CFO Q&A: Why Today’s Finance Chiefs are Data Interpreters

Adaptive Insights CFO Jim Johnson

Last month, we welcomed a new CFO, Jim Johnson, to Adaptive Insights. Jim is the epitome of a modern CFO who isn’t just experienced in finance, but is a true business leader. Jim likens the CFO role to that of an interpreter who must not only understand the language of finance, but also have the communication and interpersonal skills to translate that knowledge into what is relevant for the lines of business. When CFOs, and their finance teams, have the skills to communicate financial data and connect it to business knowledge, it leads to a shared understanding and common language of data across the company. We sat down with Jim to talk about how he sees the world of finance—and his role at Adaptive Insights—evolving in the near future.

What attracted you to Adaptive Insights?

Having formerly worked at SaaS and subscription companies—and having been a customer of Adaptive Insights—I am a big proponent of the company’s business model and products. I also like how the CFO role at Adaptive Insights reflects the industry direction of finance in general, requiring someone who can take a strategic, holistic approach to the business. I am looking forward to leading the finance, operations, information technology (IT), legal, and administrative organizations at Adaptive Insights.

How do you believe your expertise aligns with the needs of Adaptive Insights moving forward?

My background in successfully managing finance and operations at both smaller private companies, including SaaS and subscription software, as well as larger enterprise software providers has given me an appreciation and understanding of the Adaptive Insights business model. I believe that kind of experience will be instrumental as we continue to scale the company and move into a new phase of growth. Having worked for entrepreneurial companies like Jaspersoft, as well as large companies like Sun Microsystems, Veritas, and TIBCO, I have gained a lot of useful experience in scaling operations and successfully transitioning through stages of growth.

What do you mean when you say you are a proponent of SaaS?

I see SaaS as a modern business model that is significantly more beneficial to the customer in many areas of software application. It is also a more rational business model for the vendor. Traditional perpetual license models are challenged by high cost, high maintenance rates, and infrastructure and IT requirements. Customers are turning to SaaS applications as a much more rational means of meeting their software requirements.

What’s the number one challenge for finance today?

There are many challenges, but probably the most significant value-add the CFO and finance team can provide is the ability to distill and distribute useful information out of growing amounts of data. The CFO is at the focal point of a lot of data streams: actuals, plans, forecasts, sales data, key metrics, etc. CFOs and finance teams must be able to take that data and turn it into information that can be used by the company to make good decisions.

How has this changed since you first started in finance?

Finance was traditionally the keeper of data and functioned somewhat in a silo. Most of the energy was spent in the collection of data itself as opposed to the interpretation and use of that data. Today there is exponentially more data that is accessible, and the appetite for putting that data to use has increased significantly. Businesses want access to data—and not just data, but information—in real time. CFOs need to provide real-time business information in context and with availability to the right people at the right time.

When did you realize your role was to be an interpreter of data and information?

Many years ago at Sun Microsystems, I became director of corporate FP&A. We completed a very nice quarterly measurement package and distributed it to the executive team. I received the report back from Sun’s CEO and co-founder, Scott McNealy, with a note on the front page that said “Great data. What does it say?” I have never forgotten that comment.

What skills are required to be a good data interpreter?

It’s not enough to know the language of finance. CFOs need to be good business people and need to understand much more than the accounting and finance world. CFOs must have good communications and interpersonal skills. They need to know how to tell the story in a way that it can be understood and digested by a broader group of stakeholders throughout the company.

What does collaboration look like to you at Adaptive Insights?

Collaboration comes natural to me. I have always had a collaborative style, which means I regularly facilitate multi-function staff meetings primarily to improve communication and collaboration across teams. When it comes to planning, I want to make sure that finance is driving a plan that is built collaboratively with the business functions of the company to ensure that ownership is across the executive team. I intend to make sure that key groups are informed about performance on a regular cadence. Using Adaptive Insights as our planning and reporting application helps drive that collaboration.

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