April 2010 - Posts
My favorite video of the week shows the team here in Costa Rica successfully transferring a bee caught in the field to a specimen jar. It's rather self explanatory so enjoy the clip.
Interestingly enough, you can actually take part in one of these adventures.
As a corporate expeidtion from a Big Four firm we're doing double duty, handling both the science and a special project to assist the local coffee co-operative. You won't perform the bonus business project which my team is doing, but private individuals can help with the science itself. You need to enjoy the outdoors, and be comfortable with something a little more rustic than a regular tropical vacation. Read the project description on their site to learn more about the adventure.
Aside from enjoying the work, you get to essentially live in a community for a week rather than just hover over it like a typical tourist.
Two nights left in the mission. It's been great fun so far - we've even toured two coffee mills. I'll have to describe how all that works once I get a chance. But there is some work left to be done.
And sunshine to enjoy!
Doing fieldwork in the name of science sometimes often has things in common with audits - tight deadlines are one of them. It's good to have a contingency plan if things don't work out at first. During our visit to plant bee traps we also inspected a set of marked coffee plants to see how their flowering action was progressing. Unfortunatley one of the plants wasn't ready for our visit as the flowers weren't out. Without flowers, there's not much that can be done, so we made a note to come back the next day to perform our observations.
Our follow-up visit was more successful - I only have still photos from that element of the adventure, but "hand pollination" took place. Hot.
If you build in time for "contingencies" - unplanned emergencies, your work, either in pure research, or in AuditLand, will be significantly less stressful!
Let me know if you can hear the audio in these clips. I'm finding that the uploaded videos are awfully quiet - it's hard to hear them on this laptop's speakers even with the volume cranked up to the maximum.
I'll blame the camera we're using for now. It's a new Kodak, but the unit is a loaner and the battery life isn't spectacular either. I'll try another video soon to see if it's easier to hear - maybe it's the rain that's drowning out the speakers - who knows. I think it'll be much better in the next clip.
Dressing up beyond business casual just makes me look
silly, er, too professional.
Although I work alongside bank auditors in the office - who often run around in suit and tie to match their client's idea of normal business attire - I'm an IT auditor, so it's golf or dress shirt and nice pants if I want to fit in at my client's offices.
The last time I wore a suit to my client's office, they asked me if I was going to a job interview to quit for a competitor. No, it was a formal "power breakfast" I happened to be invited to.
As you can tell by my recent videos, the suits are nowhere to be seen. Helping with scientific research in the coffee plantations of Costa Rica, the only reason to have a formal dress suit in your bags is because you flew directly here from a big fancy formal client meeting.
Our field professor even told us that you have much more 'street cred' if your clothes are neatly stained by the fieldwork you've been conducting. Speaking of fieldwork, I just promised you an update about the results from our first set of traps.
The purpose of the traps was to measure the number and types of bees and related insects visiting coffee plants that are flowering. On Monday we set the traps, and today we came to check on the results of our handiwork.
Above: setting traps, we used a measuring tape to accurately determine the distances involved
We were a bit worried about whether there would be anything to measure. Did we dig deep enough into the soil? Did our PVC pipes get properly anchored into the soil? Would the yellow plates stay in place or fly off? And those were just the concerns about things we could control!
Rainy season is making itself felt. This means that while the mornings are dry and sunny, the afternoons are invariably rainy. And we got a proper deluge last night. Would the rain wash out all the specimens are traps collected?
To our great relief - after some careful analysis - we were able to conclude that the plates didn't overflow and our samples were valid. This saved us from having to empty out the plates and "reset" the experiment for another 24 hour collection period.
Above: pouring the specimens into a Whirl-Pak sampling bag
There was a small element of drama, however, when we ran into the fields to collect from our twelve traps, and accidentally passed straight by the first three!
To get a proper sample, we had three traps for four different distances: 10m, 20m, 30m, and 50m from our starting point at the edge of the fields. Fuelled by the excellent local Costa Rican coffee we flew right past the 10m traps. This wasn't a big problem - we just had to remember that "20 is the new 10" when we brought the specimens back to the lab for analysis.
Tomorrow we'll go to check on the newest set of traps - now set both in the forest and in fields by my colleagues - and to check out honey bees. I've been informed that I'll be wearing beekeeper's gloves - which means the Pentax will be running on full automatic focus to avoid flailing about with claw-like gloved hands when taking photos.
In my previous post I showed how we took a soil sample from the field and inserted a PVC pipe to start setting our bee trap. I paused that recording as I had to retrieve the most component of our trap: the yellow bowl filled with a bit of soapy water, which is designed to attract and capture bees. This clip shows how it's done.
I didn't record a video of the retrieval operation we performed today, as we split up and the other team had the video camera, but I managed to take some stills which you'll soon see, along with an explanation of the challenges we faced.
Until then, let's just say it's a good thing we didn't put too much soapy water in our traps.
Our professor in the field, Dr. Banks, had kind words for us as we started our week of research in the Tarrazú region of Costa Rica.
Armed with a couple of augers, PVC pipes, yellow "party" bowls, bottles of soapy water, insect catching nets, measuring tape, jars, more bags and, of course, several clipboards, we set off into the fields.
We were lucky to enjoy a 'soft' introduction to fieldwork: the farm where work started is a relatively easy site for inspecting bee activity and the flowering of coffee plants because it's isolated from patches of rainforest. At sites adjacent to rainforests we'll be conducting more tests - here, on the other hand, we only had to dig for half as many soil samples. This didn't mean the work was a cakewalk - catching bees is not easy for accounting firm staff, and the banana trees' leaves made patches of ground wickedly slippery - tomorrow's sure to be more intense.
We completed the adventure without any incidents, even catching some bees. There's a decent video of the "transfer from net to jar" process I'll have to upload as soon as I have a chance.
Before you say, "isn't it ironic that you're driving around in an SUV while trying to save the planet," keep in mind that a Honda Civic will not make it up the mountain roads that lead to coffee plantation.
La Tortuga, our white tortoise, is a very British Land Rover and the best way to move around an eight person team to our research sites.
In this clip, the team arrives at home base, well only half the team arrives - we had additional people from the EarthWatch institute join us on today's journey which meant that we had to be posh and use two vehicles.
After the rain, riding on the roof wasn't a wise idea.
Nothing exceedingly exciting here - this is a glorified "test" post to make sure our account is working. An archive of better photos is already developing and the team and the "real" worok is only about to begin tomorrow.
My team in Costa Rica is writing an internal group blog about the scientific expedition we've joined - and that blog is a great way to share our experiences with my firm's audience.
No one on the "outside" can see it, though so I'll follow along with my own posts and hopefully manage to squeak out some photos and videos over the limited internet connection at our humble site in the process. Posts will be short since my wifi connection may cut out at any time, and the I don't want to spend all night on my colleague's computer either.
Highlights today included consumption of lots of high quality Costa Rican coffee after a hike through the Cloud Forest. And then came the rain, which conveniently enough started falling only after the end of our hike.
Hopefully the new Youtube account I've created will process our welcome video quickly.
It's shaping up to be a ridiculosly fun week.
I get to say goodbye to my polished shoes for two weeks while I'm assignment in Costa Rica, where a team of co-workers from around the world will join together to support an Earthwatch project involving a coffee farrming cooperative.
"Getting ready" meant finishing the work I might've otherwise been doing next week, which led to elss posts around here since I had some days with long hours. It's absolutely worth it, though, since my costs for visiting a cloud forest and volunteering to help with a sustainable research project for a week are covered in exchange for me using up a week of vacation days. Fair trade!
Freshest possible pineapples perhaps? Yes please
Before I can lace up my hiking boots, however, I need to close off Earth Day by updating my self-review. The review may sound like a foreign concept to people who work in companies with haphazard performance review processes, or students who are used to either getting a good or bad mark on tests and essays rather than engaging in some serious introspection.
In AuditLand, each employee
is subject to a performance review process, typically with a major
review performed once a year, and with progress checks throughout the
year, either after a major project, or after a quarterly or bi-annual
While your managers and supervisors are responsible for reviewing your "regular" work, the more interesting firms give you the chance to go above and beyond the requirements stated in your job description - and your self-review is the place to list those wonderful accomplishments, especially if they're in some way relevant to your company or show your commmittment and evolution. Not everyone can be on a big audit project where they manage or interact with a large team - but you can always sign up for a volunteer activity at work where you do just that, developing and demonstrating leadership skills that otherwise would not be obvious to people you work with on smaller projects.
I've often thought, "gee this would make for an interesting example of a "Day in the Life of a CA"," but I never got around to writing about those adventures since those interesting days are typically the busiest too!
Instead of boring you with my formally worded review, here's a few highlights from a Year in the Life of a CA, which should give CA students an idea about the kind of things they can do at virtually any firm:
- Save lives. There's many ways to do this. Setup a charity ride team. Or participate in one. Or literally save some lives by organizing blood drives at work. If you treat each unit of blood donated as a life saved, that's a couple of hundred lives right there.
- Save the world, bit by bit. Taking part in the local grassroots environmental group in the office, prepare an Earth Day event, set up an internal store to promote reusable bottles and cutlery, and ultimately try to get selected for that aforementioned Earthwatch mission to Costa Rica.
- Build your firm by helping with recruiting. There are many ways to take part in recruiting, whether it be helping with resume screening, teaching people inside the firm about the different career options they have internally, assisting with or performing job candidate interviews, attending recruiting events. It's good to specify exactly what you did!
- Share the wealth, by taking part in ICAO low income tax clinics. If someone is trying to survive on $10,000 or less per year, paying a private company $50 or more to get a refund of $200 or so is an expensive way to spend their money. CA students and their CA supervisors help get that entire refund back without deducting any fees. It's also a great way to practice your tax knowledge, see another side of the world you may not be exposed to in your office and simply help others!
- Keep people out of trouble, financially speaking. Big firms' professionals are in demand to teach financial literacy classes, so people from all walks of life can better understand how to manage their money, stay out of ruinous debt and simply understand how easy it is to handle your personal finances when you have some guidance.
- Work at the next level: the best way to show you're ready for more responsibility is by acting like you already have it, which allows you to show that that you can handle the associated challenges.
- Join other groups and teams in your office, be they sports teams or special project groups. You'll spend time with people you wouldn't typically work with, and you'll be surprised by how many useful things you can learn about that can help you in your job or in life in general.
That's just a sample of the possibilities. Each person's year and their self-review is unique - or it should be otherwise you likely have an evil twin that's mocking you.
Unless you're the evil twin.
Absolutely nothing to do with accounting here, unless you consider the temporary failure to count the number of players on the field.
This should make you feel better next time you completely fail at anything. Just think back to this sports report. Thanks Videosift.
Oh, and I know the video spills right off the edge of the screen - I was going to fix it, but the Editorial Board declared it looked "awesome."
Short answer: depends on your manager.
I very much like using the new 3D images in Office 2007 to make my workpapers look a bit more interesting, but I only use them when I know they're going to be appreciated, otherwise it's just standard yellow boxes and red check marks.
Good tick marks are easy to draw, and are easily distinguishable from each other.
These random thoughts came to mind after reading about Jim Carroll and how he did just that as a young CA student a few decades ago. He realized that being creative and a Chartered Accountant doesn't at all mean dealing with contradiction, and he went on to become a popular speaker on futurism and even writes a regular column in CA Magazine. Oddly enough I didn't think to wander onto his website until just now despite reading about his adventure in creating an app for simplifying that task. Go there, and you'll have a chance to listen to him speak is pretty captivating - and there's a introductory video on his main page that shows "how it's done right".
Of course, he decided to wander off and do his own thing - read more in his classic article about using stick men as tick marks in audit files, and the associated joys of being a 'creative type.'
His articles are typically the most interesting ones anyone can read in CA Magazine, along with the back-page column calling out Canada's establishment for running things into the ground.
The rest of the magazine, though, well let's say that I made the mistake of trying to keep someone entertained with a CA magazine when they had nothing to do with the profession. That's one way to knock someone unconscious in a hurry.
Jim's article, though, are great fun - and you can get more stories in his recent profile interview on myCAsite - check it out.
Students in larger Ontario offices have started their 2010 School of
Accountancy preparatory classes, where they get their first taste of
proper case writing. I stumbled upon one of those sessions this week
while passing by the training room and a flood of memories came back,
particularly getting absolutely schooled when writing my first practice cases. My exam-related article tags present a healthy archive of my old posts with exam tips, but a fresh article is long overdue.
The easiest mistake to make on the big cases study exams, is to treat them like yet another report you're preparing for work.
"Discuss the issues over this purchase? Sure, that's like the memo I wrote last week."
There's at least two ways that can go horribly wrong: you'll write using the mindset of an auditor, and you'll timidly avoid a 'real' conclusion because you need to run things by your senior or your manager first.
Avoiding those two pitfalls is the whole point of this article, and they do go hand in hand.
The "auditor's mindset" problem can affect people late into the studying process; the earlier you learn to carefully identify your role, the better. The scenarios vary: you may be a consultant helping a small business develop a plan or a young CA employee helping to root out inefficiencies. If you forget the role you're playing in your particular case, and simply revert to default behaviour of an auditor pointing out areas where rules and policies need to followed, you will fail because your response will be complete nonsense.
The latter concern, avoiding "real conclusions" is part of the problem with being a first year CA student: this may be the first year of your first 'real job' ever; you're not feeling particularly bold. Why take a 'crazy' stance that will affect a company's billion-dollar investment strategies, or completely re-direct a client's retirement plans? Well, because it's exactly what you need to do: prepare a case where you lay out the arguments in favour of your position, and then present a conclusion.
In one of my first cases I thought I did a good job of identifying the pros and cons for an older couple's retirement plans, and was unpleasantly surprised to find out that my 'score' on the practice response I wrote was incredibly bad.
I was playing the role of an advisor, but I cut the answer short by only saying "well you could do it for these reasons, or you could not do it because of these risks," without offering any sort of opinion.
Risk averse accounting firms are very careful about teaching their staff about the dangers of expressing opinions - if there's one thing the exams let you do, however, it's land at a proper conclusion.
And in this case, your client would be upset with you for just flapping your arms about wildly without actually pointing in a concrete direction.
The expected solution involved presenting your arguments, and explaining why a given course of action is probably best. All I did was present some facts and arguments, without concluding on what should be done and why.
In the case of a couple looking at a small business opportunity while they're getting ready to retire, as a Good Advisor you need to determine if this is something that's just perfect for their lifestyle, or something that's too risky and could end up ruining them financially.
Once you've done that, you may write something along the lines of, "The 5 assumptions discussed above contribute to an estimate of a positive cashflow immediately. Even if the 2 risks discussed end up negatively impacting the business, you have a sizeable fall-back portfolio to rely upon for your retirement if the business fails, so you should consider doing it because you're looking for a fun new hobby raising cats for a stunt circus group," and you might just have a complete balanced conclusion on your hands.
"I don't like cats, there's two ways it'll work, and three things that'll make it risky" on the other hand, will only lead to tears - you're just regurgitating some facts, tossing in a useless observation and you're not actually answering the "should I do this?" question.
Don't hide behind a veil of timid uncertainty. Deliver a conclusion in line with your role in the case. Get all the other technical details write when preparing your response, and you'll be fine.
The actual reason for hiding behind the curtain was to score a better wifi signal, naturally.
Scary but true: later this year will mark the fifth anniversary that I started writing my A Counting School posts while studying for the UFE and the associated qualifying exams, the CKE and the SOA.
My posts have been around so long, that fictitious company names I created for old articles have since turned into real companies. BIZARRE.
New hires at accounting firms land in what may be a completely new culture. After a hard week or month of audits, some people look forward to spending time with their families, but given the number of young bucks and does in a large Big Four office, heading down to the local bar(s) will also be a popular option.
One CA student is worried about this phenomenon, particularly at formal firm-sponsored functions, asking "you think it will be a problem if I don't drink at the cocktail party due to religious reasons? I'm just worried they'll think I won't "fit in"?"
This is an easy answer - no, not at all.
In any mature firm people will understand if you have personal reasons - be they philosophical, spiritual, practical ("$15 for a mixed drink, what?") or simply rational ("no, I'm driving").
Having said that, there's always a wrinkle: as you can imagine, I'm sure there are cliques of people who never
escaped their frat boy days, and there'll be individual offices or departments might
harbour contingents of crazy boozing yahoos - but even hard drinking auditors are
professional enough to respect people who will just have a glass of
tonic water instead.
And if they don't respect you and your beliefs, they're not very professional to begin with. Start preparing your file for reporting them to the local Disciplinary Committee if they're ruining the good reputation of CAs in their professional functions as well.
I doubt it'll ever come to that, but feel confident knowing that you have extreme tools at your hand to deal with extremely stupid people.
And the stereotypical drink-fest party you might imagine are less likely, at least during recruiting season, given how many firms have co-ops and interns who may not be of legal drinking age. Deciding not to drink when you're trying to make a good first impression is also excellent judgement, even if it's not for religious reasons, so this shouldn't be a big concern.
If you do find a company that doesn't like you because you won't drink, ask yourself *would you really want to work there?*
Assuming it's a Big 4 firm in a larger city, they're very cosmpolitan and diverse and know people from different cultures have different traditions - perhaps in smaller (or American?) towns the culture is different and you'll need to make a "practical compromise" to make yourself feel comfortable without abandoning your beliefs. Get yourself a "mocktail" like a virgin Caesar or whatever other beverage you want minus the liquor.
In any event, you'll be fine. Relax.