Opportunities in emerging technologies: Leveraging your assets

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In pursuing business opportunities in new technologies, accounting firms start with at least one major advantage: a deep reservoir of business and accounting expertise. Leading firms routinely use their well of knowledge around bookkeeping, tax laws, auditing, regulatory requirements and all the other traditional skills of the profession as the basis for exploring new service lines in technology – though many have also found that as they deepen their services, they need to bring on other experts.

“I’m a true believer that accountants do have a good sense of what technology can do,” said Jerry Ravi, a partner at the firm and national practice leader for the EisnerAmper Digital practice of New York City-based Top 100 Firm EisnerAmper. “From the beginning days, we started to find people like me who love the area of accounting and may also be CPAs, but also have a passion for technology. We looked around the firm to find those people and bring them in, and have built our team from there.”

“That’s where we started,” he continued, “but where we’re at today is building it out with different skillsets — those with analytic backgrounds, data analytics, business intelligence, process improvement, cyber — that’s who we’re looking at, even from someone who’s coming out of college, we’re looking at those who may even have less accounting and more technology experience, and then morphing it together.”

(See our feature on building new service lines around emerging technologies.)

Meanwhile, California-based Top 100 Firm Armanino has over 250 consultants that work on technology-oriented projects, according to chief growth and innovation officer Tom Mescall. “We have a strong base of finance and accounting folks,” he said. “We have significant finance and accounting experience, but on top of that we have added computer science, and we have added a number of people that are trained from an engineering perspective, and we have added and will continue to add more certified project management individuals, and in addition to the project management, we’re adding organizational change management, because these are not just technology or consulting or accounting projects — these are changing businesses for the future, and change management has to be addressed during this.”

At Atlanta-based Top 100 Firm Aprio, David Siegel, a partner who works in the firm’s blockchain services practice, reports that approximately three dozen people touch blockchain on a regular basis, with a number of people from different practice groups working on blockchain services.

“We’re constantly looking for new people to grow into that,” he said. “I sent an email out last week to four or five people in our audit practice who I thought might be interested, and they were all interested and will be involved on a go-forward basis.”

In part because many of the services it offers its blockchain clients are not specific to that industry, the firm is more likely to teach accountants and tax experts about blockchain than to teach blockchain experts about accounting or tax.

“We look for people that have strong baseline skills, and we teach them the blockchain components,” he said. “How we recruit new people into our blockchain practice is that we make sure that people understand the fundamentals, and we’d rather teach them, based on our knowledge of how to operate a blockchain practice, how to learn the blockchain skills, rather than go hire someone with a lot of blockchain expertise.”

The firm has found that people with blockchain experience — what Siegel calls “enthusiasts” — tend to have too much interest in the crypto world, and not enough in accounting. “Our clients are the crypto experts , and they’re hiring us to become their accounting experts,” he said. “So we need to know the accounting and the underlying services that we’re going to perform better than we know their business.”

Tennessee-based Top 100 Firm LBMC, on the other hand, regularly looks for people with specific information security expertise, with Mark Burnette, the shareholder-in-charge of the LBMC Information Security unit, noting that there are now plenty of college programs that produce graduates who are qualified to be IT auditors or serve as IT security consultants – though that complicates the firm’s on-campus recruiting, since they have to reach out to computer science departments, as well as accounting departments.

And while he noted a certain amount of “incestuousness” in professional services, with employees moving from one firm to another, he also said that LBMC makes a point of avoiding hiring from clients. “Many of the businesses in town use us for some component of the information security,” he said. “It has forced us — in a good way — to look outside the markets where we have a physical presence, and recruit some great professionals in other markets.” Hiring remote workers has the added benefit of giving the firm a physical presence in markets where it doesn’t have a physical office.

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