The heavier lifting that technology can accomplish for CPAs

Hosted by Neil Amato

David Cieslak, CPA/CITP, CGMA, aka Inspector Gadget, has been following technology tools and trends for years. He took time recently to share thoughts on the Journal of Accountancy podcast, explaining how he got his nickname, the "evolutionary" vs. "revolutionary" approach he takes to analyzing technology breakthroughs year to year, and why automation should be embraced by finance professionals.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • The party during which David Cieslak acquired a Hollywood prop specific to his nickname, Inspector Gadget.
  • The role that efficiency plays in how he thinks about the best technology tools.
  • How companies' approach to the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has changed over the years.
  • Accounting-specific ways that technology can do heavier lifting.
  • The competition-focused warning Cieslak has about automation.

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 at


Neil Amato: If you're an accountant and you pay even a little bit of attention to technology, chances are, you've heard the name David Cieslak. Today on the show, David is our guest talking about how he got his technology-centric nickname, a Hollywood prop that fits that nickname, and what the future holds for CPAs on the tech front. This is AICPA & CIMA's Journal of Accountancy podcast. I'm Neil Amato, and the interview is coming up right after this brief sponsor message.

Amato: Our next guest on the Journal of Accountancy podcast is David Cieslak. You may know him as "Inspector Gadget," not the cartoon character, not the character once played in movies by Matthew Broderick or French Stewart, but the real-life CPA who shares knowledge on all things technology. David is a CPA who holds the CGMA designation and he's joining me, Neil Amato, to talk accounting-centric tech topics. David first welcome to the show and I want to ask you: How did you come to have that name Inspector Gadget in your various, I guess, conference presentations and such?

David Cieslak: It's an interesting trajectory for that. I found myself early on talking about a lot of new tech for CPAs and how to make practical use of that within their own organizations. Then over the years, it seemed like more and more gadgets found their way into my presentation materials. And I thought, "OK, well, that's interesting."

But then it really came together when, no joke, we were at a Christmas white elephant party and someone works in Hollywood and had a trench coat from the filming of the Inspector Gadget live-action movie, and I thought I got to take this home, so I did. I thought, wait a minute, Inspector Gadget, I speak about this a lot. Then I went out and got myself a fedora and I said, you know, a star is born.

Amato: That's great. A true Hollywood story if there ever was one.

Cieslak: It's directly from Hollywood.

Amato: Yeah, exactly. Let's talk about some of those gadgets, perhaps. It's not the holiday gift guide that we've done in the past with you, but what are some of the cool products out there that you think accountants should know about?

Cieslak: Everything spans from what kinds of products, what kinds of services would make good sense in my professional life, within my business practice, as well as personally. I think we're all very aware. COVID blurred those lines to a great degree. Now when we think about really almost any piece of technology we touch, we think about efficiency.

We think about process improvement. As I said, just the line blurs. Whether or not it's our smart mobile devices, it's things like our smart speakers in our homes. All the way to desktops, laptops, screen displays, add-ons, and things going in my computer bag. It really goes wall to wall almost.

Amato: I'll say that the only thing I know on the tech calendar, and correct me if I'm wrong on this, is I feel like Apple generally reveals some updates in September and that's about all I know. Is there anything on the announcement front that you feel CPAs should know about coming up?

Cieslak: Oftentimes, at least historically, the Consumer Electronics Show has been the has been the —

Amato: January in Las Vegas.

Cieslak: Yes, January in Las Vegas — has been the launch point for many, many of those announcements, at least historically. But then I think a good number of vendors said, "You know what? It feels we're getting lost in the noise."

Not only did they pull back in terms of some of their major announcements, some of them left the show altogether and said, we're going to do our own thing. We want to make our own splash. Whether or not it's Apple and they've got their Worldwide Developer Conference.

I always think of Apple products and say some of the best kept secrets, actually worst kept secrets because you think about new versions of their solutions, their products that are becoming available. The iPhone, the watch, the latest version of iOS. Any smart home devices that they're looking to introduce and announce.

Again, many of the big organizations have said, look, we're going to stand up our own launch events, invite the press, and roll out our products, and that way they maximize the impact and they try not to dance on top of each other's shoes. As much as the Consumer Electronics Show is fun, interesting, and always illuminating, just to see what's going on trendwise, and that's almost without fail.

I've gone for probably the last 20 years or so. But really then pairing that with the other major vendors in the industry and saying, what does their lineup look like, and how does that lay down alongside themes. The different upcoming technologies and how do those products support that?

Amato: Now speaking of almost annual events in Las Vegas, you were recently in Las Vegas for AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE?

Cieslak: I was.

Amato: I take it that's a place that, one, you're sharing knowledge but also gaining knowledge. What do you see coming next on an accounting technology front?

Cieslak: One of the lenses I looked through each year as I try to understand, is this an evolutionary year or a revolutionary year? As I think about different products and I say, when we think about blockchain, we think about big data. We think about artificial intelligence. We think about 5G. A lot of different technologies poised are already impacting practitioners.

I say where are we, is this a really a year when any one of those technologies is going to be really making a big splash? Or does this feel like we're just moving just a little bit further down the road, waiting for that grand event, some killer app, some really just a tipping point where you take that technology from concept to really impactful for a practitioner?

Amato: Now, obviously Inspector Gadget, it's fun to think about that whole — it's fun to think of that character. But in real life, you still have to apply technology and just like any other human being. Is there anything on that front that you'd have advice for other accountants, how they can be better about applying technology to the jobs they do every day?

Cieslak: I think it's really been one of the things I've been passionate about almost since the day I started in business is I said I want to work smarter, better every single day. If you say, how can I be more efficient, more productive, smarter, better today than maybe I was yesterday?

Then I look around and say, what are the tools that could potentially help in that effort? I always have a very practical approach, a very practical lens. I don't just do technology for technology's sake. I'm not a whiz-bang, check this out. There's more than enough stupid pet trick technologies and folks willing to go down that path.

I'm all about saying time is precious. How can I make the most of it? How can I leverage technology to work smarter, better? I said, that has been something I've been passionate about since day one. If we think about that and then as we're understanding the technologies that are coming, evaluating those, and take a very process-oriented mindset.

When you think about those things throughout your day and you say that was a lot of time or that seem dumb, or that was a waste. Those might be the logical first candidates for automation. It illuminates the tortured soul that I am, but oftentimes I always think about the time and motion studies people. Am I doing this in the most efficient fashion, and can I somehow or another, if I lift this and take this over here, wait a minute, that's two trips versus one.

I just take that same mindset of efficiency, productivity and apply that to the different technologies, and say, where's the lever here? Where is the opportunity to really do better?

Amato: You know this topic far better than I do, so I'm just going to open it up. What else should I be asking you about on the tech front that's coming next?

Cieslak: I mentioned just a moment or two ago about evolutionary versus revolutionary. We've got a lot of technologies, and I'm sharing lately that there's probably never been a more exciting time to be in the accounting profession because we're really at a place where we're almost reengineering everything that we're doing. It's changing the character of the accounting firms, it's changing our service offerings, we're automating the redundant high-effort, low-value tasks. I mean, that's really where we're at. If I'm stepping into the profession today, I'm stepping into a profession that doesn't look anything like it did even 10 years ago, but definitely 20, 30 years ago. Most all of that is a result of some of these technologies that have been evolving for the last few years, really hitting the shore, really hitting the beach. You think about artificial intelligence and whether that's natural language processing or robotic process automation down that on-ramp of AI and just doing that process automation.

AI is a very broad-based moniker, it's a large umbrella, and I think Hollywood may depict it one way. But the practical application of artificial intelligence is taking those things that are high effort, low value and saying, can we automate those? That smart scrape scan code of an AP invoice is a very simple example, and that really has hit maturity now. When we think about capturing client documents and incorporating that into the tax returns, not new, far better than it used to be. When we think about doing an audit and saying do we do sampling, wait a minute, we have an opportunity to look at the entire data universe that we're going to be auditing and literally applying a risk assessment against that entire body of data. It's going to bring about better outcomes because we can do heavier lifting, we can do deeper analysis, we can do automation in ways that just even a handful of years ago weren't available to us.

I think some of the big topics that I've been covering of late are things like artificial intelligence. I tell folks, look, artificial intelligence, you think about bringing that into your practice, what's the practical way to go about doing that. Really, it's making certain that the applications that you're using are cloud-based because the publishers are largely going to deliver that AI experience within their products, and they're going to do that through the SaaS multi-tenant, cloud-based versions of their applications. It's not going to make itself available via an on-prem, in the back room, "I've got a server that's I think it's patched, it's pretty current, and we'd like to do AI." That's not how this is going to work. We need to be in the cloud, we need to be using the latest version of the products that the publishers are making available because that's where the innovation that's happening, that's where the dev is going, dev effort.

Again, I look at AI and I say, you want to take practical steps to make sure that you swing in the door wide open and giving yourself the opportunity to apply artificial intelligence to business process. Let's take a look at the rank and file, again the core applications we work with, and then where are the gaps? If I'm using significant solutions from vendors A, B, and C, what sits in between that? What are my opportunities for automation between the applications? Maybe that's where I might have to do a little bit more direct lifting and a little bit more direct effort.

Again, a lot of conversation around AI, how does it present itself within an organization, within a practice, and so much of it is becoming available through the efforts of these publishers. We're going to make sure to evaluate the publishers and saying, talk to me about innovation, talk to me about R&D, talk to me about how you're delivering on your future vision for your solution because that's going to impact my interest in investing in this platform.

Amato: Sometimes that word automation scares some people because they think it equals job losses, but how can technology be paired with existing staff to make for the most efficient operations?

Cieslak: Great question. I think the way I would respond to that is if you're concerned about job loss, what would be those jobs that we're potentially losing? That's that high effort, low value. Those are going away anyways. If you don't automate, trust me, your competitors are. I mean, maybe that's one way to think of it. The other way to think of it though is, where is your value opportunity? Our value opportunity as practitioners is in our critical thinking, our ability to analyze, our ability to advise. It's really understanding what our role is going forward, and maybe we've gotten a little too comfortable with the redundant, maybe data-entry portions of our careers.

As that stuff ultimately gets engineered out of our day, are we reorienting? Are we taking that strategic mindset going forward? If you're not, then that's a whole different concern because again anyone who's standing up a practice today, every organization today is saying, look, that is really the orientation we need to have, that is where the real value is as a practitioner in terms of then what we're able to pass along to our clientele.

Amato: David, thank you very much, appreciate you joining the show.

Cieslak: Absolutely. Thank you.