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Career in Accounting: How to Prepare

Picture of someone who has chosen a career in accountingYou can have a great career in accounting. And you can have tons of fun!  But in order to really hit the deck running, you really want to be prepared. Here are a handful of ideas you might find useful…

Step 1: Get comfortable working with computers

Just about everything accountants do uses computers in some way. Our whole shtick is collecting and working with financial data. However, a lot of people in today’s workforce don’t know as much about computers as employers in a modern office environment expect them to. If you’re a worker who’s looking to transition to a new industry, or even just someone whose workplace has recently updated its IT tools, you might need to buff up your skill set in order to be successful in a career in accounting.

If the idea of learning to work more with computers sounds overwhelming (to you or to a loved one), don’t worry: there are plenty of resources out there to help you succeed. For example, here are a bunch of local (our CPA firm is in Redmond, WA) and online resources for learners at all levels:

The Public Library

The Seattle Public Library offers free classes for adults who want to learn to work with computers. These programs really do start from square one (learning how to turn on a computer, practice getting comfortable using a mouse and keyboard, etc.)

Microsoft Digital Literacy Curriculum

Microsoft offers a free digital literacy program on its website. Click the link to see what’s covered. We think of this as a “next step” after what the Seattle Public Library type of courses cover (since you need to know a little bit about web browsing in order to be able to use the online learning tools).

Dummies Books

Steve’s friend Dan Gookin started a whole series of computer books that you’ve maybe heard of. These are a great, super-economical resource on how to work with common business software such as Outlook and Microsoft Word. A number of book excerpts are free on the Dummies.com website, and if you want to buy a whole book its usually less than $30.

Your Local Community College

If you’re someone who benefits from having a teacher, we would highly recommend taking computer courses at your local community college or vocational college. The vocational school closest to our CPA firm offices is Lake Washington Institute of Technology, and they have a Business Technology program that can teach you all of the major programs you’ll be expected to know when working in a modern office (e.g. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, etc.)

For what it’s worth, in Washington State a 15-credit quarter generally costs about $1,300, but there are all sorts of ways to pay for college if you can’t afford that out-of-pocket. If you’re interested in attending a school, then you should always schedule a meeting with someone from the school’s financial aid office to figure out your options. You may qualify for tuition scholarships or low-interest rate loans.

Step 2: Take a couple of accounting courses

A couple of good free resources on the Internet for learning accounting are Accounting Coach and LearnAccountingForFree.com. We particularly like that Learn Accounting for Free has engaging videos that you can pause, speed up, or slow down to match your learning style.

If you’re someone who has difficulty staying focused and motivated in an online learning environment and you really benefit from having a teacher who knows you personally, your local community college or vocational college is sure to be a great resource to learn from.

Once you take a few courses, you may decide that this is something you like enough to stick with and make your career. If so, you’ll probably be interested in attaining an accounting-related credential to put on your resume. Two of the most common accounting-related credentials you’ll see are Enrolled Agents (EAs) and Certified Public Accountants (CPAs).

  • The EA credential is given out by the IRS. It demonstrates that you have professional knowledge for preparing federal tax returns. More information about how to get this credential is on the IRS’ website.
  • The CPA credential is given out by state boards of accountancy. It demonstrates that you have professional knowledge across a wide range of accounting topics, including financial accounting, auditing, and tax. If you live in Washington State, you can find out how to become a CPA here, and about the CPA exam specifically here.

Step 3: Practice at being an effective communicator

Once you’ve got the knowledge you need to work in accounting, you’ll need to develop the skills to apply it. The most essential skill is to be an effective communicator. Much of what professionals do in their day-to-day work is communicate their knowledge to clients, co-workers, and bosses.

Being an effective communicator involves a lot of things. You need to be able to write well and speak confidently. You also need to have good social skills. You’ll need to be able to show empathy, understand the positions of people around you, and listen well. Communicating effectively is something that a professional practices at their whole life.

Step 4: Practice at being an effective learner

In some industries, you can get away with “doing all of your learning” in the first couple decades of your life, and then spend the rest of your career doing the same old stuff. But this is definitely not the case with a career in accounting.

Tax law is always changing. GAAP is always changing. And in just in the past few years, cloud-based accounting applications and optical character recognition software have revolutionized accounting. These technological disruptions required accountants to learn a new set of software tools very quickly in order to stay relevant and competitive.

Because this is the nature of the job, people who thrive in a career in accounting generally do so because they have a “learning-positive attitude” and because they’ve figured out how to be effective adult learners. They’ve figured out how they like to learn. They’ve figured out what works for them, and what doesn’t. And most importantly, they have the maturity and self-discipline to keep their knowledge up to date and their skills sharp.

Everything is easier the more you practice at it, and learning is no different. What’s more, when certain activities become habits, they feel like no work at all. And learning is no different.

Step 5: Practice at being an effective teacher

This is somewhat related to points 3 and 4. A lot of the work you do as a professional is really teaching. You teach clients how to use a software tool that you’ve recommended. You teach them about a particular tax law provision that they need to be aware of. You can’t teach them everything about accounting that’s relevant to their business (after all, it takes someone years to do that), but you get a lot of practice at teaching laypeople little things that they’ll be better off knowing themselves.

In addition, a large part of enjoying a successful career in accounting is knowing enough about teaching that you can effectively teach yourself (to keep your skills sharp) and teach your coworkers (to build a better team). As you rise through your career, you’ll often be expected to take on more and more teaching tasks, so it’s a highly valuable skill to learn.

Final Comment About Career in Accounting

One final comment… If you’re someone who lives close to our CPA offices and you are doing the sort of stuff described in this blog post to build your professional skills and so have a great career in accounting, we’d enjoy the opportunity to talk with you. We are always on the look-out for a great new team member.

And one other thing we should mention… You rarely see anyone in our office wearing a suit. Just so you know.

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About Carol St. Amand

Carol St. Amand

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