In the time it took iPhones, tablets and cloud computing to threaten PC use at many CPA firms, their IT departments evolved from virtually faceless repair shops to essential components of a firm's growth.

Granted, not every firm is in a position to have a dedicated IT department. Even today, many smaller firms still utilize personnel at a local Staples or Office Depot for their technical needs. But those on the path to growth that require at least one dedicated IT staffer are utilizing the knowledge and skill sets of these professionals to do more than just fix broken devices or keep the servers running and the firewall from being breached. Admittedly, many IT professionals at CPA firms still perform these tasks, but they are interfacing more with department heads and senior partners on just how the firm can keep its costs in check while staying ahead of -- or at least keeping pace with -- change.

 

AN OPEN DOOR

Akron, Ohio-based Bober Markey Fedorovich is the fourth accounting firm that its director of IT Nancy Landry has joined over her three-decade career as a self-proclaimed "tech goddess." Many of the firms she served were larger than the current staff of 90, but what she found has changed the most is the role she plays on a regular basis.

While she still assists the firm - with another IT staffer -- with its new installations and the inevitable malfunctions, Landry has found that she spends most of her time helping the firm to be more efficient and cost-effective. She is also no longer in a closed-off room, as when she started her career in IT. Now her door is open - literally and figuratively -- and she regularly interacts with the partner-in-charge of technology and managing partners, as well.

"I find I'm more of a cost accountant these days, and I manage projects, processes and people. I look at the technology we're using and see if we are getting good returns on investments," said Landry. "I have a lot of latitude on what we do and spend, too. I meet with partner groups a few times a year and I have a technology group meeting six times a year. They are embracing technology here and we send people in the field to see what the pain levels are. Communication is also much higher than it was when I first started [my career in IT]."

Landry also recalls how firm technology itself has changed, specifically when firms worked on DOS and then ultimately on Windows in the 1990s, and lately laptops, smartphones and tablets. She pointed from this very specific shift in technology to her own changing role as an IT professional at a firm. "Moving from DOS to Windows was efficient, and I see a lot of parallels now to that time - everyone wanted the best things and IT spent time to make it efficient," she said. "Now with [Bring Your Own Device], it's muddying waters; it's consumer-driven tech being brought in to the office and we have to deal with that. We are embracing smartphones and tablets here, but it is a challenge."

 

BEYOND 'BREAK/FIX'

The IT staff at Corbett, Duncan & Hubly, a 70-person firm in Itasca, Ill., has also evolved in a very short period of time, both in size and the scope of the work they do.

When IT director Jeff Hays officially started at the then-35-person firm just eight years ago, he was still mostly involved with "break/fix" projects. He had developed a good rapport with the firm as he watched it grow for several years before that, when he served as an outside IT consultant. The firm now has an IT staff of three, and while there is still "fix it" work being done, his role has become "more strategic," particularly in the last five years.

"Over the past few years, I've been going to leadership summits, and I'm heavily involved with direction and strategic planning, aligning my IT goals with the firm's business needs," said Hays. "We use technology as a catalyst, and the IT professional is critical to allowing that to happen. You are supportive to every other aspect of the firm, and investing time to understand how the accounting practice runs has allowed IT to integrate with departments and they get to leverage technology better."

Hays said that one of the biggest changes he's noted at the firm was how staff no longer need to rely on the IT department to "do everything" when it comes to new programs or devices. Hays and his team now take the time to work with the staff and show them how to use something new and they, in turn, become more self sufficient.

"We show them that IT is here to enhance their experience, rather than just having them see you as a fix-it guy. That's been one of the big cultural shifts here -- people seeing IT in a different way," said Hays.

 

DIY IT

Cultural shifts of a different sort are happening at other firms as well. Younger, more tech-savvy or tech-comfortable staff joining firms has changed the dynamic with the IT department and, ultimately, the role they play.

Buffalo, N.Y.-based Freed Maxick CPAs recognizes that much if its 300-plus staff is getting younger, and that younger staff are able to resolve basic problems with the tools that the firm is using more lately -- including iPads and smartphones. This isn't to say that they don't need any IT assistance, but IT coordinator Mark Olenick is seeing a growing number of staffers solving basic issues by simply going to their mobile device when their computer is down, or looking up the issue online before calling IT for help.

"We have found that with an increased user knowledgebase, up to 40 percent of basic problems are being resolved by the user. We have seen this number grow over the years as society as a whole has become more tech-savvy," said Olenick. "There used to be a time not that long ago when no one felt it was up to them to fix a problem. If a computer broke, then they'd have to do something else or just have to wait. Today if that happens, they jump on their mobile device and work or they'll Google something or exhaust their resources before they call me. We still help people working; still, it's changed."

Olenick said that going forward the IT department is planning to give more tools to the individual user and offer different levels of support based on their individual knowledge and the complexity of the problem. "We're almost to the point where we can have 'Level One' helpdesk support, which will be just giving them a knowledgebase to resolve an issue, and the IT professional will be directly addressing only [more complex] 'Level Two' issues and above. This will hopefully save time and resources."

 

SECURITY ISSUES

At the end of the day, IT departments are still about keeping an office environment safe; however, as more professionals are working outside of a firm's physical location, the challenge to keep them secure has greatly increased.

Owings Mills, Md.-based Hertzbach & Co. has a three-person IT department that works with staff and clients. Two of them are more engaged with client work, but all will pitch in on major firm initiatives. For IT director Mike Jackson, his main priority is still security and, as such, helping the firm and its clients to adopt new technology for the sake of efficiency has been a challenge.

"Security is still top of mind for us, and we have looked at cloud and currently house things within our walls, but we've also looked at alternatives with more advanced backups and minimizing downtime and maximizing efficiency of a single accountant at their desk," said Jackson. "We took an aggressive stance on paperless and saw entire filing rooms cleaned out and renovated to make room for four heads to sit in there. Ten years ago, come April our lobby was filled with mailboxes and envelopes for returns. It cost money and time to get it delivered, and worry if a package were lost, but now with a secure client portal, they can view a return whenever they want; no more mail or thousands of envelopes." The department's next challenge is making the firm more mobile. They are discussing secure, mobile applications, but don't yet have a BYOD policy. Instead, the firm will supply devices, but has only just put e-mail on phones as needed. There is also talk of moving more of what the firm does to the cloud, which Jackson explained is happening, but will take time.

"One of the most profound advances has been remote ability. We're trying to leave as much data here where we know where it is, but we are moving toward cloud backup," said Jackson. "The more traditional partners are still not happy with data being somewhere else, but when they see the lack of risk in moving that way, they come around. Over the next couple of years, we will be upgrading data storage and will have the conversation about moving more to the cloud to give secure access to staff."

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