Wanted: Tech-Savvy Accountants

From beans to buttons, today's accountants must excel at software, spreadsheets, and the Web.

The days of mere bean counting are long gone for accountants. The profession has always been rather technical, but these days the big firms are looking for signs that up-and-comers not only know numbers, but are fluent in technology too.

“Thirty years ago, as a new CPA in public practice with a ‘Big 8′ accounting firm, we had 10-Key races where we showed our prowess in the fast use of adding machines,” says Charles Mulford, an accounting professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology College of Management. “Yes, things have changed.”

The adding machines of today are more powerful and complex, like the financial instruments they try to make sense of, and those looking for new talent say young accountants must be proficient.

“What has evolved is a real need in the marketplace to have accounting graduates with strong technical skills,” says Stephen Hasty, head of IT advisory services at KPMG.

Accountants have to be comfortable with the software companies are using, Hasty says, so dexterity with Excel and other spreadsheet programs is no longer enough. Knowledge of enterprise-risk software, and tools that allow for continuous audits and monitoring of internal controls, are valuable skills. KPMG’s in-house training program has a heavy technology focus, but those with a strong foundation have an advantage.

PricewaterhouseCoopers does not expect new graduates to have experience using all the software the accounting firm requires, but they need to be able to learn quickly. Training programs last between two and six weeks. More technical positions require an affinity for such specialties as forensic technology and data management.

“We’re really looking for people who have the brainpower and willingness to learn,” says Paula Jones, a campus recruiter for PwC. Still, a handle on spreadsheets and the usual Web skills remains important. “People are letting us know more and more that they are Web-savvy,” Jones says.

Scott McQuillan, a recruiter at Deloitte, notes that Web skills have become increasingly important for basic research and for utilizing a lot of the firm’s software that is now Web-based. He finds that students who have done internships before graduating have an advantage because they tend to be more familiar with audit and tax software packages. And although finding candidates with double-majors in accounting and finance has become common, more aspiring accountants are mixing an IT major into their curriculum.

“We find that this generation of students is pretty savvy,” McQuillan says. “They grew up on the Web.”

For those who already have accounting jobs but are less wise to the Web, Paul McDonald, executive director of RHI Management Resources, which recruits accounting and finance professionals, advises diving into more technical projects if the chance arises. The expected change from traditional financial statements to the use of eXtensible business reporting language (XBRL), or interactive data, should provide an opportunity for all accountants to get involved in new technology.

“The projection is that this is going to be the reporting tool,” McDonald says. “If you’re fortunate enough to get into a financial reporting department that is using XBRL, you’re going to be putting yourself into a better position in terms of marketability.”

Although hard skills are crucial for accounting, McDonald was quick to point out that “soft” skills are of increasing importance, especially for those hoping to move up in a company. IT isn’t everything if you cannot work well with others.

“It’s valuable to have a well-rounded liberal-arts education,” he says. “When you enter an organization at a higher level, you’re asked to communicate more. Written and verbal communication skills will set you apart.”

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