Coding may one day be as synonymous with accounting as Excel.
According to a recent CPA Canada report, Why Should CPAs Code, skill requirements for current finance job postings include: the ability to promote automation; using basic programming and advanced data analysis tools; collecting, manipulating and interpreting data to isolate key trends and summarize findings; and a strong knowledge of programming languages, including Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), Python, R and SQL.
“While Excel will also remain near and dear to the hearts of CPAs, increasingly, the focus on data-driven decision making has necessitated the shift to collecting and analyzing as much data as possible,” says Michael Wong, principal, technology, research, guidance and support at CPA Canada
“Excel may no longer be the only tool CPAs may need to work with.”
As CPA Canada points out in its latest Mastering Data Series, Canada’s economy and society are becoming more digital, as part of its Foresight: Reimagining the Profession initiative, organizations are now managing and overseeing data and digitization policies and strategies, where CPA competencies are valued and necessary. “CPAs must use their foundational proficiencies in business expertise, judgment, skepticism, analysis and systems to be a part of that [transformation],” it says.
With that in mind, CPAs must embrace a skillset evolution, establishing how their roles will change and any adjustments they’ll need to make.
Below are four tips to help the hesitant CPA hop on board this inevitable career development.
With the shift to data-driven decision making and as finance functions increasingly automate, CPAs will need to acquire knowledge of data analysis and programming tools.
“There is no shortage of tools out there to help with data analysis and visualization,” says Wong. “Tools like Tableau and PowerBI are great for data visualization, while Python scripts are much more efficient working with huge datasets.”
Alan Huang, associate professor of finance at the University of Waterloo and contributor to the Why Should CPAs Code report, recommends CPAs start the journey by exploring these various tools, familiarizing themselves with their purpose and attributes before doing a deeper dive into coding.
“If you come down to the stage where you need to write some code, there are lots of options,” he says.
When it comes to learning code, CPAs should start small and find their bearings where they are most comfortable, recommends Wong. This may initially be via Excel, automating tasks using formulas, then moving to programming languages including Macros and VBA for more complex tasks, he explains. [Look to the Why Should CPAs Code report for some starter course options.]
“Start by finding small pieces of a larger process to automate. Once you are successful in those, then look to go bigger,” he says. “The basic logic around coding is very similar across different programming languages, so once you’ve developed an understanding of how to code certain logic, it can be applied to other broad-based languages like Python or R.”
There’s a misconception that coding equals software development, says Wong. Remember, accountants aren’t expected to also be computer engineers.
Coding used from a CPA’s perspective is far simpler, he explains, adding to the arsenal of skills they already have. Automation reduces monotony from the daily grind, saving time and leaving accountants free to focus on meeting an organization’s or client’s needs but through more in-depth data visualization and analytics.
“CPAs have an opportunity to leverage coding to improve their everyday work, and it has nothing to do with writing apps,” says Wong. “It will free up time spent on repetitive tasks and help CPAs better achieve their role as a trusted financial adviser for their business partners.”
Coding skills won’t take over a CPA’s traditional role.
Competencies such as technical accounting expertise, financial knowledge, professional judgment, skepticism, and ethics will continue to drive roles and the profession. The accelerated use of AI and automation, producing more data for a lower cost than ever before, will also fuel the need for strong judgment to make sense of the assumptions.
“Accountants don’t necessarily need to be defined differently, they’ll just do their job even better than they do today,” says Wong. “Our traditional skills will complement our new skills around data analysis [of which coding will be part].”
Wong also points out that many CPAs are well-prepped to learn these new skills, as they have a degree of coding knowledge from using Excel in more complex ways via sum products and other VBA and Macros functions.
Huang agrees, adding that a CPA’s core knowledge, combined with the use of more advanced tools, is what will drive efficiency.
“You have this domain knowledge and now you have better tools that can enhance your productivity and abilities to help the profession move forward,” he says. “Within a firm, you can now store all the automation process, get rid of a lot of repetitive work and focus on your client needs.”
Though the CPA role doesn’t disappear, a shift in mindset is necessary to keep up with the pace of technological change as financial functions automate, reminds Wong.
“We all need to have a growth mindset these days,” he says. “The world is changing faster than ever before and it’s impossible to be taught everything you need to know.”
There’s no room for stagnancy. CPAs must take the time to define what “coding” means for them. How much they need to know will be determined by what role they occupy, their level of seniority and career trajectory. For example, explains Wong, a partner at a firm, where soft skills reign, may not need to know how to code extensively but, for the mid-level CPA involved in data preparation and analysis, more advanced coding skills may be required.
“Having an understanding of what coding is and what it can do for a CPA is important for all CPAs, regardless of level,” says Wong. “The key is the ability to identify gaps in your knowledge and to have the determination to fill that gap through self-learning.”
Discover what key role CPAs can play as their organizations transition to the digital economy with CPA Canada’s Mastering Data Series, Canada’s economy and society are becoming more digital and using these tech resources. Prep your organization for the next industrial revolution with these digital transformation tips.
Also, delve into insights emerging from CPA Canada’s strategic initiative, Foresight: Reimagining the Profession, and learn what the future holds for accounting.