What your students need to know about tech

Take a look at how dramatically accounting education has changed in the past four years.
By Cheryl Meyer

Editor’s note: In 2015, Extra Credit addressed the issue of whether accounting students needed to learn to code. This year, we decided to revisit that question to see how perspectives might have changed over the past four years, and to offer advice on how students can succeed in today’s tech-focused accounting departments.

One year ago Jacob Summers, then a graduate accounting student at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah, began his tax internship at nearby Halverson & Company. One of his first jobs was to grab the data from an Excel file and transfer it into his firm's tax software. The manual task, Summers said, took eight hours to complete and was mundane.

So he started investigating ways to automate this process. Summers had taken an advanced VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) course in college, but that program didn't translate well to the task. So in the evenings, he studied robotic process automation (RPA) through the UiPath Academy online. With this knowledge, he created a bot to automate similar workflow processes at his firm. Summers's self-taught knowledge recently earned him a job at PwC, where he works specifically on clients' tax reporting processes to help them become more technologically efficient.

As Summers’s example illustrates, the landscape for accounting students — both undergraduates and those in graduate school — has changed dramatically in recent years. In 2015, some students took a programming or statistics class, dipping their toes into data analytics or coding; others had dual majors in accounting and management information systems (MIS). Today, accounting programs are progressively incorporating technology into coursework, and many accounting students are now required to learn about data analytics, artificial intelligence, and other emerging-technologies. Coding is often a part of the mix, but it’s usually taught as an elective or woven into another technology-focused course.

What changes departments have made, and why

John Owens, CPA, professor of the practice in accounting at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, and a former audit partner at KPMG LLP, said students in one of his courses learn the statistical language Python as well as data and analytics tools Idea, Alteryx, and Tableau, all of which help them learn how to think critically.

"It's not necessary that they know how to code," Owens said. "At the same time, understanding the way of thinking that goes into coding and how to visualize a data solution to a problem — that's a valuable skill."

USC recently launched a Master of Accounting with Emphasis in Data and Analytics degree, in which students learn statistical computing and data visualization, business intelligence and data mining, and other skills. KPMG and Deloitte participated heavily in this program, Owens said.

KPMG is working with USC and eight other universities nationwide to integrate traditional accounting and auditing courses with the real-world application of technologies and advanced data and analytics capabilities, said Annie DenBoer, associate director of campus recruiting at KPMG in Phoenix.

“We need [students] to be more savvy and to have those critical thinking skills, and translate data patterns and anomalies into relative, meaningful insights for our clients,” she said. 

David Wood, Ph.D., associate professor of accounting at BYU, who was quoted in our 2015 article on coding, said that his department has done “a whole-scale, top-to-bottom review of our curriculum in the last four years.” For three years, Wood has been teaching an accounting data analytics elective, and in 2020 BYU is making the course a requirement for undergraduates. In addition, every accounting class at BYU “does something with technology,” using programming languages as SQL or software such as Tableau, he said.

Employer demand is partly what’s driving these changes, Wood said: “We’ve talked with our board of advisers and people who hire our students, and every single one of them wants more technology in the curriculum.”

How students can increase their tech savvy

The breadth and complexity of emerging technologies can make it hard for students to know where to begin their exploration. Faculty offer them the following advice:

Learn how to learn. “Figure out how to teach yourself technologies,” suggested Jane Fedorowicz, Ph.D., professor of accounting and information systems at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., which recently created a Master in Accounting Analytics degree. “If you know how to learn one, you’ll be much more well-positioned to learn more technologies that will come out next year.”

Also, don’t only rely on accounting-related courses to learn technologies. You can study coding, robotics, data analytics, and software programs such as Alteryx online. Some avenues include YouTube videos, the UiPath Academy, and webinars. You can study and learn the basics of coding logic, Summers said. Or, consider taking courses from your school’s computer science department.

Understand technology’s purpose. Software evolves and changes constantly, and so the main point of learning a technology is not to memorize every detail, but to understand the logic behind it, and “integrate it into whatever it is you’re doing, whether solving a business problem or an auditing problem,” Owens said. “Don’t ever feel that the holy grail is to write code. It is to use code and integrate it.”

Learn what’s necessary. You can’t possibly become an expert in every type of technology, so determine which ones fit your desired career and the type of firm or organization where you want to work, Fedorowicz said.

“Take a directed rather than a scattered approach” to learning new technology, Wood suggested. “Specialize in something and gain skills in one or two [other] things.”

Consider getting a minor in Management Information Systems (if your school offers it).  “Everyone who graduates with their master’s or bachelor’s degree in accounting will be exposed to robotics and some ETL (extract, transform, load) tools,” Summer said. “But it’s definitely helpful to get a minor in information systems because it shows you’ve gone out of your way to learn.”

Call attention to tech on your résumé. If your college or university offers just a few tech-related courses, highlight whatever technological experiences you've had on your résumé, DenBoer advised. Refer to classes where you’ve been exposed to analytics or information systems, or where you took on a special tech-related project.

Get certified. Certification opportunities abound online. Automation Anywhere Inc. offers RPA training, and SAP and Tableau also offer training and certification for those with the drive to learn more. The AICPA offers certification in topics such as blockchain, cybersecurity, data analysis, RPA, and more. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of hours,” Summers said. “For those who are looking to stand out as an accountant with knowledge of these tools, having that certificate on your résumé shows you are at another level.”

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer. To comment on this story, email senior editor Courtney Vien.

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