Technology in business: more accessible than ever

Kieran Corcoran speaks to a recent graduate and a manager at PwC and finds out what this fast-growing sector has to offer

The unstoppable rise of technology is the biggest change of our time and businesses need to keep up, which is where the specialist technology practices of professional services organisations like PwC come in. You might buy a new smartphone on a whim, but big businesses have to consider carefully the risks, as well as the opportunities, of technological change. Technology consultants help companies work out how to manage these risks and embrace these opportunities. Here we find out what it's like working where business and technological innovation converge.

Sarah Schlobohm

joined PwC in 2011 as an Associate, having studied physics at undergraduate and postgraduate level in the US. She works in Risk Assurance, with a focus on the Data Assurance department, and is based in Leeds. Here's what her job entails, and why she enjoys it.

Were you interested in technology before you joined PwC?

I'd been in research science for a long time, so I was pretty familiar with working with technology and large quantities of data, and knew I wanted to keep doing it. PwC was attractive as they offered me a job that was based exactly around what I'd learned at university - every big company needs to get its head around large amounts of electronic data these days. I also liked the idea of the extensive training PwC offers to graduates, since I hadn't worked in the business world before.

What does your department do?

Risk assurance covers all areas of risk, including controls, processes, systems and data. I have some involvement in that but specialise in data assurance.

The Data Assurance department supports PwC's audit teams, using data techniques to analyse large volumes of manual transactions, providing insight for the client on unusual postings and timings, and helping the audit teams do their jobs more easily.

On the risk assurance side of things we help clients use technological systems effectively, for example, by providing support on the business programs they use, or by helping them change systems, or upgrade their software. An interesting recent development in this area is that HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the government body which collects taxes) has recently launched a system which lets companies submit tax information on a rolling basis instead of quarterly. We can help clients take advantage of changes like this one.

How have you found the transition from being a student to working at PwC?

Before I started at PwC I was familiar with technology and using data. However, I didn't know much about the more business-focused aspects of PwC's work, such as law, tax and auditing, but have now learned about them. Also, moving to a business role has given me a more practical mindset. In an academic setting, time is not always an issue, whereas at PwC it's fast-paced and there are deadlines to meet, but you get a lot done efficiently. I've enjoyed the change of pace.

What's a day at work like for you?

We might start by speaking to a client giving us a download of their data to deal with. Then we'd use one of our specialist programs, known as CAATs (computer-assisted audit techniques), to analyse the data, checking for inconsistencies and drawing conclusions. Then we might advise the audit team working with that client on where to focus their efforts.

For a more in-depth project, such as a data migration or a code review - where we check that a computer program is written properly and does what it's supposed to - we might go out and spend some time with the client on-site. Here we would talk to them to find out exactly how their system works and how we can complete the project successfully.

Have you found PwC an enjoyable place to work?

Even before joining I felt very welcome - I felt that PwC had a really friendly and approachable presence at the campus events I went to, which made me want to get involved with the company. And things have been much the same since I started working here. When I joined I had a buddy specifically assigned to me, who's helped me settle in, and I've always felt that everyone else here is also approachable - I'm even happy talking to a partner in the coffee room.

Why do you think technology is an exciting place for graduates to be at the moment?

Technology's impact on our world is growing, and it's an increasingly significant part of our business and everyone else's. It's a necessity now - people aren't suddenly going to go back to pen and paper - and companies don't want to be left behind. People are now also realising the potential of technology; by using it we help clients make more money and be more efficient, which they love!

Eleanor Thrower

is a Manager in PwC's Cyber Security department. She studied an arts degree in the early 2000s and joined a small security consultancy company after her gap year. After several years in the industry, she joined PwC in 2010. We found out about her experiences in the industry, and what her advice is for today's graduates.

What are the hot topics in cyber security at the moment?

Lots of companies are starting to let employees use their own devices for work, such as iPads and smartphones. We can help companies make sure they've got the right policies and controls in place to make employees doing so safe for their businesses. For example, if they're going to allow employees to use iPads, they need to think about encryption and virus protection. It's also important to make sure that employees are aware of the risks to the business and know how to deal with them.

Cloud computing is another issue we're dealing with a lot at the moment - advising clients on what the benefits of a cloud system could be, and how they can make sure the system they use is secure.

These new technologies can be great enablers for business. We're advising clients that, rather than not using any of this new technology, they should work with us on mitigating the risks involved so that, for example, employees can benefit from the more flexible ways of working that technology can bring.

How has the technology industry changed since you started working here eight years ago?

The business of data security evolves constantly because it responds to risks, which change all the time. For instance, over the last year there's been a massively increased focus on cyber security, protecting against so-called "hacktivism" - people taking down systems and disrupting public servers. Those of us working in this area learn and develop by anticipating and reacting to these new risks.

Also, there are now many more women in technology than when I started my career in this area in 2004. While it's still the case that most of those working here are male, any impressions people might have of technology being a male-dominated area are misleading and outdated - and it's also worth bearing in mind that many roles in technology, including mine, require an understanding of people as much as of machines, which requires a diverse workforce.

How does the work you do in technology at PwC change as you progress within the firm, as you've done?

The projects that graduates and more experienced employees work on are the same, but what changes is the level of personal responsibility you take. At the start, you'll be guided a lot by a manager, but as you gain in experience you'll become able to take a more rounded view of projects and see what the end goal is, which means you can really put yourself in the shoes of the client and work more closely and better alongside them.

And, of course, you gain a lot of useful knowledge as you progress about how global organisations work and how technology is involved in what they do. You could choose to specialise in a particular industry area, for instance, telecoms or utilities.

What advice would you give to somebody looking to get involved in technology and business?

Remember you don't need a technology-driven degree for a career in technology. I'm an arts graduate and I found working in technology as accessible as any other career in consulting. The thinking skills you need are the type many graduates have: being able to look at the lifecycle of a project, plan how you're going to approach it and deliver its completion appropriately. And the work isn't necessarily very technological in a strict sense. My role is also about people and processes. For example, you hear stories of companies losing huge amounts of sensitive data, which in some cases is due to sophisticated hacking techniques, but can just as easily be down to a lack of good practice and education - for example, employees losing data when they take it home copied onto a USB stick.

Working in technology is a great career to pursue if you don't want to do the same thing more than once because the things we deal with are always evolving and changing. It's also becoming quite glamorous - senior corporate figures are talking about technology more and more because they're realising that good use of it will help businesses achieve their goals.