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A Journalist Goes from Zero to CPA in One Year

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Gail Perry

I was a young teenager when I came home from school one day and announced to my parents that I had chosen my life’s direction. I was going to be a professional musician. I had proven talent, so this wasn’t as much of a stretch as it might seem. Nevertheless, my well-meaning father leapt into action.

The following Saturday, he told me I was coming to his office with him. He had called in his CPA to meet us there. When we got there, he directed me to a room where his CPA was waiting. "Teach her something useful, she's going to need it," was his command to the patient CPA who spent the better part of his Saturday teaching me basic bookkeeping skills.

I learned how to process payroll, how to create invoices, how to pay bills, and how to account for all of those items in the company's financial books. I sat in front of a 10-key with a phonebook in front of me, and pounded out the phone numbers on the 10-key until I could add a whole column of phone numbers without looking at the machine and come up with the same total multiple times. It turned out that that was a day well spent.

Throughout high school, I subbed at my father's office in the summers when the office manager was on vacation, taking care of the payroll and basic bookkeeping tasks in addition to greeting clients, answering the phones, and helping out wherever necessary.

A few years later, the untimely death of my parents put me in the position of having to work my way through college. Bookkeeping to the rescue!

I went to Indiana University to study music, but changed my major to journalism, primarily because I could do my homework with my friends in the dorm rooms and apartments instead of having to trudge across campus to practice rooms late at night.

It's interesting to reflect on the reasons for our life decisions.

With no parents to foot the bill, and no desire to fund my schooling with loans, I spent six years getting my undergraduate degree, working multiple jobs and paying for as many classes as I could afford each semester. I set type and laid out pages for the university newspaper, and I worked as a bookkeeper for a book store and later for a law office. (I also waited tables - for one night - that's a lengthy story in itself but suffice it to say that career path was not in the cards for me.)

When I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel and began a job search, I found that a journalism degree with my only writing experience being the university newspaper wasn't worth as much as all the years of bookkeeping experience I had, and so I moved to Washington, D.C., and began my post-college work life as a bookkeeper for a large law firm. (Thanks Dad!) The other problem with journalism is that I didn't know enough about anything to write about it. I needed a skill before I could become the writer I thought I was destined to become.

As I got farther and farther away from my journalism education, and as I discovered how much I enjoyed working with numbers, I decided that being a bookkeeper wasn't enough for me. In order to progress to other professional accounting positions I knew I needed some education beyond what I had learned on the job and on that Saturday long ago with my father's CPA.

I was moving back to Illinois to get married, so I signed up for an Accounting Principles course at the local community college and spent my summer learning the basics. After that I enrolled at Illinois State University. I made a deal with the dean of the accounting department. In exchange for my promising to study hard, excel in all my classes, and not make him look bad, he agreed to waive all prerequisites so that I could take the entire undergraduate accounting curriculum in two semesters. I started my courses in August and by May I was taking the CPA exam, which I passed all in one sitting.

The combination of my years of bookkeeping experience and my strange trajectory through the ISU accounting program made me appealing to several firms, but the matchup that was most appealing was in the tax department at Deloitte's Chicago office.

I found my niche quickly - I loved the intricacy of state and local taxation, in particular companies with multi-state situations - but I also noticed that my writing was rising back to the surface. I had no trouble explaining tax law in layman's terms to our clients and putting our research findings into memos and documents that were well written and would stand the test of Shepardizing and fact checks.

I left Chicago, relocated to Indianapolis and a regional CPA firm, and found the same situation. I took care of the state and local tax issues, and I was the resident writer. In school I had minored in computer science, and so when computers were moving front and center into the lives of the accountants in our firm and in our clients' offices, I found myself in the position of interpreter.

I launched a newsletter that went out to our clients wherein I would write about computer tools and tips that would help with their businesses, I started teaching classes on various computer applications and functions, I joined the training team at the Indiana CPA Society where I spent 10 years teaching various computer applications, I became a tax columnist for the Indianapolis Starnewspaper, and all of that writing and teaching led to writing books about financial software applications - in short, I created a job for myself out of the pieces and parts of my background and experiences.

Accounting journalism seemed the obvious place for me to land, and thus here I am, editor-in-chief of one of the leading accounting publications. I still operate a small tax practice - very niche-oriented - but that's a topic for another post!