The future is now: XBRL emerges as career niche

Students, employers say knowledge of data-tagging language provides edge in job market.

BY BILL SHERIDAN AND JEFF DREW
June 1, 2012

Opportunity rarely knocks. Life isn’t that easy. Instead, it hides and waits. Our job is to find it and recognize it for what it is. Those who do are rewarded handsomely.

As Exhibit A, consider Jeff Petka, a 31-year-old accountant with Atlanta-based energy giant Southern Co.

In 2009, Petka was walking down a Southern Co. hallway with his supervisor, Bonnie Westbrook, when he caught sight of something familiar on a screen in a conference room.

“Hey, I know that,” he told Westbrook. “That’s Dragon Tag.”

Indeed, it was. Dragon Tag was an XBRL tagging and validation tool produced by Rivet Software (the company has since replaced it with an updated version called the Crossfire Financial Reporting Platform). Petka had learned how to use Dragon Tag while studying XBRL as part of an accounting information systems (AIS) course taught by Ernest Capozzoli, Ph.D., at suburban Atlanta’s Kennesaw State University. Petka’s XBRL knowledge paid off. He immediately gained a spot on Southern Co.’s XBRL team, and when the team’s leader took another job in the company, the XBRL ball fell into Petka’s hands. He has been running with it ever since.

“I’ve taken over the XBRL side at Southern Co. and have helped it grow,” said Petka, who is working on earning his CPA. “(Knowing XBRL) has improved my career exponentially. It has given me a valuable niche in the company.”

“SERIOUS DEFICIENCY OF XBRL-KNOWLEDGEABLE PEOPLE”

XBRL, or extensible business reporting language, is not new. Supporters have been touting XBRL’s potential for years. After a three-year phase-in, the SEC now requires all U.S. public companies to file their financial reports using XBRL.

The SEC mandate has created a lot of extra work for public companies. XBRL tagging is complex (see sidebar, “What’s all the fuss about XBRL?”) and, while a slew of software tools make it possible for non-tech gurus to apply the tagging, doing so properly requires knowledge of accounting standards, especially GAAP, in addition to understanding XBRL. It’s difficult to find professionals proficient in both areas, creating opportunities for CPAs with XBRL skills.

In early April, data from XBRL US, a spinoff of the AICPA that now consists of a consortium of organizations with an interest in XBRL, showed that more than 8,000 public companies had filed more than 30,000 XBRL submissions since the SEC’s mandate first went into effect in 2009. Many public companies outsource their XBRL tagging duties. A group of businesses, known as filing agents, handle most of the outsourced XBRL tagging and filing, said Michelle Savage, vice president, communications, XBRL US.

One of these filing agents is Merrill Corp., a St. Paul, Minn.-based company that provides outsourced XBRL services to more than 700 clients. Mike Schlanger, a Merrill vice president who heads the company’s XBRL efforts, said that accountants who have XBRL experience on their resume have a competitive advantage when seeking jobs at public companies and at companies such as his.

“Every company that does XBRL filing employs accountants,” said Schlanger, and these companies are likely to flag any resume that lists XBRL knowledge or experience.

Schlanger, citing competitive concerns, would not release the number of accountants Merrill employs, but he did say that Merrill has on staff more CPAs than the vast majority of U.S. accounting firms. Of the accountants hired for Merrill’s XBRL team, only one had previous XBRL experience. The rest had to learn the language.

There are signs that XBRL education is slowly starting to spread. Michael Becker heads up the XBRL operation at Business Wire, which counts parent company Berkshire Hathaway, Pfizer, and Papa John’s among its 80 or so clients. Becker has nine accountants on his XBRL team. Two of his last three hires have had XBRL experience.

“Today, you are actually seeing accountants on the market who have XBRL expertise,” Becker said. “That’s a big difference.”

Still, XBRL remains a big opportunity for accounting students and even CPAs in the field.

“It’s worth someone to investigate (XBRL) and probably invest some time to gain some expertise because there is a serious deficiency of XBRL-knowledgeable people in the CPA world,” Schlanger said.

There are no clear numbers as to how many public companies are doing XBRL in-house and how many are outsourcing the work, according to XBRL US’s Savage. That’s because the XBRL documents submitted to the SEC say only which software tool was used to do the tagging, not who did the work.

Becker foresees public companies increasingly taking the work in-house, but not in the near term. In the meantime, companies such as his will be keeping an eye out for XBRL-knowledgeable accountants, especially CPAs.

A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE

XBRL education isn’t confined to the classroom. Just ask Thomas Hood.

The Salisbury (Md.) University senior learned XBRL on the fly while helping the Maryland Association of CPAs (MACPA) become one of the first private, nonprofit groups in the nation to file its internal financial reports via the XBRL Global Ledger framework. Hood, son of MACPA CEO Tom Hood, volunteered to learn XBRL and tag the MACPA’s transactional information accordingly, and in 2011, the association published a white paper about its XBRL initiative in the hopes of helping other private organizations make the leap to XBRL.

Hood’s hands-on XBRL work with the MACPA helped him earn a position with the SC&H Group, an accounting and management-consulting firm in Sparks, Md. He will start his new job there this summer.

For more on the MACPA’s XBRL experience, see “MACPA project serves as XBRL case study for private companies, nonprofits.”

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

As the SEC mandate takes hold, better-trained XBRL taggers and improved tools are helping to reduce errors. In addition, a recent XBRL US demonstration showed new data-mining tools that searched XBRL tags in SEC filings and, in under an hour, identified $1.5 trillion in taxable foreign income that had not been taxed.

With XBRL’s potential as a technology beginning to be realized, educators are shoehorning XBRL into their accounting curricula with increasing frequency. At Salisbury University, where George F. Summers, Ph.D., has been teaching XBRL as part of his AIS course since 2009, the goal is twofold: keep the school’s accounting program on the cutting edge and give students a leg up in the marketplace.

“I don’t think a lot of accountants are using XBRL yet,” said Summers, an assistant professor in Salisbury’s Department of Accounting and Legal Studies, “and (our) students will be in a far better position to climb the ladder quickly, or at least be more comfortable grasping these changes.”

XBRL knowledge also could prove attractive to CPAs in the field who are looking for a competitive edge and a new challenge. In addition, a basic understanding of how XBRL works and what it can do could prove important for management accountants and other executives in a variety of organizations.

“(XBRL) is a disruptor in the education community from an accounting standpoint, but it goes well beyond accounting,” said Kennesaw State’s Capozzoli. “It’s a blend of activities that managers need to be aware of, too. I think managers need to understand what this means, and you can’t do that through abstraction or being three steps removed. You have to understand what the people in the organization have to do to create that filing in an XBRL format.”

The folks at Salisbury have embraced that idea. At about the same time that Summers began incorporating XBRL into his class, Kathleen Wright, CPA, Ph.D., chair of Salisbury’s Information and Decision Sciences Department, introduced XBRL into her Global IT Management course as a way of exposing students to “the opportunities afforded globally via XBRL.”

“Since XBRL is a global phenomenon, I thought it would be great to show (students) how technology can enable transparency,” Wright said. “This is a real global opportunity for students to learn some skills that will be valued around the world.”

The early signs are encouraging. Wright’s students are raising eyebrows during job interviews simply by mentioning XBRL. “They’re the first students some of these interviewers have talked to who even know what XBRL is,” Wright said.

The Baltimore office of McGladrey & Pullen regularly recruits at Salisbury, offering full-time jobs to between five and six students each year, said John Muto, CPA, a manager in the accounting firm’s assurance practice. The students’ understanding of how XBRL works, while not the primary reason they receive job offers, is a factor in making the students attractive to McGladrey, Muto said.

Not every student immediately grasps XBRL’s relevance. On the day he introduces his students to XBRL, Summers typically sees two reactions. “It starts off positive. These kids have grown up in a cyberworld. Interactive technology is something they’re very much used to. They get it, and understand it, and appreciate it.”

The bubble bursts shortly thereafter, when the heavy lifting of tagging, documentation, and validation begins. “Eyes quickly start to glaze over,” Summers said with a laugh.

For some students, though, XBRL is a revelation.

Angela Baskerville, a mother of two young children who worked as an accountant to help pay for school, heard Wright speak about XBRL at Salisbury and immediately was hooked. She approached Wright and asked how she could learn more. Wright put her in touch with XBRL expert Gianluca Garbellotto, who chairs the XBRL Global Ledger Work Group for XBRL International and founded Iphix LLC, a company that provides XBRL-related consulting and training services. Baskerville joined Iphix in 2011 and has worked extensively with WikiAccounts and XBRL Convergence, applications that allow users to map their charts of accounts and trial balances to XBRL taxonomies (the set of definitions for XBRL tags) and generate XBRL GL instance documents. She also has helped create XBRL taxonomies, which she called “a highly educational experience.”

“Having worked in accounting, I am all too familiar with the inefficiency of data management and what Dr. Wright described in her lecture as ‘spreadsheet hell,’ ” Baskerville said. “I could immediately see the value in streamlining data management using XBRL, and especially XBRL GL. I also recognized that, regardless of whether or not organizations choose to use XBRL internally for data management, the SEC requirement for filing in XBRL format necessitates expertise in the area and, therefore, creates job opportunities.”

GET STARTED

That type of response from students will be far more common going forward. XBRL isn’t a fringe technology anymore. It’s here to stay, and it’s revolutionizing how data is interpreted and shared. Students who get in on the ground floor have a decided advantage, but how do you get in on the ground floor?

The key is to get started, Petka and Hood said (see Exhibit 1, “XBRL Tips,” below). Knowing a thing or two about XBRL will give you a competitive advantage—for now. As XBRL takes hold and more people learn how to use it, that advantage will disappear.

That means the best time to learn XBRL is as soon as you can. That’s what Petka did, and he believes he made a great career move.

“I feel I will always be employable with this experience,” he said. “I love Southern Co. and hope to retire here, but if something happened and I lost my job, I feel that I could find another job fairly quickly.”

Exhibit 1: XBRL tips

Want to dip your toes into the XBRL pond? Here are some ways to get your feet wet:

  • Get as much hands-on experience as possible. If you work for a company that does XBRL filings, volunteer to help the XBRL team with researching new tags or reviewing existing tags.
  • View public company XBRL filings at sec.gov to see which tags companies use in their financial statements and to see how accounting concepts are represented in XBRL.
  • Examine the taxonomies, or set of tag definitions, used by companies in various industries. You can view the U.S. GAAP taxonomy for free on fasb.org (direct link: tinyurl.com/3hdqgau). Fujitsu and other vendors offer free tools that allow academics to view and extend taxonomies.
  • Explore XBRL Global Ledger by going to xbrl.org/gltaxonomy and studying some of the annotated instance documents.


Sources: Jeff Petka, Southern Co.; Thomas Hood, Salisbury (Md.) University.

Online-only sidebar: XBRL grabs Congress’s attention

by Jeff Drew

The potential for data standardization to dramatically improve government efficiency and transparency has spurred a number of bills in Congress designed to mandate the use of data standards such as XBRL.

The most sweeping of the bills is the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA), which would create a Financial Accountability and Spending Transparency (FAST) Board and require all federal agencies and recipients of federal funds to use a nonproprietary data standard, such as XBRL, to file spending reports with the FAST Board. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sponsored the House version of the bill, which the full House passed in a voice vote on April 25. .

“The American people deserve to know how their government is spending their money,” Issa said.

The DATA Act would create a stream of data showing how federal funds are being spent and how effective that spending is.

“Taxpayers and federal policymakers, including members of Congress and administration officials, will have more usable information at their command, and therefore, they will be able to make better decisions,” Issa said. “The American people will further benefit from the prevention of fraud and mismanagement, with predictive analytics and the increased ability to track the performance of federal dollars.”

The legislation has bipartisan support. Members of both parties co-sponsored the House bill, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is sponsoring essentially identical legislation in the Senate.
 
“Standardizing the way information is reported, and then centralizing the way it’s publicly disclosed, will make it a lot easier to identify needless duplication and inefficiency,” Warner said. “The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act will create a powerful new tool that further empowers taxpayers and policymakers and changes the way the federal government does business.”

The capsules below outline several bills that call for data standardization and have the AICPA’s support. One of those bills, the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act, was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Sept. 30, 2011.

Jeff Drew is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at jdrew@aicpa.org or 919-402-4056.

XBRL Bills in 112th Congress

Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act

Bill number(s): H.R. 2883 and S. 1542 (Earlier version w/o XBRL: H.R. 2790)

Lead Sponsors (bold) and Bill Co-Sponsors: Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky.; Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas; Rick Berg, R-N.D.; Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.; Charles Boustany, R-La.; Joe Crowley, D-N.Y.; Jim Langevin, D-R.I.; Sander Levin, D-Mich.; John Lewis, D-Ga.; Kenny Marchant, R-Texas; Jim McDermott, D-Wash.; Chuck Rangel, D-N.Y.; Tom Reed, R-N.Y.; David Reichert, R-Wash.; Peter Roskam, R-Ill.; Pete Stark, D-Calif.; Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mt.; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; John Kerry, D-Mass.; Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.; Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Provisions/Purposes

  • The bill’s primary purpose was to extend child and family services programs.
  • Calls for data standardization, and specifically requires the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Management and Budget to work to establish nonproprietary data standards, such as XBRL, for reporting of information for improved data matching.


Actions/Expected Actions

  • Introduced 9/12/11 in House and Senate.
  • House Ways and Means Committee favorably reported bill 9/19/11.
  • Senate Finance Committee favorably reported S. 1542 without amendment 9/20/11.
  • Considered under suspension of rules in House and passed 395–25 on 9/21/11.
  • Considered and passed without amendment by voice vote in Senate on 9/22/11.
  • Signed by president and became P.L. 112-34 on 9/30/11.


Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act)

House Bill No.: H.R. 2146

Lead Sponsors (bold) and Bill Co-Sponsors: Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.; Dan Burton, R-Ind.; Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah; Mike Conaway, R-Texas; Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; Blake Farenthold, R-Texas; Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan.; Mike Kelly, R-Pa.; James Lankford, R-Okla.; Tom Latham, R-Iowa; Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.; Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.; Collin Peterson, D-Minn.; Dennis Ross, R-Fla.; Brad Sherman, D-Calif.

Provisions/Purposes

  • Calls for FAST Board, reporting by agencies and recipients of all federal funds.
  • Requires FAST Board to set data standards, such as XBRL.


Actions/Expected Actions

  • Introduced 6/13/2011.
  • Marked up and favorably reported by voice vote 6/22/11.
  • Reported (H.Rept. 112-260) 10/25/11.
  • Passed House in voice vote 4/25/12.


Senate Bill No.: S. 1222

Lead Sponsor (bold) and Bill Co-Sponsors: Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

Provisions/Purposes

  • Essentially identical to H.R. 2146 upon introduction.


Actions/Expected Actions

  • Introduced 6/16/11. Read twice and referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.


Standard Data and Technology Advancement Act (Standard DATA Act)

House Bill No.: H.R. 3339

Lead Sponsors (bold) and Bill Co-Sponsors: Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky.; Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas; Rick Berg, R-N.D.; Diane Black, R-Tenn.; Charles Boustany, R-La.; Wally Herger, R-Calif.; Darrell Issa, R-Calif.; Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan.; Sam Johnson, R-Texas; James Lankford, R-Okla.; John Lewis, D-Ga.; Kenny Marchant, R-Texas; Devin Nunes, R-Calif.; Erik Paulsen, R-Minn.; Tom Price, R-Ga.; Tom Reed, R-N.Y.; David Reichert, R-Wash.; Peter Roskam, R-Ill.; Paul Ryan, R-Wis.; Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio; Michael Turner, R-Ohio

Provisions/Purposes

  • Requires that the Office of Management and Budget establish an interagency work group to designate nonproprietary data standards, such as XBRL, for any information reported under a number of health and human services programs.
  • There is no companion to the legislation as of yet in the Senate.


Actions/Expected Actions

  • Introduced 11/3/11. Referred to House Committee on Ways and Means and to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce


Sources: AICPA Congressional and Political Affairs Team and thomas.gov.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • Accounting school students and CPAs with XBRL knowledge and experience have an edge in competing for jobs because of an SEC mandate that thousands of U.S. public companies file financial reports with XBRL tagging, which translates the data into a language computers can understand. This will lead to tools that allow for nearly instant, targeted searches of financial information among many companies, such as for net income among all energy companies that own nuclear plants.
  • Organizations doing XBRL tagging include publicly traded corporations and companies known as filing agents. All organizations that do XBRL tagging are looking to hire CPAs and other accountants because knowledge of GAAP and other standards is essential to the job.
  • A 31-year-old accountant leveraged his XBRL education to land the job leading the XBRL team at energy giant Southern Co.
  • CPAs interested in learning about XBRL should start by looking at public company XBRL financial filings at sec.gov.
  • The Maryland Association of CPAs implemented XBRL for certain financial and key performance indicator reports. The project shows the potential of XBRL for nonprofits, which could use the data standard to produce more-accurate Forms 990, Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax, in less time.
  • Congress is considering legislation that would require all federal agencies and recipients of federal funds to use a nonproprietary data standard, such as XBRL, to file spending reports.


Bill Sheridan
(
bill@macpa.org ) is an editor with the Maryland Association of CPAs. Jeff Drew is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew at jdrew@aicpa.org or 919- 402-4056.

AICPA RESOURCES

JofA articles


Publication

Performing Agreed-Upon Procedures Engagements That Address the Completeness, Accuracy, or Consistency of XBRLTagged Data—SOP 09-1 (#014947)

CPE self-study

  • Introduction to XBRL: Revolutionizing Business Reporting! (#745672)
  • XBRL & the New Era in Financial Reporting: Moving Beyond Theory (#745653)


Conferences

  • XBRL US Detailed Tagging Workshop, May 23, New York City
  • Practitioners Symposium and TECH+ Conference in partnership with the Association for Accounting Marketing Summit, June 11–13, Las Vegas


Online Resource

eXacct: Financial Reporting Tools & Techniques (#WNG-XX, online subscription) or cpa2biz.com/exacct

Webcast

“XBRL—Transforming Financial Reporting” (#780147LC, CPE; #780148LC, non-CPE)

For more information or to make a purchase or register, go to cpa2biz.com or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.

Websites

AICPA XBRL home page, tinyurl.com/ckgmatt

IT Division and CITP credential

The AICPA Information Technology (IT) Division serves members of the IT Membership Section (ITMS), CPAs who hold the Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) credential, other AICPA members, and others who want to maximize information technology to provide risk, fraud, internal control, audit, and/or information management services within their firms or for their employers. The division aims to support members and credential holders who leverage technology to provide assurance or business insight about financial-related information (direct and indirect financial data, processes, or reporting) to support their clients and/or employers. To learn about the IT Division, visit aicpa.org/infotech.

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