At first glance, the One Atlantic Center building in Atlanta’s Midtown — largely a home for top-tier law and consulting firms — might not look like a place that houses technological disruption. However, walking through the hushed lobby, one also might find a young technologist or UX designer talking big data or AI.
They’re likely headed into KPMG Ignition, the tax and consulting giant’s innovation center that takes up the entire 22,000-square-foot third floor. Opened in 2017, the technology center is one of only a few Ignition offices KPMG has worldwide, joining Denver, Grand Rapids, San Francisco and New York City, and has room to employ about 200.
Teams in Ignition solve problems for both KPMG clients and within internal processes using technology like machine learning, AI, and data analytics. Partnerships with IBM, Oracle and more enable these technologists and data scientists to provide a suite of offerings to KPMG’s clients that go far beyond traditional audit capabilities.
Through the Ignition center, this tax giant is redefining itself — in an industry often maligned as stodgy and orthodox, KPMG’s Ignition leaders value creativity and agility. In other words, Ignition is cool.
However, Ignition leaders still face the challenge of communicating that message outside the center, particularly to potential employees.
“Audit of the future is not something that someone who doesn’t have an accounting degree thinks of,” says Rahsaan Shears, KPMG Principal and one of the leaders of Atlanta’s Ignition.
“Tax is not something that a traditional developer wants to work on, right? They wanted to build a cool game, a cool app, but when they see that their capability and their desire for creativity can be applied in issues in our area, many of them get very intrigued,” she says. “So we show them those proof points to say here’s what we know is possible, and we want you to help us take it to the next level.”
For example, Shears says that when recruiting, they’ll show potential hires a virtual reality solution that KPMG built for tax professionals. They look beyond the traditional tech universities to find creative thinkers with backgrounds in arts and liberal arts. As Shears explains, it takes real creativity to find innovation in disciplines like tax, audit, and business processes.
Another key quality they look for? Collaboration.
“We also need them to be able to engage with other people who are very introverted, to be able to apply their learnings to create a larger impact,” explains Shears. She dives in further with Hype on what these uniquely creative technologists are building, how KPMG motivates such valuable talent to get them to stick around, and how the firm draws on its history to inspire its future.
Can you talk about some of the projects that are being worked on in Ignition?
We do a lot of prototyping with next-generation technologies from our partners — Google, Microsoft, Oracle and more — where we’re working to help them create their final product. The types of client-facing projects are varied. For example, we’re working on things that impact how hospitals engage with their patients and transform the patient journey. We look at the experience a patient goes through, through a number of lenses — it could be based on their diagnosis, their demographic, a number of different things.
We also work on things that don’t sound very technology-heavy, but are cultural things. For example, part of our core values is to have open and honest communication, to treat folks with respect and engage in our community. We’ve partnered with a number of community organizations to help them redefine what community means — this is especially useful for smaller nonprofits. There is a shift in how people want to engage with community which is very different now than what is was five or 10 years ago. We’re helping them with a change management strategy that is based on technology, trying to understand the new demographics and how people in different sectors want to engage in a meaningful way. We’re always really excited when we can partner with community organizations that align with our values and bring about tangible, meaningful results.
Beyond client work, what other activities take place in Ignition?
Our non-Ignition folks are there all the time. We host project teams to take advantage of the talent there while they’re working on client challenges. We host information-sharing activities and social functions. We’re having a hackathon which is very techno-centric.
We’re looking to start having our traditional folks rotate through on an innovation immersion for a short period of time. I know that what we have is going to be the future of the cultural evolution of the firm.
Where — and how — are you recruiting to find your Ignition employees?
For campus hires, we go out to different programs where we have traditional brand recognition to look for the talent that we need. We might go to universities that have more advanced digital marketing programs; we’ll also look for diverse talent in nontraditional smaller schools and liberal arts and arts programs to get the creative thinkers. We’ve been strategic about trying to get to an untapped pool of talent to allow us to create some groundswell. It’s an area where we’re just building brand recognition.
For experienced hires, we tend to do a lot of the recruiting at events. We’ll participate in events in the community, whether it’s startup demos, hackathons or community tech events, and really see folks in action — and then talk to them about the KPMG story and what we’re trying to do. It’s a non-traditional recruiting approach but we find that we’re able to identify the employees who would be a good fit culturally, because we need folks who have that creative mind to help us reinvent in our spaces. It takes a unique individual to be able to apply creativity to things that are very structured, very regulated, and create innovative results.
How do you describe the goals and the purpose of the innovation function to explain why it’s different from traditional KPMG roles?
We want to show proof points — for example, in our tax technology space where we created a virtual reality experience for a tax professional. It’s very cool, very edgy, very game-y. Tax is not something that a traditional developer wants to work on, right? They wanted to build a cool game, a cool app, but when they see that their capability and their desire for creativity can be applied in issues in our areas, many of them get very intrigued.
So we show them those proof points to say here’s what we know is possible, and we want you to help us take it to the next level. We have found that to be very effective, because it is hard to explain. Audit of the future is not something that someone who doesn’t have an accounting degree thinks of. But when they get just a bit of exposure to it, they get very excited — because it is the next great challenge to be solved.
What are the qualities you look for in recruits beyond technical skills?
We are looking for folks who are not linear thinkers, who have an approach to challenging the status quo. We are looking for people who have a special eye for visualizing complexity.
We also need them to be able to engage with other people who are very introverted, to be able to apply their learnings to create a larger impact. To do that you need someone who is cunning enough to ask the right questions, the right way, and because we like to keep our teams slim and operate in an agile way, we can’t have just one person who does that. We need everyone participating on the team to be skilled in that way.
Once you have brought Ignition employees on, what do you do to retain the talent?
The first thing is giving them a place to call home where they feel comfortable being their authentic self. That’s fundamental. The other is making sure they have a voice. Our technologists bring a very different way of thinking to the table which is incredibly valuable and will have a significant impact on who we evolve to be as a firm. So we need to make sure, even though it’s a smaller part of our population, that they have a voice and a seat at the table.
The other thing that we do is make sure that that we are bringing them the business challenges from the other parts of our business, so that they understand the challenges that their fellow KPMGers face — because they see those problems very differently. In making that connection, it creates a level of excitement and desire in our innovation function.
What we see most drives those individuals isn’t just pay, it isn’t just free food, it isn’t just events —those are all nice things — but what they’re most driven by is the ability to create something wildly impactful for their community. So we makes sure that we are feeding them the challenges, and that they have unique approaches to solving those challenges, and then we glorify it.
How would you describe the atmosphere in Ignition?
Open, electric, powerful, and family. That’s what resonates when I’m there. Folks are talking to everyone, everyone is approachable. You can’t tell levels — you don’t know who’s a senior partner versus someone who started two weeks ago. That openness really does beget an electricity, and as we bring people into that environment, it’s powerful for these folks being able to engage with each other in a way that they don’t traditionally. As they work together, even in little increments, it becomes a real family.
The connections that are formed from the electricity in our site continues to permeate the organization even when they’re not there. They really begin because they’re in this cradle of innovation that is the Ignition center.
There are only a few Ignition centers worldwide — why was Atlanta selected for the innovation hub?
The Atlanta market is ripe with talent. We have exceptional feeder organizations from the region and from the city. We have an attractive cost of living. If you look at where young people want to go, a lot of people want to be here. It helps us with retention because we’re not asking them to go someplace that they don’t want to be.
The other is accessibility — we can get our clients here, and it’s not expensive to do it. We were very tactical about that.
The final reason is that we believe there’s lots of growth coming in this region. We want to be close to where our clients are so that we can serve them better.
What sets Ignition apart from the plethora of innovation centers popping up everywhere?
What I think makes us special is that, unlike newer startup organizations and even some of the giants, we’re very intentional about pulling from our deep history as a firm.
We have a room called the Prince Room — well, that’s special because we as a firm fought to save the Fox Theater. We built that into our space to think creatively about how to make the old new. Even in the game room where there’s virtual reality, there’s also a wall that looks like a tax library. It’s small and subtle but it continues to connect the next generation to who we are at our core and our history.
Often when we have folks talking about disruption, they want to throw everything out with the bathwater. But there’s so much wealth in what has worked. We wanted to respect that history and respect the ability to leverage that to catapult us in front of our competition.
Interview has been condensed for clarity. Photos provided by KPMG