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Staying ahead of the future

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October 27, 2010

What will the accounting profession look like five to 10 years from now? As a young professional, this is a critical question to ask ourselves.

It’s likely that the current pace of change – which is already brisk – will continue to accelerate in the years ahead. Technology is driving this breakneck pace of change by automating an increasing number of tasks – so, we are forced to move ourselves up the value chain to be successful. This disruption also creates a lot of opportunity for us enterprising youngsters – we can not only survive, but thrive, in the brave new world coming up – if we position ourselves strategically.

But for us to stay ahead of the curve, we have to peer through the fog of the future, and anticipate these changes coming down the pike.  So how can we do this?

We asked an expert on this topic for his advice – former hedge fund manager and technology guru Andy Kessler. Andy managed Velocity Capital, a technology focused fund, to 55 percent annualized returns by doing just that – anticipating the future of technology, and establishing his positions ahead of the crowd.

I recently sat down with Andy to chat about his new bestselling book, Grumby, and asked him for some career advice in this increasingly techie world.

How do you anticipate that technology will automate a lot of the jobs we take for granted today?

This is already happening. Let's start with this Skype call we're doing. There was no operator. The telephone company got rid of operators. Travelocity and Expedia got rid of travel agents. iTunes got rid of disc jockeys. Word for Windows got rid of typists. Go watch an episode of "Mad Men" and look at all those jobs that you just don't need anymore – people sitting there typing correspondence. All those things have happened.
Now, even in the last 10 years or 15 years, but really 10, we got rid of stock brokers. Do you call up your stock broker and say buy this or buy that? No, you click. We've gotten rid of stock traders because you need less people at the New York Stock Exchange sitting there, dressing funny, and throwing paper all over the floor to execute your trade.
So all I've done is say, "Well, let's take it a step further." I classified the world into two different types of people. There are creators, those that are creating the tools and creating the productivity solutions, and there are servers.

"There will always be a need for people and intelligence, but it can be embedded in a lot of these tools. Oh, did I forget to mention, ATMs got rid of tellers. What a drudge job of counting out 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, when you know you can automate that stuff. Now, those same people then became mortgage brokers, of course, and overdid the mortgage market. Well, let's get rid of them and automate a lot of that process and have free markets drive a lot of the job creation."

Can you elaborate a bit about your thoughts on peering through the fog to anticipate future changes? How can we make sure we’re on the creating side of the ledger?

I think for investments that's critical to do, but it also is critical for your career. Before taking any job, you've got to think out a five to ten or more year scenario of the marketplace you're in, whether that's a pharmaceutical company, a technology company, a media company, or a manufacturing company. Think it out. When you get interviewed, turn it around and go interview the person that's interviewing you and say, "What does this company look like in five years? What's the big picture view?" Because I don't want to get involved in this company and have them . . . you know, none of them disappear, but the growth gets taken away by someone else. Craigslist came and took the growth away from the whole newspaper business. They didn't see it coming, and you could see that coming. You'd go, "Well, I don't understand why I have to go look in the back of a newspaper to find some ad. Why can't that be posted on just some bulletin board and I go search it or even just skim it?"

“So, you've got to look out that long-term scenario and apply it to everything you do – any project you get involved in, any startup, any job interview, and any investment. And it's not easy to do. I catch myself doing all the time, okay, whatever the next three months or six months are going to look like, because that's what the group thinks of what the next six months are going to look like, that's how it's going to be."

What This Means For Us
Andy’s message is one that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But for us young accounting professionals, I think that we should be rooting this process onwards, while being strategic about our careers.  

Being young and agile, we can anticipate these waves of change ahead of others, and position ourselves to be very successful in the accounting world of 2015, 2020, and beyond.  We need to focus on areas that will be growing – and position ourselves on the creation side of the ledger.

Remember, Andy emphasizes that there will always be a need for people and intelligence.  Let’s make sure we’re focusing our mental capital on strategic activities, and we’ll be in good shape for the years ahead. And we especially need to stay up-to-speed on technology – there’s a lot of leverage that we can gain by implementing tools that can automate a lot of our busywork, freeing us up to focus on higher value activities!

Brett Owens is chief executive and co-founder of Chrometa, a Sacramento, Calif.-based provider of time-tracking software that records activity in real time.  Brett can be reached at 916-254-0260 and brett@chrometa.com.

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