“Oh God,” You think, sitting on the toilet as you stare at your phone, “I wanted to read something fun during my one work-approved bathroom break. So why did I click on an article about accounting?”
I see you, friend, and I pity you. Unfortunately, accounting is not a glamorous career. Although recently described in “Our Flag Means Death” as “fancy as f**k,” accounting is just a job like any other. For some people, I think accounting can be a gateway to an exciting career with room for advancement. For others, it is something you do to pay the bills while you wait for death.
I wrote this article hoping it might help any baby accountants out there and shed some light on the field. However, if that still sounds lame, please feel free to read this article where I talk about what I want to see in the third season of “The Orville,” or this ground-breaking article where I rank all couples from the “Ice Planet Barbarians” series.
One: You Don’t Have to Be Good at Math, But You Do Have to Be Good at Excel
If you don’t know what a VLOOKUP is, google it now. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. Here, I’ll even provide a link.
Alright, got it? Perfect.
That’s one of many excel functions you’ll need to be able to do as an accountant. Allow me to explain: most of the job is looking at a list of transactions and then double-checking that those transactions happened properly. That’s it. Tada! Now you can go be an accountant.
Obviously, it’s a little more complicated than that (otherwise, I wouldn’t have failed the CPA exam so many times), but when you work in accounting, specifically auditing, so much of your time is spent going through evidence. Your job is to make sure that the financial statements you’re looking at aren’t chock-full of fraud, and for that, you need evidence. You also need a way to keep track of that evidence and neatly organize it for reference.
This is where Excel steps in. Suppose you’re unfamiliar with Excel (yes, I’m looking at you, Person Who Lied About Being Proficient in Excel On Your Resume). In that case, it’s basically a magical spreadsheet with a built-in calculator. My honest advice is that if you can take a simple how-to Excel course, then do it. I never did, and I wish I had because it would have helped so much. But basically, accountants use Excel because it allows us to keep good notes and do basic calculations. If you can do that, then you know all the math you’ll ever need to know for this job. You don’t have to be Leaven or Kazan from “Cube” to be an accountant.
Other software will also come in handy later, but for now, focus on excel. No running before you can stand.
Two: “Spinning Your Wheels” May Not Mean What You Think It Means
The first time my senior said, “I don’t want you spinning your wheels on this assignment,” my honest thoughts were, “Aw, what a sweet person, they don’t want me to be confused.”
I was wrong. Super wrong.
Over and over again during this assignment, they would check in on my progress and repeat to me that they didn’t want me to “spin my wheels,” to which I would reply, “I’m not.” But that’s because I didn’t understand what “spinning your wheels” meant. I thought it meant that I was taking the time I needed to work my way through a new assignment, even if I wasn’t as fast as an experienced staff. I have a tendency to take things literally. “Spinning your wheels” does not mean “pobrecito, you don’t understand this,” but rather, “Do not waste a second of time on this because we are busy people and have no time to lose.”
Not everyone cares if you’re confused so much as they care that you don’t waste time. The time you spend being confused is time you could instead spend doing something else or having the topic explained to you.
The unfair part is that no one outright tells you what “spinning your wheels” means. It is a weird bit of corporate lingo that you learn while on the job. My pet theory is that most professionals only say it because someone else once told it to them, and now they’re parroting it back to the lower staff.
They may say it kindly, and you’ll think it has to do with their concern for you as a new employee, but in reality, your seniors are concerned about the budget allocated to your project. The last thing they need is some stupid new employee blowing up that budget because they didn’t ask for help soon enough.
When you don’t understand something, try this instead:
- Stop what you’re doing.
- Reread any instructions for the assignment.
- Write down your questions.
- Let your senior know you’re confused.
- Move on to something else.
- Maybe your senior/manager/person in charge of you will deign to explain the complex accounting (or they’ll just tell you to work on something else).
- Repeat the process until you eventually quit your job to become a Broadway producer.
This doesn’t mean that your senior will drop everything to help you, but it does mean that you’re aware of your limits and know when to ask for help.
Three: No One Knows What You Do (Except for Other Accountants)
Turn to your closest friend, one who is not an accountant, and ask them what they think an accountant does. You’ll probably get an answer like “Taxes.” Sure, close enough. Some accountants do work with taxes. Others, like myself, are in auditing. That means my job is to review an organization’s spending habits and make sure there’s nothing creepy in the financial statements. If something shady happens, that means more work for my team and me as we now have to get to the bottom of the shadiness.
Accountants do not want to find fraud. Fraud is a crime. Crime is bad. However, it is our job to make sure that an organization is being honest. Real people face the consequences when we cannot do our jobs or do a bad job. These real people are like the citizens of Dixon, who lost $53.7 million because their city Comptroller, Rita Crundwell, was embezzling that money and funneling it into a champion horse breeding operation. Or all of the poor Enron employees who lost their jobs and their retirements. Or the people who depend on non-profit services but cannot access them because the funds have been misused.
The thing about accounting is occasionally, you’re going to work long hours, and while that work may sound tedious, it is also necessary. “Bean counting” can be the thing that stands between you and thousands of people losing their retirement. Are we serving in Starfleet, bravely defending Earth from Borg attacks? Hell no, but we are doing something, and when we do that something well, it can make a huge difference in other people’s lives.
Four: You Will Eat Your Time
This is a controversial issue. For those not in the know, the phrase “eating your time” means that you say it takes less time to do the job than in actuality. It is an unfair practice – you do more work for less credit; management doesn’t know how long it takes for the job to get done; the next person to do the job the following year is screwed. So why do we do this?
I’d argue this point for any salaried job with billable hours, but it’s especially true for accounting. The reason boils down to two things: you need to reach a certain amount of billable hours, but if you go over budget, your manager will get upset with you. What does that mean? If something takes you nine hours, you may say it only took eight. But your company requires that you spend a certain amount of hours each year working on client-related stuff. What is the outcome? You’ll find yourself volunteering for more work to get to that number, even if technically you already have. All of those hours you spent working on something and not counting them? There is the option of considering those practice hours your gift to the company. (Does that sound bleak and horrible? Because it is.)
I don’t recommend that any person eat their time. It is infuriating. However, with this kind of work, (and a lot of work that is salaried and has budgets and billable hours requirements), it is not always possible to record the precise amount you worked. Also, you may have management that takes issue with the amount of time you’ve recorded for your engagement, and asks you to resubmit a timesheet that’s more in line with how long they thought the assignment should take. This has happened to me, and yeah, it sucked.
Which I guess brings me to my final point…
Five: Stand Up for Yourself
Once upon a time, when I was just a baby accountant, I was given a job far beyond my abilities. However, my coworkers (all of whom were more experienced accountants and did not want to do the job themselves) were encouraging and said that I could do the job and everything would be just fine. The most senior person I was working with at the time, who approved me to go on this assignment, told me, “You got this.”
I did not “got this.”
I performed horribly. I had received no training and was completely overwhelmed. That assignment was one of the most humiliating work experiences I have ever had, one that I still think about years later and cringe over. But, looking back on it now, I understand what happened: no one else wanted to do the job, and they took a risk by sending a new, untrained person to do it for them. It was a disaster not because of my performance but poor management.
However, I should have said something. At the time, I felt like I could not refuse. I felt put on the spot. Also, I was trained to “say yes to everything” and “be a team player,” when in reality, I wasn’t ready for the job and couldn’t be the team player they needed. I should have advocated for myself.
Starting any new job can be challenging. One of those challenges is knowing when and how to say “no.” If you work at a large company, you will be working with people who do not know you. They will ask you to do things beyond your paygrade, usually because they do not want to do those tasks themselves. When someone asks you to do something annoying, it is not because they’re a bad person but rather just that they’re, you know, a person. They have their own stuff going on, and sometimes, showing empathy to the new guy isn’t the highest priority on their list.
That job as a baby accountant was the worst learning lesson, but learn I did. My job as a public accountant is not my first post-college job, and I think that’s made a huge difference in how I approach my work. If I can, I want to avoid putting myself in situations that make me miserable because I won’t perform as well. I still want to do a good job, but if something isn’t working for me within my company, I try to speak up and do something about it. For the longest time, I was stuck on assignments that made me want to drink bleach, and I think if I had been younger, I would have tolerated it. But, instead of tolerating the less-than-ideal situation, I said something and found myself working on assignments that I liked a lot more.
What can be tough about working for a big company is that you have to look out for yourself. Most people are reasonably concerned with their own workload and aren’t thinking about your well-being. This isn’t meant to be unkindness but just reality. You have to be willing to advocate for yourself. If you’re not comfortable with something, then you should speak up. Other people may mean well, but they’re not going to white knight for you. You need to be willing to rescue yourself.
Accounting can be a really wonderful career. There is a lot of demand for accounting work and the field is increasing. That means job security and room for advancement. For some disabled individuals, accounting has been an incredible career. If you do go into accounting, there are also a lot of ways in which you can use your skills to help other people. If you go into accounting and enjoy it, you can feel satisfied that your work makes a difference.
I like to think that somewhere out in the world, there is a young person in high school deciding their future course. Maybe they come from a family of artists. Their father won a McArthur Genius Award and thus feels compelled to erect hideous, industrial-looking structures on the UC San Diego campus. Their mother does weird inhalation performance art. Their older sibling stuffs dead cows with fireworks to make a statement about… something. And yet this young person does not have that same artistic ability. Maybe their attempts at abstract art look more like a series of T-Accounts. I want this young person to know that they don’t have to follow their family’s dream. They can look their dear pa in the eye and say, “No, being an artist was your dream, Pa.” This person can audaciously forge their own path into the adventurous field of accounting.
My only hope is that this person finds this article first and that it helps them, just a little.
2 thoughts on “5 Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Became an Accountant”
-I am mediocre at best with Excel…
-When I took accounting, I told you I actually really liked it… but I know one class doesn’t even skim the service. I did like hearing about all the scandals and the discretion that managers use to bump the numbers. My professor’s favorite word was discretion
-Poor UCSD, but the library looks like a spaceship