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We are the toolmakers

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Welcome to the first, inaugural post of a new blog entitled “There’s no accounting …”.  Fill in the blank to suit your mood or your profession so that everything is squared away tidily.  I’m happy to leave the ellipsis hanging, for you to evaluate each time you read a post.  I hope it will become clear why this works for me. It is a fundamental to the objective of this blog series.  I’ll explain more as we go forward, together.

The accounting software ecosystem

As we enter January 2024,  I enter my 40th year in work. This spans 5 discrete decades (80s, 90s, 00s, 10s and 20s), spent entirely within the accounting software ecosystem.  I don’t count the part-time jobs in retail and professional football (!) whilst still at school.  It is time to record for posterity and contemporary debate, my thoughts, observations, musings and forward-looking speculation. What can we learn from these experiences and most importantly what does the future hold for this key industry?

When asked “What do you do …?”, and in reaction to my response, “I work with accounting software”, eyes glaze over.  There are obvious, stereotypical jokes to deploy about boring accountants. Not for me the easy payback of a lazy jibe that is patently untrue.  No, as the blog title suggests this isn’t about accountants.  I’m not an accountant although I almost became one. In the heady summer of 1986, I signed up to a day-release course, at Farnborough College of Technology. The course would have left me as a certified accountant if succesfully completed.  A week or so before I was due to start, I had an epiphany. My aim was to fly fast jets for the Royal Air Force. I determined I should not waste my time nor my employer’s time on a course that I was unlikely to complete. 

Upon reflection, it might have been useful to have tucked that particular piece of paper under my belt.  The RAF decided that I wasn’t quite ready to navigate adversity to astral destinations. Certainly not on their dollar. I stayed with the numbers game and never darkened the door of Biggin Hill again. I have spent the rest of my career to-date working with and for accountants.

Depicts a tug of war between the RAF and the ACCA.  The logos of each organisation are depicted with hands emerging from each logo pulling on a rope.

Experience vs qualification?

One of the reasons for the blog title is that I have been working with accounting software for 40 years without an accounting qualification. There has been no professional accounting involved.  Sure, I’ve experienced running accounting teams, performing book-keeping, managing cash, lodging cheques, and making payments. I’ve prepared complex financial reports and statements. Some for internal consumption and others carrying statutory weight. I’ve managed budgets and the annual budget setting process. For the largest proportion of my career, I’ve been recommending and selling accounting solutions to the private and public sector.  This leveraged all the experience I have picked up. All without having the benefit of a course of study to support me.

The accounting software industry has many fine accountants working within it but neither needs nor relies on them.  Colleagues I worked with have hailed from industry, from practice (accounting firms) and often straight from university or college. They bring their paper qualifications to bear.  Time is still needed to teach them the broader appreciation of how software, hardware, and data interact. Only once this is instilled can then we produce and advise on the packages we design, sell, implement, and support. This holistic approach is how we meet the needs of our accountant clients.  Our ecosystem relies on accounting knowledge, on computer knowledge, on commercial knowledge and on people skills.  The ideal “fintech” employee encapsulates an appreciation of all these things.  I don’t need an accounting qualification. Our clients, hold them. They are the accountants, in industry and in practice, who trust us to build their tools.

We are the toolmakers

We are the toolmakers.  It’s our mission to provide the utensils, the apparatus, the gizmos, and gadgets.  Challenge us to design and deliver the instruments of accounting. Use them in pursuit of the lofty goals of that august profession.  We are the artisans and the architects. The builders and the draughtsmen. The farmers and the grocers. We craft the essential tools that an accountant relies upon to carry out their responsibilities.  They do what they do, and we do what we do, in perfect harmony.

I have an anecdote that relates to this core point.  Picture the scene. A sumptuous sales kick-off for an enterprise software author. It’s an imposing country house hotel somewhere in the south of England.  Standing together were a group of black-tied, largely male, sales representatives. A graduate sales support colleague sidles up to us. Displaying some obvious disgust at the display of vulgar consumption that was about to take place. Asking, with all the venom of youthful angst.

“Do you enjoy working for a company that doesn’t do anything important for society?”.

She fired this loaded and accusatorial question at us. It hung in the air like a bad smell as we gripped our champagne flutes tightly.  This was a clearly conflicted soul who only saw big-ticket sales, comfortable cars, commission statements, and lots of expensive marketing. We argued that, without us, charities couldn’t deliver aid to the needy. Governments couldn’t provide services to the vulnerable. Profits of large multi-nationals wouldn’t channel into pension funds to keep our ageing population fed and sheltered.  We made our point. It was a salutary reminder that many people consider hidden skills and professions to be without merit, or significance. That is, until something comes along to bring that profession to the fore.

Post Office Horizon “IT” scandal

Coincidentally, as I publish, every news outlet in the UK is full of commentary and analysis on an accounting scandal. More accurately, a scandal of corporate governance.  A prime-time evening television drama over the Christmas viewing period brought the human tragedy into homes across the UK.  I haven’t yet met any adult still unaware of the Post Office Horizon “IT” system scandal. It has ruined the lives and businesses of hundreds, possibly thousands, of self-employed sub postmasters and mistresses?

The Post Office prosecuted hundreds of their sub postmasters for errors in accounting balances calculated by the computer system.  As a nation of shopkeepers, we should all be able to relate to the distress caused. Shock at how a major institution ruined its own reputation and the lives of its front-line staff highlights this. It is a human scandal that ignored reported problems with an accounting package.

Failings of management

No-one fixed the core software/hardware problem. Horizon generated rogue transactions from the outset meaning the books didn’t always balance. Transactions injected without users’ knowledge into the Horizon system to attempt corrections, exacerbated the issue. From the very start, even during pilots from 1995 onwards, the impact spiralled out of control. Originally conceived to create efficiencies in the payment of state benefits, the attempt to modernise its retail systems was laudable. Horizon earned the now doom-laden claim to be the largest non-military IT project in Europe.

I have avoided spending too much time on this specific issue for now. It serves to herald the arrival of this new blog. Throughout this series I will be emphasising the importance of technology in managing all our finances.  I will be discussing key developments to both inform and occasionally entertain.

In the meantime, remember there’s no accounting … for we are the toolmakers.

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