excel course while in university. However, after learning a lot as a consultant, he started at Rabobank. There he worked in the risk reporting department, focusing on data visualization of the risks the bank faced, such as market risk and credit risk. He worked at there for four years and considers it a great place to learn. “I’m a very restless person […] and I think this is why consultancy suits me”, he says. Always aiming to have a steep learning curve has made him push forward and sometimes quit a job without first having a new one secured. His resume is relatively long, as he has moved around between firms quite a bit. Through Capco, an international consultancy firm, he went to work for the client Barclays in London to develop a target operating model. Later, he worked for SNS Bank, again through another consultancy firm, this time as an information manager dealing with the risk application landscape and setting up data steward processes. However, in 2017, he decided it was time to take the leap and start his own consultancy firm. Naturally, it was a big decision, but the timing was right and after discussing it with Daniel, he was finally convinced. “Your first client is always very important, and I must say that it went rather quickly”, he says. For him, the first client was ING, for whom he at the time of the interview worked on GDPR.

For Daniel Huizenga it all started with a traineeship at TNT, which is an international logistics company. There he had the opportunity to work in many different departments, such as M&A, controlling and audit, where he got an idea of how the money streams flow within such a firm. During his time there, he also worked closely with consultants from various renowned international consultancy firms, which gave him the idea to continue in that direction afterwards. Therefore, he started as a senior consultant in the M&A department at Deloitte. Despite having gained some useful tools for this job during his study, he still says that he learnt most things on the job. “It’s not like I packed my books with me”, he says. Currently, he works as a senior business controller at Wehkamp. The working hours within M&A are often long and for him it was time to put more focus on his family. At Wehkamp he can combine finance with a more entrepreneurial mindset and this keeps the job exciting he says. With this he means that the job gives him the opportunity to advise, from a financial perspective, on the direction of the company.

When they graduated, the world economy was in the middle of the crisis and finding a job was challenging. However, they both agree that they had an advantage from the double degree and that this helped them stick out in recruiting processes. “Times are different now”, Georg says. As a lot is happening in the regulatory environment, there are many opportunities – GDPR is just the first major step on privacy regulation Georg thinks. Both Daniel and Georg agree that, for people who continue to the business world, university is mainly a place where one learns the basics of finance, the way of thinking, where to find information, how to process it and how to structure it quickly. The learning needs to be quick and the capacity high. There is little patience for slow processing. “This is what they expected in the first consultancy firms I joined – they sought people who could adopt a lot of information in a short period of time” Georg says.

“I think that when you start to work your notice there is a gap between the theoretical world and the real way of working”, Daniel says.

In their opinion, there is a disconnection between what employers need and what students know when they graduate: “I think that when you start to work your notice there is a gap between the theoretical world and the real way of working”, Daniel says. Many students have to learn how to use Excel and PowerPoint effectively when they start working. This has been the case for decades, despite this the university has not included learning such skills, at least not at a sufficient level, in the degree programs of the faculty.

Now, data visualization tools, like Tableau, are becoming more common and the question is: Is the gap between university and the business world thus also becoming wider? As data is becoming more accessible and abundant, the quality and quantity of it is becoming an increasingly relevant topic. Upon asking Daniel how he sees the data aspect at Wehkamp, he says “I think that the aim that we have is that everything we do has to be data driven. For instance in retail, in the past, a lot of people were making decisions by heart, but now I think the direction is that everything has to be based on data insights. I think that's a change the company is making and I really see it happening.” He is himself not so much working within data analytics, but more with the interpretation of it, such as drawing conclusions from graphs made with Tableau.

Georg, on the other hand, has been working more hands-on with data. “I do believe that if you have a feeling for it, this is the moment regarding everything with data. Whether it's protection, or it's actually quality, or building stuff, or visualizing and providing insight […] There's a lot of work in that”, he says. Nevertheless, to the question whether they afterwards realized that they should have studied more data science, Georg says with a laugh “I had no idea when I was a student, I thought I had enough tools in my belts to know all about the real world of business administration”. Daniel continues with saying “I really believe that if you work at job that you could learn a lot of additional things in the job. It doesn't really matter. The university should give you more tools to work with data […] to get the first introduction, to get insights and afterwards you choose a path”.

In other words, every student will definitely be fine with the skills he or she acquired at university when making the step to work in a firm. Despite this, it is clear that skills in areas such as data visualization, Excel and PowerPoint are crucial in many jobs and having some skills at the point when you look for a job would be seen as a clear edge on the job market. At the very least, awareness makes a good first step.