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Video: 'Colour by Numbers' with James Solomons

21 September 2016

Colour by Numbers is an insightful view into the world of accounting, featuring James Solomons, current Head of Accounting at Xero, CFO at Xref and Director of Aptus Accounting & Advisory.

Drawing from his own experiences, Mr. Solomons provides an overview of what he believes is in store for accounting, advice for advancing professionally and the importance of hard work and further education in achieving career success as an accountant.

If you’d like more information about how you can progress professionally in the field of accounting, contact one of our Student Enrolment Advisors on 1300 589 882 to talk you through our accounting postgraduate courses.  


James Solomons: I've got a real believe that for any professional, continuing to educate themselves is a requirement for success.

Being an accountant is 2010 is very different to being an accountant now. I don't do half or even 75% of what I used to do in 2010 to what I do now - and that rate of change has been rapid, and it's only going to get faster.

One of the greatest skills you can have is challenging the status quo. You know, as you're working through your career, and you see a great opportunity, don't be afraid to speak up because often people that you're working with might not have seen it your way. So I'm always telling people to think about how can they improve the process, how can they think about a better way to do things because that is innovation - you're solving problems.

The prerequisite to that though is to know your stuff. You need to be knowledgeable in that area before you can challenge someone. If you're thinking about a new way of doing things in an office environment, and there's a great online course that you can study, and get some skills up and understand it, then go and do it, and then go and challenge - because I think that's how we all move forward, when we're all challenging each other.

One of the main factors with being successful in any career is willing to put in the hard work. Every year, I think I've got to do close to 120, 160 hours of continuous professional development every year - so you can't just sit still, you can't do one lot of study and then expect the rest of it to just flow for the next 30 years. So it's a commitment to learning, it's a commitment to being innovative, and a commitment to breaking down old-school ways of doing things and constantly pushing yourself.

And in today's world, particularly here - I'm based in Sydney - it's really hard to get ahead. Often you're working full-time. I mean, I worked full-time while I did my degree at university and that was a struggle, you know - full-time work, getting to uni at night, getting to campus. These days, you don’t have to be grounded to that traditional bricks and mortar education institution. There's so many great online courses these days - and even I have studied quite a few small courses and longer courses, because I can do it in my own time. I don't have time to get to campus grounds sometimes and being able to that means I am studying in an environment that helps me learn.

If you are passionate about what you do, if you're passionate about the industry you're in, and particularly in accounting helping clients and helping them succeed, then it's easy. For me, I am very passionate about financial literacy of small business owners. Being able to continue to do that, be able to help small business owners make great decisions, and the right decisions using their live data, that's a real aim for me.

You know, the statistics around small business failures and why small businesses don't do well is often around cash-flow management, which is numbers - and accounting is that fundamental part of how do you manage that money, how do you see how your money is doing, you know, return on investment and all those sorts of KPIs.

So, it's again, it's a bit of a great position to be in helping so many other businesses, probably well over 1,000 businesses in my lifetime so far - seeing what works for them, what works for others, what didn't work, and being able to apply that to other clients and other situations, and being able to apply that at different levels to different clients. That's where I think that higher education piece is really important because, firstly, obviously education and knowing different laws and regulations is very important, but then the skills that I learned at university and doing my postgraduate degrees and training help me to understand where that technical fits into business advice.

The next generation of accountants, and the next generation of the industry, sees the accountant focusing more on not just balancing the books and doing the tax returns. They're helping the decision-makers - the CFO in any business now is a really important part of the key management personnel of any business. And so, whether it's an accountant working internally in the CFO or Financial Controller role, or whether it's an external accountant helping their small business clients - who obviously can't afford a full-time internal accountant, but they use them for virtual CFO - you know, they're helping them make decisions about their business. And that is where the relationship is changing between accountants and small business owners, or internal accountants and the CEO and the managing director, is that they're integral to making decisions that affect the performance of the business.

It's an exciting time because ultimately, most people go to university to do their graduate programs, do their postgrad qualifications not to be number crunchers, not to be data processors. They enter the industry like I did to be an advisor. So finally, since 2001 when I first started using Xero and cloud, the last five years have been a completely different first 10 years to my career.

So the future of accounting and the future for accountants is bright. I mean, at the moment it's never been a better time to be an accountant and to be thinking about entering the profession. It's basically due to technology completely changing the way that we interact with our clients, the way that we interact with each other, the way we interact with government departments and the way that we interact with the data.

So the term "big data" is thrown around quite a lot in society these days. It's not big data in the sense of big businesses and heaps and heaps of data - you know, a small business' big data is their own financial software, it's their own Google Analytics, it's their own metrics around how they're engaging and getting website visits. It's helping them analyse what's happening in their business on a day-to-day basis. And so the accountant is no longer sitting there, managing one set of books and in a silo.

With a couple of my clients in the roles that I have, I'm helping them understand the immediate impacts of advertising campaigns or investments in new equipment - and they're able to see straight away how it's affecting their bottom line. If we look at the rate of change, and we look at the wall of innovation in all of these cloud accounting products, we're looking at a situation of massive changes and so accountants have to evolve as well. Even I have been on an evolution of the last five years with cloud technology, having to train myself up in new ways of thinking.

Being a busy professional in this new technology-based accounting profession, technology has opened up so many opportunities for me to be able to do things that I never thought I'd be able to do. So what that means is I'm always doing something, but I have that commitment to higher education. So, at the moment I don't have much capacity to take on getting to somewhere to sit down and to learn. Having a young family, having multiple roles in multiple organisations, to find the time to get to somewhere physical is often difficult. And I travel a lot; I travel around the country, flying every couple of weeks, so being able to study online and learn online has just meant that I'm able to get that information that I need.

One of the big ways that we consume information these days is in smaller and bite-sized chunks. So when I am building my own education courses, I'm trying to deliver them in short and sharp ways so that people can get the information they need, and then move on.

And, for anyone that thought getting to campus and getting to a formal place of education was impossible and that they couldn't take that opportunity to get that higher education they want, that's not an excuse anymore, and it's not a barrier to learning.

The key part about education for me is that it's given me not only technical skills, but also a layer of skills and analytical skills that I apply day-to-day.

My life in the industry has changed so much in the last three years, or in the last two years, that now you know, I've got that entrepreneurial bug. I love to solve problems, and solving problems is at the heart of innovation, and that what entrepreneurs do. So the next 10 years, I'm probably going to be on a mission to solve as many problems for small business and for other accountants, and for the industry generally, as I possibly can. Where that takes me, I guess that's the beauty of technology these days.

Doing my postgraduate degrees and training helped me to understand where that technical fits into business advice, and how I'm able to translate that via the soft skills I've learned through a number of those different degrees. And without that knowledge, there's no way that I would be in the position that I am now. So, even though it's often a real time commitment, and making sacrifices, now I'm in a position where all of that hard work is now paying off.