Life Lessons

I often write about analytics and other aspects of data extraction, interpretation and the like.  Today I thought I would do something different.

I am teaching a 4th year university/college course.  The students are eager to get their CMA/CPA designation and go off to work for a big accounting firm.  I admire their zeal, but worry about the lack of practical “seat of the pants” knowledge.   I tell them that for 16 years their focus has been on “marks” and for the next 30 years marks mean nothing.  They need to focus on interpersonal, communication, analytical, strategic, how details support the big picture and other skills that schools tend to ignore.

What has experience taught me? Or “what I wish someone had told me”.  So here goes, a list of my life-lessons:

  1. I should have taken more chances. I was always worried about failure – which I didn’t try things.  What I realize now is that not trying is pretty much the same as failing.  Except for one thing, you can learn from failing – you can learn from not trying.  It just reinforces the notion of not trying.  I was fortunate to have mentors and managers who forced me to try new things and move beyond my comfort zone – things I never would have done on my own.  In every failure there is a lesson-learned that you would not have discovered without trying and failing.  These can motivate you to try again and ultimately succeed.
  2. There are many wrong and many more right paths. There is no single way to get to a destination.  Initially, I never even considered internal audit or data analysis, but the paths that I have taken have helped me to succeed in data analysis.  My years in guidance and counseling have helped me to relate to programmer, business process owners, and auditors.  This in turn has allowed me to better understand their needs and assist them.  My stint as a consultant has helped me to focus on critical issues and develop work plans to achieve results with time frames and constraints.
  3. Take on challenges that are outside your comfort zone. Many organizations have charitable campaigns, university recruitment programs, and other opportunities for you to try new things.  Typically, these are ideal learning opportunities because the other people involved are there because they want to be.  They are motivated, they are people –people, and they are great people to know (from a career perspective).
  4. Seek out mentors at various levels. These can be part of a formal mentoring program or simply people who have experience that they are willing to share.  On the same note, be a mentor.  Being a mentor will cause you to consider the “why” things are the way they are.
  5. Take what you like about your job and enlarge it. There are always parts of a job we hate, but we spend too much effort on avoiding these and not enough on developing and enhancing the aspects we love.  Almost every job I took on looked totally different after I had been there a few years.  I was willing to develop, enhance, expand the areas I enjoyed while completing the less interesting duties.  You will always find time to do things you love.
  6. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. What motivates them and what pisses them off.  Understand that they have priorities which will differ from yours and work with them to accomplish what needs to be done.
  7. Never bring your boss a problem. You can highlight issues, but always follow this by a suggestion for improving the situation.  I worked with a brilliant programmer who always pointed out the problems with any program development activity.  I had to constantly say. “OK it is a problem, but what should we do”.  He knew the answer, but it was frustrating to have to force the answer from him.  He became well known for being a program killer when in fact he was an incredible resource.
  8. Make the path straight for your subordinates. I always thought that my job was to make my employees’ job easier.  I would act as a buffer, protecting them from negative and non-constructive feedback.  I would fight on their behalf (without them knowing).  On the flip side – when they succeeded, I looked good so it was a win-win situation.  The better they did performing tasks for which I had responsibility, the better my manager thought I was doing.
  9. If you don’t know – say so. I was often the good-to person when it came to analytics and information systems.  Quite often I would get ask questions for which I did not have an answer and I never hesitated to say “I don’t know”.  Too many people see admitting a lack of knowledge as a weakness.  Counter-intuitive as it may sound, by saying “I don’t know”, my credibility and stature grew.  However, I was also quick to follow “I don’t know” with “but I will find out and get back to you”.
  10. Be respectful of everyone regardless of their level and position. One of my first jobs I had some photocopying to be done.  I left the originals and a short note “25 copies, double-sided, Dave” on the desk of the person responsible for making copies.  The person was not impressed with my lack of common courteously.  I should have said “please make 25 copies, double-sided.  Dave”.   Better yet, I should have included her named “Carole, please make 25 copies ….”  Since then, I have thanked the person who empties my garbage can and vacuums the floor.  I have tried to learn the names of the security guard, the janitor, etc. to the same extent that I want to know the CEO, CFO and other senior management’s names and faces.  This simple recognition of others and the work they do has made my job more pleasant and brought me as much benefits as it did those to whom I have treated appropriately.
  11. Be your own career manager. Twice I chose to take a position that offered less pay than my current position.  Why?  Because I thought it was better for me at the time and in the long run.  I doubt any career manager would suggest you take a 15% pay cut.  They don’t know your current situation, your aspiration, goals and time lines as well as you do.  So take charge of your own career.
  12. Make friends at work. You will be spending 8-10 hours a day, 5 days a week, with your co-workers, maybe more time than you spend with friends and family.  Be nice to them and give them every reason to be nice to you.  Join in office parties, social events and even coffee breaks.  Some of my best friends are former co-workers.
  13. Work to live; don’t live to work. While you are managing your career – manage your life.  You can’t wait until you retire to start enjoying yourself.  Discover new and interesting leisure activities.  Most of all – make time for you, and your family and friends.
  14. Never stop learning. Grow as an individual and as a professional.  Learning new things can stimulate and energize you when you need it most.  Sometimes a hobby can become a second career or simply a source of joy and amusement.
  15. Learn what is important to you and add it to this list.

Statistics

Sometimes even the simplest analytics are extremely useful.  They often tell you what is happening in the detailed transactions without you having to make assumptions about the data.  STATISTICS is one of those commands: with a couple clicks of the mouse you can get:

  • Min and Max
  • Highest and Lowest ‘X’ values
  • Number of Positive, Negative and Zero valued transactions
  • Average
  • Median, Mode and Q25 and Q75

But like any analysis, you need to know why you are running the analysis and you need to be able to interpret and understand the results.

Why run STATISTICS?  I run Statistics to get an overview of my data.  It helps me to understand the nature of the transactions, to verify my scope, to highlight anomalies, and much much more.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • Count
    • I use this to verify the control totals. In one case I found that my Total for a critical field was out by a significant amount.  It turned out that the numeric fields had 3 decimal points (implied) and not two as I was told.  Without verify my control total before doing additional analysis, I would have wasted a lot of time.
  • Min/Max values:
    • All transactions should be in the previous fiscal year. The Min value should be less than or equal to the start of the fiscal year and the max should be greater than or equal to the end of the fiscal year.  I found billing transactions that were in the wrong fiscal year.
    • All credit card (p-card) transactions should be less than $500.00. Not only did I find amount greater than $500, but I also found numerous credits being processed – which led to a fraud discovery.
  • Highest/Lowest values:
    • The Maximum value was significantly higher than the second highest value. It ended up being an error where the invoice number was entered into the amount field – making the amount much larger than it should have been.
  • Number of Positives/Negatives and Zero values
    • Found hundreds of thousands of transactions with zero values which led to a training issue. A/P clerks could use bulk entry forms for simple invoices.  The form automatically generated a blank invoice entry form with 100 lines.  If the clerk did not type “Cntl –“ before saving the entered invoice details, the blank (unused) lines remained and were processed as invoices with zero value.  This was causing the system to run slow and generating exception reports.
    • Found several hundred Negative “quantity received” amounts. The Receipting clerk at a warehouse was entering negative receipts after entering the correct receipt amount.  Invoice was paid based on the correct receipt amount; but the negative receipt entry (without an invoice number) reduced the quantity in inventory and allowed her to steal the items.
  • Mode value
    • This identified a fraud where an employee was entering meal charges when not on travel status. Amounts under $10.00 did not require approval.  The employee entered hundreds of meal claims at $9.99 which was pickup by the mode option.
    • The most often occurring date was just before bonuses were determined. Salespersons were entering a large number of fictitious sales on the day before performance bonuses were calculated.  The sales were reversed at later dates.
    • The most occurring amount for contracts was just under the “must go competitive” value. Managers were establishing contracts at $49,900 – which was below the $50,000 limit for sole-sourced contracts.

In general, STATISTICS lets me see what the data looks like from a high-level perspective.  However, it also can quickly identify anomalies (e.g. negative when all transactions should be positive; values outside the expected range; unusual maximum values, etc.).  .  This helps with determining risk, sampling strategies, identification of control weaknesses, materiality amounts, etc.  When combined with STRATIFY, I can get an overview of the ranges (or strata) of the data which provides even more useful information.