S’pore accountants debunk common misconception that they are just ‘excel crunchers’

If these three young professionals got a dollar for every misconception about their profession, they would probably have a large number of transactions to account for.

Nigel Chua | November 25, 2020

Some may think accounting and finance is boring, while others simply don’t know enough about it to have an impression.

So it seems that misconceptions and wrong impressions about the industry may abound more than accurate notions of what this group of diverse and dynamic professionals actually do in their jobs.

“People usually do not understand the different finance or accounting functions in a big commercial company,” says Edwin Ang, 32.

For instance, Ang is a Senior Financial Controller at foodpanda although most refer to him as the Tax and Audit Guy or an Excel Cruncher.

And, from what Ang says, those who meet him for the first time seem more interested about the fact that he works at foodpanda, preferring to share their opinions of the app and compare it with the competition.

But what is it about accounting and finance that draws in young professionals despite being seen by many as Very Boring But Stable Work?

I speak to three young professionals in the finance and accounting industry and learn some valuable insider insights about their career experiences, hopes for the future (in a post-Covid-19 world, lol) and their thoughts about the field in general.

The impression that accounting is a boring job, with long working hours is commonly-held, says 26-year-old Goh Jun De, a senior analyst in finance at Allianz. And Goh candidly says that this impression is “half correct”, though it is likely due to the older generation of the accounting profession.

In the old days, accounting professionals would be called upon to take charge of “the usual bookkeeping, data entry, invoice processing and payment” functions, Goh explains.

Today, there is “much more accounting can do”, says Goh.

What does “much more” look like?

Ang shares that there are certain accounting and finance roles that are simply more exciting than others. In his experience, this is the case here in Singapore, but also in Sydney and Hong Kong, as well as the UK.

Here’s what the exciting side of accounting and finance looks like.

Working with A.I and technology

Beverly Lim, 27, a bank compliance manager, points out that software she used in school has quickly become less relevant, as companies adopt accounting software that is powered by Artificial Intelligence, and applications that automate otherwise-labour-intensive processes, known as Robotic Process Automation applications.

They might not have the most exciting name, but these apps are indeed changing the way accounting and finance professionals work.

Lim explains that RPA can be used to perform searches and generate reports automatically, using the applications to record a series of mouse movements. Bank statements and other reports can thus be generated with minimal errors, at any time of the day.

Lim says that it’s now increasingly common for finance professionals to work with technology consultants to adopt, or even develop such applications.

This is just one of the ways that accounting and finance professionals can move away from mundane, transactional tasks and add value to their work.

Focusing on strategy

Lim and Ang mention repeatedly that accounting and finance professionals do more strategic thinking these days.

With technology coming in to handle the rough and tumble of calculations, they are clearly not confined to simply being “excel crunchers”, as any of their resumes would quickly attest to.

This little-known “strategic side of finance” is what Ang finds most interesting about his work.

For example, Ang’s stint in Hong Kong saw him doing forecasts of the market for PCs at his role in Intel, which at the time dominated the industry with over 90 per cent of market share.

As more companies set up regional offices in Singapore, accountants like Ang will have opportunities to take on higher-order work like forecasting and analysis.

And I can see how Goh, who wants to pick up skills in data and visual analytics, will be able to contribute strategically as well, by translating hard numbers into insights, which can then help his company make prudent decisions.

Gaining agility

Accounting and finance can also open doors to other opportunities.

Ang went from his forecasting role at Intel to managing its notebook product portfolio, which was valued at US$4 billion (S$5.65 billion) at the time. Ang’s job was to ensure that revenue, supply, and demand were on target for key accounts in Asia such as Asus, Acer, Fujitsu and Samsung.

“Accounting is the language of business, and you have to learn it like a language,” says Ang, quoting legendary investor Warren Buffett.

Ang explains that just like mastering a language, having a solid foundation in accounting equipped him to move through a diverse range of roles in various businesses and improve his job prospects.

This is echoed by Lim, who adds that accountancy skills open doors to “a myriad of jobs, not necessarily just accounting roles”.

Some of her peers have gone into entrepreneurship, strategy and development roles in businesses, risk and compliance roles, as well as advisory roles in investment banking firms.

Others have even risen through the ranks to become CEOs and CFOs of companies.

How to get on the exciting side?

There are several practical tips that Goh, Ang, and Lim offer but the most important is certification.