Getting started in accounting, it can feel like you have to follow one particular path to make it. Asking around about your first steps in accounting, a lot of the advice you’ll find follows a similar formula.
Go into public accounting at a large firm
That route can seem almost mandatory, but you don’t have to follow the standard path to succeed in accounting.
We sat down with Mark Modas, CPA, to discuss his non-conventional path as a CPA.
“I never thought I was going to be a CPA. I was originally planning on going into the Marine Corps.”
Mark graduated cum laude from Florida Atlantic University with a Bachelor’s in Accounting. After graduation, he didn’t pursue the Big 4, despite having offers from them. Instead, Mark looked at the value that a smaller firm could offer his career.
When I was starting out, I went with a small accounting firm called Madsen, Sapp, Mena, Rodriguez, and Co. They had a connection with KPMG, and I was guaranteed to work on KPMG jobs. I could gain Big 4 experience while working at a smaller accounting firm.
Working at a smaller firm allowed me to work in both audit and tax. If you went into the Big 4, you had to pick: Are you going into audit or are you going into tax?
After busy season, the bigger companies would let a bunch of people go. So, going into it, I realized that if I went into the Big 4, I’d go through the busy season and have to deal with that vicious cycle.
Despite working at a smaller firm, Mark quickly gained experience to rival many CPA’s Big 4 experience. In the three and a half years he worked for Madsen, Sapp, Mena, Rodriguez, and Co., Mark found himself working with large KPMG clients.
I worked on external auditor jobs with KPMG clients 75% of the time, mostly governmental audits. The other 25% was with Madsen Sapp clients—construction companies and that sort of thing. We were a minority firm. This qualification was required for [KPMG’s] government contracts. So, before I transitioned to private, I worked on all their big governmental audits like the Broward County Sheriff’s Department and Public Schools.
Mark learned a great deal as an external auditor, taking the lessons from school and applying them to the real world wasn’t always straight forward.
Every big company has an accounts payable department, right? So people will figure, especially when they’re coming out of college, oh, I know this. This is how you run an accounts payable department. But there’s more than just textbook knowledge going into audits. There’s common sense. There’s a feel for what’s going on. There’s auditor opinion.
The bigger lesson came from interacting with clients, and seeing how his findings were received.
One of the biggest things I saw with external audit is that no one wants the auditors there. When you’re onsite with a client, people feel like you’re getting in their way.
At the end of the day, let’s face it, you have to justify your fee. You’ve been hired to help clean up the books. And if you come back and say, oh, no, it’s super clean (which by the way is great, give the people a pat on the back!), that is looked down upon. So, you’ve got to find something wrong. You’ve got to justify your fees.
A lot of the time you would see some of the auditors say, ‘Hey, I found this—this is wrong.’ They would get excited when they would find something. But you shouldn’t gloat with the people that you are auditing. They are doing their best, too.
It’s a lot easier being an external auditor and ‘finding’ things, because we’re not doing the everyday work. We’re going there with audit programs and software and computer systems. We’re looking for anomalies. That’s what we are paid for. We are paid to find something.
My approach was to acknowledge that. I would say, ‘Hey, yes, I know you’re trying to do your everyday work. I’ll get out of your way real quick.’ And when we found something, to focus on improving things, ‘we found this, but let’s find out the reason why it happened.’
It seemed to smooth things over when they realized this guy is not going to be pushing them around.
However, even as Mark gained experience as an external auditor, he continued to look for his next career move. “After about three and a half years as an external auditor, I knew I didn’t want to go the partner track. Once you went the partner track, you had to get into sales and marketing.”
Unsure of where in business he wanted to work, Mark turned to internal audit. “You get a taste of everything in internal audit. Eventually, I ended up at Ryder Trucks. I went on to become a supervisor overseeing approximately a dozen internal auditors. I headed up the audits that occurred in Europe, Asia, and Canada.”
Traveling the world, Mark continued to work closely with external auditors. “I would go to Europe and, at one time, I was in charge of four or five external auditors there, in addition to six internal auditors on my own team. It was a special project, as it was the first time they were subjected to a Sarbanes-Oxley audit.”
Being on the other side of the audit gave Mark a deeper understanding of when to stand his ground. “When you’re the internal audit team and working with external, you’ve got to learn when to hold your ground. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t be overwhelmed. Because external auditors will sometimes come in and just give that feel to people. But you’ve got to present your confidence.”
Mark spoke about the day he decided to leave internal audit, “I remember my daughter sat on my bag and said, ‘no dad. No.’” He’d just come home from Europe, and he was supposed to be home for two weeks. After two days, he’d gotten a call to head to Canada to help out the financial reporting team.
I’d missed my daughter’s first two and half years of life. When I returned from Canada, I met with the senior vice president of corporate tax [at Ryder], and I had a new job as a tax supervisor at the end of the meeting.
Mark stayed at Ryder for several years, and during that time, the 2009 recession gave him a unique opportunity. “The vice president of corporate tax told me he couldn’t promote me or give me a raise—‘was there anything else he could do for me?’ And I said, ‘yeah, I’ve always wanted to get my master’s.’ And he goes, ‘okay, consider it done.’”
While it wasn’t a raise, Mark was able to negotiate a $35,000 masters degree in exchange for a 2-year work contract. Continuing to keep career growth in mind allowed Mark to make the most of his situation.
Mark’s journey took a few more unexpected turns, he even started over with financial reporting as Director of Accounting, before he joined Gleim Publications.
I never thought I was going to be an accountant, or a teacher for that matter. I went from actually doing the work, sleeves rolled up, to teaching how to do it. Instead of putting together policies and procedures for my staff, I’m pulling together courses to help students pass accounting exams and get their CPA, CMA, CIA, and EA.
Mark Modas, CPA, is an accounting editor at Gleim and adjunct professor at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. He passed the CPA Exam in 1998 on the first attempt using Gleim CPA Exam Prep, and has worked in internal and external audit, tax, and now as an educator. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Accounting and a Master of Science in Taxation.
Mark Modas did not have the textbook example of a career in accounting, but he has found success in every industry he’s been in. Keeping an eye out for opportunity and critically thinking through his decisions have taken Mark further than a conventional path may have.
No matter what path your career in accounting takes, Gleim is here to support you. Check out our careers in accounting handbook to learn about the different opportunities accounting can offer you. If you’re ready to get started with your CPA certification, try our CPA Demo and get unlimited access to an entire study unit of our Premium CPA Review System.