Saturday, September 6, 2008

Beyond the Wonder Years

If you've been reading this blog (whoever you are), you know that for the most part, my writing time frame goes up through college and then skips to the present tense. What happened to the intervening years? Was I like a Korean Drama and had amnesia during that time?

Actually, I find a lot of that intervening period - i.e., the working world - wasn't all that interesting and I'm not fond of writing about it. Now, I'm not talking about my present job - for the most part I enjoy what I do now, mainly because where I work is wacko and one of these days I'll let you in on it. But employment post-college up to just prior to the present job? It's all shades of gray.

But today I am going to make an exception and write a little bit about those gray years to give you an idea of what I mean. Somewhere back in this blog I mentioned being a substitute teacher for the L.A. Unified School District for a year. Yuk. I know that's not a representative experience but it was enough to jog my brain and tell me I was in the wrong place.

Then my mom suggested going into the fascinating, thrilling world of public accounting. My sister worked as a secretary for Arthur Andersen at that time and after hearing about well-to-do CPA's at her firm, my mom encouraged me to look into that line of work. I had taken an accounting course while at UCLA and found it not too bad; the part-time instructor was even from Arthur Andersen and my sister knew him. I enrolled at Cal State L.A. for more accounting courses and the rest is green eyeshade history.

My first job utilizing what I'd learned was as an auditor for Alexander Grant & Company, a CPA firm - the same sort of accounting firm like Arthur Andersen and the others that you've heard about in the news not too long ago for how they handled clients like Enron. I started off as an intern for three months, Towards the end I was offered a permanent position, which I accepted, and returned three months later while still continuing the MBA program at Cal State.

So now that we are here and you are believing me when I said this intervening period was so boring because you're reading the proof, let me launch into what I wanted to say but first had to write that long preface.

I met all sorts of people at Alexander Grant, some who became friends and some that even now I would avoid at all costs. There were good things about it, but overall, public accounting is a very political and cutthroat way of earning a living and not somewhere I'd like to ever revisit.

The people that I gravitated towards either quit or got fired before I left the place four and a half years later. They were the people who had other priorities in life above being on a path to a partnership with the firm and all the dirtywork that entailed. Personally, I don't think anyone could be truly successful in a CPA firm without compromising their integrity to a significant degree. Er, let me rephrase that. Uh, your timing has to be such that you just happen to be looking the other way at the right moment.

Think about it: you are auditing the hand that feeds you. Unless something is blatantly wrong, are you going to bite that hand? When there are plenty of other firms who would be willing to kiss that hand instead? I think the measure of whether or not something is right or wrong when it comes to auditing financial statements is inversely proportional to the risk of getting caught. And since the path to partnership hinged heavily on one's ability to generate revenues, i.e., bring in new business, you can imagine what was involved in keeping clients happy so that they stay clients.

There were plenty of political animals in our office; if you were trying to climb up the ladder you always had to watch your back. Many of the people who left, voluntarily or otherwise, were not necessarily victims of politics. They just knew that this kind of life wasn't for them, that there were better things to life than engaging in an intra-office rat race and they wanted no part of it. The good part about that was since they wanted no part of it, no one took them "seriously" and the vultures left them alone.

I was caught up in it, however. There was prestige associated with being assigned to, and then eventually moving up to being in charge of certain client audits because they were very large or well-known. That's what I wanted - to be on those "prestige" jobs and to proclaim I was the senior "in-charge." I managed to do just that, and it made me feel proud. But the people I most enjoyed working with didn't have these same aspirations - having big clients wasn't something that motivated them.

People drank a lot, as well. There were plenty of excuses, er, reasons, such as company Christmas parties, cocktail parties to celebrate passing the CPA exam, farewell parties for those who went to work for clients (and thus you still had to be nice to them), beer and pizza after softball games, and pretty much any other occasion would do for a reason to drink. I drank right along with them and thought that was great to be a part of it.

It wasn't all politics and parties; there was also a lot of work to do - lots of overtime, deadlines to meet, clients to satisfy. It was a nervous environment. Me, I passionately hated overtime, which caused an inner conflict because OT was what you had to do in order to keep climbing up that ladder.

One day a former manager who had gone to work for a client called me. A couple of days later I gave notice and went to go work for him. I wondered if I had done the right thing; I was still caught up in the quest for prestige at Alexander Grant, but the offer he had made sounded too good to pass up.

After about a month at my new job I wondered what had taken me so long to get out of public accounting and why I had even hesitated before accepting the offer. Isn't that often the case with other things in life as well? We are so immersed in what we are doing that we feel we can't afford to step back and take a global look at things; or, we are afraid of forsaking comfort and predictability for a step into uncertainty and change. The familiar, even the bad, is nevertheless familiar.

And then I saw what the others had seen, the ones who had wanted no part of that life and had left the firm.

When I think back on those four and a half years the images are literally all in gray. It's a time that doesn't even feel real to me, like I had been watching a movie instead of living it in real time. Leaving the firm wasn't a panacea; oh no, I seem to excel at getting myself into various situations so by no means am I saying it was smooth sailing from that point. But, it's an explanation for you as to why this blog focuses on the time period that it does - mainly the pre-working world, and present day. I don't know about you, but those times are a lot more interesting for me.

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