“We’ve heard the rumors that accounting is nerdy and boring,” says an unnamed trade group on its website, as reported in the Financial Times.
Yup, it sure looks that way.
The numbers don’t lie
The Big Four firms couldn’t run away faster from accounting, pretending instead to be generic management consultants. Audit — the practices of using accounting to understand business operations in an objectively reliable way — is responsible for half or more of the revenues at 3 of them and even more if you include tax work (which would be impossible without said auditing capabilities).
Yet the FT story reports that the number of people taking the exam to become accountants (CPAs) dropped by a quarter last year from its total five years’ prior (it was already at a decades-long low) and only half that many have signed up for the test this year.
“As a profession, our ability to protect the public interest could be at risk,“ said a Deloitte exec in the article. Things could get much worse as baby-boomer accountants retire.
The solution, again according to the FT story, includes activities like a trade group that suggests job roles based on zodiac signs on a website that stresses racial and gender diversity. Other responses include positioning the obliteration of accounting jobs by AI as an opportunity for roles that have less to do with numbers.
Zzzz. Like I said, the rumors are true.
There’s a disconnect between the importance of accounting and how its promoted by the major companies that rely on it for oodles of money. A trade group campaign that uses cuddly language to promote accounting as a lifestyle choice can’t hurt, but I don’t think it’s going to help much.
It’s time to rebrand accounting…and I think I have the answer.
Coding the economy
Simply put, accountants write the code that runs businesses and economies. It’s not a metaphor. Equations are algorithms, regulations are programming language structure, and numbers are code. Some people code video games and crypto apps and others do it for EBITDA and fixed asset depreciation. The only meaningful difference when it comes to recruiting is that the former get to do their work in their underwear chugging Mountain Dew in their basements.
Accounting isn’t just the code of business, it’s the only objective and reliable measure of truth. It’s the play-by-play that underpins the color commentary in sports or the wind speed and barometric pressure behind the interpretations of forecasts (those are both metaphors, BTW). It’s the BS meter we can use to vet a company’s claims, put the behavior of markets into perspective, or understand the priorities of a government.
And, unlike being a CEO or politician, accountants have to pass a difficult, time-consuming, and costly test before they can claim to do their jobs. This imbues them with a significant dose of credibility that many other supposed authoritative voices in our lives lack.
We need that level of veracity in order to take back ESG reporting from the PR people and make it a meaningful measure of our progress on saving the planet (or not). We also need it to make better decisions the next time a Mark Zuckerberg or Travis Kalanick wanna-be promises some infinite benefit with no costs.
Accountants are coders. It’s an immensely cool and important job.
So, how do you rebrand accounting?
First, embrace a purpose: You can’t talk about coding the economy (or maybe it’s the future?) with mushy feel-good language about personality…it’s a calling, a function necessary to the survival of our world and not just to next quarter’s earnings. Becoming an accountant is joining a caste of like-minded individuals who share a commitment to things like integrity, accuracy, and objectivity; they can and should play the role of “reality advisors” where those management consultants and their client counterparts fall short. In the end, accountants don’t just keep score or measure inches of rainfall, they provide the only truths or perceptions that we can all share.
Second, speak boldly. Again, linking a career in accounting to someone’s astrological sign makes about as much sense as associating it with their left-handedness. Accounting drives every business and government decision (or should). It’s serious stuff. Such coders are the “engines of change” for the world’s economies and are thereby focused on all of the major issues we face: climate change, economic and social justice, quality of life. Where are the issue-specific audit initiatives? Where’s the industry-wide program to fix ESG reporting? The profession should be recruiting people who care, not just who want to be entertained…people who can serve more like religious leaders than bureaucrats.
Third, get over the CPA exam. There are a zillion “accounting adjacent” activities that are immensely important and don’t require a CPA certificate. Why aren’t they legitimized with training and formal recognition? Maybe becoming a CPA isn’t the cost of entry into the profession but an early/mid-career goal toward which people can work, learn, and thereby quality (and let them do some of that work in their basements wearing pajamas)? What about finding people who just want to experiment with numbers and challenges? Just visit the AICPA website and your eyes will glaze over (they’re the gatekeepers). Where are the accounting hackathons? What about inventing ways for current employees to participate as guest coders?
Accounting is nerdy and should be that way, just like any other profession that requires study and accountability (lawyers, doctors). The challenge of making it cool requires embracing its deeper purpose and a diversity of practices. Everything else is, well, still pretty boring.
It’s time to rebrand accounting.