Working with the Big 4

BradonHowellHeadshotIt is a very intimidating experience to start a trek into the world of the Big 4. As an accounting student, it is the holy grail, the bottom of a ladder that can take you to the highest rungs of compensation and clout within the professional world. It has been an experience I did not expect in most ways, and as someone nearing completion of the qualifying stages and about to enter the race, I could not be more excited to run. My internship this summer gave me a peek into all the things I had been told about for years, and it didn’t scare me as much as I thought it may.

The first thing you learn, is that the most important thing in this industry is growth. Growth in every aspect of your life, your new professional life, toward becoming a more value-adding individual. First, growing your knowledge base, not just what you know about accounting principles and transactions, but what you know about your clients, their industry, their methodology, their culture, their wants, needs, and wishes. Growing your network, expanding the number of people you can reach out to for advice, or be the one giving it. Whether that may be subject matter expert advice, career advice, or love-life advice. You never know who is going to end up where, and when they may need an accountant’s services you want to be at the top of their contact list – even if you have to say no. You have to grow your world knowledge. What does a world event like ‘Brexit’ mean for the banking and financial services industry, or the automotive industry? Lower interest rates? Higher tariffs? But most important of all, you have to focus on growing your understanding of other people. It’s about learning how to effectively communicate with, interact with, and guide the people around you. Whether that is the staff you are working with to get documentation at the client. Or the intern sitting there asking you question after question while you’re trying to meet a deadline. Being in a small room at a tiny table with three other people nine to ten hours a day can be as fun as it sounds, or it can be as fun as you make it.

Relationships is one of five attributes for leadership a PwC Professional is expected to grow in.   The people you will be interacting with most are your coworkers, and it’s important to build healthy relationships with them. As an introvert I find it easy to throw on my headphones and drill through work papers for hours. But I also understand the importance of interacting with my teammates, growing my network of contacts, and hopefully making friends in the process. These people will go on to be partners, controllers, and senior executives at the most successful companies in the world. You also have the opportunity to interact with partners, controllers, and senior executives in your role as an auditor. But the employees that report to these executives will be the contacts you must maintain the best relationship with. They will be the ones you are bothering in the middle of their work routines. Asking them for documentation, inquiring with them about their role and how they perform a certain process within a sector of the business. Asking them for more documentation. Having them walk you through the steps they take to arrive at the conclusion they did, or the report they put together. Asking them for even more documentation. Getting clarification from them on how an application works, or how they retrieve information from a database. And then at the end of it all telling them that all the documentation they gave you isn’t enough, and you still need a few more files for your audit. You will become someone you would hate to have to answer to at your own job. This is why it’s important you maintain a great working relationship with these people. You don’t want to deal with someone that is irritable with you because they feel like you are becoming a pain in the ass, you want to be someone they don’t dread talking to or hearing from. Because in reality it won’t take them too long to get everything you need together, and if you are effective and personable when communicating what you are looking for the interaction doesn’t have to become a negative one.

Professional skepticism doesn’t mean being suspicious of every single clerk or control owner you interact with. It’s about understanding what is being communicated to you by another person so that you are able to comprehend the business processes you are entrusted with auditing enough to know when something doesn’t seem right. You need to have an understanding of how a report or file that you are reading through was designed, how it was developed, and what it is to be used for and why. If you do not understand these things, then the reasonable assurance you are providing isn’t as reasonable, or assuring, as it should be.

Which leads us to documentation. Documentation is the product of our work. It is literally all we have to show for the tens of hours we spend a week staring at our computer screens. It is all we have to give the client who has spent hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars for our services. So we document everything we do, everything we touched, everything we turned over. The technical writing can get tedious, from walkthrough documentation to work papers.   But there is a fine art to the craft of writing a description of a control objective, or detailing the steps of how information travels from one database to a server through a program to generate a report that will be used to make financial decisions. At least there is an art in writing your narrative in a way that a person of your similar knowledge could read it and understand what you are trying to tell them. It is a hard language to get used to, it takes time to learn how to understand what you are reading. There is a certain structure that isn’t normal in day to day conversation, and it doesn’t read like any story you’ve ever read. But it is a story, it’s the story of how and why a specific number was the right number in that specific location. Or how a reconciliation is performed. Or how information from one place travels to another and is manipulated in a way that gives you this excel document that is open on your computer along with ten other tabs.

The hands on experience I have had at PwC has been nothing short of the standard that all companies should meet. I feel like a real auditor, and a real associate at my firm. My alarm in the morning says ‘Living The Dream.’ It’s mostly a joke, but it’s true: for two months this summer I am getting to do what I’ve worked so hard to be able to do for these past five years. It’s been a blessing, and I’ve been completely surprised by how much I truly love my job. You aren’t doing the same tasks, to repeat over and over until the person in the supervisor position above you quits or retires. The first hour of the day I am corresponding with client contacts, answering emails I have received about the additional documentation I need from them. The next half hour I immerse myself in the walkthrough and prior year work paper of the control, transaction, or report I am supposed to test to gain an understanding of it. I spend an hour or two testing it, making tick marks and boxes around numbers, or wording, in the files the client has provided me that I will be referencing in my work paper. Then I document what I have done, and my conclusions, and move on to another work paper. It isn’t the most fun work in the world, but it is interesting to me. I love to learn. I am constantly learning at work, how my client performs this task, or sets up this system. Or how a person within the company puts together information from different sources to produce a report that is common in the industry the company competes in. But sometimes it’s just going through and making sure someone signed a document in the right place, and being sure that person is authorized to sign in the first place. It’s not glamorous or full of glory, but it’s interesting if you are eager to grow your knowledge base. It’s the opportunity to learn more about the world we live in, with all its intricacies and complications, and develop a deeper understanding of how a business works, and what makes them successful. Sometimes they aren’t doing the most effective or efficient thing to be successful, and that’s where an auditor becomes value-adding. If we can simplify a lengthy reconciliation, or set up an automated process where a manual one was there before, we can create long term value for our clients. And that’s when you get away from the actual paperwork and get into the selling of our services, something directors and partners do.

As for my learning objectives, I feel I have met the ones I have learned are important to achieve. I have written very detailed documentation and feel I have clearly demonstrated my understanding of its importance in a previous paragraph within this paper. But more importantly, I have realized when the documentation that we carried forward from last year was lacking. And even more important than that was that I knew where it was lacking and what I should do to gain the knowledge to make it better. And that means that I understood what I was auditing, which is most important of all. I helped conduct inquiries and interviews, and assisted in documenting walkthrough meetings, learning better ways to interact with the client. I’ve picked up tricks from my seniors to be able to appear nice and friendly when bugging people for answers. I’ve learned the important roles and responsibilities of each of the different positions at my firm, although sometimes the lines cross especially the closer you get to a promotion. I have kept an accurate track of the time I spent on different controls and work papers so that I could keep my team leaders informed on my progress and what they could expect from me.

But I did not find an exception. And honestly I am glad I didn’t. See, I thought that by me finding an exception it would prove that I was doing my job right. But really, if I find an exception it means that someone did their job wrong, and that isn’t a good thing. The best way to prove you did your job right as an auditor is to be able to maintain a conversation with a process or control owner when they are speaking to you about something you have tested or plan to test. Be able to question them about what they are doing or did, and try to predict their answers by already having an idea of how you expect them to respond to your inquiries. Make updates to a work paper that was roll forward from prior year that will make it easier for the auditor that performs the testing next testing period to understand how you performed your tests and reached your conclusion. It may even be you, who a year later has completely forgotten what you did. Be positive with everyone around you, there is no room in your day or career for you to bring down the mood of the people around you. And contribute to discussions and meetings so that not only you, but your team can understand the interworking’s of the business you are auditing better. It’s all about growing, and helping people grow helps you grow as well.

Brandon Patrick Howell
Student Member – University of North Florida