Adapt or deal with being left behind. There’s no shortage of internet articles about how companies and firms must learn to evolve if they don’t want to get left behind.
Radical CPA Jody Padar covered this exact topic at the AICPA Engage conference in Las Vegas when she sat down with Aaron Berson, CEO and cofounder of Fringe Accounting Company. The two also discussed the balance between being a CPA and a technologist, and what the most exciting new technology is.
Check out the full interview below, and read on for an edited version of the interview.
Note: At the original time of publishing, Berson was working at a previous company. We've updated the transcript to reflect his job as of December 2019. The audio recording still includes mention of his former employer.
Jody Padar: Welcome back. I'm Jody Padar, The Radical CPA, and you're listening to Let's Get Radical. We're live at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas at the Engage event. It's pretty cool because I think there are 4,000 people here and there are 360 sessions.
You could start your session this morning at 6:30 and get some CPE. How about that? I'm here with our next guest, Aaron Berson. I'm going to have him introduce himself and tell us a little bit about what you do in your firm and about how he's speaking all day long for three days.
Aaron Berson: I just keep saying yes every time they ask me to talk. So my name is Aaron Berson. I [was formerly] the managing director of the virtual business team at Gettry Marcus CPA, P.C. which is the CAS [client accounting services] practice that we're building out.
It’s doing the outsourcing accounting for small and medium-sized businesses. Leveraging technology to the Nth Degree is how I like to say it, really trying to find some software solution or some technological option to solve every pain point that both our clients and our staff are having. So kind of the goal is zero data entry by a human, and we're pretty close to that.
Jody Padar: That's awesome. And now you're speaking a lot. So tell me a little bit about some of the things that you're speaking about today.
The goal is zero data entry by a human, and we're pretty close to that.
Aaron Berson: Every time someone asks me that I remember something else. But let's see. So, how to build the tech stack, kind of what you should be looking at and how you should evaluate and how you should prepare your firm to start implementing that. How to not get fired by clients, so how to wow them and do a great job and how to be that champion, that leadership change agent within a larger organization.
So my background—I was at a large top 20 firm before I came to Gettry Marcus where that's what my role was, building out the same CAS practice, so I have a good experience working within the confines of a larger organization to implement and drive change forward.
Jody Padar: So and I think this is an important question. Do you consider yourself a CPA or a technologist first?
Aaron Berson: That's a really interesting question. I think of myself as a CPA first, primarily because the ethical connotations and integrity of what I want to deliver to my clients is very tied closely to that CPA designation. The technologist for me, that's more of my hobby and things that I do for fun. I just somehow got to do that as part of my day job.
I don't think of myself as a technologist, although that's often what I'm doing and evaluating and building out workflows and seeing how to use software better and everything from that standpoint. So I guess I've become a technologist, but my core and my traditional training is that accounting and that CPA. That's kind of what drives me to want to help others and help businesses is why I got into that profession, to begin with. So that's why I consider myself more a CPA first and a technologist second.
Jody Padar: Now, at your firm, would your peers call you a technologist or would they call you a CPA?
Aaron Berson: I mean, they call me an app junkie. That's what they would call it. But in that context, they call me a technologist first because I'm the one bringing the technology to the firm, and that's the lens they see me as is the technology guy.
Jody Padar: That's interesting, too, because I always say, “I do practice management, not technology.” And everyone says, “You know all the technology.” I'm like, no, I run a firm, and I just happen to use technology. But I think CPAs as a whole don't necessarily make that connection that you have to have the technology to run a firm today. There's no practice management without technology today.
Aaron Berson: That's 100% true. I think that technology has finally infiltrated every aspect of what we do within the profession, and to be competitive and to move forward, you have to use technology. Knowing it better than your competition is what allows you to use it better because most people use like 20–30% of the software they use and leave everything else on the table. It's like our brains, right? We use like 10% of our brains, and we leave everything else out there. The same thing with the technology we use at firms, so I think that knowing it gives you that leg up.
Jody Padar: Do you think the profession is finally moving to where they need to be, as opposed to five years ago?
Aaron Berson: I think we've finally are moving. There's a lot more momentum behind the adoption of technology and people understanding it. But I also think that it's a little bit of a bubble with the people that attend conferences like this. They understand it and that's why they're investing in being here. That's why they have one, two, three, five—however many people actually attending a conference like this because they understand the value of that.
But there's a tremendous amount of firms in the middle that either feel they don't have the resources to invest in it and haven't bought into it or they're just happy going the way that they're going. I think that's the missing ground that we haven't hit yet in the profession.
You have really large firms who are doing some innovative stuff, throwing a lot of money at it. And then you have the really small firms who are realizing to compete with anyone above them, they have to use the technology. So they've driven it faster than that whole mid-market. I think some firms are hanging on to what they've been doing. I mean, they also typically have an older partner group who are closer to retirement right now, and they're struggling through that stuff.
Jody Padar: And they don't always have one leader. So a lot of times it's like seven partners making seven different decisions, as opposed to the bigger firms that typically have more of a CEO-type leader.
Aaron Berson: Exactly. So I think that translates into a mixed vision and mixed messaging and they haven't bought in. But as a whole, I think the profession is picking up steam and moving in that direction. Digital adoption is higher than ever.
Everything that we do has some technology component to it, even at mid-sized firms, They're still using technology to do anything there. It is finally picking up steam. I think it'll be a little bit longer until we have the whole profession on board with it, but I think that we're definitely—we're a lot closer than where we should be than we were five years ago.
Jody Padar: I would agree with that. Now, how do you think AI [artificial intelligence], ML [machine learning], and all these new buzzwords—cybersecurity, whatever—how do you think all that's going to play into our space?
Aaron Berson: So I think I have a little bit of a unique take on that, I guess. A lot of practitioners think that we have to learn how to do all this stuff, how to program AI and how to use it ourselves. I think that it's going to be just like a lot of other technologies that have been developed and we use daily, it's going to be the foundation for what we do, and it's going to be what runs in the systems we use. But as practitioners, we will need to know how to use those tools and have a core understanding of what AI is, and machine vision and learning—what it does just conceptually be comfortable with it.
But ultimately, I don't think we have to know how to make an algorithm and how to facilitate that. It's more about using the systems. We send wires and ACHs [automated clearing house] all the time. How many accountants understand the banking system and how the money moves and how everything goes through? You'll have a few that do, but the majority don't. And we trust them.
We accept that it works. I think that a lot of these technologies are going to be the same thing, that that's going to be the underlying engine of what we use. But do we really need to know how to do it? No. But I think it's going to ultimately revolutionize how those systems perform those functions and then ultimately the efficiencies to be gained from those.
Jody Padar: If you look at, I'll say the older generations, they don't necessarily understand how easily the tech is going to evolve. I think that's a big change because when people adopt new tech today, there's still that misunderstanding that, "Oh my God, it's gonna be so hard to do this tech in the firm." And yes, you need training, but tech today, especially the stuff that's coming out of startups, is significantly easier to use than in years past.
Aaron Berson: I think that comes from, traditionally, you picked the software, you kept it for 10 years, you went through a six-month implementation phase, and it was costly, and you had all this training. And that's where most of these people who have been around for a longer time, that's what they're used to. So now you tell them, "Oh, yeah, we can spin up a software. It takes 20 minutes to set it up, and then we'll go through a few hours of training, and you'll be comfortable around it." That is scary to them, right? Because they’re used to days and days of training and months of implementation and cost and everything. So I think that just inherently scares them. Nobody believes that, right? It can't be this good. There's no way.
Jody Padar: What do you think is going to be the most exciting new technology that's going to have an impact on our space? You're the app junkie, right? What's the app of the day, the app du jour?
Aaron Berson: I'm not going to say any names, but I think some of the new apps that are really baking in AI to the core of what they do from the very beginning are what's going to be revolutionary for what we do because they're going to allow us so much more analytical and consulting built off of it. They're looking at so much more than what we've ever looked at historically. I mean, on the reporting side, on fraud detection side, and all these things, I think that's really what's going to revolutionize what we're doing.
I'm trying to think of a few that I've seen here, but I don't want to say names, but a few of them are they're getting that right. And they're building that in and they're leveraging it well. I would like to see a few of them open up some of those toggles a little bit to customize it so that if you use a third-party system, everyone doesn't get the same advice off of it.
You can adjust your risk appetite or how aggressive you want to be or not. I would like to see them build that into it a little bit more, which I think will be the next phase where you can customize your AI without having to know how to build your own.