To celebrate international youth day, The Accountant and International Accounting Bulletin asks professionals aged under 35 to share their thoughts on the profession: why they qualify as accountants, whether it was challenging and, now that they are in, how they see the profession and where it is going.
Finance and Accounting Specialist at Archilogic AG
I was born and raised in a small village in the south of the Netherlands. After completing high school I had to decide what to study at University. Similar to many at that age, I wasn’t 100% sure about what I wanted to do after studying. I was exposed to several small businesses in my childhood, so I knew that I wanted to study something that would enable me to help small businesses with their finances. After talking to my dad and his colleagues, who are accountants, I learned that accounting is a great background to have, and it would provide me the technical basis for a variety of careers in finance.
In addition, I wanted to spread my wings and discover the world outside of my village, so I enrolled in a Bachelor of International Business program, which would allow me to study abroad and continue to get a Masters in Accounting. I studied in Finland and Spain, both of which were enriching experiences.
During my Masters program, I wrote my thesis under a contract from one of the Big Four. The expectation was that I would work for this firm after graduation. However, they did not allow international placements until you had a few years of work experience, so I began looking elsewhere. Through a local accounting firm (Bol) that was part of an international accounting network, I was able to find an internship for an accounting firm based out of San Francisco.
During this four-month internship, I worked in the assurance practice, ticking and tying, all the good stuff. After my internship I spent a year travelling throughout southeast Asia and South America, and during this time, I decided I wanted to return to San Francisco. Luckily, I received a job offer from a small accounting startup, SD Mayer & Associates.
I returned to San Francisco in September 2013, and began working as a Staff Accountant. From there, I quickly rose to Senior Accountant and Supervisor and became the acting manager on several of our assurance jobs.
Having a Masters in Accounting was useful, but in the United States, a CPA license is a must for career advancement. So I put my mind to it and completed the four tests over an 8-month period with an average test score of 92.
I always knew that I did not want to do audits as a lifelong career and luckily, the firm was growing very quickly, so there were plenty of opportunities to learn other aspects of the business. My scope of responsibility expanded to include: consulting, assurance, tax, and outsource accounting. I then joined the company’s leadership team, which allowed me to help shape the firm and structure internal processes. I recently moved to Switzerland due to my fiancée’s work, but remained active for SDM and I am currently acting as the company’s CFO.
I feel very fortunate working at a company like SDM. Watching an accounting firm grow from 15 to 45 people in 3 years has allowed me to expand my expertise into all aspects of accounting and learn a tremendous amount directly from the founder, Steve Mayer.
In the Netherlands and in the US, the common trajectory is to start out working for a large firm, put in your time, build your resume and then use that resume to land a nice job. For me, spending a few months at one of the Big Four was enough time to know that it wasn’t a culture I would do well in. It was a tough choice to walk away from their offer, especially since many of my friends were trying to get such an offer, but I am very happy that I did. Smaller companies cannot compete with larger ones when it comes to their recruiting budgets, but it is important for young people to know that there is a different path you can take. The level of freedom and responsibility that you experience at a smaller firm can never be matched by the structured, hierarchical approach of a larger firm. Furthermore, the work-life balance at a smaller firm is a bit more pleasant. However, there are downsides as well, the main one being the lack of structured training. I am a self-starter, so it was not an issue for me, but I believe that smaller firms need to emphasize training of their younger employees to attract and retain them.
On whether professional institutions cater effectively for prospective young accountants I have my doubts. Take the typical structure of the middle to large accounting firm as an example- you essentially know your trajectory for the coming 20 years when you get in. However, with the increased flexibility in the marketplace and availability of information about other jobs, that is not very appealing. Furthermore, the idea of having to work a crazy number of hours, so that later you can have other people do the same thing for you, is not the best approach to attract Millennials who value work life balance, family and flexibility over just a salary.
Furthermore, it continues to surprise me, how many decades behind technology the accounting industry is. From speaking to colleagues at other firms, I know that using something as basic as cloud accounting is only now becoming standard. This is an important factor to consider when trying to attract and retain a generation that is accustomed to everything being electronic.
I think the accounting industry is ready to be revamped with technology. Technology is going to play a very big part in the accounting world and I think that firms which are hesitant to adapt to these changes will lose the race. Not just due to inefficiencies but also due to the additional effect it has on attraction and retention of younger professionals.
I personally think that there are many tasks that a typical accountant performs which can easily be automated. As a matter of fact, to be part of this change I co-founded a company called Techne.ai which is accounting software that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to replace the internal accountant for small businesses. By asking simple questions regarding your business, it allows the average non-accountant business owner to effectively manage and accurately keep track of its transactions. Initiatives like Techne.ai will very quickly change the entire accounting landscape.
During my time at SDM, I also joined the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and co-founded SFup, the Chamber’s young professional's group. I found this experience very valuable in building my network, and would support the concept of creating a network of young professionals in the accounting industry. We all have many of the same questions, thoughts and experiences, and it would be beneficial for us to share with each other. Instead of wondering about what the future of accounting will look like, this will give us a chance to shape it together.