When does a person decide to become an accountant?
When he realizes he doesn’t have enough charisma to be an undertaker.
What does an accountant’s wife do when she can’t fall asleep?
Asks her husband, “What did you do at work today, honey?”
In the past 40 years, everything about accounting has evolved – well, except for the self-deprecating jokes accountants tell each other.
Accountant Jerry Miller graduated from Eastern Washington University in the 1970s. After five and a half years with the IRS, he opened his own practice in the Spokane Valley and twice served as president of the Washington Association of Accountants. Miller is an “enrolled agent,” meaning he has passed IRS tests covering all aspects of taxation, and also passed an IRS background check.
He sold his practice in 2007, but still prepares taxes for loyal clients who have been with him more than 30 years.
Miller discussed how technology has changed accounting, and shared tax advice during a recent interview.
S-R: Are accountants as boring as most people assume?
Miller: Obviously there are some who fit the stereotype. But accounting is like most professions – you have to have people skills to be successful.
S-R: How about the job itself?
Miller: Actually, it’s quite interesting. And there are lots of different career options. You can work with one company’s books and records – that’s private accounting. Or you can work for a government agency, like the IRS or an auditor’s office. Or you can go into public accounting, where you deal with financial statements and tax returns for individuals, corporations, partnerships and trusts.
S-R: Which route did you take?
Miller: When I graduated from Eastern, I went to work for the Corps of Engineers in Seattle. Now there was a job I was really bored at. So I left after nine months, got a job with the IRS.
S-R: What was that like?
Miller: Very interesting. That’s where I learned about taxes and got to see a lot of different businesses. But then I was transferred from Seattle to Spokane, and there wasn’t a lot of variety – mostly farmers, which was pretty routine. In 1980, I learned about a guy who wanted to sell his practice, and I bought it.
S-R: What did that practice focus on?
Miller: Small businesses and individuals – tax returns, financial statements and some payroll. At one time we had three accountants and about 500 clients.
S-R: Were you good at math as a youngster?
Miller: Yes, I always enjoyed it, and had a great math teacher at North Central – Mr. Exley. I started out in college thinking I would be a high-school math teacher, but the calculus was getting over my head. A counselor suggested I try accounting, and I fell in love with it.
S-R: After graduating, did you become a certified public accountant?
Miller: Nope. I sat for the exam a couple of times, but couldn’t pass the whole thing. And I found that I was able to practice my profession without getting certified. Basically, the license allows you to do auditing, and I didn’t care to get into that because I enjoyed taxes so much.
S-R: When you went from the IRS to public accounting, was that like switching teams?
Miller: To some degree. You’re looking at returns from the taxpayer’s standpoint. But I’m not going to put down just anything a client tells me. I follow ethics, rules and guidelines, and I can’t compromise those.
S-R: Did your years with the IRS give you an advantage over other accountants?
Miller: Possibly a little, just from knowing the best way to present information on tax returns. For example, if you lump a whole bunch of expenses under one category, it might attract IRS attention. If you spread them out among the individual categories where they belong, they’re less likely to be questioned. But that’s just common sense.
S-R: How has technology changed the industry?
Miller: When I first started, we used to prepare tax returns by hand. And we always did them in pencil, because often we’d get toward the end and the client would bring in another piece of information that would change three or four different numbers. We did a lot of erasing.
S-R: When did you start using computers?
Miller: I think that was in the 1983 tax season. My first one cost me $10,000 and had very little memory. But it didn’t take long to realize their worth. Suddenly I could change one number, and the computer adjusted all the others.
S-R: Any downside to computers?
Miller: One negative consequence has been that they’ve allowed tax laws to become very, very complicated. Today you can hardly prepare a return by hand unless it’s an EZ form with almost nothing on it.
S-R: Have computers and software made it easier for people to prepare their own taxes?
Miller: Yes, but you know the old saying: garbage in, garbage out. One of the biggest problems occurs with earned-income credit and child tax credit. Some of it is intentional fraud, but also it’s because the IRS definition of a child is not necessarily the same as the average lay person’s, which can lead to incorrect returns.
S-R: When you first became an accountant, were you proud of your profession?
Miller: Oh, definitely.
S-R: How did you feel after the accounting scandals at Enron, WorldCom and Nortel?
Miller: It was very depressing. The profession has gone from being principle-based to rules-based. Some accountants think if there isn’t a rule against something, then you can do it. Principle-based means that even if there isn’t a rule against something, if you know in your heart it’s wrong, you don’t do it.
S-R: There’s debate about whether to teach ethics in college accounting programs. Did any of your courses deal with ethics?
Miller: Some touched on it, but there wasn’t a separate class on it.
S-R: Should there be?
Miller: I definitely think there should be more emphasis on ethics. But it really boils down to getting back to principle-based accounting. One of the most common principles of accounting used to be conservativism – you were supposed to be conservative in your estimates, as opposed to being aggressive. Even that principle has gone by the wayside, in my opinion.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Miller: I get to meet a lot of different people. Your clients become your friends, so every year is an opportunity to catch up with people and help them. I have clients who moved to other states who still send me their stuff every year.
S-R: What do you like least?
Miller: When I had my practice, what I liked least was managing people and billing.
S-R: Do you remember really long work weeks before you semi-retired?
Miller: Oh, yeah. When I was building my practice, I was here from eight in the morning until midnight four days a week during tax season. I’d usually work eight hours on Friday and Saturday, and take Sunday off. Some accountants don’t even take Sunday off during tax season.
S-R: Is there any general advice you offer clients regarding tax returns?
Miller: The IRS wants you to keep good records for three years. You can’t just be writing things down on napkins. If you’re keeping lousy records and you’re audited, they’re more likely to spend time trying to verify items on your return.
S-R: What’s the job outlook for accountants?
Miller: Every business has to have them, so I think the future is great.
S-R: What sort of personality is best suited for an accounting career?
Miller: You need to enjoy working with numbers and with people. And you need to be flexible, because everyone does things differently.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone considering an accounting career?
Miller: Take some accounting classes to see if you enjoy the work, and get an internship in an accounting firm or a company’s accounting department. Too often people go through four years of school in a certain field, only to get out in the real work and find out they hate it. When I was in college, I worked for the internal auditor at Eastern, which helped confirm that this was the field for me.
S-R: One last question: How can you tell which accountants are extroverts?
S-R: When they talk to you, they look at your shoes instead of their own.
Miller: Ha-ha. That’s pretty good. I’ll have to remember that.