We’re celebrating Devon Coleman’s recent seven-year anniversary with 8020 Consulting! In our Q&A, Devon reflects on memorable experiences with Clients, explores how he stays up to date on technology and software and offers advice to professionals considering consulting on their career paths.
1. What do you enjoy most about your work these days, and has it changed over time?
I enjoy helping others, and I enjoy learning new technology.
That’s always been the case, even in different industries and job types. I’ve always enjoyed helping people, and I’ve always liked dealing with new technology.
2. What are some of your favorite projects of all time?
“Playing in the Sandbox”
My favorite project began with me mapping out process flows for a green energy company. But then the project quickly morphed into an application development project, where I started learning Salesforce on the development side—how to code and do more than what you would typically do as an administrator. I also started learning to code in NetSuite and other tools as well.
I have a background in finance and software development, so this was a neat project. I learned how to build things at a high level for two different platforms, which is rare. I then melded them with a third application, and I got to do some Java coding as a test subject.
The project started by mapping out all their processes, including project management. One of their issues was how to track projects using more than Excel. How could they collect information, say from the general ledger, and bring it into a project manager’s process? What were all the pieces, the timing, the cash flows?
At the same time, the Client just implemented NetSuite, where they wanted to collect project information like summaries, notes and project manager estimates. They also wanted to capture inconsistencies to help the company and project managers better manage projects. They began to ask questions like:
- How are we going to track all these projects?
- How can we track them by time?
- Can we track hours on projects and have that flow through the general ledger and into NetSuite?
We set up the NetSuite hours-tracking package, and I worked on developing a project management tool in Salesforce. That led to a desire to connect and automate data flows between NetSuite and Salesforce. (We used Celigo for that.) Now, when a salesperson has his or her sales order approved in Salesforce, it flows directly into NetSuite.
Another issue the Client had was salespeople typing in prices that weren’t in the general ledger, creating price discrepancies. The new connection sent prices and items over from NetSuite into Salesforce, so salespeople could only pick products with correct prices. Now everything matches up.
It all started with process mapping and defining issues and exploring how to solve them. They had just gotten Salesforce, they had just gotten NetSuite, and so we got them to play in the sandbox together. A project that was supposed to be four or five months expanded into more than a year.
“Consultants on Site”
I’ve only been on three engagements where I’ve been with other Consultants. Another reason that project stands out for me is that we would go out to lunch together. We were also in something of a pod together.
In the other projects with Consultants on site, we’d work in different offices and have to walk to see each other. On that Client, we were in the same area together. We’d take our coffee breaks together, talk about what was going on and strategize. Then we’d have lunch together, which was more time to talk and strategize, which was great.
I haven’t had that in any other engagement. It was interesting because it allowed everyone to see what others were doing and how we impacted each other, which is very key on a project.
As an example, I was developing the project management tool, and another teammate was working with the accounting team on the chart of accounts. Of course, if I’m working on the tool with project-hours associations, counting hours of on a project and booking those hours to accounts, I’d want to know what accounts those are and if they change. He could tell me new accounts in the chart of accounts to include in my processes.
We also collaborated on the template we were using to load up his side of the general ledger. We’d talk about what template format made sense, and make sure accounting understood that template – as they would receive the file, address any issues and upload it. That type of collaboration drove results, and it was a nice environment to work in.
Another good project was for an digital music company with software engineers in Belarus and an accounting department in Sri Lanka.
This project was centered on deal cross-collateralization, which is the ability to handle multiple contracts simultaneously. Let’s say you’re a recording artist and you’ve made back your advance on one album, but you have three other albums that haven’t earned out yet. The music company will want to cross-collateralize those albums with the one that did earn out, so they can make sure they make back the costs of all the albums before paying your royalties.
It gets quite complicated. That approach requires looking at income coming in from platforms like iTunes or Spotify. Those different music platforms submit royalties back. Which albums do you cross-collateralize? Which ones do you not?
I built a system for them in Anaplan to help. The Client was the first and only music group that employed this cross-collateralization approach. We could cross-collateralize against different contracts and cherry pick when and how to cross-collateralize. For example, it might be once the company earned 50% of its money back or 25% – it doesn’t have to be a hundred percent. It also can vary across artists. For a group of artists, the company might want to be sure it earns back the money from the group deal before paying out an individual.
That was a great project and took maybe eight months. I came back later to help them connect that system into their NetSuite instance. I’d work for a couple of weeks every now and then to do some touchups for them.
That was nice because I learned how to do deep Anaplan development. I also dealt with complex problems like tracking monies coming in from other external parties to improve that cross-collateralization.
3. What’s the most unexpectedly rewarding part of working as a Consultant?
The type of vacations I can take has been the most unexpected reward. I’m fortunate to be able to travel out of the country and schedule meaningful vacations. I don’t have to worry about scheduling a week or two or more to go overseas.
That gives me a chance to really interact with different cultures on a frequent basis, like once or twice a year. It helps you think a little differently when you’re in environments like Europe, Asia or wherever people deal with other cultures all the time. I like the nuances. If you’re doing business in France, you constantly think about how the French interpret things. A Spaniard in Italy has to constantly reframe his or her thought from the Italian perspective, which is different.
I think it helps in Client work, as you can more easily put yourself in their shoes, understand their perspective and connect to others. You learn how to collaborate differently and think more clearly, which transfers into navigating different personalities, divisions and departments within the Client. The accounting department acts a little differently than the operations department, which acts differently than the marketing department.
When you go to the grocery store abroad, there are different cultures in the store every day. It’s different, and I think quite rewarding. Here, you might only really deal with that fluency in your work life.
4. What advice would you give to someone thinking about joining 8020?
First, I would stress that you have to be able to work autonomously very well. I’ve had a few projects where I’ve worked with another Consultant, or I might have had someone over my shoulder. But more often than not, people expect you to know your area, figure things out and be the one to pull the trigger.
Second, try to constantly improve yourself. Last year I learned Go language, which is Google’s programming language. I wrote some simple software on the side to learn that, but I’m constantly driving myself to learn new technology. I also have a free developer license to Salesforce and work on that on the side as well.
Third, be deliberate about putting yourself in the shoes of another person to think like them, and then push beyond meeting basic expectations. Often you will work autonomously, so your Client won’t be right there next to you. (That’s obvious in remote deployments, but in an office, they might give you a cube or office away from everyone else. For a lot of engagements, I’ve been put into a conference room by myself.) Learn how to work by yourself, but also learn how to consider what your Client is thinking about so you can engage with them and surpass their expectations.
One of the great things about consulting is being able to work across industries. For example, I spent 15 years working in entertainment earlier in my career, and over that time, I learned how to do entertainment finance very well. But if I were to try to switch industries then, there would be pushback.
“You can’t work there because all you know is entertainment.”
But as a Consultant, you find your finance skills are applicable anywhere.
At the end of the day, the questions are usually along the lines of:
- How much will the widget cost?
- How much are we going to pay for the widget?
- What are the costs of labor?
- What do you expect the widget to return, and how?
- How are we going to track and report on that?
- What can we systematize?
It’s just a different widget. In entertainment, insurance, aerospace—the finance questions are the same, but the widgets they’re offering are different. They also want to track their investment. That could mean you have to use three systems to track if the returns are as expected.
As Consultants, it’s not like we’re trying to jump from being film producers to building rockets. Those are different skillsets. In our case, the skillset is finance and its applicable across projects. You have to figure out how to apply your skillset to the particular widget, the particular industry and the particular stakeholders. As you learn that, you’ll learn to answer the key question of every prospective Client: “How are you going to apply your skillset to my problem?” The answer gets easier as you have more experience to pull from, and ideally, you’ve learned how to communicate more clearly.
5. What do you do to stay sharp as a Consultant?
I try to improve myself and stay sharp on technology and development. I try to learn and sharpen those skills, so I don’t end up on a Client engagement with a tool I haven’t used for three years and feel rusty. Having awareness and hands-on knowledge of a lot of software helps when you get to the problem-solving stage. You can suggest specific tools and functionality because they make more sense than others. Keeping sharp in that way helps me make those recommendations and figure out how to make projects more enjoyable versus making them albatrosses.
I like to be comfortable with getting in the weeds as well. Clients hire us so they don’t have to get into the weeds. They want you to clean up those weeds and start planting nicer grass, so they can take over when you’re finished.
If you’re not up to snuff on the tools that you can bring to bear, or if you can’t discuss how you can use them, it creates questions. You’ll spend a lot more time with a Client who can’t fully trust you, who might always check if you know what’s going on or if you’re on the ball.
The best compliment I’ve gotten is from the CFO of that digital music Client. He said, “You know, Devon, I don’t need to ask you when it’ll be done. It’s done when it’s done.”
People who don’t know that you can work in the weeds will constantly ask you what’s going on. If they know you understand what the weeds are like, and that you’re going to complete the work as fast as possible, they don’t need to ask you.
“It’s done when it’s done.” That’s the best position to be in.
6. Is there anyone you’d like to thank or acknowledge?
I would like to thank both Travis and David, who let me be. In other words, they understand that I can figure things out on my own. They also like to give me interesting challenges. I usually get dropped into projects that are atypical for an 8020 Consultant. I work on a lot of tech development and process projects – the project I’m on right now is an SQL project.
I appreciate that David and Travis have been able to lay things open for me to craft what needs to be crafted.
7. What are you most excited about right now?
I’m always excited about traveling. We took vacation the late part of last year and early this year. And we’re going to travel this late fall into early winter. Again, going across the pond. That’s what most excites me because I really enjoy experiencing the different cultures there.
I read an article about someone who talked with CEOs, CFOs and other executives in their last days. One of the things he gleaned was they always referenced things they missed. They never talked about a spreadsheet or presentation they worked on. They talked about experiences that they missed.
So it’s important not to miss out on life. Because those are the things you can’t get back.
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More About Devon
As a finance executive with 20+ years of experience in finance and solid experience in partnering with departments and divisions, Devon has used financial analysis/modeling, negotiation, communication, and software development skills to help companies and divisions achieve various business goals. Prior to joining 8020 Consulting, Devon was Executive Director of Warner Home Entertainment’s Acquisitions group overseeing title acquisitions and providing financial support for film productions. Devon has also held high profile positions at Disney and CUNA Mutual Group in a finance and software development capacity. He has an MBA in Finance and International Business from UW-Madison and a B.S. in Finance and Accounting from UNC-Greensboro.