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NextGen Magazine


Panel Speakers Urge Open Mind When Pondering Career Choices

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jul 29, 2020

Garrett Wagner at NextGen Conf2
Garrett Wagner, one of four panelists who spoke about "Alternative Paths to Success" at the NextGen Conference.

Panelists at the Foundation for Accounting Education's NextGen Conference on July 29 advised young professionals not to just default to traditional public accounting if that's not where their passion lies, as there are many paths to success as a CPA. A career should be driven not by inertia, they said, but by one's personal priorities and passions. Crystal Lee, vice president of recruitment at Search Masters Inc., served as the moderator of the panel, titled "Alternative Paths to Success."

Jennifer Cripps, a finance director at fintech firm We@Work, said she had wanted to travel while she was still young. Rather than go into public accounting, she took an internal audit job at an international company right out of school. Over the course of four years, she managed to travel to 25 countries for work, along with taking other trips on her own.

"I weighed things carefully and thought, I could go into public accounting, or I could travel for several years," she said, noting that her job often meant being away for weeks at a time. "You don't typically do that once you're a little older, so I weighed it and said if I'm going to travel, I want to do it now. So I chose to do internal audit at a large company that took me everywhere." 

The internal audit job eventually led to her moving into corporate finance, which, in turn, helped her understand her passion for solving problems—she described herself as a "fixer" by nature. She didn't want to just crunch the numbers but to help companies make better decisions.

Of course, such priorities need not necessarily be as specific as traveling. Bill Pullano, currently CFO at investment bank BDA Partners, said that his career moves were driven by a need to find new ways to test his abilities. After leaving PwC, Pullano used his experience in corporate reporting for SEC clients to get a job in a midsize bank in Buffalo. He worked there for seven years and said he theoretically could have stayed there for even longer, but he "realized maybe now is the time to try some other avenue in accounting."

"You go too far down a particular path, you may love it and be good at it, but eventually it becomes more limiting in what you can move into once you've been doing something for 10, 15 years," he said.

Pullano decided to take a risk by working at a small company "that had never had a head of finance, internally" before. He said he took it on as a challenge: While he didn't know what was going to happen with this company, he thought he was in a place in his life where he was comfortable taking a risk. This eventually led him to move into an Asia-focused mergers-and-acquisitions firm, which involved a lot of travel. Ten years later, however, he said he felt another challenge was needed, and he decided to get into nonprofit accounting, as "a way to use my talents to really help another initiative." He did this for two years before his old investment bank called him and asked him to be interim CFO, where he has been since the beginning of the year.

"I had a good relationship with them and they wanted me to come back as an interim CFO, so I decided that was what was right for me and what I wanted to do. All the same, I've banked two years of nonprofit [work] and have that skill set, which will be more along the lines of what I'll be doing in the future. But because of my special relationship with my previous employer, I'm back in this more familiar position again," he said.

Sometimes it can take time to discover one's passions. Philip Sookram, an accounting professor at St. Peter's College, did not originally intend to become an academic. Initially, he wanted to work at a Big Four firm after school but wound up working at a nonprofit instead. While he initially found this career path disappointing, he said that it was the best thing that happened to his career.

"Starting off in nonprofit was extremely helpful because it gave me a chance to really home in on those basic accounting principles," he said. "I needed to gain my confidence."

But once he eventually made it to public accounting, he found that he "wasn't thrilled" with it. He realized he'd always had a passion for explaining complex topics, and so he eventually decided that being a professor would be a good fit. Around 2018, he thought that "I was at the level where I had the skills I needed. I was confident in that stage of my life ... to take this new venture."

Passions don't always have to be a radical departure from the default career path either. The fourth panelist, Garrett Wagner, formed a CPA consulting firm after experiencing too many frustrations with the way the firms he was in ran operations.

"It just grew, the frustration in me," he said. "Why aren't we doing better? Why isn't the firm doing things better? Why aren't we using technology? Why are we still doing things by hand on paper?" 

He said there's a certain peer pressure that tells accountants that if they want to be a real professional, they need to work at an accounting firm. While this isn't true, Wagner said he had to "learn the hard way" that what's more important is doing what mattered to him, which was helping people, and he didn't need to necessarily be at a public accounting firm to do that. This realization was what allowed him to "stop chasing this dream I don't want" and chase the one he did want instead.

"Don't just get caught up in the flow. ... Think about what's important to you. If you drive with intentionality, you avoid a lot of mistakes the rest of us made," he said.

Not that having public accounting experience is worthless for those who choose other career paths. Far from it, said the panelists. Pullano noted that his job as a PwC auditor exposed him to a wide variety of situations and challenges, an experience that's served him well as a CFO. Sookram agreed, and added that beyond the huge amount of knowledge he was able to absorb in public accounting, that experience allowed him to develop the work ethic he would need to succeed in other areas of life. Wagner also said that his experience in public accounting was vital in his eventual career trajectory, even though he doesn't plan to return soon.

Still, Wagner emphasized the need to consider all the various different ways a CPA can be successful.

"We have an amazing profession, but sometimes we need to make our own ways,"  he said. "How many opportunities are in front of us where we can do [something] with accounting knowledge that isn't just numbers, math, sitting behind a desk?"