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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.

1. Get certified

The three of them have one thing in common: They are certified by CPA (Certified Practising Accountant) Australia.

According to Ang, the CPA Australia qualification indicates that one has an understanding of accounting and finance fundamentals.

You can think of it as a mark of quality assurance. Not all roles in the finance and accounting sector require the CPA Australia qualification. However, it is widely regarded in the industry.

From a potential employer’s point of view, the fact that a job applicant has attained CPA qualification signals that they have completed a rigorous CPA Program, on top of having a recognised degree and accumulated at least three years of professional experience in finance, accounting or business.

And it’s not just a certificate that goes up on a wall to collect dust.

Employers are also assured that their potential hire goes through continual professional development (CPD) courses or activities every year, and holds themselves to a strict code of ethical conduct.

Looking back on his career so far, Ang is able to see how his CPA qualification gave him credibility among his different employers because it opened many doors for him.

Thus far, he has worked in five different roles in four different countries, and was able to find and secure opportunities in the areas of business and technology.

2. Grow your network

Ang’s ability to move from company to company, I suspect, has also got something to do with networking.

“It is always easier with a soft introduction,” he shares.

“Your network is your net worth,” observes Goh, citing the title of a book by Porter Gale and recalling how networking has allowed him to learn from others with more experience or knowledge.

Lim concurs, adding that networking has helped to broaden her perspectives and learn from others.

Exchanging information and knowledge with peers is also a way to benchmark oneself and identify ways to improve, says Goh.

3. Pursue breadth and not just depth

Goh adds that depth in an area of specialisation is often a criteria for shortlisting graduate hires, but it is breadth that allows one to stand out.

Being able to analyse real business issues, while “connecting dots between the financial numbers and problems” is what counts, Goh says.

This is why Goh sees how the accounting profession is more than just technical knowledge picked up in the course of pursuing one’s university degree.

On a similar note, Ang says that he wants to broaden his experience too, and is keen to explore the areas of sales and Key Account Management.

Breadth is an area where Goh and Ang have been helped by their participation in the CPA Program because it requires its members to possess and maintain a wide range of accountancy knowledge.

4. Get involved in management

Another common topic that all three highlight is taking on management responsibilities as they advanced in their career.

Ang was called upon to be involved in more projects, and is glad to have picked up project management certification along the way.

Goh recommends the CPA qualification for aspiring business leaders, pointing out that it is a requirement for many managerial positions.

It is also “more than just a recognised accountant’s qualification” to Goh, who shares that his training in the CPA Program has given him wider business knowledge that allows him not just to crunch numbers, but to draw meaningful conclusions from them.

This then allows him to add value to his work.

What about the impact of Covid-19?

Those considering a career in accounting and finance would be glad to hear that Covid-19 has had a relatively smaller impact, as compared to other industries, and has in fact accelerated change for the better.

In fact, Goh says that it is “one of the least impacted by Covid-19”.

Like in all other industries, accounting and finance professionals have had to adapt to having less face-to-face interaction.

But this, while disruptive, has also accelerated digital transformation projects, Goh shares.

Lim adds that the banking sector is now accepting more digital copies of documents than before the pandemic.

And this has led to “positive changes to the company in terms of operational efficiency”.

“Finance and accounting jobs are still [available] in the market hence I believe there are still opportunities out there in the market for anyone who is keen to join the industry,” says Goh.

And this is where the CPA Program comes in.

CPA Program by CPA Australia

CPA Australia offers a comprehensive CPA Program with curriculum covering important fundamentals of accounting, finance, and business.

The program comprises six modules which can be completed as quickly as within a year, or spread out over six years at most. These modules are designed to build on an applicant’s work experience, and a minimum of 36 months’ experience is required.

Members of CPA Australia get access to a range of learning materials across different formats (from YouTube videos to podcasts), as well as mentoring and networking opportunities, thanks to its growing base of more than 165,000 members across 150 countries.

This is shared from a Mothership article by Nigel Chua

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