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Why should accountants be interested in coding?

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ACCA head of business insights Narayanan Vaidyanathan explains the benefits of coding to accountants, following a recent ACCA report.

18th Aug 2021
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ACCA’s recently published report, Coding: as a professional accountant, why you should be interested, considers why professional accountants should be aware of and interested in coding. The paper stears away from machine code, and instead focuses on programming language for computers.

The report follows the launch of Python – ACCAs free machine learning course tailored for finance professionals, part of the FinTech for finance and business leaders professional certificate program. The paper sites 57% of accountants admitted to having no knowledge of coding, yet 40% expressed an in learning.

Primary uses of coding for accountants include data analysis, data visualisation and scripts for customised reports to reduce low-value repetitive tasks. Data analysis coding can teach accountants how to load data from different sources, drill-down and segment, create pivot table style aggregations and explore data visualisation libraries.

“Audit has increasingly interdisciplinary teams,” ACCA head of business insights Narayanan Vaidyanathan told AccountingWEB. “More complex audits for larger customers are drawing more diverse professionals like cybersecurity experts and other areas of data science testing. 

“What these areas are contributing doesn’t have to be a black box within the audit if you have someone who can talk to them and make the most out of the interactions,” he added.

Perceived barriers

But it’s not like coding is naturally going to be on the top of accountants’ list of priorities. With heavy workloads and professionals who can provide this service, there are many reasons that prevent accountants from taking up coding as a skill, including:

  • Lack of time

  • Potentially no immediate need in day-to-day tasks

  • No basic level of understanding to build upon in independent learning

  • Perceptions that skills learned become outdated quickly

  • Belief that even basic levels of coding are too hard

Key benefits of coding for accountants

According to Vaidyanathan, a basic understanding of coding could mean that you don’t have to go to your IT department every time you need basic coding. “We’re talking about creating intuitive customised reports so you can be more self-sufficient as a business [as well as] engendering your relationship with your IT function.”

The accountant can link business processes with the tech side with a minor level of understanding, making the company more marketable. 

ACCA’s report cites the following key benefits for accountants learning coding:

  • A better understanding of the approach to data can show how it is organised, analysed and flows through the organisation. Accountants can see what is involved in structuring and streamlining the data.

  • Enabling more informed strategic conversations on technology use and adoption due to a better understanding of what needs to happen in the background. 

  • Offers a superior risk lens to ask the right questions, or better questions, when using information produced by systems.

  • There is a wider trend of more partnering between accountants and other professionals, eg multi-skilled audit teams with experts in data science or cyber. A better understanding of coding is seen as assisting communication between accountants and those trained in other disciplines. For example, it would allow an accountant to better explain their requirements to an IT or data scientist, driving the adoption of machine learning.

  • Coding is also seen as a valuable skillset that improves market value and career opportunities.

Supercharging Excel with coding 

Excel workflows can be automated to write macros (which are run by clicking a button) and to create template reports that update live with the latest data. A basic understanding of coding can afford more interrogations of models, data depictions, forecasts etc.

Python, in particular, offers a basic understanding of machine learning models and their relationship to data science, big data and Artificial Intelligence (AI). This is then applied to real-world machine learning examples to meet practical objectives such as evaluating and improving the model and error detection/correction.

The purpose of courses like these is to get accountants to the level where they can see the interface of the coding tools being used, along with their capabilities and the potential for what they can do with them. 

The coding tools are then linked with the systems and software they recognise eg Excel, allowing them to begin to understand how they can supercharge Excel using coding.

Replies (3)

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By SteveHa
19th Aug 2021 08:34

Before I joined HMRC back in 1982 I trained and qualified as a computer programmer. I operated computers as a part of my training at Initial Services in Manchester, and programmed for a while for British Aerospace. I created utilities and even an AI game back in the 90s on the Commodore Amiga.

Since my move to HMRC in '82, and then into practice in 2,000 I have only ever had a single use for my coding skills professionally, which was during my Revenue days working in employer compliance, when I wrote a complex VBA script for MS Word to produce the copious and often customised documentation for PAYE Settlement Agreements which shaved two hours of the job for the typists each time.

Otherwise, I've found little use for my skills in my professional life.

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By adam.arca
19th Aug 2021 18:01

I think programming skills are probably a two-edged sword for accountants.

I’m a self-taught programmer (in VBA if that counts) and I started purely out of intellectual curiosity. I can now program badly in Excel and Access, and a little bit in Word but I’m not as familiar with its object model. For 20 years of effort, I’ve got two big applications which I wouldn’t be without and / but am still developing and I’m also always tinkering with little workarounds and time savers.

That sounds great but, when looked at purely from a commercial point of view, the thousands of hours I’ve spent really can’t be justified. So, beware if you’re ever thinking of stepping out on this road!

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By SteveHa
20th Aug 2021 09:47

As it happens, if I'd taken a sabbatical in 1998/99 I could have probably made a killing, having been proficient in COBOL and the Y2K fixes needed across industry. C'est la vie. Hindsight is 20/20.

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