Posted by: LYF | July 19, 2010

What it’s really like working in an accounting firm

Noman writes, “I am in Pakistan..and trying to qualify as a CA.  I finished my training requirement at KPMG here..i just finished my training on 14th June.  I just wanted to know a bit more about the CA life there.”

This won’t be simple, so I may go off on a few tangents before I really answer your question.  I doubt there’s a typical “CA life”; at least there isn’t one that I am aware of.  There are so many factors to consider – size of the firm, where you live, and what type of work you’ll be doing – that it’s almost impossible to give a cookie-cutter response to your question.  Still, I’ll give it a try.

First, let me say what CA life isn’t.  It isn’t technical.  The accounting issues, tax updates, IFRS courses, webinars, and obnoxious “in-the-loop” emails that clutter my inbox are not as important as you may think.  At times they’ll help you stay current – like reading the headlines of a newspaper.  But if you want real knowledge, you’ll have to sit and read, usually for really long stretches of time, on subjects that are very boring.  Technical is foundational.  It’s a professional prerequisite – the working world assumes you know what you’re talking about.  That means you won’t be spending your days explaining the proper way to do a section 85 rollover or how to account for a non-monetary transaction.  You’ll need to know those things, but you’ll need to know them without having to think about them.  It’s similar to a UFE case.  You can’t spot an issue if your technical is weak.  But having a strong technical understanding is useless if you don’t have the skills to spot an issue/apply what you’ve learned to a real-world problem.  So CA life isn’t technical in a university kind of way, where you may be used to memorizing facts and regurgitating them on a page.

Aside from what it isn’t, be wary of people who seem too eager to describe a “typical” CA life.  I’m talking about the people who already know what they want out of the profession and the unfortunate subset of those, who’ve let other people decide for them.  These people can be tricky to deal with, only because they have bought into a single way of looking at things.  Their attitudes won’t necessarily be wrong.  They just may not be what you’re after.  And when you aren’t even sure what you want, buying into someone else’s “idea” of the way things are supposed to go can lead to problems down the road.  I know CA’s who want to leave the profession and do humanitarian work in South Africa; I wouldn’t consider that typical.  But there will always be people who want to make partner, have 2.5 kids and live in the suburbs.  It’s personal preference really.  Keep that in mind if you’re ever talking to someone who’s projecting their idea of a “CA life” on you.

The best I can do is tell you how I feel about working at an accounting firm.  For me, it’s mostly about meta level thinking.  You’ll have the files you’ve been assigned.  Then you’ll have to think about your files as you’re working on your files.  Are you using 85% zoom in excel because your manager prefers it?  Did you wait until 10am to ask your supervisor a question because she hasn’t had her coffee yet?  Would you consider asking your partner about his hockey game to get him in a good mood before bringing up an accounting issue?  Whatever you want to call “that”, that’s what takes up most of my time.

It’s not as simple as keeping other people in mind – that’s obvious.  It’s the skill of seeing past your responsibilities and up to all the factors that impact your job, whether they’re work related or not.  Then once you have those, coming up with strategies to push yourself up the corporate ladder, while turning in high quality work.

Sometimes it’s as simple as calling a client when you know they aren’t home.  Only so you can leave an email saying, “I tried calling, but I guess you were out.  Could you please send us [insert missing info here]” to act as vindication when you’re explaining to your partner why the file is still outstanding.  That’s actively thinking about how you’re finishing your file as you’re finishing it.

You’ll also rely heavily on critical thinking skills.  But these will only be valuable in situations where you’ve been presented with a problem you won’t know how to solve.  For example, my bosses value my work the most when I’ve turned in files they weren’t sure I was capable of completing.  Most juniors find this surprising; that they’ll get assigned work they won’t know how to do.  The trick is to figure out how to do it and then finish the job.  Most people jump to the latter, spinning their wheels in the process.  Over the past few months I’ve come to understand that the figuring out part is the only part.  Because once that’s done you won’t be thinking anymore.  You’ll be actualizing the problem you solved.  Here are two good examples of the problems I have to deal with.

Once I was asked to re-print a business plan template for my partner, who needed it for a client meeting the following day.  I asked him where he got it from.  He said, “The Internet.”  Immediately after that comment he decided it would be a good idea if I met with the client – who I knew nothing about – and give him the framework – located conveniently on “The Internet.”

Then things got difficult.  My partner accidentally threw out his original copy.  So now I was looking for “a document” on “The Internet.”  I still don’t know how I managed to get through that mess.  The next morning I typed a few words into Google and found the document my partner misplaced.  Then I met with the guy at 930 and listened to him talk for a while.  He didn’t really need a business plan template.  He needed someone to listen to his problems and reassure him that everything would work out.  After we wrapped up I passed him the document, shook his hand and told him to phone me if there were ever any problems.

That’s a work related problem.  The real tough problems are the non-work related problems that happen at work.

Two weeks ago I was at a client’s office working through their audit.  As I was walking home, I put my hand in my pocket to turn up my ipod, when I immediately realized I forgot my keys.  It was only 5:10 at the time.  I managed to get back to the office by 5:15 hoping someone would still be there.  Everyone had left.  The lights were off and the doors were locked.  That sucked and I quickly remembered how my landlord charged me $50 the last time he let me in when I forgot my keys.  I needed to figure out how to get my keys back, avoid paying $50 and not look stupid in front of the client.

I thought hard for a while.  I remembered a weird recurring credit in the client’s rent expense account.  And during lunch I noticed – what seemed to be – a stranger in the lunch room.  I knew she didn’t work for the company because someone said her name and it was on the employee list I was given by the CFO.  I slowly realized that the credits were payments made by a firm on the same floor that shares the client’s kitchen.  Once that clicked, I knocked on the company’s door and asked if they had a spare key.  They did.  Crisis avoided.  $50 saved.

Both of these stories, to varying degrees, are what I deal with on a daily basis.  There’s a problem.  I won’t know how to solve it right away.  I’ll buckle down and figure out what’s up.  And solve the problem in such a way that leaves everyone happy.

Most problems I deal with are a weird mix of technical knowledge, critical thinking skills and meta level analysis.  Any my job is to line up those skills with my coworkers/clients in such a way that I look awesome – even though that doesn’t always happen.

Your CA experience could be very different from mine.  But I tried to touch on the high level stuff that you’ll likely experience as you get more responsibility.  At the very least, I’m hoping you can take at least a few things away from this and apply them to wherever you end up.


  1. […] admin wrote an interesting post today. Here’s a quick excerptThe baccounting/b issues, tax updates, IFRS courses, webinars, and obnoxious “in-the-loop” emails that clutter my inbox are not as important as you may think. At times they’ll help you stay current – like reading the headlines of a … […]

  2. Line of the YEAR: . So now I was looking for “a document” on “The Internet.” That was epic.

  3. […] Year’s File tells us all about the exciting world of Chartered Accountancy: Aside from what it isn’t, be wary of people who seem too eager to describe a “typical” CA […]

  4. Hey Pal

    where the posts at!!! This blog rocks, i really miss the posts.

  5. good post, i now have some sort of idea to what i will be heading for.

  6. That’s probably the best description I’ve read so far. So difficult to explain the typical experience, because it is made up of such specific daily problems that require solving.

    The biggest transition in thinking from university to work is that it’s really better to exhaust every angle to figure it out yourself rather than asking someone how to do it – university was all about classes and being taught the steps. Not so much at work

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