A farewell chat with Tech Q&A author J. Carlton Collins

Hosted by Jeff Drew

For nine years, J. Carlton Collins, CPA, churned out technology tips for JofA readers as author of the magazine’s most popular column, Technology Q&A. Along the way, he educated about Excel, waxed poetic about Word, opined about operating systems, and became the technology guru for the 400,000-plus JofA readers. Retiring from the monthly grind of writing Tech Q&A, Collins talks about how he came up with all those questions (and answers), how he became a better writer, and how he sometimes wants to kick Bill Gates in the teeth.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Where Collins found the hundreds of Tech Q&A topics he covered over nine years.
  • Why the best writing is rewritten.
  • What he will miss most about Tech Q&A — and one thing he won’t miss at all.
  • How CPAs should be learning about technology today.

Play the episode below:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.

Sponsored by:

Chase for Business


Jeff Drew: Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. I am Jeff Drew, and today we are with Carlton Collins, the longtime writer of the Tech Q&A column for JofA. We will talk to Carlton momentarily, but before that let's take a moment to hear a word from our sponsor.

Welcome back. This is a bittersweet time for me to be talking to Carlton because Carlton, who has been our most popular writer for the entirety of the eight years that I have been with the Journal of Accountancy, is retiring as Tech Q&A writer after nine years.

He was here even longer than me, and he will leave a legacy — building on the legacy of Stanley Zarowin, who started the column almost 20 years ago — of basically helping hundreds of thousands of CPAs with basic technology, sophisticated technology, helping them get set up, helping them use Excel better, or helping them use QuickBooks better, or helping them set up their workspaces more ergonomically. And it just goes on and on and on, the topics he covered, and, Carlton, I kind of wanted to talk about — I don't think people would know the process and where you came up with all of these questions or where these questions came from that you answered over the years. You want to start with that, start kind of at the beginning?

Carlton Collins: OK. Hey, thank you, Jeff. It's been an amazing run, and working with the Journal of Accountancy has been a great honor of my life. What was asked of me was to come up with topics to turn into articles over the next nine years, and the thing about the Tech Q&A column is it's formatted in terms of a Q&A. We have to put a question in there and then answer the question, and a lot of the topics did indeed come from CPAs who were asking questions, but not all of them. Some of them were topics that were just trendy topics and new products that had come up. We would form the articles in the form of a question, then answer it, and I liked that format a lot. It makes you think about what you're trying to answer first before you dive into the article.

But where did my topics come from was pretty easy. Having been a CPE instructor in technology since 1987, and having delivered several thousand technology lectures,— in fact I've got one tomorrow here [in North Carolina] in November 2019, so I'm still doing that. Those many lectures have given me the opportunity to listen to CPAs who came up to me at breaks, or raised their hands during the presentations, and asked questions, and I always kept a pad of paper and a pen ready to write down any topics or any questions that I thought might make good fodder for a future Journal of Accountancy article. So a lot of them came from that [live CPE presentations].

Another place that I ferreted out topics from is, I would go into the Que books that are sold, and I wouldn't really read the book, but the margin reads. If you get a Que book there, it's about three or four inches thick, but if you look and thumb through the margin reads, there's tiny paragraphs in the margins that have some special advanced tips, and actually I enjoyed reading through those.

Drew: I'm sorry to interrupt, but what is a Que book?

Collins: Que is a publisher of technology book(s). You've heard about the Dummy series?

Drew: Yeah.

Collins: Que is a very professional series, and they have books starting with Windows for Workgroups and all your operating systems, all your products, like Excel, Intuit, Word, and so I've enjoyed that, and that's one of my secrets where I pluck out new little article ideas.

But another thing I would do is something I would call eating software. Anytime a new software product that looked interesting would emerge for the CPA community, I would put it on my computer, and then I would go through every menu option trying to figure out each feature, trying to look for a feature I hadn't seen before, one that I thought was really interesting and printworthy. And I would write about it. So I spent a lot of time in the help files looking at the explanations; looking for something that might be a new tool or a new sophisticated way that CPAs could work with their information to produce better products and produce their work faster.

So, I was always on the lookout. But for the first five years it was pretty easy because I had a lot of the topics already in my head. Having been a presenter for so long, I would just sit down and I would just write. I would just say to myself, "Here's what I want to do," and then I would just click away on the keyboard, and I'd produce an article in rough draft form in no time. I would take my dismal rough draft articles and send them up to you guys at the JofA and your editors would then polish them into printworthy material, which made my job very easy. [Laughs]

Drew: Well, we may talk about the writing process during this conversation. Why don't we do it now so I don't promise something we don't deliver on? One thing that you have written about for us and you've mentioned in your columns in writing for us is that it is more important to — great work isn't written; it's rewritten. Now, you would give the editors here credit, and we made our contributions, but you probably more so than any writer I've worked with here would go back in, and you would make a number of changes yourself because it wasn't up to your standard, or you just thought of a better way to put it. So over the years, I think it's interesting — I'm not sure people really realized how exacting your standards were for every part of what you were putting into Tech Q&A, because we would also get the questions through the JofA tech email address, the one that's listed in the magazine with the column.

Collins: Yeah, lots of those.

Drew: Yep, and Carlton, we have the disclaimer in there that maybe every question wouldn't be answered, but actually I'm pretty sure Carlton answered every single one I ever sent him. So some of those I thought I would say, "Hey, what do you think about doing an item on this?" and he would say, "Well, that one is too narrow" or I thought it would be decent, but Carlton knew that he would have something better. So your standards over the years were so high that that's a reason why the column has been so successful, and it's going to be a huge challenge for us going forward to try to maintain that level of discernment, so to speak.

Collins: Well, I appreciate the kind words, Jeff. You've always flattered me, which I think your goal as an editor is to keep the writers happy even if they don't deserve it. But that's good. But I do appreciate that. I want to tell you — you may not have ever heard this from me before, but how my history in writing. In high school and college, I was the world's worst writer, really. And this was back before you had word processors.

So what really was happening back then was my first draft was always my final draft in high school and college. I didn't take time to rewrite after the first draft. It was always a rough draft, and I didn't consider myself a good writer, never did. But then in college, I had something happen to me. I wrote a paper on governmental regulations of accounting, and I misspelled the word governmental 172 times. The day before I was supposed to turn it in, I had a young lady proofread the paper, and she found the typo. [Laughs] I didn't know there was an extra "n" there in government, but I do now.

Drew: Yeah.

Collins: But I was just going to turn the paper in as is because I didn't know how to type. But the young lady who proofread my paper wouldn’t allow that, so she stayed up all night long, and even though she had two tests the next day she retyped it for me. So, I got her back by later marrying her. So that was my first real problem with writing. And then later as a CPA I wrote a first draft of a feasibility study about 1983. It was a long document, about 300 pages long. I'd spent a lot of time on it, and we sent it out to all the lawyers for review, and I got back 900 pages of review comments on the 300 pages I had written, and I can remember this very vividly.

After going through it, every single one of those review comments was valid. Not a single one was invalid, and I was really embarrassed by my poor writing. That was really a wakeup call finally. Two years into my CPA career it's a wakeup call that I had to become a better writer, and that's when I learned good work isn't written, it's rewritten, and anybody out there that's listening to this can be a great writer if you're willing to just keep going through and reviewing 15, 20, or 30 times. With the articles in the JofA, I think we do six rounds of reviews with six editors, and so there's close to 36 reviews, including four additional reviews before I turn it in.

So you write. You put your best foot forward writing, that's your rough draft, but then you work on polishing it. One review might look for spelling and capitalization and punctuation. The next review might look for flow. The next review might look for good opening and conclusionary sentences for each paragraph. The next one might — you read it out loud to see if it has the iambic pentameter that you're looking for to get good flow. You look at it again for politics. Then you look at it again to remove all the adjectives and adverbs that you possibly can, because that's what makes technical writing sound more like technical writing. So I think that learning the importance of rewriting stuff helped me become a little better writer, and I'm really pleased with that. I wish I could go back to high school and college now and redo all the stuff I had written, because I’m sure I could make a better go of it.

Drew: Yeah. Well, I'm sure people are saying, "Wait, we're talking to Carlton Collins. We're talking about writing?"

Collins: [Laughs]

Drew: So the fact that I'm an editor and potential future writers are listening, really it has nothing to do with why I brought up this topic. But you had told me that story before, and I always thought it was a great example of learning as you go, and then improving and finding another area where you excelled in. So you had kind of almost stumbled into speaking, for example, and then gosh, it was 30-something years you'd been doing keynote speeches, the CPE classes, and a lot of those classes were all-day classes where you would teach the technology and do the presentations. I've seen you in action. It was phenomenal just watching you go, and you used to have this set-up. We talked about it before that you'd bring in five computers, and you would go through everything. So I guess I said all this to get to the question. Over the nine years of doing Tech Q&A or even before, what are the biggest kind of technology lessons you've learned or the coolest things you've seen, or what stands out as you're looking at kind of moving on to a next phase?

Collins: OK. Well, I can tell you that my first lesson is that being a CPE presenter goes hand-in-hand with my being a writer for the CPA journal because I'm covering the topics and technology that the CPAs want to hear, and I'm constantly fielding their questions. That speaking role helped make me a better writer, and I think the writing makes me a better speaker because you really don't know a topic until you researched and written about it and had it reviewed professionally by a lot of really smart people. So, the next time you stand in front of an audience, you know a little bit more because sometimes the reviewers pointed out your flaws and your thinking and your knowledge base or added to your knowledge base. So that always worked out well. What was your question?

Drew: The question is I'm guessing like as you're moving onto a post Tech Q&A phase, what pops in your mind? Your last one is in the December Journal of Accountancy.

Collins: Well, I'm going to miss it. I'm going to miss it a lot. I really enjoy diving into technology. I tell people this all the time. I absolutely love technology, but in the same breath I absolutely hate technology. As much as I love Microsoft products, there's not a day that goes by that I don't want to kick Bill Gates right in the teeth sometimes, because technology will let you down. Every one of us has problems, and issues, and bugaboos, and screen freeze-ups, and "Where'd that file go?" and that's a part of the technology because it's complicated and it's terrific. But at the same time, if you could even imagine going back to life without all this technology. I was — and I don't want to say fortunate enough — but I guess I was fortunate enough — I started my CPA career without this technology. I started preparing tax returns with the government forms, and we used the that little roll of correction tape that you put over numbers that you miswrote, and you'd write over them, and make Xerox copies of them by hand. It was ridiculous. I remember we were all I was huddled around our first fax machine going, "Wow, look at that" and it was like – [makes fax noise] barely enough speed, but it was still phenomenal that we could receive a fax over the phone line.

The technologies we have now we take for granted. I don't know how we don't have so much available time now. All these great technologies we have, and yet we still feel like we don't have any available time. But everything is just a push of the button, and all this stuff is done.

What I've enjoyed about writing the articles is being able to share it all with CPAs. The stuff that I found interesting was pretty much what I wrote about. If it didn't interest me, I wouldn't write about it. There's a lot of topics that people really try to promote out there. One of them a few years ago was the Apple Watch, and even Jeff was like "You’ve got to write about this." I'm like, "There's no way that's going to be popular. We've already covered the topic of smaller screens is not what we want." Cellphones got smaller and smaller and smaller until we couldn't read them, and then we went back to bigger ones, and I knew that the Apple Watch would be a no deal for most CPAs, and I think it wasn't. So there's things that didn't tickle my fancy. I just didn't write about it.

Everything I wrote about was something that was interesting to me. Whether it was interesting to my editors, I don't know, to the readers, I don't know, but that was my driving force.

Drew: But it was definitely interesting to the readers, usually almost always to the editor, and for potential future writers out there, I do want to say that I asked him to do the Apple Watch thing. I learned long ago not to tell him to do something, because if Carlton wasn't into it, then there's a darn good reason he wasn't into it, and if he turned in something and I thought to myself, "Well, I'm not so sure about this topic." But we'd go ahead and run it — and we'd ask questions, and hone it sometimes, and probably irritate you with some of the stuff we did. But I'd say 90% of the time it would go through, and those would get some of the highest ratings or highest internet traffic or both. So I learned over the years trust the guy who actually knows what he's talking about, and you've been more than trustworthy over the years.

Collins: Well, they weren't really good instincts. It's just being out talking to all the CPAs from all the different states probably keeps me in tune with what they're really interested in, so that's a driving force there. One of the harder things about writing for the Journal of Accountancy is it's a refereed journal, so the standards are really high, and the reviews are really high, and you have to source everything. I would write a lot of articles where I would include information that I thought was just common knowledge. For example, 4G technology supports up to four channels, whereas 5G technology supports 256 channels, and to me everybody should just know that's common knowledge, right? But if I write that in an article, I would get back review questions like, "Where does this information come from? You need to verify it," and I would spend a lot of time going back to figure out and get the sources so they could see it documented and proving that every number I use in every article is absolutely factually correct according to some credible source.

So that's one of the things I had to learn about writing for the journal is how to go back and source all of the numbers that I was throwing out there that I just assumed everybody knew.

Drew: Yeah, so is that the real reason you're leaving? Having to deal with —

Collins: That's it. No more sourcing. [Laughter]

Drew: So as you think about not having to worry about producing 2,200 words every month answering technology questions, what advice would you give to your readers with how they should approach technology? What should they be thinking about? What should they be learning about? What would your advice be?

Collins: I think that every one of us, and I'll include myself in that category too, we all get this technology, and we have it available to us. It's sitting on the shelves. It's sitting in our computer. It's sitting in our pocket, on our smartphone, and we don't master it. There's so many things that we just don't know, and I love sitting down with a CPA and showing him or her, "Click, click, click" and "Oh, my gosh. What is that?" "Well, it's called a Pivot Table and it does what you were trying to do for two hours there in about five seconds." And they go, "Wow, this is really amazing." Or if you pull an app down and put that on their smartphone and show them how to use that to monitor their time or to track their mileage and things of this nature, they're like, "Oh, my gosh. That's easy. Why wouldn't we all be doing that?" And the only reason we don't all use this technology available is this lack of knowledge.

And so you've really got — it's not enough for you to have the technology. You need to know it, and that's the hard part because you've got to invest time to learn it and remember it. How many of us have a whole bunch of extra hours to sit around and learn the extra technology and all the little features? Not a lot of us out there. I think that's why people like the JofA articles because we're trying to ferret out the stuff that you really should know and put them out there. That's a bigger jump-start for them than having to dig it out themselves. But that's one thing I've liked about writing for the Journal is it's forced me to dig into all the products and pull out the very best nuggets of gold that are lying in those software products and hardware products to share with the readers. I've liked that a lot.

Drew: So this has been the JofA podcast with our guest Carlton Collins. We post podcasts every week on journalofaccountancy.com. You can also get them through Apple Podcast, Podomatic, and wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you.