September 2008 - Posts
Auditors have to continually ask people questions which can make people
feel uncomfortable. If you can do it without really making people
uncomfortable, you have an excellent skill which will serve you well.
If you want to stand out at recruiting sessions, ask interesting questions. You'll know they're interesting because half the time people will actually pause and say, "gee, that's an interesting question."
A similar tactic is to ask challenging questions.
"Why did you pick your company" is a popular question, but I don't find it as interesting simply because it's so popular.
"I tell students I took the job because they promised me all the blue Fanta I wanted."
It doesn't mean you can't ask anything you feel like asking. If it's a common question I'll answer it a hundred times. My response will gradually improve too, so everyone benefits.
But asking the same question that you've heard other people suggest isn't what I'm discussing today.
I want to challenge you to demonstrate that you have the kickass Hardcore Chartered Accountancy spirit. Does it exist? Certainly.
How else to explain the fact that someone at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario approved their new "Guide to Ruling the World" recruiting campaign.
I mean, we clearly don't want to attract megalomaniacs, but if you like to joke about being a megalomaniac, you just might fit in perfectly.
So challenge yourself to ask something clever. Something common will be just a step above the banal "how was your weekend" question. It's so common that people will just say "fine", or with respect to a recruiting question, they'll just develop their own quick scripted responses over time, and you won't learn something new and candid.
In fact, when people ask me about why I picked my firm, I now just say, "look, I'll give you my business card - e-mail me and I'll send you the story. Let's talk about something more interesting." I say it in a polite and friendly way though - I think I'm not scaring people away, since a few students have already e-mailed me to ask for the details concerning that particular story.
The Hardcore Question = the Challenging Question
"Interesting" questions have a close cousin - the challenging question. If you know what you're doing, it's a great idea to pose your hard question, but you need to be careful.
There's a risk that if you put your challenging question across the wrong way, by making them sound like a sarcastic or negative challenge, it can blow up in your face - people may think you have a chip on your shoulder.
But if you ask the question tactfully then you can not only get an interesting answer, but you can impress the recruiter.
All this theory may sound hopelessly abstract, so I'll roll out some concrete examples:
- Something along the lines of, "what would you change about the way your company does things" is a good bet.
- If you say it just right, you can really impress me by saying, "I heard all these great things about your company, but what are some of your job's downsides?"
Among the various less serious downsides of Big Four life, doors in your office are indeed more likely to be painted black rather than bright red. Black as night, black as coal.
Younger students need to be told about the job's
downsides. The hours are long, you're continually learning and dealing
with the "OMG, I don't know what any of this means" phenomenon, you
report to multiple people, have frequent short deadlines and have to
stay incredibly organized to avoid falling behind.
what I said - but I added that if you're taking a full course-load at a
strong Ontario university, then you're already experiencing something
similar to Big Four life - depending on how much energy you're devoting
to your studies and extracurriculars, that is.
After all, it's too easy
to coast through university with middling marks and no special
achievements in non-course related activities. But if you're living the life of an over-achiever as a student, it's reasonable to assume that you plan to continue living that spirit as time goes on, so rather than scaring you away, those 'downsides' should instead intrigue you and make you feel like there's a place where you'll fit in quite nicely.
If you want additional guidance on what to ask, I recommend checking out Francine's post, which I must be unconsciously ripping off as I discuss this topic. Note that as professionals, we don't actually use the phrase "ripping off," but rather "expounding and enhancing upon." I love this job's unique vocabulary, sometimes.
Going back to the recruiting sessions, do follow Francine's advice in addition to my silly ideas. Though I partially disagree with her point that you should not "not about how many vacation days, flex time or their LGBT group in the first interview."
If you're at a session or interview with a traditional or "conservative" accounting firm, she's absolutely right - this isn't what you want to discuss. But if this stuff is raised at a recruiting session during the presentation, the company is effectively inviting you to learn more about the perks, and smart questions regarding the details of these programs are fair game.
Here's a handy guide to whether the firm you're dealing with truly embraces questions about the "non-purely work-related" stuff.
- During the presentation the HR rep skims through the slide about work-life balance, saying it's there.
- The HR rep talks about work-life balance, then gives examples, and then shows a few slides on the topic. And gets the other employees present from the firm to talk about where they took their vacations, their experiences in the LGBT group, or how they took used flex time to take additional courses in school while working. Prizes are handed out to people who ask questions.
I hope I don't need to explain which scenarios represents the conservative firm where shouldn't ask for details versus the firm that's proud of what they're doing and invites you to learn more.
Fatboy Slim's Greatest HIts album is called '(I'm #1 So) Why Try Harder'
In my first post on the topic of recruiting events, I called it a peculiar phenomenon - a strange ritual, to be precise.
One of the main reasons I call it that is because two things are happening: you're effectively 'selling' yourself as a job candidate, but the firm is also selling itself as an employer.
It's all too easy to simply say, "we need 10 bodies next month", and to just dredge up some old applicants and plop them into a cubicle.
But if you want a happy workplace with people that get along with each other, you need to be picky, so you want to attract happy but hard working people. This makes the recruiting process an interesting challenge - and gives even popular companies a strong motivation to put significant effort into their recruiting campaigns, to be both meticulous and careful.
Getting recognized for your efforts
Unfortunately, after meeting 20 or 40 students in on session, it's way too easy to forget who said what, especially if you haven't practised memorizing people's names and faces the way in which the Carnegie people will teach you
I advised students to explicitly reference what we talked about when
they send the standard follow-up "thanks for meeting me, stay in touch"
e-mail that most serious candidates send to the people they spoke with.
Sometimes I'll remember a name just because people wore an easy to read
nametag which made it easy to make the name-face association. Other
times, a person's jacket or hair got in the way and I wasn't entirely
sure what their name was. Note to ladies and guys with long hair:
ponytails are the way to go if the hair's going to go flying around
everywhere and I can't as a result see your nametag.
So if you
think you asked a clever question, please remind me about what it was.
I haven't met anyone who asked me an outrageous question that made me
think, "gee, no, you're trouble". Instead, I've met a mix of people who
just said, "hi I'm here for info," and others who communicated the idea
that they're clever and deserve an interview. So the worst case
scenario is that I simply still won't remember who you were.
In particular, you may want to identify who asked you the challenging question - the one about "downsides" is a question that was actually posed to me. And I really don't remember the person's name, which is unfortunate, because they showed some real moxy by asking it and they deserve positive credit for doing so.
Asking fellow young auditors such questions in this almost 'magical' way at recruiting events is probably the quickest way to showing off the fact that you have this skill.
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Just in time for campus visits - the strange ritual where all the big accounting firms visit the big university campuses to showcase why they're a good place to work - Business Week released a list of the top places to start your career. 4 of the top 5 spots are taken by the Big Four accounting firms.
EY, Deloitte, PwC, and at #5, KPMG. Goldman Sachs wins the #4 spot.
My friends in various Big Four firms smirked and shrugged in reaction. The work's good, but the best choice in the country?
Well it is very good for many reasons, but people will always find ways to complain or just have a laugh. As much as some joke about this being a desperate attempt by BW to get accounting firms to buy more ad space - fat chance, they don't advertise much - the finding about the work is fair, and the logic becomes especially apparent if you work elsewhere where things aren't set up as smoothly, or if you compare the Big Four jobs to those of people who share their horror stories of working in the workplaces identified at Evil HR Lady (hilarious link here) or Ask a Manager's sites.
Trying to get into one of the Big Four accounting firms can feel like trying to breach the walls of a fortress - until you attend recruiting sessions where, if you're paying attention, you realize that it's only like trying to get in a fortress where people are already there, holding doors open for you and sharing all its so-called secrets. Like the fact that they do way more than just accounting.
Above: oh yes, a picture of a so-called fortress
I skipped recruiting events when I was a student - so it's sort of
ironic that I'm actually showing up as a representative of my company
at our events.
There's nothing like giving out extremely valuable interview and
application tips. And simple facts about what life is like at the big
The other fun element of recruiting - aside from inching towards the food table to have a quick snack before getting surrounded by curious students - is getting big laughs by saying something silly.
As much as these sessions are relaxing for me, they can be understandably stressful for the students: picture
hundreds of university students wearing suits and wondering if they'll
get one of these coveted jobs. This means serving as the
tension breaker who keeps the atmosphere relatively light is a noble role.
It doesn't hurt that I have practice talking about what "life on the inside" is like. Or it might be more accurate to say, "writing" about what it's like.
The extra kick I get from the sessions compared to writing though, is that I while comments you read here are mostly general so they apply as much as possible to most firms, if you have a chance to meet with me in person I can become a lot more specific.
The other challenge I set myself is to answer the juiciest questions possible that students are generally too shy to ask, but would love answers to.
Although I don't loudly go around proclaiming to everyone that I already have this ready-made little trove of stories, facts and analysis available for all to enjoy - finding ACS
is a prize in itself - though this week alone I have mentioned it to both top executives internally as well as some of the students at our most recent recruiting events. So if you've stopped in because I wrote krupo.ca on the back of my business card, welcome, and I'm happy to get comments and questions..
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In addition to wrapping up two audits and starting two new ones this month, I just noticed that I have a new version of Picasa to play with.
It's jam packed with features, and I have an extensive collection of photos to play with - no surprises there either. The inclusion of a quick and easy "Clone" tool, as they call it in Photoshop, is beyond awesome. They call it "retouch", an appropriate term, and I can't wait to try it out on those unsightly smudges that resulted from me being too lazy to clean my camera lens before taking photos of the sky.
But I have something purely financial audit-related to discuss for a change too - an interesting list* of 29 confirmation frauds I came across today, which might come in handy when preparing for the UFE, or when just working on developing your professional skepticism (*Nov 18 2009 edit - note that link is down - here's an abbreviated list in PDF form from the same people who put out the top 29).
The list is prepared by a company which offers an interesting online electronic confirmation service. I haven't been doing a lot of the 'pure numbers' audit work lately since I've been knee deep in IT work all the time - but one of my manager friends tells me that this is a growing phenomenon - some banks will only allow you to push your "confirm" requests through services such as this.
For the uninitiated, the electronic confirm system expedites and simplifies the process performed by auditors who wish to confirm that the money you have in a bank - or which you claim people owe you - is correct.
"Hi, Shopper's Drug Mart? I'm an auditor for Gianni Versace S.p.A and we need to confirm that you have a receivable for perfume and cinder blocks. We don't usually ask about anything other than the dollar amounts, but was UP with those cinder block and pink boa displays? Seriously!"
I remember learning a lot performing the traditional confirmation procedures - and later
teaching them to others as well. It's work that needs to get done quickly - since
people usually take their sweet time in responding to you, and you want
a response immediately, not three weeks from now, since your audit
might be wrapped up by then in some cases.
Making it electronic is definitely an interesting evolution in the process.
The old way, you need to figure out who to contact at a company or bank which your audit client does business with. If you're lucky, the audit file has this information, and it's not out of date. Otherwise, time to start digging through records to find out who those bills are sent to, and to try calling them to get the right address if you have any doubt about who to ask. Exercise caution to avoid being duped into sending confirms to the CEO's brother-in-law. Then you're just setting everyone up for a potential bondoogle or worse.
If the client doesn't quickly respond, you have to hurry up and start making calls.
Calling for dollar related questions
Do you recall the Simpsons episode where Bart calls the Southern Hemisphere to try and debunk the Coriolis Effect - the rare scenario where Lisa was ultimately just making stuff up?
Aide: Please to repeat again and I will translating for the el
Bart: [slowly] Which way does the water turn in your toilet?
Aide: [in Spanish] He says the tide is turning!
Presidente: Ay, caramba! Then the rebels will soon take the capital. I
must flee! [dives out window]
Yeah, getting the right contact person for your confirms can often be just as tricky.
In addition to finding the right contact, you then have to reconcile what they think they owe with what your client thinks they owe. Hopefully the two numbers match, but if they don't you have a most interesting puzzle to sort out. Ideally, you can get a copy of whatever cheque was paid to sort out the difference.
If the two companies disagree over who's right, on the other hand, things can quickly get irritating. Fortunately lowly audit staff usually have the luxury of calling in their manager to sort things out if they truly start to get complicated.
There's one thing they'll tell you about confirms that you should always keep in mind: those should be blind confirms.
Yes, it would be much easier to say, "Versace claims you owe $20 million dollars." If you agree - either because the value is correct, it's less than you really owe, or you just don't care - then the confirmation doesn't have much value.
The interesting thing to consider when reading about the confirm frauds - especially that those deal with phony sales - is that the in a normal sale, the amounts collectible generally are supposed to be paid back within two or three months.
That means that if you're not sure about a confirm - or don't receive one - then you can check your audit client's records to see if they in fact got paid for whatever item they claim to have sold. If no payment arrives, you have every right to ask - "um, are you sure they're going to pay you back?
If this procedure doesn't work because of overly generous payment terms, you're looking at some ugly red flags that may lead to a qualification in the audit report if you can't get any sort of appropriate response before the report date rolls around.
I found another CA blog out there - the first French Canadian one I've come across.
If you have trouble reading Julien's French, run it through Google Translate. The translation's not perfect, but it'll do.
The newest posting caught my eye; in the spirit of hyper-critical UFE prep, here's some analysis.
His writing's pretty good - the post about travel is a good read, and it's amusing to note that he looks forward to the chance to perfect his English in his travels, whereas I could say the same about improving my French when I'm sent on the road to the francophone parts of the world.
Going back to his newest post about the UFE process, however, Julien talks about two factors that he claims make his program unique compared to those experienced at other firms - any message like that delivered on an official blog deserves closer scrutiny since new recruits are going to put some weight into what they're being told.
The first claim is that Quebec gets the best coach in the business hired externally to prepare the students with a proprietary method.
I know of at least three such services - so to make it sound like you're the only people who have a special UFE prep consultant there to guide you is a little disingenuous.
If you're going to boldly claim that what you're doing is not
replicated by anyone else, you should probably do a bit more research
first. Of course, on the UFE you have limited time to look up facts, so
you should be well prepared with knowledge of whatever you expect to be
asked about - or you should know where to look it up.
We won't even get into a subjective discussion over which consultant
is the best since everyone has different styles of both learning and
teaching, so, as much fun as it would be, crowning any single person as the Chosen One won't fly.
cares if a given person has been doing UFE prep for a few years to a
few decades? If you don't learn well with them, keep searching until
you find someone who helps you prepare and improve.
The long road approach
The secondly point, Julien raises is his belief that most firms offer merely a week long information bombardment session for the UFE, while he seems to suggest that his firm's process is the longest, and by extension best, prep around.
Decent firms have a UFE prep process that starts in many cases shortly after you get hired, and continues until your UFE graduation, with regular monthly or weekly sessions depending on which point you're at in the process.
The best firms also continually tinker with their process, using feedback from the writers and their coaches and mentors to find ways of delivering support more effectively.
I myself have to go read and mark some more cases this week to help my mentees. They're doing well but everyone always has room for improvement.
Sure the French Toast portrayed above may be unique in terms of the delicious bread used, but I wouldn't be so forward as to claim we're the only people to have ever consumed such agreeable French Toast..
In case you're wondering, I wrote up an analysis here instead of leaving a comment there because "over there" is an official Pricewaterhouse blog and we have our own fun history with trying to comment over there, though a recent test comment went through. We'll see if relations are thawing.
In other measures of unique items, I got hit by 725 pieces of spam in August, well down from 902 in July.
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