by Seth Fineberg

Las Vegas — Security issues and the paperless office may have been the top-attended sessions and most-discussed topics here at the 24th annual Information Technology Conference hosted by the American Institute of CPAs, but the most omnipresent factor for conferees was the undertone of fear — whether economic in nature, or of a deliberately unleashed virus.

It wasn’t all negative, but fear did infect keynote speeches, breakout sessions, and even the showroom floor as the now-infamous “Sasser” worm chose the first day of the conference to make its presence known. The virus temporarily disabled some vendors and caused others to have to run anti-virus definition updates and scans. A morning power problem and wireless connectivity issues also hampered things slightly during the opening day.

Overall, attendance at the event, held at the Venetian Hotel, was up, with just over 700 attendees, compared to last year’s total of over 600. The general mood related to the sessions’ content was also up, despite the element of fear sprinkled throughout the conference.

That began with the opening keynote address.

“The economic and demographic realities are scary, and there will be a mass exodus in the work force, as a recent study shows 53 percent of U.S. workers expect to leave in the next five years,” said Neil Lebovits, president and chief operating officer of professional staffing firm Ajilon, during his keynote speech. He reiterated that most employees are angry, and aren’t necessarily the right people for their positions, but it is not too late to change that.

“You don’t have the best people and most of you have been acting in a Band-Aid situation for the last couple of years,” Lebovits said. “But talent, more than technology, is what clients need to understand. That is your competitive advantage.”

Following up on Lebovits’ theme of fear, general session speaker Randy Johnston, executive vice president with technology firm K2 Enterprises, let everyone know how technologically vulnerable they really are.

“With all the viruses, spyware and malware out there today, my office searches for new virus definitions every 15 minutes,” Johnston said. “Last year at this time, I recommended scanning for new viruses every couple of weeks.”

Even Johnston’s K2 colleague, Dr. Robert Spencer, added to the element of fear in his breakout session on risk management and disaster recovery, as he said, “I’m not going to lie to you. I am here to scare you. We are hit by disasters every day whether you realize it or not.”

He also noted that, even though people may have a disaster recovery plan, it is crucial to have it written out and to practice it for it to work. “The part that people don’t pay attention to is the timing of when things need to happen,” Spencer continued. “It also needs to be in writing. If it’s not, you don’t have a plan.”

On the bright side
The conference mood, however, wasn’t entirely centered on fear factors.

In fact, more positive factors emerged from the event than anything, especially for current or potential holders of the AICPA’s Certified Information Technology Professional designation.

An effort by the AICPA to enlist more CPAs to qualify for the CITP credential drew more than 100 applications at this year’s conference. CPAs attending the conference were also able to waive the $400 CITP application fee. The promotion is part of an effort to increase the number of credential holders to 1,700 by next year. That goal was established last year after the AICPA voted to retain three specialized credentials — the Personal Financial Specialist, the Accredited in Business Valuation, and the CITP.

“We are very pleased with that response,” said Mike Dickson, chairman of the CITP Credential Committee. “There are about 570 CPAs holding the credential. Our goal is to process those quickly. After evaluating their qualifications, we hope to add them to the community.”

Dickson’s committee has also created a new discussion area for CITPers on the AICPA’s Web site, online at www.CITPForum.AICPA.org. This site replaces the CITPTalk discussion group started by California CPA and CITP Susan Bradley.

Conference attendees were once again a good mix of IT professionals serving CPA firms’ internal and client needs, tech consultants and accounting product resellers, chief information and financial officers, and small-to-midsized firm partners looking to learn about the latest technological issues and advancements.

David Cieslak, a conference planning committee member and a partner at Encino, Calif.-based tech consultancy ITG, stressed that he wanted there to be “something for everybody” at the event, and for attendees to walk away saying, “There was so much, I wish I could have gone to more.”

This year was the first time Ryan Dunn, a technology specialist at Clifton Gunderson — which had, quite possibly, the strongest single-firm presence at the conference with over 20 registered partners — attended the AICPA Technology show, but it likely won’t be the last, as he walked away with just about everything that he was looking for.

“What I really wanted was a better understanding of what other firms are doing in regards to wireless network implementation and I got that,” Dunn said. His only caveat: “I would have liked to have seen some sessions go a bit more in depth, geared to the tech CPA rather than the pure tech person.”

For a good number of attendees who have attended previous AICPA tech shows, like John Niehoff, a partner at Washington-based CPA firm Beers & Cutler, this year proved to be well worth attending, with just a few exceptions. His main purpose, as with many others, was to learn about the latest technology trends and how they will apply to his clients, as well as how far along his firm is in its paperless office efforts compared to others.

“We are in the middle of going paperless, and we have some document management issues to contend with, so it was good to see how we are making progress,” Niehoff said. “I like the way everything was structured so that no matter what area [of business] you are in, you could get all you want. There was maybe a session or two where the session didn’t fit with the conference description, but overall everything was on target.”

At press time, the AICPA was still poring over the written feedback from the conference, which received a 60 percent response rate. However, there is already an eye towards improving certain aspects, such as overlap on certain topics and providing good continuing professional education time.

“Feedback so far has been very positive and people seem to want more of the same, but we need to look carefully each year so that we don’t boilerplate from the prior year,” said Alison Ross, the AICPA’s lead project manager for conferences. “Last year, we had only one paperless session; this year, we had three and security was also huge for us. This is what they said they wanted. We just need to pay particular attention to cover things from different angles.”

Next year’s conference will likely be held in San Diego, though that was not yet confirmed at press time. It has been held in Las Vegas for the past two years.

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