Career advice and RPA tips from CPA leaders

Hosted by Neil Amato

Hear from CPAs Maxene Bardwell and Jim Bourke in this week's episode. Bardwell, the subject of The Last Word in the November issue of the Journal of Accountancy, shares more about her career path, why there's value in volunteering and mentoring, how she brings her authentic self to work, and why there's candy at her desk. Bourke, a speaker at the Digital CPA Conference, shares insight for firms on two of his conference topics, robotic process automation and emerging advisory opportunities.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Maxene Bardwell's "mint" strategy as an internal auditor.
  • Some of the ways she gives back to the profession.
  • The reason that focusing on interpersonal skills is important for young CPAs.
  • Why Jim Bourke says that robotic process automation has "endless possibilities."
  • How firms can look beyond their traditional service lines.
  • The obstacles some firms face in expanding certain client services.
  • A summary of IRS news from officials' recent comments at the AICPA & CIMA National Tax Conference.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato, a
JofA senior editor, at


Neil Amato: Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is senior editor Neil Amato. Coming up on this episode, we've got interviews with two CPAs, Maxene Bardwell and Jim Bourke, and news on several fronts related to the IRS.

Maxene Bardwell is a CPA and holder of the CITP information technology credential. She is Assistant Inspector General for Audit within the Office of the Inspector General for WSSC Water, which provides water services for Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland. Maxene, first, welcome to the podcast. You are the subject of the November Last Word in the Journal of Accountancy, and in that interview you said that being an internal auditor was like being a business consultant. Can you tell me more about that?

Maxene Bardwell: Hi, Neil. Thank you so much for having me as a guest. I'll be happy to answer that question. It is my belief that many businesses hire consultants to undertake or review areas where they are experiencing concerns or do not have the requisite skillset or are considering undertaking new projects.

Internal auditors are employed by businesses to pretty much perform those duties. They perform risk-based activities, which often include areas like information technology, contracting, operational efficiency, and effectiveness, and other areas that external parties are hired to perform at, in my opinion, a much higher cost.

Internal auditors usually work on-site, and they also are independent based on the reporting structure. They provide recommendations that management often undertakes to utilize to enhance operational performance, and consultants are hired to do the same thing.

In my opinion, internal auditors are invaluable in their role as consultants because they provide those consulting services at a much lower cost, and they are usually available on a daily basis.

Amato: What's been your journey to both internal auditing and also your current role with WSSC Water?

Bardwell: My journey began as a risk analyst for the former Bank One in Columbus, Ohio. After I graduated from The Ohio State University, I was hired as a risk analyst, and I wasn't aware that risk analyst was just a fancy way of saying internal auditor, but we did internal audit work that was strictly for the former Bank One.

I worked there for a few years, traveling across the United States to various financial institutions that Bank One would acquire, and eventually it was acquired by JPMorgan Chase. After leaving Bank One, I actually moved to Maryland. I landed a position as a senior level auditor, which was a promotion from a risk analyst, at the Municipal Employees Credit Union of Baltimore. While working at MECU of Baltimore, we say MECU for short, I pursued my CPA credential. After obtaining my CPA credential, I was offered the position of internal audit director. To better serve the credit union in that role, I decided to pursue my graduate studies at Notre Dame of Maryland University while working full time.

After I obtained my master's degree, I was encouraged by my career coach to test the waters, so to speak. He advised that I see what salary I'd command, having just earned my graduate degree and CPA credential, and that's what led me to this position I'm in today.

Amato: You said that a favorite item to keep on your desk is a dish of candy, preferably, mints. Is that for the visitors to your offices? Is that for you? Tell me more about that.

Bardwell: It's really a combination of both, but primarily for the visitors to my office. What I found throughout my career is that having a dish of candy is inviting. I've found that when you have a dish of candy on your desk, people tend to stop by and have a seat, chat, in a more informal setting. They don't feel intimidated that you're in there asking audit-related questions. It gives them an opportunity to get to know you on a more personal level.

It's also good for the OIG [Office of Inspector General] staff, too. They'll stop by and have a mint and chat. My preference is mint because I found over the course of the years those hard candies can cut tongues and I definitely don't want to have the reputation of someone saying they left Maxene's office and she cut their tongue.

Amato: Now, has that strategy been tested any, I guess, by the pandemic, with just in-person conversation?

Bardwell: Yes, it has been tested by the pandemic because we've been working 100% from home and aren't planning to return to the office until probably the early part of 2022, but I still try to keep the dialogue and have that personal basis with the kinds but not too personal, but just to say how's the family or something like that. I do miss the interactions and the inviting dish of candy.

Amato: Yeah, it's definitely tough to have a virtual candy dish in this environment.

Bardwell: Yes.

Amato: In that Last Word article, you touched on the concept of being your authentic self. How have you done that and why do you think that's important professionally?

Bardwell: For me, being my authentic self includes wearing my hair naturally. I wear my hair in natural African-American hairstyles and prior to wearing my hair natural styles, I would try to flat-iron my hair, try to fit the mold of being the, I don't know, more corporate look. I found that I can still wear my hair in natural hairstyles, whether it's up-do or down, and still appear professional because as I stated in the article, my hair does not define me; what I bring to the table does. So I continue to wear my hair naturally and put forth the work effort that garners the respect that I have.

Amato: I think that's important. Different people obviously are going to express their authentic selves in different ways. I've had that topic come up on previous podcasts about bringing your full self to work and not necessarily presenting this shielded image of who you are.

Bardwell: Yeah, and it's more comfortable. Just be yourself and still be professional, but you're not putting on air or wearing a mask of pretense.

Amato: Finally, do you have some advice that you like to give to up-and-coming CPAs, whether that's those in your department or anyone who might be listening today?

Bardwell: Yes. I'll reiterate what I said in the article, and that is I advise up-and-coming CPAs to enhance or develop their interpersonal skills. As a CPA or an accountant, you work day-to-day, you're encountering others.

It helps to build your interpersonal skills to be able to interact with them. It enhances your communication skills. When you're putting together those figures and numbers and reports, you'll have to be able to articulate and communicate that to others, so you're not working in isolation. You're actually communicating and advising others on the numbers that you've produced. I also advise these new CPAs to get involved in the profession. I truly believe in volunteering. There are numerous ways to contribute to the accounting profession, and one of those is getting involved in these various professional boards.

I'm currently a member of the AICPA's Auditing Standards Board, where I contribute to setting standards. I'm also a member of the board of directors for the Maryland Association of CPAs. Additionally, I'm a member of the Association of Inspectors General Board of Directors, vice president of the ISACA Central Maryland Chapter, and Vice President of the city of Laurel ethics commission. I also volunteer as a mentor.

I like to say I'm a lifelong learner. I love to learn, and this is one way that I learn from people that are entrenched in the profession behind the scenes and in front of the scene. Also, from the mentoring standpoint, you learn from people that you mentor as well, whether you're the mentee or mentor, there's a mutual exchange. I highly recommend that new CPAs get involved in the profession.

Amato: Again, that was Maxene Bardwell. Thanks to Maxene for joining the podcast. Next up is my interview with CPA Jim Bourke, who is one of the featured speakers at the Digital CPA Conference in Nashville, Tenn.

Now joining the Journal of Accountancy podcast is Jim Bourke. Jim is a CPA who holds the CGMA designation and also the CITP and CFF credentials. Jim is Withum's managing director for advisory services, and a speaker at the Digital CPA Conference in December in Nashville. The in-person option for that conference is sold out, but online attendance is still available to hear Jim and other experts on digital transformation. Jim, first, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for being here.

Jim Bourke: Thanks for inviting me to the podcast today. Super excited about sharing knowledge and about our upcoming conference.

Amato: Yes, first, what are examples of the ways organizations of any size can start to use RPA, or robotic process automation, to create value?

Bourke: Here's the deal, Neil. You think about RPA, you think about robotics. Simply put, think about machines doing manual tasks, and think about as CPAs, as accountants, all the manual tasks that we do every single day, whether we practice in tax, whether we practice in attest, so many manual practices. Once I say that, then everyone start to think, now I get it, now I start to understand.

It's basically allowing machines to do the manual task. I'll give you perfect examples. In the tax practice, there's a lot of manual tasks. Accountants take numbers off of W-2s, for example, wages in box 1. Well, you know what? That used to take a brain to think about that, about wages are in box 1. But you know what, Neil? Today, we can teach machines to do that work.

We'd go through a process with a machine, so now, through robotics, the machines are able to understand how the process works. They start taking on and doing those manual tasks. It's a home run for us, because it puts us as accountants in a position to better advise our clients.

Same thing on the accounting side. Think about client accounting. We post transactions for clients. What do you do? What does your brain do when it sees a bill from Verizon? Well, it posts it to telephone expense. We teach a machine to do that one time. Now every single time the machine hits a Verizon bill, guess what, Neil? It posts it to telephone expense.

I can repeat that scenario over and over and over again. All we need to do with CPAs is think about all of those manual tasks that we do, and I'll tell you, endless possibilities.

Amato: Yeah, it sounds like it; those are great examples. Obviously, the accessibility of RPA tools has changed over the years. What are some of those tools that small businesses and mid-sized businesses need to know?

Bourke: With the proliferation of the cloud, with going away from legacy systems to cloud-based systems, now it puts this technology in the hands of all firms. See, in the past, the big firms had access to the latest, the greatest, the best technology. They were creating their own RPA applications. They were doing it on their own. Well, look I'm a realist. We know that small firms today, which is a majority of the attendees at our digital conference and a majority of those practicing accounting in the U.S., when we look at those individuals, they don't have the resources to create their own applications.

Well, they don't have to. All they have to know is enough about this technology to understand the concepts of it. But there are best-of-breed companies popping up all over the place, Neil. For example, ElectroNeek. ElectroNeek is a company that literally can write these routines to automate the entire process for you.

For, we've had a relationship with them, we've been helping to guide them around, down the path as they've been getting more intelligent about our profession. There's companies like Botkeeper out there, Botkeeper, think about it. Sounds like bookkeeper, sounds like a bot, but it's a combination of both. It's machines doing client accounting, getting intelligent about it. Those are simply two examples of technologies that I've come across.

There are so many other best-of-breed technology companies that are in the space. Microsoft is starting to get into this space about automating the manual task. I'm telling you, we're going to see a snowballing effect in this technology in the not-too-distant future.

Amato: Now you're not just talking about RPA at the Digital CPA Conference, you're also part of a panel discussion on emerging advisory opportunities. These include areas of ESG reporting, SOC auditing, and in other areas. What are the steps you take to develop your staff to begin on these so-called – these seem like big, new service lines – or is developing your staff even the first step?

Bourke: Here's the deal. They may be big news service lines, but the concept's been around for a long time. To me, digital is a conference that you go to to get bits and pieces; you bring that knowledge back home. This is all stuff that we could be doing regardless of firm size. When we talk about SOC or when we talk about ESG and sustainability reporting, Barry Melancon has been talking about the importance of ESG for the last 10 years, and we've been writing it off.

Now people are starting to get it, we're understanding. Think about this, if we're accountants, we're auditors, what do we do? We measure stuff and then we report on it. You know what? ESG is just like that. What is the company's carbon footprint today? Where do they want to be? Who is best positioned to be able to measure that and report on it? It's us, it's CPAs. That's what it's all about.

It's looking beyond the traditional services and service lines, looking for what is going to keep our profession relevant way into the future. It's looking at all of these other things, but I'll tell you, Neil, what's behind all of it, all of those things, is technology. The first thing is CPA firms should do, get their technology house in order to be able to take the opportunities that are sitting in front of us to the next level. That's what digital is all about, creating opportunities for CPAs to allow their practices to remain relevant way into the future.

Amato: What are the obstacles that firms need to consider as they explore some of these opportunities once they do get that tech house in order, so to speak?

Bourke: Sure. Here's the deal. One obstacle is I hear is "my other partners." My other partner is saying, "My clients don't want that. Our clients don't want that." Here's the deal. You know what? I would say don't talk to your partners; talk to your clients. Find out from your clients what else that you could be doing for them that you're not currently doing.

I bet you if they knew you have the opportunity to provide cybersecurity advisory services, they probably buy it from you versus the cyber company down the street. Why? Because you are the trusted advisor. They trust us.

So if they're going to trust us for their audit, for their tax work, I will tell you they will trust you for everything else. One is the obstacle of your partners. Ask your clients, because I bet you, your clients would love for you to be selling advisory services to them versus them buying it elsewhere.

The other is change. We are our own worst enemies. We are so used to that revenue stream, from tax reporting, from attest reporting. Look, it's all good. It's going to be your revenue stream into the future, but you know what? What other revenue streams are available to us that we need to capitalize on? What I look at is I look at our firm, I look at all the partners that are behind me. The guys that came before me created the opportunity, and I want to create opportunities for those behind me, and I will tell you the opportunities lie in CPAs providing advisory services to their clients.

I see firms large and small across the country; I have the opportunity to get in the door at so many firms. This is a game-changer. This allows the sole practitioner to be able to have a boutique shop that, quite frankly, is in the same position to compete with the largest of firms out there, and that's what we're starting to see. We're starting to see a lot of small firms transform themselves into more of advisory practices and now those advisory practices are boutique shops providing that sole expertise level to their clients. Great stuff.

Amato: Yeah, it goes back to one of the first things you said where in the old days, a CPA firm might take that W-2 and manually input it and now they're just going, "and that's a software thing," and they can now devote their time to advisory services.

Bourke: You nailed it. You put the two and two together. So they're perfectly positioned, Neil. You gave the reason why people need to attend both sessions. They should attend all the sessions at Digital, but if you're going to attend just two sessions, go to the RPA, understand what machines are doing, understand the role machines currently have and will have in the profession. Then now plug in to all the advisory services because you know what? If you guys start having machines do those manual tasks, you're going to have a heck of a lot more time available to you to do all those advisory things for your clients.

Amato: Jim, this has been great. Thanks very much.

Bourke: No problem. Happy to help, and look forward to seeing everyone at Digital in December.

Amato: Again, those are the words of Jim Bourke. Thanks to Jim for his time. He makes reference to the Digital CPA Conference, which is Dec. 6-8. We'll post a link to that event so you can check out the agenda and online registration options in the show notes for this episode.

In other news, our focus this week is the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS issued guidance on how they want 100% deduction for meals applies to per diem allowances and how the 2020 exclusion of unemployment benefit income affects taxpayers' ability to take the advance child tax credit and earned income credit. Also, IRS officials discussed the service's operational challenges, and return processing delays at the AICPA & CIMA's National Tax Conference.

We'll have the links to our coverage on those topics in the show notes. Next week, we're taking time away for Thanksgiving, so no new episode next Thursday. We will talk again in early December. Thanks for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.