Q&A With Suseela Veerappan, Senior Business Systems Analyst

Q&A With Suseela Veerappan, Senior Business Systems Analyst

Rebecca Ponton: Please tell us about your current role and what you do.

Suseela Veerappan: I hold a pivotal role as a senior business systems analyst at Marathon Petroleum Corporation (MPC), the largest oil and gas industry player in the U.S. Since joining the company in May 2016, I’ve been instrumental in steering complex projects within the oil and gas domain, and harnessing technology to deliver tangible business value. My dual expertise lies in industry-specific business functions and SAP IT solutions, which enables me to make unique contributions that drive innovation and continuous improvement at Marathon.

These contributions have leveraged my proficiency in navigating intricate endeavors such as SAP upgrades, cloud migrations, analyzing large datasets, designing robust and scalable solutions, translating strategic objectives into actionable plans, and spearheading multinational SAP implementations. End-to-end solution design and development are central to my role. For this, I utilize my significant experience in analyzing business needs and technology consulting, as well as my aptitude for creating architectural blueprints and providing system integration guidance. As a senior project leader, I’ve also had, and continue to enjoy, numerous opportunities to ensure project success while fostering talent development.

My role extends beyond technical aspects to fundamental and strategic process analysis and optimization, which requires me to align solutions with overarching oil and gas and corporate business objectives, and effectively communicate improvement recommendations to senior management and cross-functional stakeholders. I am also involved in mitigating IT-related risks, technology trend analysis, and architectural governance, to ensure that our organization stays ahead of industry advancements and remains compliant with best practices.

RP: You have a bachelor’s degree in engineering and an MBA, and as an IT expert have developed critical solutions for some of the world’s leading energy and tech companies. What motivated you to pursue your MBA and build your IT career in the oil and gas industry?

SV: My journey toward pursuing an MBA and advancing my IT career within the oil and gas industry exemplifies a profound dedication to continuous education as a cornerstone for personal and professional growth. From my foundational years in engineering, I recognized the transformative power of technology to drive efficiency and innovation. This realization sparked a deep-seated passion to keep seeking knowledge and skills that could amplify my impact within the industry.

I used my education and experience to identify areas within the oil and gas sector that I thought could be improved with strategic interventions. I saw IT solutions as catalysts for optimizing the end-to-end supply chain, enhancing operational efficiency and, ultimately, increasing customer satisfaction.

This realization fueled a pivotal decision to position my career in the IT industry. I then obtained an MBA certification in project management and customer relationship management, which allowed me to further my leadership skills and facilitate a broader vision of contributing to industry-wide innovation.

RP: How did you secure your first job in the industry?

SV: I have deep expertise in critical areas such as order-to-cash processes, supply chain management, financial reporting processes, and integration projects, and my roles across various organizations have equipped me with a comprehensive understanding of SAP solutions and their implementation across different industries.

Earlier in my career, starting in 2007, I was a business and IT/SAP consultant for a technology consulting firm, and for three years I was assigned to work with British Petroleum (bp), which gave me great insights and experience in the energy industry. I later worked as a senior consultant to Apple, Allergan and HP. In all of these positions, I led major enterprise resource planning (ERP) project implementations to achieve greater operational efficiencies and support business growth and profitability, while providing specialized knowledge and guidance to the project teams.

I particularly enjoyed my years with bp, where my ability to understand complex business processes, configure systems, and collaborate effectively with stakeholders was very rewarding. I found the petroleum industry fascinating and knew how IT solutions could be transformative, so when I was invited to join Marathon, I welcomed the opportunity to build my career in oil and gas.

RP: You’ve said that your role bridges the gap between business needs and IT solutions. Can you give us an example of a complex project you’ve led that had unique challenges due to the nature of the oil and gas industry?

SV: One good example is a project aimed at automating terminal and marine service revenue billings, thereby streamlining the order-to-cash process. As a senior business analyst, subject matter expert, and solution architect, I play a crucial role in this initiative, which focuses on integrating data from various systems to enhance efficiency and accuracy, while minimizing manual intervention during month-end close activities. The integration process, facilitated through middleware, poses challenges such as mapping and transforming data fields to meet the requirements of each system, alongside managing the volume and throughput of data flow to ensure optimal performance and stability. Within this project, the supply chain is directly impacted by the automation of billing processes and pricing management.

The project additionally emphasizes risk mitigation and compliance, recognizing the importance of automation in reducing manual errors and maintaining adherence to financial regulations. Ensuring the accuracy and completeness of data transferred between systems is vital for preserving financial integrity and compliance. User adoption and training are also critical.

Another significant aspect of the project involves addressing complexities related to pricing in the oil and gas industry, by automating the pricing process. However, implementing this automated interface presents challenges, such as seamless communication between the pricing repository and the ERP system, as well as data mapping and transformation to align pricing information with system requirements.

In the context of the oil and gas sector, pricing complexities extend beyond transactional structures, involving considerations of dynamic market conditions and diverse pricing mechanisms tailored to accommodate various scenarios. The granularity of pricing, often extending to six decimal places, underscores the need for robust systems capable of handling complex calculations, while ensuring data accuracy and compliance with regulatory standards. My role in this project is instrumental in navigating these multifaceted challenges, driving innovation, and facilitating the successful implementation of these automated solutions.

RP: How are new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics automation changing the way you work, and the industry overall? What kind of impact do you foresee AI and other cutting-edge technologies having on how oil and gas companies operate?

SV: Implementing cutting-edge technologies like AI and robotics automation in the oil and gas industry presents a transformative opportunity to address longstanding challenges and enhance operational efficiency. By leveraging AI and robotics automation, oil and gas companies can streamline complex billing processes, mitigate errors, and improve overall productivity. These technologies offer the capability to automate repetitive tasks, such as data ingestion, validation, transformation, and many more capabilities, reducing manual intervention and accelerating billing cycles. Furthermore, AI algorithms can analyze vast amounts of data from various sources, enabling better decision-making and optimization of workflows.

However, implementing these technologies in the oil and gas industry comes with challenges. One significant challenge is the integration of AI and robotics automation into existing systems and processes. Oil and gas companies often have legacy infrastructure and fragmented data systems, making seamless integration a complex endeavor. Additionally, ensuring data security and compliance with industry regulations poses another challenge, especially when dealing with sensitive financial information. There may also be resistance from employees who fear job displacement due to automation, necessitating effective change management strategies to address workforce concerns and ensure a smooth transition.

Despite these challenges, the benefits of implementing cutting-edge technologies in the industry are substantial. By automating business processes with AI and robotics automation, companies can significantly enhance accuracy, leading to reduced billing errors and improved customer satisfaction. Real-time data synchronization between systems enables timely billing and invoicing activities, contributing to better cash flow management. Furthermore, streamlined workflows result in cost savings and increased productivity, as employees can focus on higher-value tasks instead of repetitive manual work.

Recognizing the potential of these new technologies and their impact on the industry, I obtained  certifications in Generative AI and AI Ethics with SAP to add a valuable dimension to how we use these cutting-edge tools. For example, my knowledge of Generative AI enables me to leverage advanced AI techniques to simplify complexities in supply chain processes without compromising security standards. I use my advanced education in AI Ethics to ensure that AI systems are ethically designed and deployed, addressing concerns related to bias, privacy and transparency.

RP: What professional and technical aptitudes do you think will be crucial in the near term based on your experience?  

SV: In the oil and gas industry, where operational excellence and cost efficiency are paramount, the ability to streamline workflows, optimize processes, and drive continuous improvement initiatives will be crucial.

With the industry increasingly embracing digital transformation initiatives, IT teams will need to embrace technologies such as AI, machine learning (ML), and the Internet of Things (IoT) to optimize operations, improve decision-making, and drive business value. For example, my experience in leading multiple end-to-end SAP implementations employing DevOps and Agile practices, coupled with my proficiency in cloud computing technologies, enables me to accelerate software development and deployment processes, improve scalability and flexibility, and extract valuable insights from data.

Another vital area is AI Ethics, which is increasingly important in an era where ethical considerations surrounding AI deployment are ever-present. As the oil and gas industry continues to adopt AI and ML technologies, the need for ethical AI practices becomes even more critical.

I am particularly enthusiastic about the potential to leverage AI, ML, IoT and cloud computing technologies to drive business value in the oil and gas sector. By mastering these tools, I believe we can unlock new opportunities for innovation and sustainable growth, while also addressing industry-specific challenges and driving operational excellence.

RP: People generally think of both the petroleum and IT fields as being male-driven, and in terms of engineering careers, students might think of petroleum engineering and mechanical engineering as being the primary paths to a career in the energy industry. Yet you’ve built a nearly 20-year career in the IT field. How unusual is it to be a female IT leader at an oil and gas company ranked in the top 20 of the Fortune 500 list? As a woman in a largely male field, do you find it more challenging to lead teams and projects? If so, how do you overcome these challenges?

SV: Being a female IT leader at a top-ranked oil and gas company is like breaking through a glass ceiling and paving the way for future generations of women in the industry. My role not only signifies progress, but also demonstrates the importance of diversity and inclusion in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Undoubtedly, being a woman in such a role comes with its unique set of challenges. One of the primary obstacles I sometimes encounter is the gender imbalance in the workplace. It can sometimes be challenging to navigate through a predominantly male environment, especially when it comes to gaining respect and acceptance as a leader. Additionally, unconscious biases may still exist, which could manifest in subtle ways, such as being overlooked during meetings or having my ideas questioned more frequently.

However, overcoming these challenges is entirely possible, and many successful female leaders in the industry have done just that. One effective strategy is to establish myself as a knowledgeable and competent professional by continuously enhancing my skills and staying updated with the latest industry trends. Confidence in my abilities helps me command respect and assert my leadership presence.

Building strong relationships with my team members and colleagues is also crucial. By fostering open communication, collaboration and mutual respect, I create a supportive work environment where everyone feels valued and empowered to contribute their best. My commitment to ongoing improvement initiatives, coupled with my strong communication and collaboration skills, further accentuates my ability to inspire teamwork and alignment across departments and teams.

I am a strong advocate for myself and other women in the workplace, and I am vocal about the importance of diversity and inclusion. I actively support initiatives that promote gender equality within the organization. I believe that my leadership in this area can inspire others and drive positive change throughout the company.

Being a trailblazer can be challenging, but it also offers tremendous opportunities for growth and impact. I hope my presence serves as an inspiration to women aspiring to break into STEM fields, and that my contributions are helping to reshape the future of the oil and gas industry for the better.

RP: Do you do any training and mentoring for the next generation? What guidance would you give to other young women and minorities who might be considering an IT career path? Do you have any ideas on how the energy sector can attract more women and other minorities in order to create more diversity in all its forms? 

SV: As an experienced leader in the IT field within the energy sector, I hold a wealth of knowledge that is invaluable for the next generation of professionals. Training and mentoring are critical to developing talent and nurturing diversity within the industry. By sharing my experiences, providing guidance, and offering support to young women and minorities who are considering an IT career path, I can help empower them to pursue their aspirations and achieve their full potential.

I believe in the importance of continuous learning and professional development and encourage aspiring IT professionals to seek out opportunities for skill enhancement, whether through formal education, certifications or hands-on experience, and stress the significance of staying abreast of emerging technologies and industry trends to remain competitive in a rapidly evolving landscape.

I also emphasize the value of mentorship and networking, and encourage young people to seek mentorship from seasoned professionals who can provide guidance, advice and support as they navigate their career paths. Additionally, I encourage them to actively engage with industry networks and communities to expand their professional connections and access valuable resources.

Finally, I support and promote inclusivity and diversity within the energy sector, and advocate for initiatives that aim to attract and retain women and minorities in IT roles, such as targeted recruitment efforts, diversity-focused training programs, and mentorship opportunities to create inclusive work environments where all employees feel valued, respected and empowered to contribute their unique perspectives and talents.

For example, I am involved in mentoring and fostering diversity through initiatives like the Women’s Employee Network, which adds a deeply rewarding aspect to my job. Serving as a mentor and advocate for aspiring IT professionals allows me to contribute to the development of future talent and promote inclusivity within the industry. This aspect of my role goes beyond traditional job responsibilities and speaks to a broader sense of purpose and social impact. By championing diversity and empowerment, I not only enrich the organizational culture, but also contribute to positive societal change.

RP: What do you find most interesting about your job?

SV: One particularly intriguing aspect of my role lies in my ability to serve as a bridge between business requirements and technical solutions within MPC. My responsibilities entail leading the design and development of end-to-end solutions that meet the organization’s evolving needs. This dynamic requires a blend of strategic vision, technical expertise, and interpersonal skills, as I collaborate with stakeholders to translate complex requirements into actionable plans. The challenge of navigating this intersection between business objectives and technological capabilities offers a stimulating environment where I can exercise my problem-solving skills and drive meaningful impact.

Another fascinating dimension of my job is the opportunity to influence architectural decisions and shape the future direction of IT initiatives at MPC. By defining system integration approaches, evaluating technologies, and contributing to architectural governance, I play a pivotal role in setting the course for the organization’s technological evolution. This level of influence showcases my expertise underscores my capacity to drive innovation and alignment between IT strategies and business goals. The ability to have a tangible impact on the organization’s technological landscape adds a compelling layer of significance to my work.

Additionally, the fast-paced and ever-evolving nature of the energy sector presents constant opportunities for growth and learning in my role. With the industry undergoing significant transformations driven by technological advancements, environmental concerns, and regulatory changes, I am constantly challenged to adapt and innovate. This dynamic environment keeps my work stimulating and ensures that no two days are alike. Embracing these challenges as opportunities for growth and development allows me to stay at the forefront of industry trends and contribute to continued success in a rapidly changing landscape.

The multifaceted nature of my responsibilities, the opportunity to influence strategic decisions, the ability to make a meaningful impact on diversity and inclusion, and the dynamic environment of the energy sector makes my job most interesting. Each aspect contributes to a rich and fulfilling professional experience that goes beyond traditional job roles and fosters personal and professional growth.

RP: Ultimately, what would you like to accomplish in your career? 

SV: First and foremost, my aim is to make a tangible impact within MPC and the broader energy sector. I am committed to driving innovation and delivering results that directly contribute to the organization’s success. By leveraging my technical expertise, strategic vision, and leadership skills, I seek to influence architectural decisions, shape IT initiatives, and drive alignment between technology strategies and business objectives. Ultimately, I aim to leave a legacy of positive change and transformation, ensuring MPC’s continued relevance and competitiveness in the industry.

Next, my dedication to mentoring and fostering diversity through MPC initiatives highlights my commitment to empowering the next generation of IT professionals. By sharing my knowledge, providing guidance, and advocating for inclusivity, I strive to create a more equitable and supportive environment where all individuals have the opportunity to thrive and succeed. My efforts in this regard reflect my broader aspiration to drive positive social impact and contribute to a more diverse and inclusive tech industry.

My enthusiasm for continuous learning underscores my desire to stay at the forefront of industry trends and technological advancements. As the energy sector undergoes significant transformations, driven by factors such as technological innovation, environmental concerns, and regulatory changes, I embrace these challenges as opportunities for growth and innovation. By staying adaptable, curious and proactive in seeking out new opportunities for learning and skill enhancement, I position myself to remain a valuable asset and continue making meaningful contributions throughout my career.

Ultimately, my overarching goal is to lead a fulfilling and purpose-driven career that allows me to leverage my skills, experiences, and passions to make a positive impact on the organization, the industry, and society at large. Whether through driving innovation, fostering diversity and inclusion, or pursuing ongoing personal and professional growth, I am motivated by a desire for excellence and empowerment in everything I do. By staying true to my values, embracing challenges with resilience and determination, and continually striving for excellence, I aspire to achieve not only professional success, but also personal fulfillment and satisfaction in my career journey.

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Rebecca Ponton has been a journalist for 25+ years and is also a petroleum landman. Her book, Breaking the GAS Ceiling: Women in the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry (Modern History Press), was released in May 2019. For more info, go to www.breakingthegasceiling.com.

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