Q&A with John G. Ams, Executive Vice President of the National Society of Accountants
Q: Can you describe what a career in accounting entails?
There is no one kind of career in accounting. There are accountants who only perform auditing functions, or those who complete tax returns for their clients. There are accountants who are CPAs and some who are not. We call them all accountants, but they all do very different things.
Q: How did you become interested in accounting?
I always had a facility with numbers. Clearly, anyone who is thinking about accounting as a career should have a facility with numbers because there will be numbers no matter what type of accountant you are. I was always interested in tax law and applying that law to certain situations. Accounting is a matter of applying rules to particular transactions.
Q: Are there any particular personality traits that are helpful in the field?
Something that may not be obvious is that you need to be able to listen to clients. For example, the tax code gives you a deduction if you have a home office. People come in and say they have a home office. The problem is, as an accountant, you know that the definition of “home office” is different than the definition someone on the street might have. You need to be able to listen and to know what is important for the purposes of the tax return. You have to be able to extrapolate the information you need from what a client is telling you. There’s a real talent to that.
Q: How much value is added by advanced degrees/certifications?
There is a lot to be said for that. We live in an increasingly complex world. Clients are looking for advanced degrees. They’re looking for people who specialize in whatever they are involved with. Rules are so complex sometimes that a client would want to gain additional assurance by going to someone with an advanced degree. For example, there are a lot of small business owners who may have started out in their garages, but 20 years later they have big businesses. If you’re the sole proprietor, maybe you need someone who’s not just an accountant but also a certified financial planner who can help you pass your business on to your kids or grandkids, etc. An additional degree brings value to the client.
Q: As someone is starting out in accounting, what can he or she expect?
In the beginning, the first duties are going to be the more mundane. I would encourage people to look at it as building blocks. You have to know where the numbers on a financial statement are coming from so that you can explain it not only to a client, but to a bank officer. A lot of the time, a client doesn’t know where the numbers are coming from; that’s up to the accountant. If you don’t have that building block background, you can’t explain that as well as someone who does. My background was in tax law, so at first there was a lot of learning the rules and learning the “terms of art.” In the tax code, for instance, “home office” is a term of art. It has a specific meaning. You can’t really advance in the career unless you get those basics.
Q: How has the economy affected the accounting profession?
The economy has made the accounting profession even more important. In good times, with everyone making money, whether you were a couple of bucks over or a couple of bucks short, it really didn’t matter. In a bad economy, people need to know exactly what is going on. If you run a small business you need to know how close you are to making payroll. It’s become much more important to be exact because there are repercussions.
Q: How can students make themselves stand out?
Even when you’re going to school, there are opportunities to come out of school with a credential, whether it’s a two-year or four-year program. At the end of some two year accounting programs, students can take a test and come out of school with a credential. If you’ve graduated and have already passed a rigorous examination, that experience is more valuable than that of someone who has just taken courses.
Q: What surprised you about the career?
The surprises come from the clients. Sometimes people come in and want to know the “quick way” to get around something. There isn’t always a “quick way.” You have ethical requirements, and if you’re going to be a professional, you’re going to do what’s ethically right. What’s surprising is the number of clients who come in and expect you to play with the numbers. The numbers are what the numbers are. Clients don’t always know the rules or what the accountant needs to know to do his or her job. The clients can be challenging, but they also make the job fun.
Q: How have accounting practices developed recently?
The technology over the last 20 years has really changed business practices. Even small accounting firms are outsourcing work to other countries. We currently operate under generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). Because of the worldwide shuffling, we’re having new rules developed-International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). That’s going to have a big impact in the next few years. People who are coming into accounting now are ideally situated because they will learn the new rules along with everyone in the profession. IFRS is brand new; everyone is learning it right now.
Q: How can the NSA help students interested in the field?
We have CPAs, certified financial planners, sole proprietors, etc. as members. We have state chapters all over the country that have student membership. It’s a good way to network and get to know potential employers. I certainly encourage students to get involved on the state level and network.
Q: Any other particular recommendations for aspiring accountants?
I would just encourage students to look at the various types of accounting and find out what they’re interested in. As long as you’re willing to learn the rules and go through the building block phase, it’s really a rewarding and fun career.