What Makes a Systems Accountant?

A Systems Accountant (SA) is a jack of all trades and a master of some; prepared to turn his or her hand to any aspect of getting a system live and keeping it running. He or she is trainer, analyst, PM, developer, runner, author, data cleaner, converter, build manager, troubleshooter, lateral thinker, problem solver, explainer, diviner, mind-reader, demonstrator, experimenter, and pioneer.

There is no particular formalised training path for the role of System Accountant, but there are essential elements for anyone wanting to become one.

Financial Accounting
Without a sound knowledge of financial accounting principles and practices, an SA cannot analyse existing systems or configure and test new ones. As a guide, knowing how to prepare P&L, Balance Sheet, and Cashflow Statements requires studying financial accounting to the level of understanding that is a minimum for a competent System Accountant.

Specific System Expertise
In order to be effective on a system, an SA must understand how it works — not just at an end-user level, but at a deeper technical level. That expertise comes best through implementing the same system again and again. This is a chicken/egg conundrum — how does an SA develop specific systems expertise without working on a specific system, when the expertise is required before being let loose? This is where the prospective SA needs a lucky break — becoming involved in a project that will give them a starting point from which to build the requisite level of expertise. My lucky break came when I was asked to project manage a Maconomy implementation. During the project I didn’t have the technical resource I needed to bring the project to completion, and so I learned the system sufficiently to implement it myself. Once I had done one, it gave me a solid foundation to work on further implementations. 16 years later, I have been involved in dozens of Maconomy implementations.

Specific Industry Sector Knowledge
The way systems work, the challenges, accounting practices, roles, types of people, data requirements, statutory reporting requirements; these are all subjects dealt with by the SA, and they will vary greatly across different industry sectors. The only way of really knowing what goes on in a business, of understanding how that type of business operates, is by working in it. There is no short cut to gaining this knowledge.

Excel is the SA’s Swiss Army Knife. For the SA, an intermediate to advanced level of Excel skill and knowledge is required. How can you get that skill if you don’t already have it? Practice! Use Excel! Try and solve every Excel problem you would normally shy away from. Learn to use at least one new function every day. There are articles posted on this site concerning typical ways an SA uses Excel. The internet is a limitless resource for finding out how to do things in Excel. Use it.

A knowledge of SQL is essential for any SA implementing or troubleshooting a system. An SA who doesn’t know how to query a database is reliant on the outputs the system provides for end-users, and these are usually sub-optimal when it comes to handling the sort of data sets needed by an SA.

Communications Skills
An SA spends a lot of time with users, listening to, and answering their questions, as well as training them, writing reports, and updating logs. All of these activities require effective communication skills.

General Analytical and Problem Solving Skills
These must be developed over time by working on systems and not giving up when faced with new challenges and problems. The experienced SA will stop and think, research documentation, query Google, and try experimenting with test systems and data, instead of automatically asking someone else whenever the immediate answer eludes them.

Finance Department Experience
Many of the systems and sub-systems an SA will be concerned with, will relate to functions within the Finance Department, or systems outside the Finance Department which feed into it. It aids the SA enormously if he or she has the background experience having worked in, and faced the challenges found within, such an environment.

And finally, the System Accountant must have staying power — the will to press on and implement a system against the odds. Typically, elements within many organisations that embark on large system implementations become hostile to the very process their employer has instigated. The SA must ignore that hostility, and work around the obstacles. An SA wakes up in the middle of the night with the answers to conundrums that have evaded his or her waking thought. The SA will keep going until the problems are solved, the system is implemented, the balances are brought forward, and the users are using.