March 5, 2020

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Reverse-engineered accountants

One of our regular topics of discussion around here is the rise of the non-accountant accountant. Accounting firms are offering new services or using technology, and this has led to a sharp increase in the number of non-accounting graduates hired by firms.

Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University seems to be embracing this trend, introducing a one-year master’s in accounting program specifically for non-accounting majors:

The program is aimed at students who don’t have accounting degrees but possess a basic knowledge of economics and accounting. Students will complete 36 credits and an eight-week paid internship in public accounting during the spring semester and stay on Lehigh’s campus throughout the summer and fall semesters. The school states that graduates of the program will ultimately have the knowledge to sit for the CPA Exam.

The accounting world has expressed some concern about this trend of non-accountant/non-CPA accountants, so this must be music to their ears. Still, there are a couple of interesting things about this development:

  1. They created a master’s program as opposed to suggesting students interested in accounting pursue a double major.
  2. Rather than change the accounting curriculum to address its gaps, they’re offering accounting chops (36 credits!) to non-accountants. The non-accountants will be more accountant than the accounting majors.

This strikes me as…mostly fine? There are other programs like this one out there, and I suspect we’ll see more of them crop up. Accounting firms will be thrilled if computer science majors start getting drunk and waking up in information sessions about master’s of accounting programs for non-accounting majors.

It does make me wonder about undergraduate programs, though. If you can major in anything, have a “basic knowledge of economics and accounting,” and be on your way to a paid internship with an accounting firm, that’s pretty great. On the contrary, there are no such guarantees for accounting undergrads, so why bother being one?

It’s safe to assume, I think, that the accounting majors are actually interested in accounting. And they are, strangely, being penalized for that interest. Yes, most accounting graduates will end up with internships, and jobs and careers—but they pursued the field from the beginning. Now, at Lehigh at least, you may be better off closeting your accounting interest for four years while you major in philosophy, and then jump to the MSA when you realize that you’ll never have a job.

I guess that’s the beauty of a program like this. It will allow firms to hack their talent challenges by creating accountants from non-accountants. No prior affinity required.

In defense of (some) jargon

A big cliche in business these days is storytelling. People love stories, so if you can’t tell them one, then your business is doomed to failure, the thinking goes. Storytelling has largely been the domain of marketing and smarmy CEOs, but mostly marketing, and that’s where I happen to reside. Little did I know, storytelling seems to have caught on with numbers people:

“Behind our figures are emotional stories that we want to tell, regardless of time, place and device,” said Thomas Toepfer, [Covestro AG]’s finance chief.

For many companies, annual reports are no longer simply tomes of legalese, tables and footnotes. Executives increasingly are producing year-end summaries that allow for more reader engagement and easier consumption on mobile devices and computer screens.

Look, sure, I’m all for making accounting and finance easier to understand. That’s kinda what I’ve been trying to do for a while now. I’d gladly show someone how to make an annual report less insufferable for a modest fee. And last week, part of this newsletter was about how buzzy corporatespeak is one of the reasons work can be so awful. I stand by that. This is an entirely different issue.

Because, I’ve got to tell you, reader engagement and easier consumption is not all it’s cracked up to be. For starters, the biggest and most prominent investors and stakeholders are probably already engaged and vocal when they need to be. They don’t need your pop culture references or listicles to get the info they desire out of your annual report. They’ll just read it as is, pick up the phone, and say, “What the hell are you guys doing over there?” Or they’ll just listen while some analyst (who also read it as is) asks, “What the hell are you guys doing over there?”

No, if annual reports embrace storytelling too much, I fear we’ll end up with the memefication of annual reports. Covestro has already published “a digital version with video messages, interactive graphics and even a quiz.” Next thing you know, every know-it-all with a keyboard and an Internet connection will be creating “One does not simply adopt the new lease standard” memes. Subreddits dedicated to trolling CFOs for expensing stock options will crop up overnight. Basement-dwelling wannabe executives will write unreadable fan-fic MD&As and build dedicated followings. There will be YouTube stars, people. Is that what you want? I don’t think so.

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Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.
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