When I first enrolled for an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, in 1987, I never would have envisioned a career trajectory that has included multiple roles and functional disciplines, exposure to multiple work and study environments (including six different countries), and a decades-long process of rediscovering what makes me tick. Studying engineering at university was a natural choice, as I had largely taken science subjects at high school, but I had no sense of the career trajectory that would ensue.

I began my journey toward being an accounting professional with an introduction to her supervisors by my late mother, who used to work in the accounting department of Caltex, a U.S. multinational energy firm with downstream distribution operations in Kenya. This introduction had landed me an internship in the financial operations department, which entailed basic bookkeeping tasks such as processing bank statement reconciliations. In this role, I was privileged to have mentoring conversations with a number of successful professionals, including system analysts, engineers, and accountants. It quickly dawned on me that the finance function was integral to most organizations, and a related career was likely to be lucrative and full of opportunities. Thus, I began to pursue a finance-oriented career.

When I graduated in 1990, Price Waterhouse in Nairobi was recruiting candidates for careers in audit from different faculties, including the engineering department, which gave me an opening into the world of accounting. I spent seven years in numerous audit roles in Kenya and South Africa, including as an external audit trainee, at a client bank, and in internal audit. I then joined KPMG Johannesburg in the IT audit department.

This varied audit experience included a steep learning curve, which provided invaluable exposure to different types of businesses. I eventually reached a point, however, where I yearned to focus on value-creating advisory experiences rather than compliance or verification-oriented work. At the time, accounting and auditing came across to me as being predominantly about recording and verifying past transactions, mainly as an input to assessing the effective stewardship of the organization. I did not have any meaningful appreciation of the predictive value or forward-looking nature of financial accounting information.

Expanding My Horizons

Moving away from an audit-focused career, I enrolled for a part-time MBA course at the Witwatersrand Business School in Johannesburg. Upon graduation in 1997, I switched from KPMG’s auditing department to management consultancy, thinking that I had finally left the world of debits, credits, verifying transactions data, and assessing internal control environments behind. One year later, I joined Accenture in an advisory role focused on designing and rolling out technology and process improvement solutions across different functional departments (supply chain, financial management) within financial services and public sector clients based in Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town.

This period coincided with the hype-laden e-commerce boom and the (exaggerated, as it turned out) threat of Y2K. Always lurking in my mind were deeper questions about the grounding and durability of management consultancy firms’ fast-moving and often jargon-rich methodologies. How does one measure the economic value of technological solutions? I also found myself enjoying workstreams where economic and financial analysis was involved rather than those focused on organizational process improvements or detailed design and specification of technological solutions. At the same time, I felt a drive to gain a more robust conceptual understanding of organizations.

I returned to my studies once again, specializing in finance while obtaining more global experience, for I had long dreamed of being a global citizen. I enrolled in the London Business School in late 2001, and after earning a master’s degree in finance, enrolled in the management doctoral program at IESE in Barcelona, Spain. I also began studying for the CFA designation.

Unbeknownst to me, my trajectory would result in a very different appreciation of the usefulness of accounting information. All of these studies, as well as a great book—The Analysis and Use of Financial Statements by Gerald I. White, Ashwinpaul C. Sondhi, and Dov Fried (Wiley, 2002)—illuminated for me the capital markets application of accounting information, renewing my love for the subject. The link between the quality (or lack thereof) of accounting information, valuation, organizational ethics, and stewardship assessment was further driven home by the several well-publicized accounting scandals of the time (e.g., Enron, WorldCom). By the time I started writing my PhD thesis, my focus had shifted toward accounting research, specifically empirically testing the organizational factors influencing over 250 U.S. firms’ risk disclosures, earnings management, and derivatives accounting choices. I continued these studies at the Cranfield School of Management in Bedford, U.K., on a part-time basis while taking up a role as a hedge fund fixed income investment analyst in London. Two years later, I joined the CFA Institute in a financial reporting for capital markets’ policy role.

My work at the CFA Institute neatly triangulated my varied experiences, as it entailed research, technical writing, teaching, public speaking, media, and key stake-holder engagement, with a focus on investors’ application of information. It also enriched my global experience; the role has seen me review corporate reporting issues across major countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Switzerland, Canada, Japan, Australia, and emerging markets countries. It was an enriching experience to be involved with several watershed moments of corporate reporting developments, including the decade-long convergence of U.S. GAAP and IFRS, the accounting standards updates that occurred in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the increased momentum towards enhancing nonfinancial information, and the raft of audit reforms aimed at enhancing the utility of audit services.

Continuous Learning

Continuous learning remains a personal philosophy of mine and has been necessary to stay technically relevant and be effective in different operating environments. Massive changes to accounting standards have occurred since the early stage of my career; for example, the Kenyan GAAP that I studied in the early’90s predated the widespread global adoption of IFRS requirements. The accounting training I had earlier in my career did not cover many technical topics that I grappled with in my role at CFA Institute, including U.S. GAAP and IFRS topics and the International Auditing and Assurance Standing Board (IAASB) and PCAOB audit standards. For that matter, the PCAOB was not even formed until several years after I moved on from my audit career.

These changes underpinned my decision to take the U.S. CPA exam while on an international assignment in New York, as it allowed a formal study of both U.S. GAAP and IFRS, which have been significantly updated in the last 15 years and are the most influential standards in the global reporting landscape. Mastering these would essentially make me “bilingual” in the two main accounting languages.

I took the CPA exam and the two ethics exams required to obtain a Washington State CPA license over a six-month period from early August 2015 to February 2016. Why did I decide to take the CPA exam in my 40s? Why not, especially in a time where continuous learning and retooling of skills is often required? My mindset was certainly not the same as that of a fresh graduate in one’s 20s. For me, it was about getting an updated and refined understanding of particular and highly relevant subject matter in a systematic fashion rather than adding three letters to my credentials.

Always lurking in my mind were deeper questions about the grounding and durability of management consultancy firms’ fast-moving and often jargon-rich methodologies.

The process started with picking a suitable state (a labyrinthine undertaking in itself) and obtaining original transcripts to convert my foreign education to an equivalent of the required 150 hours. Thereafter came the daunting task of digesting the voluminous and ever-growing volume of CPA exam material, including updated requirements across all subjects. I began studying seven months prior to my first section of the exam. As a foreign national, the most challenging aspect of studying for the exam was mastering topics where I had no practical experience, including the complex U.S. tax laws and the counterintuitive government accounting principles. But, all in all, it was a fun journey. I also have recently attained the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB)– Foundations of Sustainability Accounting (FSA) credential and have a great interest in the ongoing efforts to enhance the quality and analytical relevance of nonfinancial information.

I have more than 23 years of experience in many roles, including auditing, management consultancy, investment analysis, and most recently influencing the development of financial reporting standards and regulation. Beginning in March 2018, I will be joining the European Financial Reporting Advisory Group (EFRAG) as an associate director. EFRAG is primarily responsible for providing technical advice for the endorsement of IFRS in the European Union. I am excited by this new role, as it will allow a continued focus on improving financial reporting standards while enabling me engage in the process of evaluating the fitness of accounting requirements from the point of view of key multiple stakeholders.

Vincent Papa, PhD, CPA, FSA, CFA is an associate director at the European Financial Reporting Advisory Group, Brussels, Belgium.