Alumni Insights 02 – Atman Khairulfazi

At the age of 26, you’d want your career progress to be like Atman’s.

As a student at Level 14, Atman went on to become the President of APAcS 09/10. He was also the Editor of Chronicles 10/11. After graduating, he pursued audit at PwC and today, he is an Audit Assistant Manager at Deloitte.

Atman has been in audit for more than four impressive years. You will find this interview highly insightful and engaging as he shares his honest perspectives about the audit career, finding your passion, important advice for fresh graduates, and more.

1. You chose audit to begin your career with. Would you recommend us professional accounting students to pursue the same path? What advantages can a fresh graduate get from starting his career in audit?

I believe globalisation will remain a key theme in the next century. Besides the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), I wouldn’t be surprised if China were to spearhead a free trade agreement of similar significance to reflect their ever increasing prominence in the global economy.

What this essentially means is, we will see a gradual de-emphasis of local protectionist policies which will further intensify competition. This translates to an ever-increasing prioritisation of value creation that has become the central tenet/principle of many organisations, observable in various mission statements. Now, the value creation process would generally entail numerous studies that would inevitably involve an analysis or an understanding of a company (I’m sure Facebook did their homework before they bought over WhatsApp). I strongly believe accountants are in the best position to analyse and evaluate the financial position/performance of a company in order to make informed and pertinent decisions i.e. mergers, acquisitions and the likes. This is primarily because complex transactions, structures or arrangements have made financial statements obscured and difficult to be understood by a layman.

External audit experience provides the best platform and exposure to learn about all sorts of complex issues under the sun that provides the necessary foundation to be a competent reader of financial statements. I personally would advise a maximum tenure of 4 years of audit experience before moving to a role that revolves more on decision making such as Corporate Finance (CF) or Debt Capital Markets in an Investment Bank.

Accounting as a skill is important and business decisions revolve around historical information which is the basis of accounting.

2. Against the norm, you actually stayed in audit for over four years. Share with us how and why. How did you cope with its arduousness; the late nights and peak periods?

Innovation has played a pivotal role in the surge of complex transactions, products and structures we see today across various industries. As an example, financial derivatives did not exist only reportedly after 1995, not to mention possible complex group structures that we see in abundance in conglomerates today (i.e. hundreds of associates or subsidiaries across the world and yes facilitated by globalisation).

To add to that, not only the introduction of new products that are complex but it covers changes to existing products as well. In a nutshell, the level of complexity that accountants deal with today is overwhelming, ranging from not just understanding the said complex issues above but extended to the application of accounting standards that are themselves not straightforward. Depending on the complexity, some issues take months to resolve and by the time you hit the 3 year milestone, you might not have covered enough ground to be a competent accountant. And I have not even mentioned the fact that different industries have different laws and regulations that auditors are expected to grasp. Even after more than 4 years, I have not covered any complex group structures! With that said, I believe 4 years instead of 3 years audit experience should be recommended instead.

I believe perseverance is important. Perseverance is the reason I stayed on. What students need to realise is, you are going to be alone MOST of the time. Figuratively because even in the presence of your seniors, everyone is too occupied to guide you step by step on your allocated tasks. Yes, some form of guidance will be given, but you should have the mindset of being able to do things independently with minimal guidance. If you think you are not up for it then “commercial” is the place for you.

3. You are moving on from audit to corporate finance. Have you always known this was the path that you’d want to take on? Having one’s ambitions all figured out at an early age isn’t very common. What’s your advice to students about developing their passion and strategizing their career goals?

Haha! Officially I have not accepted the offer though I am not denying that the offer is on the table.

Corporate Finance has always been a priority after audit primarily because I believe I have attained the minimal exposure to be rightfully called an auditor (not forgetting the MIA and ACCA membership as well). As mentioned above, the path to a board seat in a company, be it a government-linked company or a conglomerate, is better paved through this route and I have also enrolled in the Certified Financial Analyst programme to equip myself with the necessary technical knowledge in this field. To me, an external audit is essentially a review of what your client has done so that entails a lot about studying issues or matters that have already occurred. Within the span of 4 years, one can develop to have the right chain of thought to solve or test these matters efficiently. However, it does get a little boring when you reach that 4 year milestone focusing on backward-looking information. I believe now the time is right to move to a new challenge and Corporate Finance provides me with such an avenue to be in the forefront of corporate developments (generally CF involves corporate actions by listed companies including companies going on an IPO). 

Another good thing about audit is, as part of understanding a complex matter, you will most likely get the opportunity to meet employees from different levels and departments “gathering intelligence” to solve the matter at hand (exactly because it is complex that every department might be involved). This provides you a glimpse of what different type of departments do and would certainly help you decide what you would like to do on a day to day basis and as a career. For someone who did not figure out exactly what to do after ACCA, audit provided me with a solution. I knew Corporate Finance was something I wanted to try after few brief encounters with people from that department.

My simple advice on the matter would be, if you are unsure of what to do, do something which is general and with the passing of time, I’m sure you will stumble upon something! Hey, we are Gen-Y after all.

4. As a senior having been in charge of different teams at work, what are the common problems that you’ve seen in especially fresh graduates? Share your advice with regard to overcoming these problems.

Sadly, I observe that fresh graduates give in so easily – quite surprisingly over matters that are fairly straightforward.

I remember giving one of the juniors (I think it’s okay to share, knowing he will never read this), “Plant, property equipment” section and the main testing he had to do was a recalculation of depreciation charge (I hope I have not lost you).

What I’ve realised is that fresh graduates have a hard time understanding client’s working papers which seems confusing because of the different tabs in the worksheet as well as linkages/formula that also seem overwhelming. What happens next is, they would frequently bombard the senior with questions none stop such as “what do these tabs represent” or “I don’t understand how the client derived this”. Most seniors would find it quite annoying to be interrupted and attend to the juniors ever so often. Personally, I’d rather have the juniors make “stupid” mistakes and train them to develop the right chain of thought than spoon feed them every step of the way. After all, one of the benefits of having a Big 4 experience is to develop the “right” chain of thought so that these problems can be solved efficiently.

I know I have been emphasising the need to be independent but do not get the impression no help/guidance will be extended. If you are really unsure on what to do after your first attempt, find the right time to approach your seniors and make sure all avenues have been explored i.e. reference to past year working papers, technical library etc. have been made.

5. In terms of personal initiatives, what’s the best way for students to prepare themselves to transition from university to work? 

I was the President of APAcS in the year 2009/2010. I was a strong proponent of student activism back then and that has not changed. I will not bore you with my list of benefits or reasons why it is recommended. On the contrary, I believe the experience gained helped me a lot especially in terms of nurturing my communication skills.

A case in point, just after I joined Deloitte, I had to digest and summarise information from various clients which were obtained only verbally and had to present it to the manager of the engagement! Imagine the consequences if I understood something wrongly/differently and how embarrassing that would be to the manager if he/she had to re-present the same thing to the client. These are the sort of challenges that you will be facing in audit and there are no crash courses to help beforehand!

Additionally, I remember vividly when I had to manage 2 audit engagements simultaneously and how stressful it felt (I know you might have a hard time imagining this but imagine you had to attend 5 fundamental paper classes in a semester). This encounter had a lot of similarities with my time as the Project Director of the Annual Dinner where I had to juggle a lot tasks at hand as well as not skipping any classes (I actually did skip a few). The experience provided me with the training ground to develop multi-tasking skills and the ability to answer to more than one stakeholder. There will be times where as a junior or senior auditor, you will be answerable to more than one managers at the same time!

The experiences gained during my tenure as a committee member of APAcS provided the foundation to prepare for what lies ahead in the working world. If you have the capacity to get involved then don’t think twice! Bear in mind, studies should still be the priority!

Editor’s note: Alright, readers, if you’re still here, the next question’s going to be a tad bit long (but it’s my favourite), so bear with us a little bit more, okay. Go drink some water and come back.

6. Working as an auditor at a Big Four firm means that you have the access to auditing big clients. Since the clients’ businesses are big, you’d most probably be assigned to handle fewer sections of the financial statements, although in greater depth; compared to working with a medium firm where you’d be exposed to a wider scope of its smaller clients’ financial statements – and probably be in charge of one whole client, even.

As a seasoned auditor having the experience of working at two different Big Four firms, what do you think would be a better training ground for new starters? And do you think it’s better to be specialising in a few sections in great depth, or to be good at all sections of the financial statements on a satisfactory level?

As highlighted above, we live in an age of overwhelming complexity. I would recommend students to join an audit firm primarily to be exposed to these complexities. Changes will further accelerate and the understanding you’ve gained now might no longer be applicable in the future. The emphasis should be to develop that chain of thought so that you approach complexities “correctly”.

Clients of medium size audit firms are relatively smaller and thus involve a smaller degree of complexity.

Although you will not be expected to be in charge of complex areas/sections in your first year as an auditor, expect things to be more challenging year-to-year! Generally, junior auditors would do simple areas/sections or coined as “normal risk” in their first year (good chance to get used to the audit system and client workings papers haha!). As you get more experienced, you will be exposed to complex sections or coined as “significant risk” where it is more complex and where high degree of judgement is involved. As you accumulate 3 years working experience as an auditor, you will most likely cover all the key areas of the financial statements.

To recap, if your purpose is to have an unchallenging and simple exposure to different industries then medium size audit firms is where you belong. If you have the hunger to thrive amid challenges then you know where to go!

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