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. 

Philip Nathan

Senior director at FTI Consulting

I’m from southern Maryland, and live in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC.  I have been married for three years, with two dogs and a parrot.  I’m a fan of the Maryland Terrapins, Boston Red Sox, and Tottenham Hotspur, in no particular order.  I’ve been practicing since early 2006; since 2007 in the Washington DC office of FTI Consulting.  My practice at FTI is primarily in a technical accounting advisory capacity, with a focus on accounting systems and consolidations.

I’ve always had a knack for rules and logic.  Although that knack turned out to not be enough to get a degree in computer engineering, it was perfectly suited for a life in accounting.  It’s fitting that I’ve become the designated person on my team to dig into accounting systems, whether PeopleSoft, Hyperion, or otherwise.

I sat for the CPA exam in 2006, after completing my busy first season doing audits of mid-size government contractors.  I used the Yaeger Lambers (now simply Yaeger) review course, and sacrificed my social life for the better part of that summer.  I definitely feel like I lucked out because I was staffed on employee benefit plan audits during the summer, which were not particularly mentally draining.  The lighter workload allowed me to devour the review DVDs, and I passed all four parts on the first try.  My firm at the time didn’t offer any assistance with paying for the prep course, but offered a “pass bonus” which was meant to defray the costs.

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Having spent nearly ten years in consulting, I have a “niche” view of the profession – which is to say, my view of the profession is subject to a disclaimer of scope limitation.  I have noticed some troubling patterns in my interactions with both clients and colleagues – generally, a shortage of critical thinking and effective communications skills at the lower levels.  There is often too much reliance on routine and work programs, and a palpable tendency towards risk-aversion.  From these interactions, it seems that critical thinking has not been given enough priority in either the hiring decisions or training.  That said, it provides a remarkable opportunity for accountants who are willing to go the extra mile with regards to their client interactions.

I was fortunate to start my career in a smaller firm where I was able to gain a broader range of experience.  Rather than being a cog in the machine on a huge team of first-year associates, working until 2am six nights per week, and being pigeonholed into testing one or two items for several months on end, I was able to be exposed to different parts of the engagement; touching on all aspects of audit testing and planning, getting into the nuance of the clients’ taxes, and even serving as an outsourced accounting manager for a non-profit for several months, acting as the controller’s right hand. 

I think it’s extremely difficult for the professional institutions to cater effectively for younger accountants. There’s a problem of bandwidth; when a new associate is billing upwards of 60 hours in a week, there’s often neither the appetite nor the ability to “lean in”.  So even though the AICPA is making some definite strides in this area – prioritizing outreach to younger accountants (the AICPA’s This Way to CPA campaign is a great example) – there’s always the question of who we’re going to actually get to reach back.

In the ten years I’ve been in practice, we’ve seen an incremental move towards increased computer literacy.  That said, it’s often restricted to centralized warehousing of engagement materials (Sharepoint, etc.).  What we’ll need in the next decade is to start becoming natives within the world of ERP software; frequently, a real understanding of companies’ accounting systems is trapped within the IT function; the accounting users are left playing catch-up. Whether on a proactive or reactive basis, accountants can make themselves indispensable by learning how to work in these systems.

I think the profession will start to shift more towards a mentality of working “smarter, not harder”.  There are simply too many factors pointing in that direction for it to work out any other way.  Staff burnout is a real threat to developing quality talent.  If good people are leaving the profession because they perceive it as a poor use of their time and talents, that’s a huge loss; these are the people we want to keep around.  Pressure will build from both younger staff and the client themselves to bill fewer hours; we’ll have to do some serious thinking about how to get better quality results from fewer billable hours.