Hey David, thanks for joining me today.


As I said above, this all started with a Journal of Accountancy article where you were quoted about BYU offering some coding classes for Master's students. I guess a good question to get things rolling would be: Do you think coding is an important skill for accountants to have?

Ideally, we would teach everything, but that is not possible.  A significant challenge for educators is to decide what to teach and what not to teach.  A related question is what should we teach everyone versus allow students to take as elective courses.  


To directly answer the question, I believe all students should be exposed to some coding principles and that additional classes should be offered for students who want to learn more.  I find that what is most valuable about learning some coding principles is not the skill to code, per se, but the thinking that underlies how to code.  That is, coding requires discipline and logical thinking.  If something isn't programmed correctly, it doesn't work.  So having a student think through a process, turn the process into actionable and logical steps, and then write a program is a very valuable tool that translates into many areas of accounting.  


At BYU, we currently require all students to learn a bit of VBA programming for Excel and some SQL.  That is, they learn to program a basic macro that needs variables, if/then logic, and loops.  For SQL, they learn the basic framework of how to write a query and some basic syntax and then have to perform some basic queries.  We then have more advanced classes that are not required (in the business school and in accounting) that dive deeper into VBA, SQL, and other programming skills.  


One last thought on this question, we also try to teach the students how to teach themselves these principles.  That is, there are a lot of tremendous online resources to learn how to code and so we direct students to those resources.  Students learn how to teach themselves these principles and then, as they have more interest, they are able to continue learning and building these skill sets outside of class.  

Okay, I'll take the bait: 


1) What should all accounting students learn? 


2) What electives should be available?


3) Are there enough career tracks in accounting programs to accommodate the diversity of career opportunities?

 

Wow, that's a lot to bite off.  I'm sure I don't have all the answers.  Here are a few thoughts.  


In my opinion, an undergraduate or graduate degree is a starting point.  Students are not "finished products" when they graduate (although they often think they are).  It's to serve students to help them learn what they want to do, as well as prepare them to do it.  So I believe it should be broad to give exposure, but deep enough that they have some value when they start working in practice.  


For accounting, a few things I think it should do.  It should give them basic technical skills and a framework to see how those technical skills work together.  It should help them develop critical thinking--which is very hard to do.  I think coding helps in this area (as do case studies and other learning methods).  It should give them an overview of the profession and business world.  It should also help develop "soft skills."  Then, it should provide them the ability to learn how to develop more of these skills on their own.  Learning how to learn is probably the chief objective, but again, very hard to do.  


For electives, there are several different tracks for accountants, tax, audit, corporate accounting topics, IT and how it blends with accounting, etc.  I don't think a single school can necessarily cover everything well, so specialization is important.  A couple examples are LSU specializing in internal audit and Rutgers in continuous monitoring.  I think there are enough career tracks in schools when you aggregate schools.  At the school level, probably not, but I don't think you can necessarily fix that.  Schools just don't have the resources to do everything.  

You mentioned a couple of interesting things there: critical thinking and learning how to learn.


I had an audit professor who told us repeatedly that he was trying to teach us "how to think." I'm not sure I really understood what he meant until 6-7 years after I got out of school. 


Even now, I think I know how to think, but it's hard to know whether I was consciously thinking about learning to think or learn back then. These days, I feel like thinking and learning are things I do a lot and enjoy, so I must've picked something up somewhere.


So I guess what I'm getting at is -- what does learning how to think and learn look like? How are teachers helping students in these areas?

Caleb, you ask very hard questions!  There are several things I think you can do.  First, you have to try and get students' mindsets off of grades.  They need to want to learn (and not just get good grades) before you can teach them how to learn.  Part of this is the student's responsibility, but the professor can do things like show how interesting accounting can be, how it can help others, how it relates to their life, why it is important, etc.  Also, some assignments and/or cases should be done not for grades, but just to learn.  


Second, I believe there are many practices that help.  A few include, allowing the students to be teachers--usually to their peers in group settings.  When you teach something, you have to learn and understand it better than just getting ready for a test.  Also, if you are the teacher you will focus on helping others to learn, which causes you to reflect and think about how you learn.  Another idea is to model good thinking and reasoning.  This can be done through case studies and examining others thinking and reasoning, but it also can be done by focusing less on the "answer" and more on the process by which they get to an answer.  For example, if you want a student to learn about risk assessment, rather than just ask them "what are the biggest risks" you have them think through how will you decide what are the most important risks.  This conversation will lead to more discussion of the process of risk assessment and less about the "answers."  If students can think through a sound process, they will be able to apply those principles to other problems.  


Third, I think people want to do a good job if they care about what they are doing.  To the extent you can allow students the flexibility to learn about something related to the class that they care about, they will put in tremendous effort to learn.  We have assigned student projects, but allow them to decide what to do, and those who pick something that they care about (e.g., something for their job, to help a family member, for a nonprofit they like, etc.) will spend a lot of time putting in extra work to create something valuable.  This is probably the hardest to do for a lot of students in a classroom setting, but when you do find these opportunities, the students really flourish and learn.  


Finally, as you mentioned, it is a process that takes time.  Some people seem to be born with more "common sense" and just get it.  Others, it takes more time.  I think education has to just help everyone improve, and realize it will take more/less time for some students.  

I spent some time as an adjunct professor, so I can vouch for "the best way to learn something is to teach it." That makes me think of the development of communication skills.


Earlier, you said soft skills were something all accounting students should. And while most programs require some form of business communication, it sounds like most employers believe this is an area where a lot of young graduates are deficient. 


Why is this such a challenge for students? And aside from the suggestions you made about teaching to their peers, what else can students do to better prepare themselves to communicate in the business world? 

We hear from many firms that they want more "soft skills."  Although contrary to many stereotypes, much of our profession is interacting with people, either formally or informally. It's a risk for companies to put those who struggle with soft skills in front of others.  


I don't think most students have been in business-world situations so they just don't know how to act.  What is appropriate for discussion over cocktails?  What topics are taboo for client meetings?  What jokes can you tell or laugh at?  How do I talk to someone who has kids my age (can I relate to them)?  What about my personal life is fair to share or should I guard? It even gets into more basic lessons for some: how do I eat at a formal restaurant?  What are dress-standards for different business functions?  Who can I approach with questions or not?  Many students have never been in these situations and thus do not know what to do.  


These challenges are further exacerbated by the many differences that exist in business from generational to cultural to social, etc.  The list of differences is very long.  Graduates are mostly young and just haven't had a lot of experience with the great variety that exists in business.  So they make mistakes and have to learn.   Allowing them to make mistakes and learn at a university can be much less painful than on the job.  


How can students prepare?  I think they should get involved and have "real" experiences.  They can range from clubs on campus, to service groups, to part-time jobs with heavy human interaction, to political organizations, to religious organizations, etc.  The key is to try to interact with humans--in person--in new and different situations.  Many spend a lot of time on computers/tv/etc. and just haven't learned how to interact with others.  I would advise students to view these as learning opportunities--try new and different things so you can learn, even if you make a few mistakes along the way.  

Okay, I'm going to revisit something you said earlier about electives -- lots of accounting programs tend to focus on preparing students for starting their careers in accounting firms. Meanwhile, the majority of accountants work for businesses that need internal reporting including analysis, projections, budgeting etc. That is, corporate accounting issues. 


Because these kinds of skills are in such high demand, do these kinds of classes need to become part of the core of a students' learning in accounting programs?  

Let me ask you a question, do you think large accounting firm experience better prepares students for corporate jobs or university training?  That is, would you rather hire someone from a large accounting firm or the university into your corporate accounting slot? 

Turning the tables on me, I LIKE IT.


FULL DISCLOSURE: I have no frame of reference for hiring accountants of any kind; I also spent over five years working for accounting firms and four months working in industry. In other words, I'm biased towards people with accounting firm experience.


But really, this is a hard question because I think it depends on the position I'm trying to fill. If I'm looking for an entry-level person, I don't know if I'm concerned about whether or not they have experience at a large accounting firm. If they have an education that focused on internal reporting, analysis, etc. I might take a chance on someone fresh out of school. On the other hand, if the position is for a senior accountant, obviously I'd prefer candidates who have experience. 


Ultimately, I think real-world experience wins out because of what we discussed earlier about communication, critical thinking and learning. Accounting firms are training grounds for these kinds of things.  

So, to answer your question, yes, I think there is room to add more electives on corporate accounting.  I know several of my colleagues work with the IMA (Institute of Management Accountants) and are having success attracting students into some classes and to pass the CMA exam.  I think a university program could be quite successful if were to focus on preparing corporate accountants.   


There are some challenges to a corporate track.  If companies would prefer to hire someone with Big 4 experience, then you can prepare great students but they are going to have a harder career track (and thus the university will have a harder time attracting students).  Also, designing curriculum can be challenging because there is a lot more flexibility in what corporate accountants do than a more traditional audit/tax student.  


That said, I have heard a few corporate accountants tell us they are less interested in former Big 4 auditors because the Big 4 experience isn't what it use to be.  With the PCAOB and internal control focus, there is much less focus on finding business value and such that there was years ago.  It would be interesting to see if this is a wide-spread belief and if moving forward Big 4 audit-types are less attractive to hiring into corporate positions.

Great insight all around. Thanks, David. 

Read more about David Wood on his profile at the Marriott School website.