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Think You Need to Stay in Big 4 Until Manager? Think Again

big 4 manager

One of the most common pieces of advice given to young Big 4 professional is to “Stick around until manager.” The thinking goes, you will experience a number different of clients and situations, as well as give you the coveted title that many employers want to see. Firms suggest staying until manager because there’s always a shortage of Senior Associates. Encouraging people to shoot for a Manager position increases the likelihood that more Senior Associates will stay longer than they ordinarily would.

In reality, staying until manager has been a myth that we’ve discussed at length on Going Concern. FloQast has a number of Big 4 alumni among their ranks, and they all had different experiences, and most have landed in successful careers without ascending to manager. Here’s a Q&A we conducted with just three of them: Mandy Raeder, Marc Reicher, and JC Galvez.

Ed. note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

Caleb Newquist, Editor, Going Concern: Talk a little bit about your Big 4 experience and how it prepared you for work outside of the firm.

Mandy Raeder, Business Development Manager, former PwC Assurance Associate: I interned at PwC and started applying for jobs junior year. I applied to all of the Big 4 and was offered the job after my internship. I wanted to get a CPA, but I realized that while I enjoyed accounting, I didn’t want to be auditor. I wanted to interact more with people and be client-facing but didn’t want my accounting experience to go to waste.

Going into a [large] corporate environment as a first job taught me a lot about how to interact with people professionally, and how to be in someone else’s space, respecting their space, and interacting with people you don’t necessarily work for or with.

Since I worked with multiple teams, different managers, seniors, partner, you see different dynamics and should be able to adapt to different environments and management styles. Some clients are buttoned-up, some are casual and laid back.

Marc Reicher, CPA – Software Developer, former PwC Assurance Associate: I worked at PwC for two years, auditing mostly big public clients. Working in Big 4 prepares you to work just about anywhere because you get to work with teams of all different sizes and teams of all kinds of people. In assurance, you are client facing so you really have to understand what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. You’re not just focused on your own job but how you fit in as part of the company.

The clear hierarchy at the Big 4 got me accustomed to the fact that things get delegated to you even if they are things you don’t want to do. When you move to different job the structure is probably less rigid and you can do more of what you want.

JC Galvez, Account Executive at FloQast, former Senior Auditor at EY; seven years as an Accounting Manager in industry: I had nonstop busy seasons with 12/31 and 3/31 year-end clients so it prepared me for the grind. I was working so much that I didn’t actually realize how much I was learning because I didn’t have time to reflect. It wasn’t until I left did I realize how much I had learned. When I left EY and went to private, I found a $3 million error; it was a simple byproduct of doing a reconciliation and understanding what the nature of the account was.

When I am speaking to folks that are in the shoes I was in I can speak about my first-hand experience. I can relate to frustrations that a number has changed after the fact during the month-end close. FloQast gives you that peace of mind that things are tied out, you are really done and you can move on.

CN: Looking back, do you think you left your Big 4 firm at the right time? How do you feel about it now versus how you felt about leaving then?

Marc: I do feel like I left at the right time; [I] was doing a pretty big career shift in my case so there was [little] value in staying much longer. It was something I was worried about: “Am I leaving too early?” because there was part of me that wanted to stay to get the promotion to senior. But it became clear that unless I was going to be staying much longer (manager or partner), it didn’t seem like it was going to help to stay longer.

JC: My plan was always to go in and get enough hours for the CPA. I left after my first senior year and I think that was enough experience. In hindsight, I probably would’ve stuck around until manager because I think you get so much more exposure to higher risk accounts and working with higher-level managers. As far as financially, it really had a negligible impact on me – people who stuck around for 8-10 years have around the same salary that I do now.

Mandy: I left after the first year. If I were to do it again, I would’ve left five months earlier. She left in December which was bad for her team going into busy season but the problem was she was always in busy season. Be respectful of your teams. She gave one month notice instead of the usual two weeks. Once you stay for a year (one busy season), you have a good idea if auditing is what you want to do. Good time to assess. If you don’t want to do accounting, I wouldn’t stay longer than year.  You can get your CPA after one year of experience.

CN: Do you think there’s any validity to the conventional wisdom that staying until manager will give access to more or better opportunities?

JC: It didn’t really have impact on salary. I have friends that stayed until senior manager that are making the same as me. Once you have a Big 4 name on your resume, that carries plenty of weight. I’ve seen people leave at the senior associate level become CFOs so that is not a hindrance.

Mandy: There is validity if you want to become partner in public or go be a controller in private accounting. If you don’t have an interest in those routes, you don’t really need to stay.

Marc: They say if you stay until manager you can get managerial positions in other companies. I don’t know anyone personally who has gone from audit manager to another manager level position not in accounting. It seems like if you stay until manager, your best career opportunities will be in the accounting industry. Because I left when I did, I’m now fortunate to have experience working as a software engineer and an accountant, which I feel makes my skillset very unique. Overall, it seems better to try different things early in your career while you have the chance.

CN: When you first joined your firm, how long did you think you would stay?

Mandy: I thought I would stay three years until I became a Senior. I was up for early promotion so that made it even harder to leave. You basically plateau in how much you can learn if you don’t want to be an auditor.

Marc: When I first joined, I didn’t know if I wanted to stay until partner or quit the next day. The first year was very hard because I was at the bottom of the pecking order. My 2nd year, I felt a lot better about staying longer. But the reason I decided to make the change was because there was zero work-life balance and it didn’t feel like a very sustainable career.

JC: Maybe three, four years. Goal #1 was to get hours in for CPA and then figure it out from there. Going to back to back busy seasons wears you down.

CN: Now that you’ve moved on to a career at FloQast, what happened that you didn’t expect?

Marc: I didn’t expect [to be] able to use my accounting knowledge as an engineer, but it obviously makes sense at a company like this.

One of the questions I asked during my interview was about the work-life balance. At PwC, I would go for months without having a weekend off and I felt pretty burnt out. The people that I interviewed with at FloQast emphasized the importance of work-life balance. I was pleasantly surprised once I started my new job and FloQast was able to deliver on that promise.

I also didn’t expect the engineering process to be as similar to the audit process as it is. Didn’t expect a lot of intangible skills to translate to this position such as planning and communication, trust but verify — when you do code review, you can’t expect it’s going to work.

JC: I didn’t expect to go home before the sun went down.

I never thought I would be doing this type of work where I am talking as much as I talk, engaging with [clients]. As an accountant that was the toughest transition for me. My conversations as accountant [were] giving people status updates. Now I don’t have as much structure to my day — days are unpredictable. Having freedom to fill my day with something I consider valuable.

Mandy: I didn’t expect to be managing a team as quickly as I did. There is so much opportunity in this company and in the software space in general. You have the ability to prove yourself, in general, more than anywhere else. At PwC, if you work really hard you aren’t really rewarded, except with more work. Everybody gets 8-12% raise no matter how hard they work.

When talking to prospects, I get a lot of respect for working at PwC and quickly build rapport with clients because of my knowledge about the close and accounting in general.

CN: What is the most valuable piece of advice you received AFTER leaving Big 4 that you wish you had learned when you first started your career?

JC: I wish I had been more open to getting experience in different industries versus focusing on one because that gives you so much more instead of being pigeon-holed. Big 4 firms can really give you that experience. You should take advantage of that. I was trying to focus on only entertainment.

Mandy: You are going to work a lot harder when you are happy and passionate about what you are doing. I couldn’t see myself being super excited about auditing. Now, I’m excited come to work and perform better, and it’s evidenced by working here and people around me.

Marc: You can’t sit around waiting for a cool opportunity to show up and a lot of people at Big 4 wait around. If you stay, you will definitely have a good career, but it will be a good career in public accounting. FloQast is an exit from the Big 4 where you can leverage a lot of your accounting knowledge, so this is a very good opportunity for people looking to make a switch and this is the right time to do it as it’s very early in our company.

CN: Mandy, how was the transition from being an auditor to sales? Was it intimidating at first?

Mandy: I think it’s really intimidating going from profession where you are hiding behind a computer, but you learn quickly how rewarding it can be. What’s also intimidating is learning how to be persistent which is a requirement in a sales role. You learn a lot of that work ethic from PwC or any other Big 4 because it’s so competitive.

CN: Marc, how did your transition happen? What is your story, how did you get interested?

Marc: I had always sort of wanted to do software engineering. I studied math and accounting in college, so I had done a little, and by the time I was leaving college I was committed to accounting (I had a job lined up), didn’t want to take more time to study engineering. Once I was working at PwC and realized I didn’t have a good work-life balance and the day to day could get very frustrating, I was considering what else can I do, and engineering was the first thing to come to mind. I spent a few months studying JavaScript on my own and talking to friends about how to break into the industry. From what I gathered was I probably need to go to coding school for three months, so I spent some time practicing for the entrance exam and one I got into the coding school. Then, I had a decision to make (I was still at PwC) and a few weeks after I quit my job, went to coding school, and applied to work here.

CN: Do you think accounting experience helped you with your career in engineering?

Marc: Definitely yes. In audit, you have a lower level employee do all work, followed by a higher level review, and that’s the same structure as engineering. One of the most frustrating parts is doing lower level work and your manager rips it to shreds even though they told you to do it that way. You get very used to asking questions upfront and making sure you know what you are doing. Trust is important. If you submit work that’s bad the next time they are going to assume that you have a lot of mistakes. You need to prove yourself and do a lot of things right so that people trust you. Public accounting very much trains you — if you are putting your stamp of approval on something, people are going to judge you based on the quality of that work. It’s your professional reputation that’s on the line.

CN: JC, what did you learn in accounting things that prepared you for a sales role?

JC: I think I managed a lot of the close process in my last role and having to report those results to higher levels. Understanding that management is not interested in the details, just the bigger picture.

In general, that teaches you to give people information that adds value. Being respectful and mindful of people’s time. Understanding your audience and being straight to the point. If someone who is extremely busy is giving you their time, you better make it worth it. People appreciate transparency and honesty, and that can help make you a better salesperson. Integrity goes a long way – you have to earn people’s trust.

Are you a Big 4 alumni or looking to transition out of the Big 4 life?

Check out these current openings at FloQast, a close management software company built by Big 4 alumni to manage the month-end close faster and more accurately.

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