How to Become a CIMA World Prizewinner: Interview with VIVA Student Murat Sayin

In this interview, CIMA prizewinner Murat Sayin discusses how he worked through the entire CIMA professional syllabus in just 1.5 years with VIVA Founder Thomas Newman.

Below is a full transcript of our interview with CIMA prizewinner Murat Sayin.

Thomas Newman (VIVA Founder): Today, I'm joined by recently qualified CIMA graduate, Murat Sayin. Murat has been a VIVA student since very early on in his CIMA studies, and I've been amazed at how quickly he's moved through the CIMA syllabus. In fact, I don't think I've come across another student who has gone through the qualification as quickly as Murat has. Not only has he gone through the CIMA qualification in about one and a half years, but he won a prize along the way. Hopefully, he's got lots of tips to share with current CIMA students. It's lovely to talk to you today, Murat. First of all, you progressed through the entire CIMA qualification really quickly. You took your first OCS exam in February of 2020 I think, and one year later, you're fully qualified. So, what has allowed you to become qualified in such a short period of time, do you think?

Murat Sayin: Thank you very much for your comments. I really appreciate them. The ideal timeline in my mind was to finish the professional qualification (operational level, management level and strategic level), in six months. I was planning to give each objective test one month, which is three months in total per level, and one month for the case study. It's actually a little more than four months as you have to wait for the result of the case study exams and this takes more than one month as well. So, in total, it’s six months. This is how I had planned it initially. I passed the operational case study in February 2020, which is exactly one year ago, when I think back now. But then the Corona situation arrived so there was quarantine and lockdown world-wide.It soon became obvious that the quarantine would be long-term. So, I was studying for these exams and, to be honest, it was challenging, and it was taking time. So, I thought, instead of using up time from any future leisure time, why don’t I focus more on the exams and  finish them as soon as possible.

Thomas: So, you used your quarantine time very, very productively, to move ahead with --

Murat: Sorry for interrupting. Once I progressed through the exams, I could see the way the questions were being asked and I saw where there were gaps in my knowledge. So I changed the blueprint of the way I studied. Plus, I enjoyed it also as I realised that I already knew a lot of things. On the other hand there were many things which I should have known, on a professional level, but didn’t. So, I tried to catch up and fill in the gaps in my knowledge, and then I started to really enjoy it. I saw it in terms of general knowledge, especially the E-pilar exams. It's more like real life, not finance specific, but more real-life cases, questions, topics. So, this is how I saw it in the end.

Thomas: Did you see a very clear link between what you were studying with CIMA and your own work?

Murat: In my previous role, definitely, I've seen it. Because it's not like daily tasks but sometimes you have to speak in terms of financial knowledge, in financial language. So, you have to know the terminology. For example, the name ‘throughput’ - I didn't know it, to be honest, because I came from an engineering background. I did a double major in economics but it wasn't in an accounting specific area. It was mostly economics as a science, like, microeconomics, macroeconomics. I had only taken two accounting classes. But overall, I was very far removed and I was mainly focusing on engineering at that time. Plus, I didn't have an audit background before. So, I thought I should learn about finance in general, treating it  like the everyday things in finance, like domestic things. So, that's why I was motivated a lot personally.

Thomas: Did you receive any exam exemptions? Or did you have to take all of the exams at the professional level?

Murat: Yeah, I have received the exemptions from Business Accounting, BA part - BA1 to BA4.

Thomas: The certificate level.

Murat: Yeah, my first exam was E1.

Thomas: But you did all of the exams at the professional level? So, when I say the professional level, it's E1, F1, P1, OCS, E2, F2, P2, MCS, E3, F3, P3, SCS - so, 12 exams.

Murat: I need to make a correction. I didn't officially finish it in one year but it was more like 16 months. Because I started E1, F1 in the second half of 2019, possibly August, I don't remember the exact time, but certainly before COVID. I did the P1 as well. And I finished these three exams in two months but I remember I didn't know that there was a deadline to take the case study. So, I couldn't make the dead-line. And the thing is the syllabus changed. So, I had to study all over again, for E1 mostly. I took a break for three months because the next exam was four months later. But then it was a quite dense, packed schedule.

Thomas: Typically, how would you study? Would you study one subject at a time? Or would you typically study 2-3 subjects at one time?

Murat: It’s a good question. Personally, I'm not a multitasking person, so I have to focus on one subject at a time and finish it before moving on to the next one. But this is a personal choice. I always studied only one chapter and the way I study is the following: I was working full-time, and I am from Istanbul in Turkey. So, because of the huge volume of traffic, pre-COVID, my daily commute to work took two to three hours. Plus, I was in the FMCG sector. This is a dynamic sector which requires a lot of effort so it was quite hard to come home and study afterwards. But during COVID I studied everyday, 2-3 hours every week-day. And, during the weekends I studied for probably eight to ten hours. But the thing is, I was trying to finish it in four weeks. However, once I got into this cycle, I could finish it in 18 to 20 days, all  the chapters, and I felt that I was pretty much ready. I had scheduled for 20 days but for the next 10 days I was relaxed because I knew what to do. I also bought a multiple-choice book - may I give the name of the author?

Thomas: Yeah, of course.

Murat: For Kaplan. I think it's an official, supplementary supplier of the materials. I bought their exam kits or something with multiple-choice questions. I was not solving but I was reading the questions. This was solely for the objective test. For the case study, however, I followed, totally and fully, VIVA Tuition’s methodology.

Thomas: So, you were taking more exams at a time for the objective tests, and you were doing very intensive study, over 18 to 20 days. I suppose, in that way, because you were getting all of your study done in 18 to 20 days, it’s a short time period. There wasn't a lot of time passing, so you weren't forgetting things. You were remembering everything because it was fresh - you'd recently studied it.That's a very intensive approach but it really worked in your case. Did you have to repeat any exams?

Murat: I failed on two subjects. On P1, I failed with a score of 98, which probably equates to one or two questions, I don't know the algorithm behind it. And after the management case study I decided to study really intensively. So, I had to study a lot in a very short period of time. That's why I didn't have too much time for the P3 exams because I had a deadline to meet. So, I decided to take the exam before understanding fully what was going on. I failed it two or three times, I don't remember. Eventually I somehow made it. But P3 was quite hard to be honest.

Thomas: And looking back, why do you think you struggled more with P1 and P3?

Murat: For P1, I don't know. E1 was pretty much about memorising stuff. So, you know it and you do it. F1 as well as it's mostly analytical, number- crunching, etc. I was good at it. I was feeling relaxed and it was easier for me to understand F2, F3 as well. For P1, it’s all about... overhead absorptions, cost pool calculations, etc. Even if I think back, it was not easy. It was a new area, budgeting, zero-based budgeting, all this kind of stuff. It was new to me and somehow I couldn't grasp the subject clearly. Maybe, the way I studied it was incorrect. Because, when I studied (and this is also true for VIVA material) I had to be honest with myself. If I didn't know something then I should have admitted it. Looking back I probably didn’t do this for E1, F1 and P1. Even though I passed E1, F1 on the first attempt. But, as regards P1, I thought I knew it, but I didn’t. P3 was the hardest one because I didn't know if I would have even two months. I didn’t know if I’d pass it on the first attempt because the questions are quite open-ended. I was feeling very anxious after the P3 exams because you take the exams and then you have to wait for the results, which are printed initially like a pass or fail. It was quite emotional as well but I made it. I was ambitious and I knew somehow I would make it and this also helped me to succeed. But P3 was open-ended. It was not simply zero or one; it's not binary. One more thing about the P3. There were too many “select all the applied” questions. So, if there are five options and if you only know two, what if the answer is three? There were a lot of questions like this. I don't know why. But I just don't want to discourage the students who listen to this video.

I also have one personal story. I already had more than three years of experience when I started CIMA. But if I was a new graduate, I wouldn't take this route. I wouldn't recommend it. But this is a personal choice because in the end, they have to wait to have three years of experience, even if they finish it in one and a half years or two years. So, I kind of compromised my social life. But, as I mentioned earlier, there was COVID, so, there was no social life anyway. Also, I had an added incentive.I was living in Turkey and I wanted to leave the country and move to one of the European Union countries. I was working for a multinational firm and I knew that CIMA would be an enabler for me to come to work in offices abroad. That's why I pushed as well.

Thomas: That’s interesting. Your own personal experience is that you did the exams in a very short period of time - very, very intense. So it was your project during COVID but you wouldn't necessarily recommend it to people who are just leaving university or something like that. I think both approaches have their pros and cons. So, by going through the qualification in a short period of time you obviously get to the end goal much, much faster. You can get your life back. Once you've done the qualification, it's obviously very favourably viewed by employers, and all of that gives you career opportunities. But if you work through a qualification really, really fast, you don't study the material in depth in the same way. Whereas, if you take a slower route, let's say you do it in three years, then you can take more time to really understand each subject, and obviously, that is the benefit of going a little bit slower. So, I suppose it depends on the stage of your life you're at. It also depends on your personal preferences as well but your comments are very interesting. So, what were your favourite subjects then, Murat, and why?

Murat: F1 and F2, I can say, because in the company where I worked we were going to roll out the P&Ls, all these financial reports. This was done from top to bottom, from how it started with revenue, etc., right up tol profit, the operating margin and then net earnings, etc. So, I saw a lot of parallels with what I was doing in the corporate life. I also like crunching numbers. So, that's why I found F1 quite enjoyable. But in the first two weeks of studying F1 it was quite tough to understand what was going on. The beauty of it is once you understand everything, it just flows. You can follow everything that’s going on. In the exam, if you study properly, you’ll see questions in the full P&L picture with all the details, but in the exams, they give you only one glimpse of the P&L part. So, I found it easier - this is valid for F1 and F2. So, if I go and try to read through the annual reports of a firm, publicly quoted firms I can easily understand and that’s thanks to CIMA actually.

: What about then your least favourite subjects and why?

Murat: Obviously the one that I failed. P3 was the least favourite. The chapters were fine. It was super helpful for me. I don't remember, currently, the exact names but the one with the IT security part, for example, cybersecurity, malware, spyware, all this kind of stuff. I didn't know the details or what they meant. It was super helpful but we have to pass the exam. It was tough, as mentioned, because the questions were not clear. The same for P1 and P2, though I passed P2 on the first attempt, somehow. But for P1, I don't know, I don't like the budgeting aspect, I think. This is personal, there is no specifically --

Thomas: Everyone is different. I suppose with the benefit of hindsight, looking back now, is there anything you would do differently for the subjects that you didn't really like then namely P1, P2, P3. Is there a different approach you would have taken if you were going back now?

Murat: For P3, as I mentioned, I really don't know. It's still, to me, a grey area. I could pass on the first attempt but perhaps with a bit of luck. I don't know, CIMA doesn't reveal the numbers in terms of 150, the people who got 150 etc., I'm not sure if a person can get more than 120 or 130 in P3 on the first attempt, I don't know. Maybe I would change my approach to how I studied for E1, F1, and P1. It took me a little bit longer because I was trying to read everything, even the E1’s unnecessary information. However, studying for a case study, it was clear, I wouldn't change anything. I was super happy with Viva and your approach. But I'm talking mostly about the objective tests, and especially these objective level exams. I wouldn't go that deeply again as it was not really necessary. Because even though you delve deeply into the chapters, you don't remember everything.

Thomas: My own personal feeling on this… well, it's more than just my own personal feeling. Having interacted with a lot of students over the years I think that students tend to spend too much time on the textbooks with the objective test subjects - they read, they read, they read, and they leave question practice until the end. What students, I think, need to be doing is spending less time with the text and, as a good introduction to a subject, they should be looking at videos instead, probably, because they're easier to consume and they give you a good idea of what the topic is about. Then do lots of questions and you start to identify your weak areas. And when you have identified your weak areas, then you go to the textbook, look at those weak areas, and you read in detail on the weak areas. So, that, I think, is a more efficient approach to the objective tests but every student is a little bit different. So, what led you to study CIMA then in the first place? Was it something that you decided yourself  or did your employer suggest that?

Murat: That's a good question. To be honest, I didn't know about CIMA back in 2018. Because in Turkey, it was not widely known among the people, among the professionals. But I had a person who was senior to me, in my previous employment, and he was a successful person. I talked to him and asked him what I should do for finance and what he would recommend. He told me he got CIMA, for which he studied, I think, three years. He said he learned a lot but he wouldn't recommend it to me because he said, “It's super time consuming.” I don't want to discourage people but he's the reason why I pursued the CIMA qualification. So I looked at CIMA and I thought that this could be something that could enhance my personal skills. Plus, in the beginning of my career I saw that the finance leaders  lacked  basic accounting skills. For example, many did not know what accrued liability means. This has been my personal experience. And I saw that it was possible to be a finance manager without knowing this stuff. But I didn’t want to be that person who doesn't know all the details of finance. So, this was also my personal motivation. And I can definitely say, as a person who is now officially chartered, that a person who gets CIMA can easily work in any area of finance.

Thomas: What have you taken then from CIMA into your professional life?

Murat: I cannot directly say, “This part works really efficiently or I can implement this section of this chapter in my professional life”. But I can say it definitely gave me self-confidence. Whenever I attend any of the meetings, even with very senior people, I can understand what's going on easily and in a faster way. Also, I can come up with solutions within a short period of time because once you have this confidence, and once you know what all this financial process is, you can map everything quickly and more correctly. Even though there are changes - this is my fourth company that I'm working with right now - and each company has its own unique P&L structure, you can easily adapt yourself. This is what CIMA brought me. I get the overall picture in finance and I can easily articulate my opinions and easily ask questions of people. And also, if I say, “I'm CIMA qualified ,” I get very good reactions from people. I give them trust, even at the beginning.

Thomas: Can you tell us a little bit about your work history up until now. You mentioned you worked with four companies up until now, right?

Murat: Currently, I’m in my fourth week working for Amazon. This office is part of a retail business. Even though I’m just in my fourth week I find Amazon is quite different from what I have previously experienced. Before Amazon, I was working for a company called Mars Incorporated which is a privately-owned company. But it's also very huge, one of the biggest privately-owned companies, in fact. I worked there for almost two years. I was part of the controllership team at that time but I was touching all areas. I was doing business partnership, managing cash flow, all these balance sheets, all the processes, everything regarding Turkey units. I was also working for a Central Asia unit. (Obviously you are a part of Central Asia along with 13 other countries). So, my colleagues were from Russia, Kazakhstan, Georgia. Before Mars, I was working for an oil and gas company named Shell. I was part of their energy team. They are big in the European Union as well, a huge energy team, and we were focusing on oil and gas and electricity trading. I was the financial analyst of the team. I worked there for more than two years. Before that, I just worked less than a year for a local telecommunications firm. While there I was working on strategies like revenue management. But currently, I'm working for Amazon.

Thomas: So, big employers, big names: Mars, Shell, Amazon. What are your remaining professional ambitions then?

Murat: After CIMA, I don't want to carry on any of these additional certificates. I think CIMA is similar to a master's degree; you have all this timeline, all this dedication, effort, knowledge, know-how. I don't want to go for an MBA or any other programme. Amazon, for me, was a dream company and that’s where I am right now. I would like to continue at Amazon. It's a great company so my ambition is to move up the ladder as fast as possible within Amazon. But I want to continue working in finance. I don't want to change the area. Finance is mostly my passion. It was not easy for me to discover my passion initially, especially coming from an engineering background. My college friends were equally undecided; they didn’t know what to do either once they graduated. I think this uncertainty may be generational. I don't know. This Y-generation, or perhaps the Z-generation now, don’t quite know what to do. This was certainly my experience. It took me time. Maybe it cost me some time in my career but I now know that I want to continue my career in Amazon in finance.

Thomas: Are there any skills that you feel are important to develop as you move up the ladder at Amazon, for example?

Murat: Amazon has often said, “We are a peculiar company.” And in terms of the digital skills that are used in Amazon they are quite different from what I have experienced in other multinational firms. There is an enormous amount of data and you have to come up with numbers that will bring you the results, and you have to have certain skills, maybe like SQL skills, Visual Basic; VBA micro. I didn't use these tools a lot in my previous employment because the data was somewhat limited. But here the data is unlimited. So, you have to figure out things. I want to improve these digital skills a lot, maybe one of the BI tools to improve my BI tools skills more. And  you also need to have good writing skills in terms of business. If you want to be a successful business partner in finance, you need to somehow improve your English writing skills. This was also the case when studying the CIMA exams. I am not a native English speaker and there is always a language barrier, so, you have to continuously improve your language skills. This is the other thing that I would like to focus on.

Thomas: It sounds like a real mix of hard skills and soft skills. To be fair to CIMA, in the accounting qualifications they do emphasise the soft side of things too. With things like the case study, writing skills, communication skills. It's no good being just technically skilled and not able to communicate with other people. How do you think you'll learn some of the hard skills you just mentioned, things like SQL, and Business Intelligence tools, and macros? Are you thinking about taking some courses there or just learn by doing, or is it a combination of both?

Murat: For SQL, I have taken a course from data provider companies on the internet. But mostly, I can say it's learning by yourself, learning on the job. For SQL, I am fine now, I can say I learned a lot. The beauty of the internet is that there are many already written codes, documents etc so you can copy and tailor it according to your needs. I think this is, in general, for the coding, like software development. So, this is how I try to improve.

Thomas: Is there anything that you know now, that you wish you had known at the start of your CIMA studies?

Murat: I don't know how to say it in English. But initially, when I started the E1, F1, I was kind of scared about failing the exams.

Thomas: You’re saying you were intimidated?

Murat: Yeah, intimidation. I think students should have self-confidence at the beginning. There is no reason why they should fail or be unable to do it. If I can do it, I think everybody can do it. If I do  these three case study exams in one year, everybody can do it - this is my general mindset. I think I shouldn't have been scared in the beginning. I shouldn't have been intimidated by the topics/ subjects at the beginning. This is a thing that comes to mind  now.

Thomas: You ranked second in Europe for the August 2020, MCS exam. What were the most important things that led you to become a prize winner?

Murat: I think I can talk more about VIVA here. For the management case study I have taken the VIVA full pack, the one with the lifetime guarantee, I don't know the name of the exact pack. I saw a lot of benefits in the package of VIVA. First of all, I always follow the following sequence: I watch the case study analysis that you do in detail. Then I read it by myself after watching your videos and I go through it 3-4 times. For example, I was planning to read all the chapters, E1, F1, P1, all the subjects from the beginning. But, instead I just focussed on most of the areas that you emphasised in the pack, such as key questions, key areas that may be asked in the exam. I also focussed on the mock exams. To be honest, I was initially failing whenever I was writing your mock exams. This is the area where the language barrier comes into play. I couldn't properly articulate my opinions in English, at least not to the same standard as your sample answers. I wrote the exams, then I read your answers. I saw that our ideas were the same. However, I wrote it in three or four lines but you wrote it in, perhaps, more than 8-10 lines. So, it was kind of tough and challenging for me. I tried to improve my skill as much as possible by solving mock exams. I was starting with a score of 50 out of 100 and it was going all the way to 70 out of 100. In the exams I think, you need 56 out of 100 or 80 out of 150. Once I failed, I was not feeling demotivated because I knew this was a learning opportunity for me before the exam. In the exam, you also need a little bit of luck. In terms of the range of your score you may get 90, you may get 110 or 120. As far as I know, there are five different modules for each case study. For some questions you may have better ideas than for others. In my own situation I was easily articulating the answers for all the questions plus one or two questions were exactly the same that you had asked in the mock exams, exactly the same. VIVA was also very supportive. That's all I can say.

Thomas: I think your advice there is great. So, mock exam practice is probably the key thing. And more than that, even, is having some of your mock exams marked by a tutor thereby getting the feedback. And I know a lot of people, just as you mentioned, at the start of CIMA studies are intimidated with the first exam or two, and students are always intimidated by the first mock exam or the second mock exam - they're nervous - they feel they're not ready. It's so important to sit down and do the mock exams because you make your mistakes there. You're not waiting until the exam day to make all of your mistakes. You're making your mistakes and you're getting them corrected, and then when you sit the exam on the exam day, you're much, much less likely to make the same mistakes. So, great advice. You've been a VIVA student right since the start of your CIMA study, I think. So, what is it about VIVA that you like?

Murat: I started with the operational case study with VIVA, and I passed that on the first attempt. Then I said, “It works. I will continue this way right up to management level and the strategic level. So, as mentioned, in the beginning you have the general view - I don't exactly know in the VIVA language, the topics, but you first go through the case study; the important material in all the details, which is great because you have experience of all these case studies with a couple of people who are experts. You have these detailed warnings, like, “There might be a question coming from here.” So I was trying to include this information in the answers in detail even though there is not the exact one-to-one question. But you can still use all this information. If there is any difference in let's say the DSO, DPO, etc. for example, very detailed accounting knowledge, you can just put it in the answer. Besides, the DSO number has changed slightly which indicates that there is a problem in this company. I think the CIMA exam providers like these references to the material in the answers. So I liked that. I also liked the Lifetime Guarantee option because it gives you a guarantee that if you fail, you can take it again. This is really generous. Also personally, maybe psychologically, once you make all these five mock exams you feel, “Okay, I'm ready” even though I couldn't get quite high grades in the mock exams. This was motivating me also like, “Okay, I've done what I could. I’m ready.” So, this is my opinion  and you can easily see that the VIVA people are quite knowledgeable and expert on the CIMA subjects.

Thomas: So, changing the topic and  going back to your own professional life. Is there anyone in the world of business that you particularly admire?

Murat: When I was in Mars, our unit CFO was quite knowledgeable in terms of accounting, finance, business partnering skill. But he was also quite hard-working, and quite humble, and an enjoyable person to be around. I really admired him professionally. He was kind of an inspiration for me and he was motivating me a lot when I studied for CIMA. Maybe this was also one of the reasons why I pushed so hard, because after a while, it created an expectation from other people. “Okay, this guy can handle it. This guy can finish it.” So, thanks to his efforts, maybe, I also made it in a very short period of time. This is the person I really admire.

Thomas: A final question then. So, I guess combining CIMA study with your job doesn't leave a lot of time for hobbies. But what do you like to do when you do have some time free?

Murat: Thank you for the question. After COVID, there's not much you can do. So, if I think about the non-COVID scenario, I used to swim 3-4 days a week - this was my routine. I was travelling a lot around the world as often as I could because in corporate life, you don't have that much time. I am also a big fan of football. I am a Galatasaray fan as a Turkish person, and I do watch games. I like the Premier League as well. I watch a couple of games at the weekend, if I have time. And then just normal stuff like spending time with friends. I'm a movie addict, I really like watching movies. I used to watch more before studying CIMA. I used to watch 3-4 movies every week. But, yes, spending time with friends and family, all this general stuff.

Thomas: Murat, it's been great talking to you. Lots of great advice there, and congratulations again on your big achievement in becoming fully CIMA qualified. It's a great story.

Murat: Thank you very much. I really appreciate your time, as well.

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