88: Sajjanna Ramesh

CFO – Kaspersky Lab Africa

Sajjanna Ramesh, finance director at Kaspersky Lab Africa, took a non-conventional route to CFO, and she’s thankful she did. Working from inside one of the top cybersecurity firms in the world, she has an impeccable view of the risks that businesses are exposed to in an increasingly virtual world.

CIARAN RYAN: This is CFO talks, I’m Ciaran Ryan. And what a pleasure it is to be able to welcome today Sajjanna Ramesh, who is finance director at Kaspersky lab Africa. Now that’s a Russian cyber security fund. She’s also succeeded in obtaining the CFO (SA) designation from the South African Institute of business accountants. We’re going to get into that and the reasoning behind that in a minute. But apart from that, she has an MBA from Regenesis business school and is currently studying for a PhD in advanced computing from Manchester, metropolitan university. She was nominated in three categories for the 2020 CFO awards.

So, who better to tell us about the future of the CFO and the challenges they face than Sajjanna. We’re also joined by Nicholas van Wyk, who is the CEO of the South African Institute of business accountants. So, let me welcome you both Sajjanna and Nicholas.

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Thank you, Ciaran.

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Thanks Ciaran.

Cybersecurity in the current climate

CIARAN RYAN: Sajjanna, you work for a cybersecurity firm, Kaspersky lab Africa, that’s a very interesting field to be in at the moment. And your PhD is around this very same topic. So perhaps kick off and tell us why this subject is of such importance to finance executives and CFOs.

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Okay, so I think the first question as modern CFOs, we need to ask ourselves is, are cyber security risks important enough to be classified as business risks. I mean, how many of us can confidently say that we’re covered against all cyber security risks and how many of us can even say that the budgets that are allocated for cyber security risks are adequate. So ,we just need to understand and play a full role in managing cyber risks and you know, I see recently we seem to be very content to leave it to a focused group of professionals, who have strong technical ability, but they don’t really have the financial awareness for evaluating the potential consequences of a security breach.

So as CFOs, we cannot just leave that very important part of business to IT professionals alone. We’re not required to be experts, but we also need to be sufficiently competent in this area to assess and manage the level of risk and it really all comes down to risks. And as modern CFOs risk is usually in our top five priorities.

So this also needs to be classified as a risk area.

CIARAN RYAN: Okay, I see that Kaspersky products took part in 84 industry tests. And I get this from your website, and you came first in 64 of those 84 tests. I mean, that’s some pretty heavyweight accomplishments right there. I can only deduce from that, that not all cybersecurity solutions are the same. Is it, is that correct?

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Yes and this is actually my brag question because I can brag a little bit. As a global brand at the company is not afraid of putting its money where its mouth is and we’re not afraid of offering our solutions to independent testers because this is what it was.

There’s no secret in our solutions and we’re very transparent. We have transparency centers all over the world. This is why we are leading in our industry at the moment, we are leading brand at the moment. So yes, to answer the question about our solutions, we have solutions for the home entrepreneur in the transport industry, to the airline conglomerate and even Interpol because globally, we are working with Interpol.

So our business model targets pretty much every person who has a device, be it, a computer, a tablet, a mobile, we even have solutions for kids, Smart TVs. I mean, the list is endless and we can basically give you a solution for protection on just about anything.

CIARAN RYAN: Okay. I mean, this is a very crowded market that you’re in. There are a lot of cybersecurity products out there, so I guess, brand and winning these tests or coming first in these tests that we’ve just described is very important. So give us a sense of Kaspersky and what is happening. One of the things that we’re reading about because of the lockdown, there’s a lot of cyber attacks. Is that happening? And is that, is the company growing.

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Yes, it is. And then there’s another question where I’ll talk about, the whole work from home scenario. So. Yes, we’ve seen, I mean, I don’t want to talk about specific companies, but in South Africa alone, there’s been some massive enterprises with data breaches in the last six months and they obviously were not properly protected. So yes, we are seeing an increase in cyber-attacks because we’ve moved from the conventional come to work every day to work from home.

CIARAN RYAN: Okay and did you finish answering that question?

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Yes, yes I did.

CIARAN RYAN: Did you get your brag quotes out sufficiently?

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Yes, I did.

CIARAN RYAN: Okay, good. Let’s move on to something else. Now you seem to have taken a fairly unconventional route to the position of CFO. You’re not a CA and I want to find out why, but you do have an MBA from Regenesis business school and you qualified for the CFO (SA) designation from the South African Institute of Business Accountants, and you’re doing a PhD. So am I correct in assuming that you feel the skillset for the modern CFO goes way beyond the accounting and tax realm?

I’ve always believed in being diverse in knowledge and skill

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Okay so for me, I’ve always believed in being diverse in knowledge and skill, and I’m not a specialist in finance only. I feel like I’m more of a specialist in business. I’m actually grooming myself to become a CEO and I believe that my very strong finance background will be a sound factor in succeeding as a CEO one day. So besides having invested in the CFO designation, I’ve also done a lot of work with CIMA and I’m going to qualify as a CGMA, but this is just to add a little bit of credibility to my finance, sort of experience.

In terms of the accounting and tax realm. Absolutely, we are not just required to be bean counters anymore. We’re experiencing an unprecedented rate in business evolution, and we are seeing that CFOs are becoming more visible as they’re being recruited to take the place of the CEO. So, we just need to get to a…we need to evolve, to adopt a more, left brain, right brain balance when we need to embrace a more creative problem solving and intelligent risk-taking attitude when it’s required. CFOs, I think we also need to have a new investment mindset instead of just being focused on the bottom line and analyzing each investment. We need to also have a broader perspective on investing in people, in training, in technologies. These are all things that deliver against long-term corporate goals and if you were a CA I don’t think you’re really involved in strategy and planning and operations management and reducing costs and those kinds of things.

So, this is the reason why I, chose to become a CFO (SA) instead of going through, you know, the normal CA route.

CIARAN RYAN: Okay. Nicholaas, I’d like to get some opinion from you on that, because this is something that the South African Institute of Business Accountants has applied for and obtained the designation and it’s just quite interesting. What Sajjanna has been talking about, she, she made a conscious decision to take this route of going the CFO (SA) route rather than the CA maybe explain why this is in your opinion, a good decision.

Companies want more than just accountants

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: So, I’ve been involved in the accounting profession now for the last 20 years and a few years ago, let’s say about five, four years ago. We started to expand into the finance executive market as an organization, as SAIBA. We did some research and I started to pick up and interview a lot of people with Sajjanna’s type of a career route. I think the first person I met, like this was from Phillips, the international electronics company when the CFO to my surprise was an attorney with an MBA. And then with some finance, qualifications behind him. I found a similar person at ISCOR where that person also didn’t come from a typical accounting background, and become the CFO. So that led to more interviews and discussions and research.

And I discovered a whole world of people and especially, I think with the fourth industrial revolution and the changes in technology and the type of skill sets companies want. They want more than just accountants. There is a research paper called moving from CA to CFO, and it sets out about 34 competencies that the modern CFO should present and that comes from like Sajjanna’s career pathway from an MBA doing the PhD now studying towards CIMA. So, you can see all these add on qualifications that people now, I think I’ve heard that term hyper learning from one of our previous interviewees and I think that describes it.

So, we decided that maybe it’s time for a designation to represent what the market is already doing. And that’s when we registered the designation CFO (SA) with SAQA at the NQF 9 level, which is the highest rated professional designation in the country underpinned by a BComm qualification, an MBA, eight to 10 years of experience, and then reflecting the skill sets as we now hearing from Sajjanna.

So, she’s exactly the type of candidate we’re looking for and I think the market has responded really well. We have started to expand internationally where members of international association of finance executives. There’s quite a number of, of these finance clubs and once you start expanding internationally, you see that the corporates are looking for people that are general specialists.

They know a lot about a lot of things, it is not just finance and that obviously makes the financial figure so much more meaningful.

CIARAN RYAN: Right. I, I think what was also interesting for me, Sajjanna mentioned that her goal is actually to become the CEO. In other words, she’s going for the gold medal, not a silver medal. I don’t know if that is the correct way to, to explain it Sajjanna, but I think based on what you’ve been telling us, and also your academic path, you seem to be developing the kind of skillsets that you require to occupy you know, the CEO role. So, is that the case? You’re just, you’re going through life and you’re accumulating these, skills, and the CFO (SA) designation being part of that whole journey towards the CEO position.

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Yes, absolutely. I just, you know, it’s not that it’s not important, to be specialized in finance, in accounting and tax and auditing and stuff like that, but these days we find that those kinds of skills or that kind of work that we need in big companies can always be outsourced to one of the big five auditing firms or whatever. So yes, it is very important, but it just depends on where you going in your life and for me, I don’t think I’m an accounting specialist. I’m more of a, you know, more in terms of a business kind of trajectory.

CIARAN RYAN: Right and I mean, you are the CFO at the moment for Kaspersky labs. So, I guess just tell us a little bit about that and what kind of role you occupy there. Are you, the team that you’re managing, are you expected to be the sort of encyclopedia of knowledge? You’ve got to know everything that’s going on in the market. You supposed to provide business intelligence based on sort of deep dive analysis of the figures. What is expected of you as a CFO?

SAJJANNA RAMESH: That’s absolutely everything that you said and more so, it boils down to not just the finance, but we need to keep abreast of what’s going on in the market, what our partners are doing. You know, what our customers are doing and more importantly, we’ve got quite a big, massive specialized team, so it’s also about managing them. There’s a whole lot of HR elements that’s expected as well. I mean, yesterday was a whole day of HR, so it’s, it’s very diverse in terms of what I do at Kaspersky as a CFO.

CIARAN RYAN: All right now, just going back to the CFO (SA) designation, have you derived benefit from that? And maybe you can talk about that. What does it give you from a professional point of view?

The CFO (SA) designation brings together the elements of finance as well as business

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Absolutely. So, it gives me, I think it gives me the recognition I’m missing from, from not being a CA, it sort of takes all my finance experience and you know, solidifies it if you could say, it adds some credentials to it.

It brings together the elements of finance as well as business. This is what attracted me to the CFO designation and then I also feel like having access to an, all of these international, societies, it’s important for me because also another one of my long-term goals is to get some international work experience.

So I know, going out into an international job market the CFO designation is actually going to help me and then there’s obviously the, the normal benefits you derive from things like CPDs and stuff. So yes, ever since I qualified it’s been just a phenomenal.

CIARAN RYAN: Right I mean you mentioned the international mobility point, this was a thing that is I think be promoted quite heavily, for example to the CAs. And also the fact, you know, that we were all talking a common accounting language here. You know IFRS, for example, no matter where you go in the world, you’re going to encounter that standard pretty much unless you’re in the United States.

So, and what struck me in the last week or so was the number of applicants, professionals wanting to immigrate. Or at least to work abroad and you know, whether they come back or not, I don’t know and I guess this is fairly alarming in one way. It’s also understandable in another way that people do want to acquire these international skills and work for large organizations overseas. But you mentioned that specifically, there’s a point, is that a sort of a career advancement move for you? Or are you sort of fairly unhappy with the way things are going in South Africa?

SAJJANNA RAMESH: I would say, it’s more of a career advancement. It’s more for exposure and also I have two little kids now, but at some point, they’re going to say to me, well, mum, we need, we want to go to London university or somewhere in the US. I’m one of those Indian mothers, I don’t think I’ll be able to say, Yes son, please go and I’ll not follow you. So it’s in my plan, I think not just to be close to my kids, but also for the, for the exposure that I will, I will get.

CIARAN RYAN: Right. Okay and the CFO (SA) designation of course, is going to help with that because it does connect you with, with executives of a similar rank elsewhere in the world.

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Absolutely.

CIARAN RYAN: All right. Okay. Can we talk for a minute then about your career path, you know, where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? What sort of got you into the accounting space? You know, did you just have this love of passion for numbers or what was it?

SAJJANNA RAMESH: So I’m actually formally from Durban, the North coast and I started working straight after matric. I didn’t have the resources to further my education at that time. So, you know, being a straight A student out of matric, I was able to get like, you could call it an internship. And I think because I went into that field just after matric, it just sort of stuck with me and I enjoyed it. So yes, that’s basically where I’ve come from and I just stuck with it over the years, but I did sort of expose myself, you know, along the way to things like operations to technology and I started to enjoy more than just, you know, being a finance person. I think that’s what piqued my interest and that’s how I got into being more of a business person than a finance person.

A lot of people get into accounting because they find it is the science of good order.

CIARAN RYAN: You know, it has been mentioned that a lot of people get into accounting because they find it is the science of good order. You know, that you can actually look at a chaotic situation in a business and you can bring some order to that. Was that ever a part of your reasoning in becoming an accountant or pursuing that as a study?

SAJJANNA RAMESH: I didn’t really want to become an accountant. I think I was just pushed into it at first and then I started to enjoy it. But yes, you’re quite right it is a science of order and I can understand now why they call it that.

CIARAN RYAN: You didn’t ever think of becoming a doctor for example.

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Not at all, I don’t think I have the stomach to be a doctor.

CIARAN RYAN: All right. Okay. So I don’t think you’ve quite finished on your career path. So now you’re based in the Midrand area for people outside of South Africa. That’s between Joburg and Pretoria, tell us how you got there.

SAJJANNA RAMESH: So, I’m just going to tell you a little bit about my career journey. So after, you know, being thrust into a bookkeeping role in Durban, I moved to a logistics company and, you know, back then all you needed to be a financial accountant was a bookkeeping certificate in at least four years of work experience, which I had. Then after seven years of being in Durban and, you know, doing the same kind of work, I decided okay, let me just see where I can go from here. So I accepted a job at a pharmaceutical company as a finance and ops manager and, you know, as I said, this is where my interest in technology peaked because I wasn’t just analyzing numbers. I was learning how to streamline operations increase efficiencies, reduce costs. I enjoyed this more than just analyzing numbers. I was there for a few years and then I moved to a media company as a financial controller and I was also involved in the implementation and setup of a finance shared services center again, streamlining efficiencies and reducing costs.

Then I had the amazing opportunity to work for a listed company as a finance business consultant and from there, I moved to Kaspersky as a head of finance and I’ve been with Kaspersky now for the last seven years. I absolutely enjoy working for the company.

CIARAN RYAN: Right. Okay. Just pivoting from that. What are the big challenges you see for business as we head into 2021? I mean, this, this COVID thing has been catastrophic for the economy. Maybe not for your business, it might’ve even been beneficial for your business, but what do you see as the challenges.

SAJJANNA RAMESH: So, there’s two things, right? So, the first thing I can see is, companies are not staying innovative like because of the pandemic and the current economic situation, a lot of companies have become risk averse. They’re not thinking that they’re risk averse, but technology is still changing every day. And as it continues to change, businesses that are not taking risks in terms of investments in technology and you know, change and stuff like that, they’re not adapting. In order to be successful in this day and age, especially where we have 4IR, digital transformation, we need to be innovative. So I just feel like the pandemic has sort of slowed down innovation.

Then the other thing I think, which we are yet to see, and this is just my opinion is the move to a global workforce. I see this as a problem for us in Africa, because I think we were just pushed into it because of the pandemic. We’re not seeing a great performance in the workforce at the moment and this might be because of work from home. You know, last week I heard someone say work from home is great we just prioritize and do the things we need to do for the day.

So, I’m not entirely sure that Africa is ready for work from home entirely and we might see a further decline in productivity in the upcoming year. There’s just something about African culture about trust, accountability, and loyalty that comes from a face-to-face negotiation, rather than doing something virtually. So, I just, I feel like we might see some issues in terms of work from home coming through in the next year.

CIARAN RYAN: It’s interesting that you say that, I was talking to a business consultant in Mexico a few days ago, and one of the observations he made to me was that people have got lazier now during the lockdown he was talking about and I struggled too, because I feel I’ve been more productive during this lockdown. I don’t know how you feel about it, but I guess, you know, when you’re not actually turning up in an office and clocking in and out, you know, whatever you think about that, there are absolutely benefits to that, you know, that you show up and that you are visible. What’s your feeling about that? And, well, what is the state of work at the moment in South Africa?

SAJJANNA RAMESH: I think a lot of people are still working from home you know, I think it’s just the service providers that have gone back and, and not entirely. So, I just, for me, I feel like work from home is great because it saves time in the dreadful traffic.

There are some other benefits to it as well, but I just feel like, myself personally, I’m more productive if I’m at the office. I mean, you know, maybe it’s a personal thing, but we are seeing performance issues now because and I’m ready to bet my bottom dollar that it’s because of work from home.

CIARAN RYAN: Right and of course that is a challenge in itself because you’ve got to remotely manage teams where you can’t really be sure that they’re doing the work that they’re supposed to be doing. I think there’s there’s benefits, but I think there’s a downside to this as well. Would you agree?

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Absolutely, definitely a downside.

CIARAN RYAN: Yeah, okay, we’re sort of winding down here, but I’ve got a couple of quick questions if I can. Are you, are you optimistic for the future? I mean, I think you’ve been realistic. I wouldn’t say you’ve been pessimistic, but there’s some realism in what you’ve been saying, but what is your general state of optimism?

SAJJANNA RAMESH: I’m definitely very optimistic. I feel like despite the current economic climate and the corruption, all of that, that we’re dealing with. There’s still business opportunities out there and as South Africans, we are resilient, and we will find them. And I think because we moving towards greater digital transformation, technology also makes me very excited and inspired. So definitely that’s where my optimism for the future is coming.

CIARAN RYAN: Right and Nicholas, was there anything you wanted to add to that on the state of work today with the remote working, Nicholas, if you’re still there.

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Yes the remote working has been challenging, but I think it’s also facilitating a faster integration with technology and a relook at qualifications and experience requirements for particular jobs and functions. I recently attended the conference and one of the medium-sized audit firm actually mentioned that they they’re not even looking at just Bcom graduates anymore. They’re looking for people with particular skill sets, critical thinking, emotional intelligence and a willingness to learn. They’re also not trusting the universities anymore to deliver the competent candidates there is kind of a big problem, that employers are trying to take that over now. So you can get in-house learning, so it’s an exciting time. I think that’s one of the reasons we started the designation to be more responsive to the real world work, demands and experiences.

CIARAN RYAN: Sajjanna just that comment there that Nicholas made about critical thinking, it’s one of the things that has come out repeatedly in the accounting profession. You’ve gotta be more skeptical, we’re really talking about the, the audit side of things here, but this of course goes for much broader in virtually any position of seniority that you’re in. You’ve got to develop these critical skills and challenge. I mean I was talking to somebody in the investment industry, you know, if you’re proposing to invest money, in a particular project, you’ve got to be able to defend that while people are just punching holes all over the thing. Is this an important part of your role? In other words, people come to you with, you know, I need money or I need this and you’ve got to be able to just, you know, knock holes in that thing.

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Yes, before we make any decision on where to invest, we need to make sure that it’s the right investment, because I mean, there’s a lot of play in terms of who you give, who will you give the budgets to? The marketing manager might say, but we need to do this. But then, how much return on investment are we going to get from that? So, we always need to like, be one step ahead of people who are asking for money, because it’s not always the right financial decision to make.

CIARAN RYAN: Right and of course, one of the great skills that our CFO has to develop is the ability to say no and still keep friends.

SAJJANNA RAMESH: It’s difficult!

CIARAN RYAN: You’re the one that spoils every party I’m sure. Okay and here’s a, here’s a final question for you. The obligatory question, what books would you recommend? Now they don’t have to be technical books they can be fun.

SAJJANNA RAMESH: So there’s one book that really stands out to me and I actually read it every two years and I know it sounds strange, but I feel as though every time I read this book, it gives a new meaning to where I’m going and what I’m doing. The book is called, Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

CIARAN RYAN: Oh, that’s been very recommended by people on this program, so, yes. Okay and what do you like about that? What, what’s the thing that you really get out of that?

SAJJANNA RAMESH: So, it’s, it’s about changing. So, every time I read it, it’s about, it gives you a different mindset in terms of how you think about things. You know, how to strategize, you know, how to be more of a leader and less of a manager. So those are like some of the things that come out. So, I really, really, I mean, it’s battered because, you know, it’s been through so many years but, yes, it really is my favorite book.

CIARAN RYAN: Your favorite book. Okay and what do you do for fun?

SAJJANNA RAMESH: So for fun, if I’m not sitting in front of a computer researching these days, so I like the outdoors. I like to go out with the kids and just run around, play some games. I think that’s it, time with the family is very important, right.

CIARAN RYAN: Especially at these times. Sajjanna thank you so much for coming on and talking to us and Nicholas, thank you as well. I found that a fascinating discussion, very different, very unusual for us because we are generally talking to people who come in entirely different routes. Sajjanna has in a way broken the mold because the academic route she’s taken and her career path is quite different to the usual. So, I want to thank you very much, and I’m really wish you the very best, you know, as we sort of head into the end of 2020 and into 2021.

SAJJANNA RAMESH: Thank you so much for having me, Ciaran.

CIARAN RYAN: You’re most welcome and thank you Nicholas for coming on as well.

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Thank you so much Sajjanna, thank you, Ciaran. Nice speaking to you.

CIARAN RYAN: And both of you have a great day, take care. Bye-bye.

Ciaran is a seasoned journalist and podcast host. He has a back-ground in finance and mining, having pre-viously headed up a gold mining operation in Ghana.
In this podcast he interviews various CFOs, getting more detail on the role of the CFO and their daily challenges and solutions.

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