Should accounting students learn to code? 

Strong technology skills can help in the job search, but they also boost other competencies. 
by Cheryl Meyer 
Published July 14, 2015

Businesses today—accounting firms among them—are struggling to deal with the high volume of data that technology has made available. Organizations that can successfully interpret these data and use them to make crucial business decisions have a competitive advantage. In such a climate, it’s helpful for CPAs to know as much about the technological tools they use as possible. Just knowing basic accounting and office software programs, some experts say, is no longer enough: Accountants need to know how to code.

This changing environment has rekindled the belief that accounting students could benefit by learning to code in one or more programming languages. The theory? Coding, in essence, is logic. It teaches students how to do things in sequence and create a clear yet creative road map for organizing and problem-solving—skills that will give them a leg up in the logical world of accounting.

But there’s also a more concrete side to the argument that aspiring accountants should learn to code. Understanding code also helps accountants work with technology specialists in areas such as data security and Big Data analysis. “When an auditor needs to talk to an IT auditor, there is often a huge gap” in their respective knowledge of technology, said Mary B. Curtis, CPA, Ph.D., Horace Brock Centennial Chair and professor in the Department of Accounting at the University of North Texas.

The logic behind coding, some faculty members say, translates beautifully into the detailed and complex world of accounting. “The thing with coding is it generates systematic thinking about problems and data in a way that nothing else can,” said Roger Debreceny, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Accounting at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “I do not see that structured approach to thinking about data and problems in our current generation of students.”

Professors aren’t the only ones arguing that the accounting curriculum should be updated to reflect relatively recent technological advancements. A recent PwC report recommends that students not only take courses on statistics and navigating spreadsheet software, but also that they sign up for classes that teach basic programming skills using contemporary coding languages such as Java or Python.

While very few accounting programs require students to learn to code, some strongly encourage students to consider it. Brigham Young University’s School of Accountancy is creating several master’s-level classes on dealing with data in accounting. These classes will focus not only on manipulating, analyzing, and reporting data, but on coding as well.

David Wood, Ph.D., an associate professor and Glen Ardis Fellow who is one of the faculty members designing this coursework, said the classes will include learning some SQL and Visual Basic for Excel, and other programming concepts.

“Writing code is a tool, and if you have that tool, it provides you an opportunity to do things that others can’t,” he said. “Would coding benefit an accountant? There’s no question it can help.

“You have to know every step from A to Z; otherwise it does not work,” he said. That logical mindset, he added, is helpful in all areas of accounting, including audit and tax.

Coding skills can definitely help accounting graduates in the job market. The PwC report forecasts “a significant increase in demand for students with double majors in accounting and information systems.”

KPMG LLP seeks out dual majors in accounting and technology when recruiting for several of its advisory services groups, said Annie Schmal, associate director of the firm’s on-campus recruiting team. One of those groups focuses largely on post-merger accounting work because complex databases are required. In this area, CPAs need to be highly technical, with skills in Visual Basic programming. For its forensic technology practice, KPMG also looks for candidates who have Visual Basic programming, as well as .net programming and SQL skills, she said.

Some students are already aware of the value of combining technological proficiency and accounting knowledge. Tennyson DeMarco, an undergraduate at West Virginia University, said that having basic knowledge of enterprise systems, databases, and coding has given her a clearer picture of how technology can complement accounting. It has also made her a more logical thinker.

“Coding is very picky, very particular,” she said. “You have to do it in a certain order and have to know the logic behind it, so it’s a good way to think out of the box and think logically.” DeMarco, who has a double major in accounting and management information systems, hopes to work in IT auditing after graduation.

The following tips can help faculty members who believe coding is important for their students’ success:

  • Suggest accounting students take a programming class or, if possible, consider a dual major in MIS and accounting. This combination will be attractive to the students’ future employers.
  • Encourage students to take free coding courses online. Many sites offer free coding courses for cash-strapped students. These include code.org, codeacademy.com, and khanacademy.org/computing/computer-programming.
  • Encourage students to practice coding on their own or develop coding or database-building skills, Wood said.
  • Teach students that knowing Microsoft Word and PowerPoint is no longer enough. Students need to understand computers and be willing to learn about computer technology beyond the basics.
  • Finally, push students to work hard continuously and to show patience. Challenging oneself, whether learning to code or acquiring any other skill set, is key to learning and growing. As Debreceny said, “If you think you can go to a gym in a week and get nice abs, it is never going to work.”

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer.

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