Applied Materials uses automation to change the way financial traders spend their time

Applied Materials uses automation to change the way financial traders spend their time

Applied materials Inc.

is working to automate its financial processes to increase efficiency and free employees for more analytical tasks. This includes using tools like robotic process automation and the cloud to reduce the time employees spend collecting data and increase the time they spend collecting insights from them.

The company, which provides equipment, software and services to chip makers, has kept its financial staff essentially flat in recent years as its business has grown.

Junaid Ahmed, Applied Materials Corporate Vice President of Finance.


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Applied materials

Junaid Ahmed, Applied Materials Corporate Finance Vice President, explains how automation can help retain financial talent and how it will change the way his employees spend their time. This is part two of a new series focusing on how CFOs and other executives digitize their financial operations. Edited extracts follow.

WSJ: What is the reasoning behind your agile finance initiative? Increased automation in the financial function?

Mr. Ahmed: [Between] 2013 and 2018, the company nearly doubled in size. Looking ahead, it became clear that we were going to grow aggressively over the next five years. But we are rather limited by financial resources [given that] we are investing heavily in research and development. This is what formed the basis of the initiative.

WSJ: What do you want to achieve?

Mr. Ahmed: We want greater efficiency. At the core, finance must be an enabling factor of usable information for the company. And if we think about processes, then it’s about automating our processes nonstop.

WSJ: What does this mean for your financial operators?

Mr. Ahmed: We have a very extensive retraining program in place. We have entered into a contract with [a skills platform] create a resume so that the financial organization becomes more competent and uses new technology. So you have to enable people, you have to improve people and then you have to come to this actionable insight.

WSJ: How did your employees respond?

Mr. Ahmed: At the start of the initiative, we spent a lot of time on communication. We had a global launch and went to every regional location and met with employees. And we have explained it [they] really need to think future proof [their] career. We have said that every area of ​​the company will be affected. This has resonated with people and we’ve gotten a lot of consensus and a lot of traction with people wanting to improve their skills.

WSJ: How did you keep people up to speed when transitioning to new programs?

Mr. Ahmed: For every project we implemented, we had a very strong training component, because we knew this would be a barrier that we would have to overcome. You have to get people to spend time in addition to their daily work, learning a new application. We try to sell it value. We spent a lot of time making sure the value was very tangible. If you lose a group of people, you lose a lot of institutional knowledge and that means fewer insights. We want to keep all our people.

WSJ: Will you create new roles and professional profiles?

Mr. Ahmed: My perspective is that there will be changes. There will be new job categories and new roles on the way. For large companies like us, the data was on its way [to finance employees] and they were aggregating it and manipulating it and then bringing it back again. All of this is automated by these robots. They can collect data from any application, combine it with other data and report it, provided there are some associated rules.

WSJ: Moving forward, your employees will likely spend less time collecting data, right?

Mr. Ahmed: Before, they spent 60% of their time, 70% with this data collection and cleaning, and then 20% reported it. Maybe 5% or 10% were really spending time getting insights. Now, what we want to do is turn it all upside down and say that 10% or 15% of the time it is for data collection and most of the time it is [for] analysis and guide to detailed information.

WSJ: What exactly will people spend the most time on?

Mr. Ahmed: What the people in finance have to do is provide judgments, provide insights. There will be less back office because everything is automated. So we have to prepare for that time when we finance people [spend] more time with business partners, even with junior analysts. It’s easy to report someone. The key value is “can you answer why certain things happened?” And you can. You have the basic financial skills and digital skills to help you get the right answer. But then you also need communication and leadership skills.

WSJ: Does that mean you will ban Excel from your financial organization?

Mr. Ahmed: Excel will always be there. But what [we] they have established is an advanced portfolio of new applications. We are moving data into the data lake and we have this new portfolio on top. We’re getting a much more automated workflow. All of these applications are built for a particular domain and manage certain types of workflows.

WSJ: How much of a role does having data in real time play?

Mr. Ahmed: You need to have timely analysis and reporting to enable the most optimal decision [a] moment in time. So we want faster data information and other reporting speeds. We want greater real-time visibility into business performance.

WSJ: Applied Materials has a total of 27,000 employees, but only about 600 in the financial sector. Would more people help?

Mr. Ahmed: We hired thousands of people during the pandemic. In finance, our employee growth is flat. If you want to get valuable information for the business, you need more bandwidth. He is not alone [about] adding more people with the same skill set. If we hired 100 more people, we couldn’t do it.

Write to Nina Trentmann at Nina.Trentmann@wsj.com

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