Accountants to Watch: Dr. Sean Stein Smith

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Dr. Sean Stein Smith wants accountants to understand the future of their profession right now.

An assistant professor at Lehman College and its Department of Economics and Business, Stein Smith has been explaining the intersection of accounting and technology to accountants for a long time, authoring dozens of articles and six books, and discussing this inevitable change in the profession as a speaker at myriad conferences, podcasts, and other venues.

In addition to his teaching career, Stein Smith also serves on the Board of Governors at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, and was previously a member of the 2017 AICPA Leadership Academy. He was also named an IMA "Young Professional of the Year" in 2016, and part of the New Jersey Society's "30 Under 30" in 2015.

We recently sat down with Stein Smith to discuss how tech will mold the future of the profession, what professionals can do to best prepare for these changes, and how the new role of the accounting professional will be a "shift toward [a] trusted advisor."

What made you first want to become an accountant?

Growing up, I was interested in how finance and banking worked, and how that information was connected to other business issues. This interest was amplified when I took my first accounting class, and was even more pronounced once I started to read books and magazines related to finance and accounting topics. College was where I made the formal decision to major in accounting, but that really was just the formalization of an interest I had nurtured for years.

What do you consider to be the most important topics in accounting tech at the moment?

Probably the most important topics I would say that every accounting professional needs to educate themselves, colleagues, and clients on probably will not come as a shocker: Blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and artificial intelligence are the “Big 3” topics that headline every conference, show, book, magazine, podcast, or video produced for accounting practitioners.

The most important point that I would emphasize, however, is to not get caught up in the buzz surrounding these topics at the expense of fundamental understanding. Now, just like accountants do not have to be programmers now, we aren’t going to have to master the code writing and programming associated with these tools. That said, we are going to have to know how to use them.

Entire articles and books have been written on all of these topics, but drilling down to the core of the idea, key points to be aware of include the following:

  • Blockchain is a decentralized ledger technology that enables the peer-to-peer transmission of encrypted information in virtually real time. This isn’t news, but something that should be emphasized is that blockchain is not an accounting platform or accounting system. It’s something professionals do need to be aware of and understand.
  • Cryptocurrencies are probably where most people were introduced to the concept of blockchain technology, but are merely one application that can run on blockchain technology. An analogy I always use is that, if blockchain is the next iteration of the internet (Internet 2.0), think of cryptocurrencies like websites and programs that run on top of that underlying technology backbone.
  • Artificial intelligence may be the emerging technology that people have heard about the most, but AI doesn’t necessarily mean that a Terminator is coming for accounting jobs. Rather, a good working definition that I tend to use is that AI is a computer program, or suite of programs (like Office) that can augment or even replace human interaction and oversight over certain processes.

In your experience, are professionals today open to these tech changes? Why or why not?

In my experience, both working in industry and more recently as I have transitioned to academia, I would say that accounting professionals are definitely open to the technology changes. The specifics will, of course, differ from person to person and firm to firm, but overall the mood toward technology is decidedly forward-looking. Driven both by anxiety of jobs being automated and by the opportunities automating some tasks will open up, every practitioner I engage with is excited for the technology tools moving forward.

What impact will this new tech have on the profession? What can professionals do now to make sure they and their firms are prepared for the future?

Echoing comments I have heard at large conferences and other events previously, I would say that, driven largely by technology adoption, the profession will be unrecognizable in 3 [to] 5 years.

One piece of advice that I recommend, and that I do myself, is to try and read one article, listen to one podcast, or watch one video every day on whatever topic I am trying to learn more about. If you are able to do that most days, and do so for an extended period of time, you are going to end up reading, literally, hundreds of articles during the course of a year. What better way to become an expert that to leverage the massive amounts of content already being produced?

Where do you hope to see the profession move towards over the next decade? What should a professional ten years from now be equipped with, concerning knowledge and know-how?

It is my hope, and one grounded in reality and evidence from the market, that the accounting profession is going to be completely transformed over the next decade. The shift from backward-looking and compliance-oriented reporting is already underway, and the increasing pace of automation will only accelerate this trend. The firm, and practitioner, of the future is going to spend less time preparing financial information and more time interpreting, explaining, and assisting management in understanding data that is increasingly available in real time. The shift toward trusted advisor has been a topic discussed for years, but now practitioners have the tools and processes to actually become a true partner in the business decision-making process.

Reflecting this shift and evolution, accounting professionals are going to, in addition to technical skills, also be able to explain, educate, and connect the changes underway in the business landscape to the implications these changes will have on business. To sum up, those “soft skills” we all hear so much about are going to be more and more important, which is why I have rephrased them as “business skills.” Information drives the decision-making process, and accounting professionals, augmented by technology, are well-positioned to develop, grow, and lead organizations moving forward.

Follow Sean on Twitter here.

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CPAs Technology Blockchain Artificial intelligence Cryptocurrencies