The Power of Data: Vertex’s Approach to Keeping Pace with Tax Changes with Mike Bernard

Hosts & Guests

Judy Vorndran, Partner, State and Local Tax

Meredith Smith, State and Local Tax Senior Manager

Mike Bernard, VP of Tax Content and Chief Tax Officer at Vertex

What You Will Discover:

In this episode of the SALTovation podcast, we speak with Mike Bernard, VP of Tax Content and Chief Tax Officer at Vertex, a global provider of indirect tax software solutions. As tax complexities increase and technology advances, Mike shares his invaluable insights drawn from his vast experience in the tax domain. We delve into the role of a Chief Tax Officer at a software company, the importance of understanding clients’ unique needs, and the challenges of implementing and upgrading tax technology. Mike also shares insights on the future of sales tax compliance and the work Vertex does to advocate for administrative ease and efficiency in tax policy. 

Topics Discussed in this Episode:

  • Mike brings a wealth of experience from his background as US Tax Counsel at Microsoft and now as Chief Tax Officer at Vertex.
  • Vertex Inc. prioritizes staying current with tax updates through monthly data updates and maintaining solid professional relationships with Departments of Revenue.
  • The conversation highlights the importance of adaptable tax software in handling various sales scenarios, including bundles and emerging digital assets like NFTs and cryptocurrencies.
  • The need for upfront investment in understanding business systems to create efficient and compliant tax reporting solutions.
  • Engagement with Multi-State Tax Commissions and Departments of Revenue helps Vertex in navigating and influencing the administrative aspect of evolving tax policies without direct lobbying.

Quotables:

  • “One thing that you find out at Vertex when you serve a larger community of customers is that you have to come with this idea that they’re all on their technology journey. Nobody’s ever the same. Even though they may be in the retail business as an industry, or they may be in oil and gas, or they may be in leasing, or they may be in financial services, they’re all at a different place as you move along their journey as to how technologically capable they are of serving not just their internal corporation, but their customers.” -Mike Bernard [07:49]
  • “You always have to gauge yourself and give them the ability to move up or move down wherever they’re at in that space and serve them the best that you can. some clients require a more handheld type of service and others, you can put things out there and give them a direction. then check back with them in a week and they will have accomplished some of the things that they set out to do.” -Mike Bernard [12:10]

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    Transcript

    0:00:00 Meredith: Welcome to SALTovation. The SALTovation show is a podcast series featuring the leading voices in salt, where we talk about the issues and strategies to help you make sense of state and local tax. We want to welcome to the SALTovation show. Today Mike Bernard, chief tax officer at Vertex, a global provider of indirect tax software solutions founded almost 25 years ago. We want to discuss with Mike how Vertex stays up to date on the quickly changing landscape of indirect taxes and what they are keeping their eye on that could potentially upset and impact clients and taxpayers.

    0:00:38 Meredith: We will also discuss Mike’s past roles as us tax counsel for Microsoft, a position where he had a front row seat to rapid changes in technology and how those changes impacted tax reporting. Thank you so much Mike, for being with us today. We really appreciate your time and your brain.

    0:00:56 Mike Bernard: Thank you, Meredith, for being here. Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

    0:01:00 Meredith: So what exactly does a chief tax officer do for a software company?

    0:01:08 Mike Bernard: Sure. So I’ve had two distinct roles. One when I was at Microsoft and then the other one that I’ve had here at Vertex. So when I was at Microsoft, I actually was leading the functional tax department there, an extensive part of it. So essentially, it’s probably easier just to say the two pieces that I probably wasn’t responsible for. I wasn’t responsible for the foreign subsidiaries, at least the day to day operations of that. And I wasn’t responsible for the global tax policy issues. I was responsible for state tax policy issues.

    0:01:41 Mike Bernard: But everything else I was responsible for, for direct indirect running it, property taxes, business licenses, anything that you can imagine in terms of running a tax department. So that’s essentially what I did for almost 28 years there when I came over to Vertex and Vertex was actually, we used them substantially when I was at Microsoft. And so the chief tax officer role here doesn’t report up through the CFO, which normally chief tax officers do. I actually report into the executive leadership team.

    0:02:14 Mike Bernard: And what we do there is we actually have about four or five people in our group, senior tax people, either lawyers or accountants or cpas. And essentially what we do is we do a series of things. The most important thing we do is we host about 24 in person events per year with our customers. So we have a lot of enterprise customers, Fortune 200 or Fortune 500 customers, and we run basically kind of a half day program on tax, on what our product management roadmap looks like innovation, and then a lot of table topic discussions around serving them as a good customer, or obviously some best tips about how to keep their tech stack updated and current. So that’s essentially what I did today. So I moved from serving just Microsoft for all of those years, and I had an opportunity to go and work in the transaction tax space, which I’ve always loved, always enjoyed doing that, but also with this idea of emerging technology.

    0:03:16 Mike Bernard: So kind of two different careers, but obviously have enjoyed doing both of those things.

    0:03:23 Judy: How many people were you managing in the tax department for Microsoft? And I assume it was separated by issue, like you have a sales tax team, a property tax team and so forth. About how big was that department overall, aside from Global?

    0:03:39 Mike Bernard: Sure. So overall, globally it was probably about 80. We had a pretty leveraged model at the time. So we used a lot of big four vendors to actually achieve a lot of things that we needed to get done, at least in the planning space. So the number of people that I was managing was around 35 or so. So I had about 30 sales and use tax and indirect people. I had a technology group, and then I also had folks who were actually doing the state and local returns, tax returns, and then the policy work.

    0:04:14 Mike Bernard: And then we had five or so people that were pure, just technologists that actually ran our tech stack. So about a range of about 35 or so.

    0:04:23 Judy: And what was the tech stack? Did you use Vertex?

    0:04:27 Mike Bernard: We did use vertex, yeah. That was our preferred provider. We did. We had some other ones too. Okay. And we had some other ones too. But interestingly enough, one of the things that. And we ran on SAP. So one of the interesting things about that that was the most learning that I really got around tech stack was when I was there, I actually did three implementations of vertex and one major. So I actually did a telecom integration because when we bought Skype, I actually had to put that in.

    0:05:02 Mike Bernard: And then we also pulled out the functionality for SAP, for VAT, for Europe. So we were one of the first five companies that actually did something like that. Tax engines were something, as you well know, SAP was a favored provider as it related to VAT calculations. But then that since has changed. So that was the second thing that I put in. The third thing that we put in was towards the last couple years that I was at Microsoft is for years and years you couldn’t go to Microsoft and actually buy anything. You had to buy everything through a channel.

    0:05:37 Mike Bernard: So we actually built the backend functionality for our marketplace. So everything, if we were selling services or hardware or software or learning all of that, we built a back end for that. And then the last piece that I did was a major upgrade on a royalty sub. So in all of that learning, you really kind of learn between what the requirements are, how to serve the business. But then what’s the best functioning tech stack that you can actually build to have, if you will, and you know this, to have kind of frictionless commerce for the customer.

    0:06:14 Mike Bernard: Great learning.

    0:06:15 Judy: Yeah. And anticipate what could happen. Right. And build something.

    0:06:19 Mike Bernard: Exactly.

    0:06:19 Judy: Adapt with you. And then obviously you went from on prem to SaaS cloud that did not exist.

    0:06:28 Mike Bernard: We did. And you know what’s really interesting today, too, is we’ve got a lot of customers and they have an on prem solution. They have a cloud solution. They have mobile, they’re selling through their own marketplace, and then they’re selling through another marketplace. So there are just all these different platforms, as you know, that you never even envisioned that that was even going to happen.

    0:06:49 Mike Bernard: But clearly today technology has enabled all of those things and you got to be pretty nimble to move across all of those, mainly to kind of get all your data together so you can do proper tax reporting. So it’s really challenging for a lot of the companies that we serve.

    0:07:03 Judy: Exactly. Assimilating the data to get the right reporting. Like this is a million comprised of all these pieces. Yeah, no, tech is tech. It’s like, get it out, get it done. Oh, sales tax, whatever. Right. Or reporting. Don’t know. Yeah, it’s really important to understand that. So the reporting is accurate.

    0:07:21 Meredith: Exactly. With those technological shifts being at Microsoft in the leaving 28 years later, how has that kind of ability to be nimble and adapt to those huge technological swings that happened during that 28 year period, how has that kind of helped you, kind of, in your role at Vertex?

    0:07:46 Mike Bernard: Sure. I think one thing that I really have enjoyed being at Vertex, obviously at Microsoft, I had a lot of deep learning at Microsoft, and I talked about that a little earlier. But one thing that you really find out at Vertex when you serve a larger community of customers is that you have to come with this idea that they’re all on their own technology journey. Nobody’s ever the same, and they all have. And even though they may be in the retail business as an industry, or they may be in oil and gas, or they may be in leasing, or they may be in financial services, they’re all at a different place as you move along their journey as to how technologically capable they are of serving not just their internal corporation, but their customers.

    0:08:35 Mike Bernard: And so, if you will, you have to take them as they are and then just figure out, like, okay, now, where is it that you really want to go? And I think one of the things that is a common thread that runs through all of that, though, is we at Vertex when we’re hired, we’re there because they’ve selected us to actually help them with their transaction, know their reporting and their tech stack. And so you really have to be very honest with them and understand what their systems are currently and what they’re capable of actually doing moving forward and making themselves more compliant and derisking their environment altogether while at the same time serving their customers well and providing kind of a frictionless experience for their commerce. So you just have to keep in mind that they all move at their own pace.

    0:09:27 Mike Bernard: They all have different funding mechanisms, they have different capabilities just in terms of personnel, but overall, we’re there to kind of help them move along as quickly and as efficiently as they can and.

    0:09:39 Judy: Establishing a good roadmap ahead of time. That I think a lot of other providers out there, they were connector focused, but the service and the technology was not well understood by the buyer. And so we just want to get that message out. And if anything, you buy technologically, you need to make sure it works for you today and tomorrow because ripping and replacing is expensive. But I think a lot of people like just get it done, get it in. Oh, I didn’t think it did the thing because it’s really hard to make all those decisions, especially the larger you are, the more places you’re doing business it is.

    0:10:11 Mike Bernard: And I will tell you, in all of the implementations, the upgrades that I did at Microsoft, the one thing that we’ve always focused on and then we’ve always focused on with customers, and I’ve told them this is we spend a lot of time upfront. Just what you said was about the fact you have to understand what your current system is and you have to understand what are the capabilities. Sometimes you already have capabilities within the current system to do the things you want, and we don’t actually have to make those improvements or add things, modules on or things like that, but you really have to understand what your ERP is capable of doing and just really kind of working with it also, and the tax department obviously, in terms of providing the best and most efficient system. So a lot of time up front making sure we document what the system is capable of doing today.

    0:11:00 Meredith: Currently, I think that’s a good reminder just in general that when you’re kind of in a client service business, right, as vertex is, as we are, is that remembering that no one is the same, and that you do need to remember where people are at and meet them and kind of work with them in the capacity that they have, whether it’s timing, staffing, technology, budget, that, yes, not everyone is the same, and that you need to treat all of the businesses and all of the people that you interact with as if they are their own unique entity, because that’s exactly what they are.

    0:11:41 Mike Bernard: Exactly. I’ve run into engagements when I’ve been here at Vertex where there’s tremendous capabilities within tax and tremendous capabilities within it. And then I’ve run into other companies where you thought they would have people who were more deeply knowledgeable about their tax or their it systems, and they’re not. And so you always have to kind of gauge yourself and involve with them the ability to actually either move up or move down wherever they’re at in that space and actually serve them the best that they can. And so some clients require more handheld type of service, and others, you can put things out there and give them a direction and then check back with them in a week, and they will have accomplished some of the things that they set out to do. So you really have to be very adaptable around all of these engagements.

    0:12:32 Mike Bernard: It’s fun, it’s exciting, and that’s part of what makes it very dynamic.

    0:12:37 Judy: Yeah. And I think about the sales tax compliance team, I feel like a little bit that’s maybe a little bit of a dying career path because there’s a back end automated compliance. If you set up the front end, right, you could just review and not actually do all the returns. But from the legacy sales tax companies that collect sales tax, typically that was done by a human internally. And I was part of what we call the co sourcing movement at Deloitte, where we would take over part and parcel of different functions. And then part of that team went to vertex years ago when we sold it to part of know somewhere else.

    0:13:10 Judy: But I thought part of why we got people to use our service was because people could go on a vacation. All they did was file tax returns all month. Right. It was so many and so much volume and so much data coming in to actually file that return. People can leave between the end of the month and the 20th when those filings were done, and then it started over again. So you found that it was really even a staffing problem.

    0:13:33 Judy: Quite honestly, I found going to market with that for many years at Deloitte, so understanding the client’s challenges, and then people need to go on vacation and have sick time and things happen. And so if you’re really counting on that one human or two humans to do things and you don’t cross train, you’re really going to run up against problems when things are due. So it’s interesting that you manage the manual filing right from the beginning, and then maybe that went to automation. Or you’re like, these people are really good. They know what’s going on this return.

    0:14:02 Judy: They could support my audit, I’m going to keep them until they retire. So, yeah, it’s really been an interesting transition, I think, in the workforce.

    0:14:10 Mike Bernard: No, I think you’re spot on with that comment, because what you’re describing is a single source of failure and a single source of success is what you’re really describing there. And if you think of finance groups and you think of the CFO, one of the things that the CFO is supposed to do is supposed to automate things and derisk any kind of procedures or highly repeatable transactions or functions within the finance group, and that’s one of them. And what was probably a bad term, say, ten years ago, of outsourcing your returns or having a provider do those returns, that was always kind of a scary thing for folks in the tax department today. It’s like table stakes, and you have to actually take everything from everything that is sold to calculating it, or it’s exempt, and then moving it through to the return and then actually storing it. And so all of those things just have to be done. They’re required, and they actually fit the governance model much better than kind of the old way that you were describing there.

    0:15:12 Judy: Well, even for me, I would get a lot of offers to go in house and I’m like, I don’t want to prepare returns solely every month. I want to oversee, I want to manage audits, I want to provide strategic advice. So I could do that better by helping a lot of people than helping one person, unless I go to a very large multinational company. But then once again, you have a group and you have to silo it. And then I also felt like my skills could be helped.

    0:15:34 Judy: Use more. Across the nation, there’s so many people that don’t understand this, especially small to medium business. I mean, even zero to 100 million, they could still be privately held. So you’ve got just a deep disconnect from information. And then even cfos, if you think about a CFO, they come out of the audit team. Typically, you hardly ever see a CFO with a tax background. So you’ve just got a disconnect between the education.

    0:15:55 Judy: I have a master’s of tax, never took a sales tax or state tax class. Federal only. Really? Why is that? Right. So even our education system has been catching up to the state tax, and yet you and I are impacted by that every single day with every transaction we make anywhere. Gas, food, clothing, lodging, rental cars, travel, consumption, taxes are everywhere. And I went to Europe last summer and 17% to 19%, I can’t remember every single invoice that every single one, I’m like 17 to 19 and we’re complaining about eight to ten.

    0:16:31 Judy: Kind of interesting dichotomy that speaks of.

    0:16:34 Meredith: The dynamic nature that you had spoken about earlier. And kind of what we’re seeing right now is the fast paced, just changes, right? Like Wayfair. We had 46 states come on board with wayfair and just things in the sales tax realm and maybe even the broader scope of tax in general. How does vertex stay on top of that fast paced change of rates, holidays, policy stuff that’s happening particularly? I would imagine some stuff is going to come out of a lot of the legislative session this year, being it’s a big kind of presidential election year. So how do you all stay up to date on that just dynamic nature of sales tax, as you all are kind of responsible for making sure that the right rate is being charged when it changes, however often in all of these jurisdictions?

    0:17:30 Mike Bernard: Yeah, so it’s a really good question because every month what Vertex produces what’s called an MDU, a monthly data update, and it is a file that is put out there so that our customers can go out and pull that file down, and it has all the updated rates and rules for that month. So that is just a core piece of our business. We’ve done that now for over 45 years or so, and we’ve never missed posting an update. Obviously, there are some things that kind of can change after the update is posted and we make some changes to that.

    0:18:04 Mike Bernard: So that is like a key piece of what we do. I managed a group for our letter group for a couple of years within Vertex called the tax research group, and we had 110 researchers globally who actually helped us actually keep all of those rates up to date. So if you bought a refrigerator in Seattle or you bought it in Connors, Georgia, or you bought it in Germany, our team was able to actually keep those rates kind of updated along the way.

    0:18:33 Mike Bernard: And so we had a lot of research that was actually done using third party researching tools to kind of update that file every month. And I got to tell you, the folks that are in the research group, and this is like the really wonderful thing about them, is we just try to hire people who were either in accounting so they were in big four or they were in industry and they actually did sales tax compliance, or they just have a really good sales tax background. Maybe they worked for the government.

    0:19:02 Mike Bernard: Some of them actually worked in publishing. And they come over. So we have like four or five different varied sets of people who actually do all the research. And I will tell you this, when we go out and we visit with customers in these user groups, which I mentioned earlier, that is one of the folks that the users actually want to talk about first because they always want to know how we do it, and then they secondly also want to know. I think, Meredith, what you were saying was, well, what’s on the horizon? What are the things you guys keep in your eyes on?

    0:19:33 Mike Bernard: And one of the things I think that we’ve definitely tried to do is we have a list of things that we’re looking at today, but there’s also features that have to go into the software, too, say, like bundling. A lot of our customers sell bundles and so you have to pull those bundles apart and tax them properly. A number of them are starting to sell nfts, and so that’s something that we’re looking at. We’re also following the things around crypto and what actually is crypto going to be taxed? And obviously, a lot of states have their eyes on crypto and the NFTs as a source of revenue for transaction tax purposes. So there’s a lot of things that we continue to look at. But again, the core piece of what we’re trying to do is get that monthly update out every month with accurate rates.

    0:20:18 Judy: And we use, we helped a client that sells like bullion gold coins because a lot of people invest in that. And is that currency or is that investment? And is very different across America. And so we help build that for a mitch, it’s amazing what different companies do. You’re like, who would have thought that was a whole business?

    0:20:39 Mike Bernard: Exactly.

    0:20:41 Judy: Oh, it’s a thing. It’s taxable, right. And of course, there’s only one of them. It’s not like there’s thousands of these rare things. That’s interesting. And they use vertex to deal their sales tax, so we help them kind of get through that. We’ve done a couple of companies in that space.

    0:20:58 Mike Bernard: Great.

    0:21:00 Meredith: Does vertex tend to stay out of kind of policy or kind of lobbying in terms of like the digital ad tax is. That’s footnote. That’s not a policy of vertex. Those are just words that came out of my mouth. Don’t want to get Mike in trouble, but is that something that vertex generally tends to stay silent on, or just kind of like in the background, keep your eye on some of these changes so that you can be ready to go once Maryland makes a decision.

    0:21:30 Judy: Yeah, sure.

    0:21:32 Mike Bernard: So where we try to be is obviously we’re not trying to do direct lobbying around certain things about rates and rules, as you know, that leads to kind of like winners and losers. And we really can. I can’t do that kind of work. What we tend to do is we always tend to think of administrative responsibility and administrative ease and efficiency. So I’ll give you an example. For example, when Wayfair came down, one of the things that we did was we worked extensively with the MTC, the multi state tax commission, which I think a lot of the folks on the podcast kind of know. It’s a group of government people.

    0:22:09 Mike Bernard: It’s big four, it’s companies, and then it’s professional vendors like ourselves who we were advocating for the most administratively responsible and efficient way to actually see how marketplaces were actually. What were they going to be responsible for? Are they going to be responsible for collecting or emitting, for reporting, for audit defense, for all of the things that kind of went into the marketplace facilitator rules. And those rules actually got adopted over the next, say, four or five years.

    0:22:39 Mike Bernard: But the work that we were doing was trying to make it as efficiently as possible for customers who actually were hosting those kinds of marketplaces, third party marketplaces, and those who are actually selling on the third party of marketplaces. So that’s one place where we’re working at today. I think you know that today there is a multistate tax commission workflow on the sale of digital assets. So around 20 states actually tax, or there’s a sales tax on streaming or learning or some kind of digital or audio or video assets that are sold across the Internet. So there are different approaches as to how sales taxes is imposed on that.

    0:23:28 Mike Bernard: What’s the jurisdiction that has the right to do that? So we’re actually working with them, with the multitude tax commission again, to make sure that we have rules that actually are in place to really kind of help with the administrative piece of that. So that’s really where we work know, at least in terms of, if you will, kind of lobbying. That’s where we kind of place ourselves.

    0:23:52 Judy: So you wouldn’t testify?

    0:23:55 Mike Bernard: We haven’t been asked to testify on those things to date, but we’ve always offered to actually do that if it’s ever so. Yes.

    0:24:05 Judy: Well, I’m on the Colorado governor’s task force, a simplified Colorado sales tax. And it’s funny, I thought, I want to say I asked because I’m on the coalition, I sit on the task force, and it’s like getting more people to explain because I believe our legislators at one point said, well, technology, you could just plug it in. It’ll work. I’m like, no, that’s simple. And so there was this misbelief that was being directed towards legislation to say, well, they can all do it, no problem. I mean, Colorado, when we enacted our Wayfair law, we gave like a six, eight month pass to people.

    0:24:39 Judy: We had a hearing. I mean, people were crying because they could not figure out how to collect the local taxes that are what we call statutory cities and counties. I mean, they weren’t ready for that. They collected their own rate in their own city. They did not know they had to put a delivery rate on there. So that was tough on the small to medium business population, someone who does maybe candy or little flower baskets they might send out to people.

    0:25:04 Judy: How would you manage that? Gift baskets? I mean, they can’t without technology. And even then, they don’t know how to set it up. So it was a big, herculean effort for even Colorado. So I will make sure to remember that. Maybe I call you to testify, because I have really tried to impress upon our legislators how important this is for business, because business is the one collecting the money, and you’re putting all that on them.

    0:25:27 Judy: And I know we pay a little bit each person, but little business doesn’t have that. Large business doesn’t have it. As you know, you got to be large enough to have an 80 person tax department. Nobody has that in a small and medium business world. And then I wanted to just add delivery fee. You guys got the delivery fee out there, right? Okay. I didn’t know about it until April, before it was effective in July, and I was mortified that I did not know that. But Department of Revenue was tasked with enforcing it with a transportation bill that I wasn’t made aware of through all the tax councils I’m part of in Colorado. And my understanding from that was Department of Revenue didn’t know how to enforce it or activate it, so they had to do all the back end it. I mean, you guys got on that quick. So how did you guys manage, like, that’s crazy stuff, and that’s going to happen more. We could see it coming.

    0:26:20 Mike Bernard: Yeah. We actually have a lot of professional relationships with a lot of the Dors in our research group.

    0:26:27 Judy: Little heads up.

    0:26:28 Mike Bernard: We do yeah. So that’s how we kind of knew about that.

    0:26:33 Judy: Yeah, that’s what I thought. I need to retire.

    0:26:36 Mike Bernard: One other thing I would like to mention, too is, Meredith, we have been asked by a lot of the companies that they want us being vertex in there, trying to make things as responsible administratively, easy as we can for. So they expect us to actually show up and actually work with, say, the MTC and certain departments of revenue who are actually kind of moving through and maybe initiating some of these new programs.

    0:27:08 Mike Bernard: And so we actually have done that. But we do that normally behind the scenes or through private conversations. And that’s normally how with professionals at the Dor who understand that we have a big presence within the transaction space. And so when we come in and we talk to them about some of these things, we actually have a lot of credibility and offer solutions around what they might be proposing.

    0:27:35 Mike Bernard: All good work.

    0:27:37 Judy: Yeah. Important work. Because you see the math years ago, the team that you work with, Dana Malberg and the sales tax co sourcing team or outsourcing team at Vertex, we had one at Deloitte, and I remember testifying before our Colorado department, our legislator, excuse me, about the removal of our discount and how material that was going to be to vendors like Verizon and very large multi state that are collecting a lot of sales tax, that 3% was going to cost them money, a lot of it. When we took that away from their remittances, and we’ve kept it since. And so that was a big thing. Our department of Revenue or not, our department, our legislator, didn’t understand because they wanted to recoup some money. And a fee is not a tax, but it was actually a tax benefit or a cost benefit to vendors to get a little money back for the cost of collection and enforcement and remittance.

    0:28:30 Judy: And it was material to them. So it was not a simple, and then the biggest companies are taking the biggest cost and bearing the biggest risk. So the 3% was a nice little give back to at least give them some compensation for all that compliance they were creating for the state. But then that went away for a while because it was a fee and they could do it.

    0:28:52 Meredith: This podcast is for educational purposes only and is not intended nor should it be relied upon as legal tax, accounting or investment advice. Should consult with a competent professional to discuss specifics of your situation and the applicability of the information presented.