Gary Turner looks back after 12 years at Xeroby
Shortly after announcing his intention to step down as Xero’s UK country manager, Gary Turner met with AccountingWEB to look back over a mould-breaking career in accountancy software.
Gary Turner is the kind of software executive who likes to look over computer books and magazines to keep up with the latest thinking. That persistent curiosity about the business he works in adds an extra dimension when he talks about how things have changed over the course of his career.
Turner has seen and heard a lot of software history first-hand, first as a salesman and later managing director at Pegasus Software, then as a marketing executive with Microsoft. But he made his biggest mark during the past 12 years as the managing director of Xero UK. When he joined the UK subsidiary in 2009, it had three employees and a turnover of £50,000. Under his watch, the annual income in this company swelled £110m from around 750,000 customers. With those stats on his CV, Turner has been acknowledged as the great populariser of cloud accounting in the UK - the business software equivalent of Brian Cox, perhaps.
Now preparing to hand over the reins to a successor, Turner quipped about being an industry fixture whose time had come to move on, but was still happy to pass on some of the lessons he picked up during his great accounting software adventure.
Looking back, what are the most important things you’ve learned in your 30+ years in the tech industry?
What I’ve learned is universal. It applies to anything: do not get too comfortable and cosy where you are. Remember bookshops? You could walk in and buy books and read them. I always go to the computing section, where there would be volumes on SQL Server, ecommerce or whatever the next revolution was going to be. And those titles were often remaindered after six months.
Technology is constantly changing and innovating, as we've seen with books written about technology - which are out of date before they're six months old. This has always been the case, but since tech is so prevalent today, this now applies to everyone in business. The minute you get complacent is the point where you’ve lost the thread
How have customer attitudes changed since your days with Pegasus?
In the late 1980s and early 90s, technology was not very approachable. It was expensive and complicated to set up and run and you had to worry about the server app you were running and things like back-ups. That limited its accessibility. Tech has become more and accessible in the last 15 years - it’s no longer the cryptic, mysterious dark art it used to be and that’s reflected in a much larger audience.
A startup web designer can now have quite sophisticated tech to run their tiny little business. The scale of the customer base we’ve built, with hundreds of thousands of customers in one country and millions globally, wouldn’t have been possible 20-30 years ago. You wouldn't see primetime TV commercials for accounting software back then. Business software has become domesticated.
Where do you stand on the issue of technology dependence - for example with accountants and bookkeepers who learnt their trade with Xero, but don’t really grasp the underlying principles?
There’s no replacement for practitioners to learn accounting through professional training and education. They clearly need to learn skills and qualifications properly. But removing the complexity of accounting from a business user is not a bad thing. I used to occasionally have to change the spark plugs and distributor cap on my car. Now I have no idea how my car works. I’m nowhere near being able to service it.
If I'm a landscape gardener, do I need to understand double-entry bookkeeping? We are happy to draw a veil over that unnecessary complexity from a business point of view to let them make business decisions.
I’m also encouraged that more business owners and managers are devoting time to selecting apps. Thirty years ago, the accounts department had software that was very functional for invoices, statements or maybe getting a payroll or P&L out. Software has broadened beyond those needs to address personal productivity, email, CRM and the needs of the service desk or sales team as well as finance and strategy.
What’s really interesting now is this evolution of discrete point solutions almost down to the process level. I think we’re getting business owners to think about how to optimise their businesses - and that must be a good thing.
You have been very eloquent in the past about the people-first approach to AI, where it acts as a supplement to human activity rather than a replacement. But that debate has subsided during the past year or two. Are we in Gartner’s “trough of disillusionment” with accounting AI or do you see a realistic path to the “slope of enlightenment” and “plateau of productivity” beyond?
I think Gartner might need to remodel their thinking on that. How about the “Gully of bewilderment”?
There’s a lot of punditry about AI and AI-washing [where] developers talk of having an AI app instead of code based on an if/then statement. I’m a bit cynical there - it’s a massive misconception. The people talking about AI don’t know what they're talking about and the people who know aren’t talking - they’re quietly getting on with it.
We’re not in an AI winter, but we need to rethink it. There’s still a big Hollywood conception that it's robots sitting at our desks. I also think AI is already out there in the wild in ways that are invisible to most humans.
I remember being in a debate at Chartered Accountants Hall where they talked about bringing AI into your business as though it were something in a box that you elected to buy and turn the key. But it’s already there in apps you’re using and you don’t know it's there.
What’s happening in parallel, in opposition to the automation of work, is a huge awakening and realisation of the importance of people in the workplace. As much as the world might be moving down the automation path, there’s an equal and more compelling argument about humanising the world of work.
What qualities do you think you’ve implanted within the Xero culture?
As far as Xero is concerned, when I reflect on our culture and what we’ve built, I think we have championed humility and being genuine. What you see is what you get. They’re important characteristics of our brand.
In recent years [that’s extended to] inclusivity and diversity. I was reading an [industry trade magazine] Computing from the late 1980s over the weekend. Computing was one of the biggest UK publications and was reflective of that time. Every single photo showed a white male. There were no women. The only female depictions were in adverts. That seems abhorrent from today’s standards.
The world in general and technology have become much more inclusive and that’s an important part of what we’ve strived to achieve in our culture. I hope that’s a positive legacy.
I also think it’s important to be human - to have a laugh and be genuine. I over-rely on my personal preference for humour and levity. But if you create an environment where you can introduce levity and also have fun, that's worthwhile… I hope people will miss my jokes and totally inane humour.
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