February 2009 - Posts
Recently there's been a spate of people getting really depressed
about their lot in life. No doubt this has a lot to do with the fact
that the audit busy season is in high gear for a lot of people right
now - many people are working 6 or 7 days a week, waking up too early
and staying at audit sites until far too late.
I refer to a conversation I've been keeping an eye on - this relatively big thread featuring these unhappy, mostly young auditors.
Although the 250 comments in the conversation comprise a lot since the conversation started in late 2006, with over half a million people working for the Big Four firms around the world, not to mention all the small and medium sized firms I'm not counting, there's a lot of people in this line of work. Some even enjoy what they're doing and drop in to see what people are saying.
And so I don't feel like letting people indulge in their little
pity party today.
Because it's a pretty damned interesting year to be
The US economic system is facing possible implosion. As dark as it sounds, that makes this a pretty exciting time to be doing audits, the brutal hours notwithstanding, as you're testing all sorts of things that don't become issues during economic boom times.
And yet there's so much angry or depressed kvetching about working in a field that's not interesting or makes you miserable. One such person writes, thinking about how long it'll take to get their CA:
"If I make it, I’m am going to quit right away and actually start living
my life. I’ll be almost 25 by then. Oh god, I know I will regret
wasting my best years doing this horrible mess of a job."
I'm curious to know how many people staggered into this line of work not knowing that:
- The first few years on the job are pretty damn harsh - your "hell years" is the way some of my profs described it.
- You learn a lot. Auditing is a crash course in learning what works - and often what doesn't work.
- The learning you will experience will be "full immersion" - people will assume that you either know what's going on, or are smart enough to point out you have no idea what's going on. If you don't accept this, you will flail about helplessly unless you stumble upon someone willing to set you straight.
- Your work will be subject to constant investigation and "criticism" - this is known as the "review" process. Some people give review notes in a nicer way than others. Regardless, you need a thick skin to understand that whenever your work is challenged, it's in the spirit of clarifying or improving what you did - it's not a shot against you or your own skills.
- If someone gives really harsh review notes, well, look forward to working with someone else down the road - but if other people have survived their review notes, you will too. And you might learn something in the process.
- You were probably going to "waste" the best years of your life anyway, generally speaking, anyway. Get through the process in one piece and you'll end up in an excellent position to see the world or do whatever else grabs your fancy.
- "Almost 25" is still bloody young. Some people don't even start their jobs in firms like this until they're older.
While slogging through the Worst Audits Imaginable you may rightly encounter that feeling of "WTF am I doing?", but you can't let that overshadow the fact that few people experience what you're going through - which is exactly what makes you such a valuable employee when you emerge from the trials of AuditLand. I quote that same depressed commenter again:
I’ve been working for 1.5 years at a Big 4 firm and I really hate it.
Going into a job without much knowledge of anything, trying to figure
out how the entire accounting system and all the business cycles work
in 1-3 weeks’ time… it’s a nightmare.
As much as it can be a nightmare, it's also the crucial learning experience that anybody with a sharp mind and an interest in becoming a hardcore CA is desperate to experience.
How many people can say that they've seen four or fourteen companies in a year, learned what makes them tick in a week or three - when it takes many people years to master an understanding of their day job let alone the entire company - and can then apply what they've learned to new scenarios?
Well most decent CAs and other professionals who have run through this intense training regimen masquerading as a job can, but as a fraction of the world's 6 billion person population, it's a pretty elite group - which is exactly why it's so hard to get a job here in the first place. There's a limited number of spaces, and those who are selected need to be able to hit the ground running.
Many of the commenters are worried that they're stuck in accounting forever, well, you're not. Yes, "Manager of Corporate Reporting" and "Controller" are common homes for qualified Chartered Accountants who wander out into the 'real world' outside AuditLand, but if that's all you can think of as a future option, you need to read more. CA magazine has regular profiles of the crazy ventures people with a bit of experience get into.
Think about that next time you find yourself trying to tie together balance sheets that won't balance. There are people who want to be doing the same thing as you - and even getting paid for the pleasure too - since there's many other things to look forward to if you get bored of it.
One of the popular questions I've received is how to successfully pull off an internal transfer. The majority of new staff in Big Four and smaller accounting firms start off life in the regular audit group, though there are plenty of exceptions, myself included. One of the selling points about the job is that you learn a great deal and that means you get to move around and see more of the world, if you're so inclined.
Whether you paid your dues doing the "hell work" of regular audits, or grew up in another group, over time many people will switch either for the "career growth" from working in different areas, or from just pure curiosity/wanderlust. Fortunately, going through all that 'training' means that you've learned the ropes, which turns you into the glorious Young Talented Valued and Resourceful Employee, Fit For Deployment Elsewhere.
So how do you pull off doing this with all that much-hyped flair?
"I'm so sick and tired of working in the hydro department"
If you're just applying for work and thinking about the future, or just started and are unfamiliar with how this all works, the entire process can feel justifiably daunting or mysterious. It's really not all that bad, though - internal transfers can be fun since you already have a secure job and you're just applying for a new one with a relatively 'safe' fallback position if things don't pan out.
Though each company is a little different, I hopefully don't have to sound hopelessly vague as there are some common points that most places have in common.
Things to keep in mind when working on your Successful Internal Transfer:
- Talk to people who might be able to help you with these goals. If someone is
visiting from the foreign office or department you're interested in,
learn what you can from them, and do that much-vaunted 'networking' thing, which simply means stay in touch with them, and if you like what you hear, tell them you wouldn't mind to work with them down the road. If you're already experienced, you may get a surprise early offer.
- Having said that, you're going to want to have at least a year of experience, and preferably two or three before making your transfer. If you've completed your professional training that's a bonus, but it's not absolutely required, oddly enough.
- "Early" transfers within your own office are easiest to pull off if you were hired in a more "entry-level" position and there's a more "advanced" position that you're better qualified for. Perhaps you finished some part-time courses since getting hired, or you just got your foot in the door, but now your company realizes you have even more skills than they were aware of. This really shouldn't happen too often, but once in a while it does, and it's a pleasant surprised for all concerned.
- Transfers are always easier if you're trying to get into a department that's already hiring externally or otherwise simply has enough work to accommodate taking you on.
- Conversely, if your group doesn't have a lot of work to go around, you're also going to get more support from your current bosses to move to a new home - this can be a huge help if there's a place you really want to go to.
- It should go without saying that it's easier to transfer if you're a hard worker with positive reviews.
- You're going to want to win the support of your current bosses to pull of your transfer - if you work in a good company and you don't know it, you'll know this for sure when you realize your managers help you with your career goals, including transfers.
- Only in an immature company would your current managers hold you back
because they need you - any decent boss will support you in your goals.
- Sadly the "worst case scenarios" of being held back do happen - in those cases, be resourceful. Reach out to your HR group or anyone else who can help you. Read the HR blogs for more tips in this area. Sidenote: the post of the day: "my boss insists I wear short skirts" - whoa. Ew.
- If anything, most people in a professional firm will support what you want to do! Unless they show up on one of those HR blogs, but I digress.
- The department you're going through will usually get some of its managers or top bosses to interview you before accepting you. The type of interviews depend on what kind of transfer you're pulling off. Short term (one or two month) assignments are the easiest, often with no such interview at all. Longer jobs, particularly when you switch cities, have over the phone or even in person interviews to supplement whatever your HR and management people send over.
- "Big transfers" are, not surprisingly, the area where there is a huge range of differences regarding what you'll experience - including more questions you have to ask yourself, which we'll get to next.
I split the two lists in half to catch my breath, and to segregate the "heavier" questions that occur with "long-distance" transfers in their own section, which follows below.
"What are your plans career-wise?"
Some of these questions may apply for 'local' transfers, particularly those dealing with the length of the move and other points about office culture.
Some of these questions will be things you should ask the people moving you - some they'll ask you too to gauge your interest. In terms of the "length of transfer", I've personally experienced some offers for moves where the "make it or break criteria" was, "how long to you want to transfer for?" Although some people may only be interested in short-term help, the situations I found myself in all wanted someone willing to move "for good". Some people, knowing this, may chose to answer the question the way the interviewer wants to answered - claim to desire a "forever" transfer when they secretly only want to move for a few months - but I strongly advise against this. You may end up burning bridges in both "directions", and find yourself in the worst of all possible places.
Be completely honest.
If they don't want you there for a short interval and that's all you're interested in, it's better to call things off at that stage and look for another opportunity down the road. I've seen the same "once in a lifetime" opportunity present itself again down the road - never let yourself get rushed.
There are some other questions you're either going to be asked, or will end up facing in the process:
- Is this going to be a temporary adventure for a few months, or a permanent move for years or longer?
- How willing are you to commit to either scenario? This works both ways: running back home if your new home doesn't need you, or sticking around longer if your old home doesn't, or you just like your new place despite saying it was only going to be for a year or so.
- Who are the major clients?
- Do they already know who you will be working on? And you'll be working with? If it's not the interviewer h/erself, then can you speak with them?
- Are there local language requirements? If you're reading this and you're an Anglophone, then this is obviously relevant if you're talking about going somewhere where English isn't the sole language spoken. If they claim "everyone understand English in the office," does this apply to your clients too? Are you second language skills going to be strong enough or are they hoping you'll "pick it up" as you go?
- So, how about language training, if needed? Smart companies won't even think of sending you to a place where you can't speak the language, unless you're some fancy big shot who gets translators. I suppose some of my readers my be fancy big shots. Or will be, one day.
- Moving to a new place, who is going to be on the hook for transportation/moving/housing costs? Expect a great deal of variance here
- Who handles the immigration, visa and taxation issues in cross-border moves? Hopefully your company takes care of all of this!
- How much vacation time will you get? This is particularly important when moving from enlightened places like Europe to benighted realms like North America! Conversely, don't let the blessed Europeans shortchange you - though somehow I doubt they would (read: "local labour rules would probably apply the minimums to you"). Check anyway, to be safe. Hopefully this, if nothing else, will be written down!
- Ask as much as you can about the local office environment. What's the commute like - and how much would housing cost to have a short commute?
- Do you get local public transit passes?
- What's the food situation like - both in terms of on-site food and around the office? Suburban office parks and downtown megatowers usually have diametrically opposed options in terms of variety.
- Do you get a company car? Your reaction to this question ("People still do that???" versus "Who wouldn't???") would be an interesting survey.
- What're the standard working hours like? Assume nothing here, and like a good auditor, follow up and confirm this in particular with local staff if you can - or you could be in for a shock.
- What's the local "business dress" code? Europe tends to be more formal than North America, but this varies from country to country, and city to city.
- Have there been many transfers into that office recently? Offices with more transfers generally tend to handle them better - and you're more likely to find a 'community' of expatriates to hang out with, even if you're from different places, being 'outsiders' can be an easy to way to form bonds that are sometimes harder to form with entrenched locals, but this of course varies.
- I've seen people move around the world both with and without "scouting" visits to see if they like the place they're moving to. If you have a chance to visit first, that's great. If not, you're taking a gamble, but if you ask enough questions of the right people, you'll not only get lots of useful advice from people who already live or have lived in your potential new home, and the risks you're taking on aren't as bad as they looked at the outset. With all this "internet" stuff available, you really won't have much of an excuse to be in the dark.
I haven't done permanent transfers myself but I've done enough travelling to have a few photos to share from fun places and I have friends who have taken the leap - either from one department to another, or from one geographic location to another - so this list reflects a bunch of typical points that'll come up in the process. The hidden bonus side effect, for those of you who end up staying back in the home city while your friends move away, is that you end up with an exciting new list of destinations to think about visiting, to see the local attractions and your old friends too.
My final word of advice: if you have anything promised to you, get it in writing.
The person making the promises might not be the same person who then grants you the promised perks, so if they say three grand for moving costs or four weeks of vacation instead of two or anything else that might be a bonus above the 'normal' policy, get that in writing or you may lose out, or have to fight hard to get your verbal promise honoured.
Have your own exciting experience? Or more questions? Leave a comment.
Please say, "Why yes, that is where we hold our annual corporate retreat."
I really should come up with some awesome story about wizardry and accounting. Or at least something vaguely related to the above illustration from the Supermarket other than the trite observation that accounting kids tend to get incredibly bombed after major exams and other milestones.
Until I get around to doing that, I'll point out that you should follow the posts by the Accounting Elf (Kel) - an intern in the US writing an interesting account of the slog known as busy season and the first work term. There's some good stuff there already, looking forward to more of it.
Another place to check in on is Life of an auditor - the last post is from late January - but that's not surprising considering it's written by someone with enough experience to be insanely super busy during busy season. I haven't gotten the RSS feed from that site to work so I have to remember to check it out from time to time for new posts.
No matter how busy you are it's in theory possible to make time to write - but that usually comes at the expense of something else, so I don't begrudge anyone the idea of taking a short break to get things done and continue to live something resembling a normal life.
When you embrace this link's philosophy.
So go ahead young audit staff.
Question what you're presented with.
It is of course wonderful to enjoy temperatures above the freezing mark after a prolonged spell of -30 chills, but when the warm spell happens too early in the winter season isn't it natural to get all curmudgeonly about it?
Here's the shortlist featuring 25 Reasons why Warm February Weather in a place like Toronto isn't all that great:
- There'll still be a pile of snow and ice covering the sewer drains, leading to lakes on every other street corner.
- Tobogganing starts to suck when the foliage is sticking out of the remaining snow cover.
- Mushy skiing is bad skiing.
- Same goes for snowboarding.
- The next cold day after the warm and possibly rainy ski day will
feature ice on the slopes. Yes, that's even worse than mushy conditions.
- Dry ice isn't too slippery. Wet ice is murder.
- All that water from the melted snow will freeze again. More ice everywhere means more broken hips and legs.
- If you have a slip-and-fall visit to the E.R., get ready for insane lineups for the fracture clinic.
- Some people love the sight of those mini-snow mountains. Sadly watching them withering away into nothing more than brown puddles must have been the inspiration for that Frosty the Snowman story.
- You still need to bring a heavy winter coat with you because the streetcar will still be freezing and it'll be cold at night. But you'll end up feeling sweaty and gross on the packed subway.
- The line-ups at coat check don't get any better on the way out of concerts for the same reason - it'll be cold at the end of the show.
- Going outside into the cooler night air after the unseasonably warm day
feels much worse than going into a cold night after a cold day.
- Your neighbour's premature declaration of the wonderful spring clashes harshly with your curmudgeonly attitude.
- Your other neighbour's declaration that it's like summer has arrived is just sick.
- The melting snow just serves as a depressing reminder about the onset of global warming.
- Gas prices tend to climb as everyone without winter tires hits the roads again.
- Forget about getting tan, because there's not much sunlight outside anyway.
- Anyone flying south for a holiday in the +20C sun will feel silly when
it's already +10C back home. It doesn't completely spoil the vacation,
but it makes the smug feeling of escaping everyone else's suffering so
much less satisfying.
- You want to wash the salt off your car but won't, because the roads are still wet and five minutes after spending $8, your will be a salt, slush and mud-streaked disaster. Again.
- It still takes forever to heat up the BBQ if you want to grill winter steaks. Sure, it might be warmer, but then you realize you're out of propane.
- The raccoons don't need any more encouragement to leave hibernation, wander around and destroy more of your things in the yard.
- Despite disliking the temporary respite in the cold snap, you're comfortably set up at home. And yet you feel guilty for continuing to hibernate indoors while the weather is "so good" outside.
- Sneaky little insects awaken from wherever it is they've been hiding, and surprise the heck out of you by suddenly buzzing past you during the warm spell. And your bug spray and fly swatters are packed away for the winter. So you end up using that final audit report as a fly swatter because it was the first thing you had at hand and now you have a meeting in ten minutes and need to re-print the 84 page audit report in two minutes before going to that important meeting.
- The cardboard homeless shelters downtown get really soggy. That's not good for anyone.
- When enough of that snow melts, you can see the leaves you failed to rake before the end of autumn. Oops.
On the upside, all the recent melting leaves us new empty spaces to store the snow that's going to come in the next blizzard. And until then, street parking gets marginally easier. Plus I'm not flying south any time soon, so #18 is purely theoretical.
The bonus upside is that generating this kvetching rant list serves as an adequate response to all those "25 interesting things about me" lists people have been hitting me with.
This is my response - 25 tart responses to a short spell of pleasant
weather. If I forgot to "tag" you back after writing this after you
tagged me, well, you should remind me to tag you so your life can feel
I'm shaking my head. You might be shaking your fist too, after reading this, in response to the plan to limit executive pay to a cool half million dollars US as part the American economic bailout plans:
“That is pretty draconian — $500,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if there is no bonus,” said James F. Reda,
founder and managing director of James F. Reda & Associates, a
compensation consulting firm. “And you know these companies that are in
trouble are not going to pay much of an annual dividend.”
Reda said only a handful of big companies pay chief executives and
other senior executives $500,000 or less in total compensation. He said
such limits will make it hard for the companies to recruit and keep
executives, most of whom could earn more money at other firms.
I completely understand his logic.
And it fails miserably.
If you're experiencing boom times there are still problems with executive compensation, but at least you can try and argue that they're earning their 'share' of the huge profits.
So sure - executives can always work harder to earn $27 million or whatever it is that'll allow them to float a boat in champagne.
They can do it even now.
Just turn down the bailout money and solve your problems on your own if you think you're that hot.
Or get creative. We'll get back to "creative" at the end - the ironic thing is that the "creative" part is completely legal, and encouraged by America's leaders.
But first, what's up with Jim? According to his official website, he's a compensation expert with "a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from Columbia University".I wonder if the Times bothered to check to see if he's out there trying to lobby in favour of the executives whose compensation he may have helped craft?
Or is that question hopelessly naive? Of course he is.
Does he simply not care about what other people think though?
Saying, "but, but, how will the president survive on a half million dollars a year" is simply not cool when people are dying of malnutrition, losing their homes, and otherwise suffering in misery, whether due to the crashing economy or just the market failures that permeate society all over the world.
If you want to get a freebie, accept the terms. If the terms are onerous, forge your own path and demonstrate your awe-inspiring leadership. Not to mention the fact that you will have a chance to make more money if you're successful - this is basically the core tenet of capitalism right there. More success - more pay!
Note that Reda mentions that "these companies that are in
trouble are not going to pay much of an annual dividend", in response
to the fact that one of the loopholes the legislators are leaving open
is that if the executives own stock in the company, no one will scold
them for collecting dividend money that pushes their income over the
half million mark.
Dude - do not complain about the loophole doesn't help your guys much. Accept the fact that the legislators have:
- Given you a loophole the size of a truck to play with, and
- Not decided to arbitrarily impose a 75% surtax on people earning
over $400,000 or $2,000,000 - the bracket or size of the surtax really
doesn't matter - it doesn't exist. Count your blessings that the US remains insanely under-taxed for the richest people in society.
Now let's play devil's advocate
Executive Compensation Ninja will enforce the $500,000 limit.
The above points are rather populist, to shine a murky light on them, so I took up the discussion with one of my very brilliant and smart friends, who played devil's advocate and pointed out that this largesse isn't purely unselfish on the part of the government - they want the companies to survive so people can keep their jobs. I argue that it doesn't matter - if the yahoos in charge can't survive on $500k, then someone else will step over their corpse and take over.
The counterpoint is that if you force out the "top talent", then the company will be stuck in a mediocre position. But are the only talented people in the world who are willing to save these companies those who demand millions of dollars in pay?
Accepting "take the terms or go without the bailout" argument runs the risk of destroying modern society as we know it if all the banks fail. The likelihood of that happening as a result of a cap on executive pay I think is relatively low.
The idea that only this elite club of individuals is able to run banks is absolutely silly. I declare that my friend, a young Finance PhD that will one day save the Federal Reserve system from itself or something similar, could easily do as good if not a better job than the current crop of leaders.
Discussion over, fine then, no? Just hire some smart people to take over if Mr. Greedy won't make do with the temporary pay cut.
Or is it that simple?
Perhaps we will instead stumble down the road towards ingloriously nasty communism?
Or will this be an opportunity for Canadian banks to wander in, shoot the wounded and loot their corpses? It's already begun - TD Canada Trust started it by buying some Americans before the meltdown started - say hi to TD Bank. I know Canada doesn't have enough cash to actually pull that off - but then, such a scenario won't really come to pass anyway.
To cap off a very lively debate regarding the future of the American banking system - that's ongoing and discussed at length here - there's the argument that if you want people to work, you need to give them incentives.
ECO100 - "people respond to incentives".
Through what sort of perverse failure of the imagination do people not think that, despite the rabid pontification above about how $500k-is-enough-to-live-on-so-it's-all-you're-going-to-get-for-now, is it at all possible that the smart banks won't just set up a "deferred compensation account" for their superstars?
Bank: "Yes, we're only paying you $500k per government decree, but that rule ends as soon as we pay back the money they gave us. Timeline: 3 years. At that point in time our restored profitability should allow us to pay you 3 years of deferred bonuses and higher than average pay."
I can see a catch. "Oh no, but I don't plan to stick with you guys for 3 years."
And this is a problem for the company in what way?
Ironically that's exactly what Obama's top adviser is suggesting.
Without mentioning a particular dollar limit, Mr. Summers wrote that
“executive compensation above a specified threshold amount be paid in
restricted stock or similar form that cannot be liquidated or sold
until the government has been repaid.”
It's a shame the sanest part of the Times article was buried in the last paragraph. It really should be front and centre - though Mr. Reda's criticisms would look even more ludicrous in closer proximity to the words of wisdom.
Do you think Canada will take over the US? Is capitalism doomed? Saved? Leave a comment here.
I can think of three options, when searching for a new bank, or if you want to learn more about any large business you're considering dealing with..
- Go to the official banks' websites, as well as those of any "one stop shop"/"compare all the banks" services.
- Run a google search on a bank, like HSBC. Not too helpful if the "signal to noise" ratio is not working in your favour.
- Ironically - because it's usually a place with an even worse "signal to noise ratio" - try running a twitter search on the same keyword. Interesting. Also try adding a "#" to the beginning - "#hsbc" yields even more.
I'm not looking for a bank, but after watching The Take and learning of the violent death of Gustavo Benedetto at the hands of the Argentinian HSBC security chief - yes, that's shocking and ridiculously sad, I'd like to know if they bothered to apologize officially - I wanted to see what others were saying about HSBC.
As of February 1 or so, very few good things, it turns out. Random account closures and suspensions, inexplicable free money (is that a plus?), wonky websites that won't load, difficulty withdrawing funds, poor counter service inducing homicidal rage, and complete payroll failures. Ouch.
Monitoring your company's public feedback, therefore, is a fine idea.
Contrast the above with the positive feedback some other banks get.
"Sorry sir, you're not allowed to bring your pistol into the bank."
I love reading.
I have the above image in my mind when reading my current book. But it has little else with what follows.
I was going to go somewhere with that first sentence, but brought it to a full stop.
It was a while ago that I filed away the fact in my mind that I read more than many other people do.
I realized this first when, speaking to a professional journalist I met was asked which section of her newspaper I read.
"I read all of them."
She was a little shocked. I didn't have a daily subscription, so if I was paying cash for the product, I should get full use out of it, no?
Over time, I realized that not everyone looks at things the same way. And getting busier, I would drop whatever appealed to me least.
But I would still read newsmagazines from cover to cover. And still do - they're much shorter, and less frequent! Of course, I ended up speaking to an acquaintance working for one particular magazine and had a repeat of my earlier conversation with the newspaper journalist too - "really, you read the whole thing? Wow."
This explained why I always seemed to run out of time - trying to keep up with everything that was being written, even when much of it was being printed with no intention of being seen by all readers. Not to mention why this mental disconnect meant that my goal to make all the sections of my campus paper all up to a high standard for all readers to enjoy all articles was a noble but ultimately futile goal - most people would end up skipping more than half the articles if that.
It took a while to let that concept sink in.
But this isn't supposed to be about my reading and writing habits - it's merely one of those wonderfully long winded and self-indulgent introductions you're allowed without an auditor to slash away at your word count.
An introduction to an awesome sentence I just saw in a book that has nothing to do with audit:
It was plain they disbelieved the story and equally plain that, despite their indignation, they did not much care.
The above sentence is from a passage explaining some diplomats' reaction to a ridiculous explanation for an act of violent sabotage.
Of course, any auditor worth their salt would have reversed priorities. They wouldn't necessarily be indignant when faced with a story they disbelieve, but they would certainly care about what the true story is!
Having shared that, I can return to reading the story, which has nothing to do with audit.
Except for an amusing anecdote about how a diplomat tells the ambassador that the enemy has demanded a ransom 1800 gold pieces, when the true demand was only 1500 - if you were to catch the difference before another character points out the duplicity to less observant readers a few pages later, consider yourself a candidate for the CFE!
The lazy stats project continues - 639 pieces of junk mail hit me in January 2009. Significantly less than the 808 from last December.