The Accountant’s Guide to a Career in Technology
By John Stokdyk
When he recently asked in an AccountingWEB opinion article, Why aren't there more accountants in IT?, Microsoft's Tim Lennard began by suggesting there was a potential surplus of talent within the profession that could be more gainfully employed in the technology business.
One of the reasons Lennard's article was so popular was that it managed to provoke reactions from both sides of the fence. Several IT industry veterans dropped into the conversation to describe their front-line experiences, while technophobes highlighted some of the reasons not to go into IT. The discussion provided both practical career advice, and a discourse on the differing nature of the two professions. This article summarizes some of the key issues raised.
For a company that has made no secret of its need to court accountancy firms and finance departments, there was an element of cheek in Lennard's recruitment drive. Qualified accountants are in short supply and Microsoft is competing for talent with the same people it's trying to woo, suggests former Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales president Paul Druckman.
"Tim's argument is just plain wrong - but I think it opens an interesting debate. If you are a good professional, then you will be in demand. I think qualified accountants are big boys and girls and can make up their own minds."
Druckman is in a position to know. He was the first IT Faculty chairman to ascend to the ICAEW presidency and was able to devote time to the institute after enjoying a successful career in the software industry.
"I was always interested in technology when I was in practice and going into business gave me a way to explore those interests while still applying my professional knowledge," he says.
Not everyone is in a position to follow Druckman's path, but Lennard makes a strong case for those who may want to break away from the staid, hierarchical accountancy career ladder. Technology also has the potential to open up new revenue streams for firms, without undermining their staffing structures.
"[IT] provides a great opportunity for established accounting practices to be more active as technology advisors and suppliers," he says.
For individuals with an accounting background, there is a clear and rewarding career path, he continues. "The ability to apply industry expertise and specialized business knowledge to accountancy-related problems can make working in the business solutions market extremely rewarding."
The advantages he lists include:
- Varied work, fresh challenges and a culture of continual innovation
- More flexible working patterns and opportunities to travel extensively and work remotely
- Higher starting salaries than in practice and the potential to rise through the ranks faster than in a traditional hierarchy.
Teddy Murphy, of business intelligence software house Miagen, confirms Lennard's thesis:
"There is a certain type of accountant that can really flourish in delivering analytical solutions," he says. "They are the ones who are very proficient at Excel, know their way around databases and can quickly identify the optimum solutions to complex problems. We're always on the lookout for people who have a good accountancy background but want more."
Accountants in IT: Advice from Some Veterans
Alastair Harris describes himself as having a foot in each camp and knows a number of colleagues in similar roles and comments. "It's not that uncommon, and if you are suitably inclined then it can be a most satisfying occupation," he advises.
Steve Bennett is another accountant with IT experience, having spent time as an IT finance manager with a FTSE company. While he is happy to apply both skills, most accountants in his experience are still fairly IT-phobic and distrust the IT industry's "snake-oil" sales tendency.
After seven years in IT pre-sales, implementation, product management and consultancy, Steve Smith agrees that the work was varied and interesting, but adds a cautionary note: "The environment was unstable and the organization, procedure and training were nothing like you'd get in an accountancy practice.
"My training and background helped me to be quite successful. The problem was that the accountancy recruitment industry could no longer pigeon-hole me (eg as an audit manager or financial controller), so I seemed to become less marketable. The experience I gained was incredibly useful and should have made me more valuable in a typical accountancy role."
Smith found it even more difficult to move in the IT industry as there were fewer appropriate jobs so, like Druckman, he left to start my own business.
Reasons Not to Make the Jump
In the opposite corner, Jan Chan, Bennett and others picked up on the temperamental differences between the two professions, with "Jimmymac" suggesting that accountants were no more IT-adept than other management groups.
In Chan's view, "Accountants don't like the uncertainty of IT. They like to add up numbers and see that they are correct. In IT there is a risk that something hasn't been taken into account or even that there is some uncontrollable element like memory overflow etc.
"Also it is seen as a bad way to move up the ladder. Short term gain long term pain. The only accountants who get involved are hobbyists."
George Brown comments that while IT requires constant innovation to remain competitive, accountancy is driven by archaic rules designed to be inflexible and restrictive. His solution? After completing his ACCA training, he plans to get a post as a "pure" accountant in an IT company. "I want to be part of an innovative, fast-moving industry, but I want to be involved in the accountancy part of it, because, for my sins, that is what I enjoy," he says.
IT and the Finance Director
This was much the same route that Jenni Gerrard followed. After gaining valuable, and occasionally painful, experience working on a major ERP implementation project, she was offered a position as a financial consultant by the company's IT supplier. In spite of the attractive financial package on offer, the on-the-road lifestyle did not appeal. "I did not want to spend most of my time dealing with and/or taking the blame for other people's problems/weaknesses; and also I did still actually want to be an accountant and to stay with the company I was with," she says.
Jenni retained her accounting role and has since moved on to become the finance director for a Microsoft Business Solutions Partner. "Clearly this is another way to combine the skill sets of the accountancy and IT worlds," she advises.
Ben Cooper of software reseller ATW views the hybrid finance/IT director as a logical evolution in the profession's relationship with the computer.
Almost every company of any size uses computers and sensible FDs take an interest so they can control how new technology can be used in their business, he argues. The relationship has reached its logical conclusion with the concept of a finance and information technology director.
"In almost every mid-market company I now meet, the FD fulfils this dual role – and has a better grasp than most over today’s technology," says Cooper. "An IT strategy with a five-year software view and three-year hardware view, monitored and controlled by the FD’s experienced hand, heralds results."
The Hobbyists' View
There is a grain of truth in Jan Chan's quip about accountancy's "IT hobbyists", yet many thriving businesses and software applications have grown up on the strength of an individual accountant's enthusiasm. MYOB's web-based Singleview knowledge management system, for example, was originally developed by the IT partner at Berg Kaprow Lewis, Jeremy Hyman.
Closer to home, Glover Stanbury partner Kevin Salter developed his interest in technology into a lucrative sideline. He is IT director of the 2020 Group and now develops and sells a range of programs, including Tax Tips and Tools via his company, BBS Computing.
"Initially, I was trying to fulfil a need within the firm. What I wanted wasn't there, so I just did it with the tools I hand - mainly Microsoft Office. I was fortunate that people within the firm recognized that what I produced might be useful to others," says Salter.
How Do You Become an IT Consultant?
Perhaps the best indication that Microsoft's Tim Lennard had found a receptive audience came from "Steve", who asked the logical follow-up question, "How does one go about becoming a business solutions consultant?"
There is plenty of advice available from role models on AccountingWEB. You can tell who's been a consultant, because they will often answer a question with another question. John Clough, who recently joined the IRIS Enterprise division after a period running BDO's IT consulting and software implementation wing, answers: "What kind of consultant do you want to be? Do you want to be in practice, or work with a reseller?"
As Clough has learned, you can have both. In his case, while training to be a management accountant Clough decided he'd rather work in IT and went to work for an IT reseller. "I was young and naive at the time and didn't know that accountancy firms would sell software," he jokes.
Either route will work, with the main difference being cultural.
"If you're in practice and like the culture, find a firm that sells and implements software," he says. Or you can develop an in-house operation by asking colleagues to refer clients who want IT help to you, which is how BDO Stoy Hayward grew its IT operation.
"If you want to be more business-orientated and more energetic, and are less worried about people always asking you about independence and standards, without question go to a reseller," adds Clough.
How Do You Get the Necessary IT Skills?
Burton-Sweet's Nigel Harris worries that the level of skills required to be an IT consultant extends way beyond what most accountants gain through their professional training. "Accountants get more IT training in their jobs than in professional courses - and IT training usually means Microsoft Office and specialist applications," he says.
IT trainer and former IT Faculty chairman Simon Hurst answered these fears by pointing out that there are lots of different types of IT consultant.
"A proper nuts-and-bolts technology consultant would require a lot of technical training. But someone who seeks to help companies use IT properly needs a good business background and good contacts with people in IT," he says. "What an accountant learns gives you all the necessary business and project management background to be a pretty good IT consultant. You might get derailed if an IT consultant thinks an account is muscling in on their territory, but I think of it more as playing a Des Lynam role.
"On the old World Cup TV programs, Des Lynam would sit between Ally McCoist and David Ginola. They couldn't understand what each other was saying, so Des would interpret. The role of the accountant in IT should be to get two sides who talk different languages to understand each other."
Technophobia may also be a generational thing for accountants, according to Paul Druckman. "Most people of my generation don't recognize how much the new crop of accountants are involved in business analysis. The institute has paid more attention to technology in recent years and the case-study based training regime provides better assistance for people who aspire to go the technology route."
Hurst follows this comment up by emphasizing the need of continuing professional development. "The issue for accountants wanting to dabble in technology is confidence," he says. "Both the initial training and CPD resources should enable accountants to satisfy themselves that they do have the necessary skills in this area. They do have most of the skills and a lot of accountants could work in this area, but they don't know if they know enough, and there aren't enough people out there telling them what they do need to know."