Data assurance at PwC

Finbarr Bermingham learns about a fascinating area of PwC's technology offering with great opportunities for graduates
Technology at a consultancy

The technology revolution that's swept through business over the past 30 years continues apace. Even the smallest organisations will these days utilise technology in some shape or form while in large corporations the coming of massive, complex systems has heralded a new era of efficiency and, in turn, profitability. But with opportunity comes risk, and if a company isn't aware of the potential pitfalls of new technology, disaster could be close at hand. PwC's technology assurance practice is dedicated to helping its clients understand and manage the risks they face in areas such as business systems, software migration, the cyber environment, and data.

Only a few decades ago, a megabyte of data was considered to be quite big. Nowadays, though, large corporates are dealing in terabytes (one million megabytes), upon terabytes. Google creates petabytes (1,000 terabytes) of data every day! Managing data effectively and securely is one of the most important challenges faced by big businesses today so data assurance is one of the most integral and exciting components of the technology assurance services PwC offers to its clients. We spoke to two members of the data assurance team - one recent graduate and one senior manager - to find out more about this part of the business and how you can get involved.


Data assurance graduate trainee

Can you outline your career path so far and why you chose PwC?

I studied mathematics at the University of Birmingham and graduated in 2011. In my third year, I found myself torn between a career in IT and one in the financial sector, at which stage I came across technology assurance at PwC, which merges both of the areas I was interested in. I've been here for over six months now, and I'm enjoying every minute.

You don't come from a technological background - how has that impacted your role at PwC?

My degree has actually helped me adapt to data assurance very well. While at university I developed an analytical, structured approach and a methodical way of thinking, which is useful in this field since we're always looking to find the best solutions for our clients. To work in technology assurance, you don't need a degree in IT, but you definitely need to have a real interest in technology and how it impacts business. Nobody's expected to be a programmer when they come to an interview here. The training starts at the beginning and it's the same for every graduate.

What kind of training have you been given?

After a general induction to PwC, we went to college for a few weeks to undertake the accounts, tax and assurance modules of the ACA (Association of Chartered Accountants) certificate to make sure we had an understanding of the basics, when doing data assurance work to assist the audit teams. Afterward, I was trained in how to use Sequential Query Language (SQL) server, which is a type of data storage and extraction software we use here, and Audit Command Language (ACL), which is an analytical tool. Most of the technology training has been on the job, shadowing senior colleagues. It's been comprehensive and a steep learning curve: sooner than you know, you'll be getting your teeth into some real project work, writing queries and helping our clients.

What kind of work have you done to date?

I recently worked on a team providing data analysis to a large investment bank. We were commissioned by a PwC audit team to analyse all of the bank's manual transactions. I helped to write a program that was able to analyse around 20 million manual transactions made over a short period of time, and look for anomalies that hold potential risk for the bank: for example, weekend transactions, or those posted after closing hours. Because our clients organise their data in different ways, we have to write a new piece of script for each one: it's not a case of "one size fits all". After analysing the data, we created a report for the audit team, who used it to deliver the audit to the client.

As well as our audit team and our 30 strong data assurance team, I liaised with staff at the bank to discuss discrepancies and get confirmation on some data fields. The finance team at the bank helped me to understand the transactions, and senior IT staff there assisted with the extraction of the data from the bank's systems. The project lasted two weeks - which is one of the longest of its kind I've worked on.

I also recently worked on a project with a professional society that had just implemented new IT systems, enabling them to capture their applications online and calculate the subsequent fees generated. PwC's role was to ensure the quality of the data and accuracy of the calculation. We built a system which mirrored that of the society's and ran all of their data through our copy of it. We could then compare the fees our system calculated with those quoted on theirs and investigate any inconsistencies with the client. My role within the team was to write the fee calculation engine and handle the communications.

A lot of my work is technical but the software we use is very user friendly: in writing the code, you just enter a series of English language commands. It can be picked up fairly quickly and there are plenty of experienced people on hand to assist if I have any queries.

What do you enjoy most about your job and what is the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge is definitely managing my time. Data assurance is mostly project-based and some of these projects are quite short. I'm often working on a number of them simultaneously, which took some getting used to, but the variety is good.

I was attracted to PwC by its 'one firm' approach in which everyone works together to offer the best for our clients, which is one of my favourite things about working here. Whoever has the required skills will work on a particular job and that keeps the work varied and exciting. I also love the diversity of the people here - there are lots of very talented and experienced team members. Those around me have helped me a lot in my development.

What advice do you have for someone not from a technological background considering a career in technology assurance?

Don't get put off by the fact that you don't have a technological background. If you're interested in the area, speak to our recruitment team. Our work is a really great mix of business and technology. We're providing real solutions, with tangible results. It's a growing area and a very exciting place to be and you'll be provided with all of the training you need.


National Lead for Data Governance and Quality

Can you outline your career path so far?

I joined a previous incarnation of PwC as a trainee accountant 23 years ago, having studied history at university. Having qualified as an accountant, I moved into technology assurance. I ran a training department in the 1990s and towards the end of that decade joined the data team, which I've been in for over 12 years.

What is data assurance and where does it fit in to PwC's business?

Technology assurance is about helping clients manage the risk associated with having a large technological presence. Within that, data assurance makes sure the quality of an organisation's data is excellent. When we say "data", we're talking about the information that organisations rely on to operate their businesses - it can range from information about customers or products to the contents of emails and electronic documents. Our role can involve fixing the process of data creation, fixing the system into which the data is entered (ie building a new system, or assisting a client in doing so), or even remediating the technical content of the data itself.

Having worked in our consulting practice for six years, I can certainly notice similarities between some aspects of the work in data assurance and that of a typical consultancy role. But, whereas a consultant often helps a client diagnose their own problems and works alongside them to establish how they can fix them, we go much further on diagnosis and helping our clients fix the issues. We're heavily involved in the nuts and bolts of the problem and the solution, but there's definitely an advisory element to data assurance as well.

Why is data important to businesses?

The importance of good data can't be overstated. Nowadays in business, decisions are made on the face value of information contained in reports. Many business processes now happen with very little human intervention. They're based solely on the organisation's data, so it needs to be good enough to trust.

With greater, society-wide connectivity, companies have the chance to reach customers more accurately than they've ever done before. How many times have you received marketing information from a company which has no relevance to you? That's because of bad data. Companies today are interacting with their consumers on a level that would have been unheard of even ten years ago. Data can be built up from social media, from email signups, from partnerships with other companies. This data empowers companies: if you know customers better, getting more revenue from each one is easier.

Sometimes I interview graduates who say they've seen my Facebook or LinkedIn profile, which can be a little unnerving. Graduates are used to a world of very rich, immediate data and using this in a way to suit their needs. We're helping businesses make good use of their own data, in a similar way.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing PwC's clients in the data sphere?

Most of our clients operate in spaces in which regulation matters - these organisations have to worry about data quality more than others. In the financial services sector, there's been a whole raft of new regulation in recent years which has meant some of our clients have needed to get to know their data better and to address how they're using it. Right now, for instance, some of our insurance sector clients are reviewing their data because of the incoming Solvency II Directive [an EU-wide piece of legislation that concerns the amount of capital that insurance companies must hold to reduce the risk of insolvency]. An insurance firm must be able to demonstrate that their data is good enough for them to accurately model the insurance risks that they are taking on.

A big problem for many of our clients stems from a lack of communication. Sometimes the people creating the data and the people using the data have little or no interaction. The user, therefore, might think the data is junk, whereas the creator won't even realise what it's being used for. Often, their ways of working are incompatible and as I mentioned before, if that affects the quality of the data, it can be costly. It's important for entire organisations to be engaged in making the data better from the top down.

Why would you encourage students to consider a career in this area of professional services?

Technology is only going to get more complicated and there's going to be great career prospects in knowing how organisations can make better use of their technology and data. I also think it's a fascinating area to work in for those with an interest in technology. Learning how an organisation captures and processes massive volumes of information is very interesting. The emerging technologies in the field, things like cloud computing and big data, are exciting - we can now capture more data in a day than was captured in the whole history of computing up until 1980!

What advice do you have for potential candidates from non-technological backgrounds?

I did a history degree and I've managed to forge a successful career in the field. We're looking for numerate, technology-minded graduates who have the ability to solve problems for our clients, and are able to communicate with management in a way that helps them understand the technical issues at play. You don't have to be mega-technical - you'll be given all the training you need, but you must be interested and willing to learn.