The global body for professional accountants

Technology skills will be vital in your career as an accountant, whether you aspire to work in the technology industry, advise clients on its use, or make the best use of it yourself. Lesley Meall talks bits and bytes with ACCA trainees and members, and those responsible for their recruitment and training

Many years ago, when dinosaurs walked the earth, I wanted to be an electronics engineer, and then I discovered accountancy,’ recalls Martin Perminas FCCA, who is now the chief executive officer (CEO) of Boomerang, the provider of intelligent SMS solutions  (www.boomerangsmssolutions.com). ‘I took a year out from doing my BSc in electronics, and spent some time thinking and planning,’ he explains, and decided to do a BA in finance with accounting instead.

‘This gave me a good overview, but when I left university, I wanted to keep my options open, so I joined a small firm of accountants,’ says Perminas, while he figured out if he wanted a career in business or a career in professional services. ‘I was working on the audit accounts of some of the firm’s larger clients, which gave me total line of sight,’ he adds, ‘and after about a year I realised that I wanted to get more involved in business.’ So off he went.

‘Having my ACCA really paid dividends because the qualification was a key enabler in giving me access to choices about my career,’ he says, and his first steps into business took him to British Telecom, just as it was making the transition from state ownership to public ownership. ‘There were lots of challenges for accountants but it was very rewarding, and I learned many skills,’ he recalls, which were vital to his future career success in finance and the technology industry. 

Chris Purcell ACCA is also building a career in the technology industry, but he has taken a different route to Perminas. Purcell also trained in practice, and then moved into business, and now works for the developer of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software Epicor (www.epicor.com). He has since moved away from the finance function at a much earlier stage in his career than Perminas. ‘I never saw myself becoming an FD or CFO,’ says Purcell, so when a chance encounter gave him the opportunity to move out of finance he took it.

‘I thought I’d reach a certain level and then move out of finance,’ says Purcell, and he was expecting this to take a while, but while networking at a company party, he got into conversation with the vice president of product marketing, and before he knew it the accountant had changed departments – which isn’t as strange as it might seem. ‘The role of finance in Epicor isn’t just about churning out numbers,’ explains Purcell, so he was used to sharing financial insights with non-finance people.

‘A lot of my role in finance involved interacting with people in sales and consulting, finding ways for finance to add value to the business as a whole,’ he explains, so the move into product marketing was more of a step sideways than a giant leap into the unknown, as his boss Matt Muldoon, VP of product marketing, explains: ‘We use our own ERP software in the finance department at Epicor, so Chris brings with him an empathy with our user base,’ as well as valuable hands-on product experience.

This type of experience isn’t just valuable if you are working for an organisation that develops ERP software, as Purcell does; it can also advance your career in other sectors too. ‘Having experience with the popular ERP systems can make candidates more marketable,’ says Paul Strong, an associate director with the international recruiter Robert Half, so any experience you can get working with the most widely used ERPs such as SAP or Oracle will be invaluable.

‘In the early stages of your career, employers are looking for candidates with experience in a specific ERP system as they are able to hit the ground running in a new role,’ explains Strong. ‘This facilitates one’s integration into a new role and typically is a requirement for companies when creating their shortlist for interviews,’ he adds, but experience of any ERP will be useful in the longer term because many of the skills you develop while working with one will prove to be transferable.

‘As an accountant gains experience and exposure to a variety of software, their skills become more transferable as they are more easily able to navigate between systems,’ says Strong. But this is something you will come to realise whether the skills you are gaining relate to an ERP system, any other specialist software that you may be required to use in your professional capacity, as part‑qualified ACCA trainee Emma Kilminster has discovered.

Her finance career, and her exposure to specialist software applications, began three and a half years ago when she joined a small firm of accountants. ‘Since then I’ve had to learn to use lots of packages,’ says Kilminster. ‘I started out using an integrated systems from Iris for accounts production, time and fees, and tax,’ she recalls, ‘and I also needed to be familiar with products such as Sage accounts because when I receive work from clients, it arrives mostly as a Sage backup or as a spreadsheet.’

Although Kilminster has focused on the areas of spreadsheet functionality that are most relevant in practice, during her training, she has slowly but surely been building up her skill set (see ‘Spreadsheet skills’ box). ‘There is such a lot that you can do with Microsoft Excel, that learning to use it has been a continuous process,’ she says. ‘I started out knowing just the basics, but as you use it more you learn about shortcuts, and discover better ways of doing things,’ explains the trainee accountant.

Developing her expertise with the specialist software and systems the practice uses has been less straightforward: in 2010, when Kilminster’s employer merged with a larger firm of accountants, all of the software and systems changed, and she had to learn to use the new ones. ‘I think that the new firm wanted the best of everything, so instead of an integrated set of software applications we have best of breed systems,’ she comments, and that means using a different piece of software for each function.

This meant becoming familiar with a new piece of software for payroll, another new piece of software for personal tax, another piece of software for accounts production, and so on, and re‑learning how to manage certain tasks, such as online filing – which could have felt like a mammoth uphill struggle. It wasn’t. ‘I think it was much easier than it would have been if I hadn’t already learnt how to use the first set of systems,’ she explains, ‘so that turned out to be really useful.’

In most scenarios, your learning will follow a more linear progression. ‘Firms provide specialist training for tools such as accounts production software, and the level of expertise develops during the three-year training programme,’ says Andrew Jarvis, a trainer with the HAT Group of Accountants. ‘So in year one a trainee may perform basic data entry, but by year three they will be running more complex reports and ensuring that their work on the system complies with relevant accounting standards.’

Lesley Meall is a freelance business and technology journalist

Last updated: 11 Aug 2015