Should Accountants become Microsoft Power App Developers or Lion Tamers?
Microsoft have recently started badging PowerApps plus Power BI plus Power Automate as the Power Platform. As an ex-accountant turned Power Platform developer I have started to consider the skills that my accounting life has given me, how they apply to the accounting profession generally and also the areas accountants might actually find difficult when it comes to solution development. A word of warning – I probably won’t go into the Lion taming bit very much in this article. I’m sure that there’s a self help group out there for you…
I’m going to make some sweeping statements along the way, and I’d value any comments both positive and negative that you may have.
My considerations break down into skills, hard and soft, and barriers to entry. If I’m honest, much of these are PowerApps based as the scope of this document needed to be limited in some way.
Accountants have a surprising amount to offer as far as App development is concerned and these break down as follows:-
· Excel – What? Actually, it’s at the top of the list because the PowerApps formula language is aligned very closely and in many cases is exactly the same as that of excel, with the PowerApps teams liaising directly with the Excel teams every time they bring out a new formula.
· Excel – Twice? That’s cheating isn’t it? Actually, no. The vast majority of the way in which the formulas above are applied to PowerApps objects is in a declarative way, which in excel speak means that if you want to know why a label is red, you go and have a look at the fill property, and if you want to know why it says “Hello world” you look at the text property. This may seem trivial to some and obvious to others but (by all accounts) this is not the way in which most software is written. Most software is produced in a more declarative fashion. i.e. find the bit of code that creates the object and changes the property of the object to “Hello World”.
· System Testing – Any accountants with an audit background will have had experience of assessing system risks and developing tests to verify the performance of controls
· Logic – generally accountants are a pretty logical bunch and tend to be on the receiving end of instances of poor business logic, this makes them a bit more ‘belt and braces’ when it comes to developing systems of control.
· Audit trail – Accountants quite often have to build or follow an audit trail as part of their normal duties and it is natural for them to be reasonably good at being part of app or flow development
· Data Field selection – Following on from the above the selection of data fields, especially in financial applications
· Report writing – Accountants are reasonably good at this, and it may well be applicable as part of internal accreditation processes to cover this off.
· Development of controls – Accounting systems are governed by a range of controls and accountancy training covers these, and they may well be applicable to a solution development scenario.
· Business oversight – the accounting role touches many areas of the business and as such this may help building a solution that consider current and future objectives and indeed matters such as GDPR and other legal considerations.
· Experience – Accountants tend to be on the receiving end of the mistakes made elsewhere in the organisation, particularly at the level of grain that comes into play where detailed investigations are required.
· Integrity – This may sound like a trivial skill, however there will be many occasions where you get the chance to cut a corner as a developer and build an App that on the face of it will be highly performant, but has not been created in a way that enables it to change as the business develops. This is one of the reasons why Microsoft are now presenting the slide ‘Building business software is hard’ (a quote from anybody who has built, bought, owned or used it).
· Rigour – Charged with the financial health of the organisation they are generally a thorough, risk-averse group of individuals.
· Authority – Linked to the above accountants generally have the authority when it comes to standing up to the business if they are heading down a path that may lead to future difficulties.
· Tenacity – You can’t become an accountant without being tenacious, and the same goes for being a Power Platform developer. There will be bumps in the road, some you need to drive around, and some you’ll just need to work through.
· Vision – Accountants are slightly better positioned within an organisation in order to be able to consider the whole process associated with the user story from data creation through to the flow end point, power bi or even excel report.
So that’s it then – Accountants are good at PowerApps?
Er, sorry, now for the bad news….
Barriers to Entry
There are barriers to entry for accountants, some more obvious than others, and here are some of them:-
· Design – There is absolutely no reason why an accountant should have any skill when it comes to designing interfaces that are usable by anybody other than themselves. Anyone that is versed in Excel will know just how quirky their models are and if you’re working in systems, by and large you get used to the fact that they are laid out in a certain way accept it, and move on.
· DAX, M and Flow language. Whilst PowerApps and to a lesser extent DAX formulas may relate to excel the same cannot be said of M (Extract transform and Load language) or the Flow language. Nevertheless you can go very far using the Graphic User Interface for both of the latter.
· Power BI Model development. Accountants aren’t database developers and DAX models exist at a strange intersection of excel and database modelling. A badly developed model is a thing to be avoided. They are hard to debug, they scale badly, may run slowly, may produce incorrect results in certain circumstances, they may be awful to produce measures from and it is difficult to apply security to them.
· Accountants aren’t software developers – What I mean by this is that they aren’t aligned to modern agile software development techniques including user stories, scrum meetings, kanbans, minimum viable product, prototyping, testing and so on. Furthermore, accountants aren’t coders. Personally, coding within the Power Platform is primarily in the guise of formulas, but you do need a coding ‘brain’ in order to pull it all together. Finally, accountants invariably create models that are not necessarily coherent, contain errors and aren’t readily understandable by third parties.
· Time – Accountants have many other time limited responsibilities – This means they can’t devote all their energies to the development process. This, however, wouldn’t stop them being an important part of a development team.
· Desire – Accountants want to be accountants – Why would they spend such a long time developing a skill set to then become an App Developer? Personally, I got quite bored of being an accountant and it didn’t seem to me that I would achieve my career objectives with more sets of month end accounts, year-end accounts and tax accounts.
· Arrogance – Sorry, we are a bit high and mighty, but if you want to become great at the Power Platform (PowerApps, Flow, Power BI) you should realise that you don’t know a great deal and you’ll be starting not far from ground zero. It is somewhat humbling to be bewildered by the tech that is out there and sometimes a tad frustrating that the platform that you are working on changes with such rapidity.
· Competence – I’m not saying that accountants are incompetent, but they are not all built the same. The reason accountants don’t go too far wrong is that the double entry system of creating accounting entries means that there is ALWAYS and audit trail for whatever is showing in the accounts. Solution development doesn’t necessarily work that way, so many entries are single-sided which may leave accountant a little blind-sided.
· Creativity – Accountants aren’t the most creative bunch of people, however the best way to truly learn about the platform is to keep being creative, building, failing, rebuilding and then succeeding. This might well prove to be their biggest challenge.
· Lifelong learners – The Power Platform is developing ALL THE TIME and keeping on top of this is a challenge, for anybody involved with the products that make it up.
· Empathy – Accountants generally behave in such a way that they believe that others understand numbers and data in the same way in which they do. They also are generally not processors and therefore may struggle to see things from the perspective of others.
· Excel – Everything is Excel to an accountant, but this is PowerApps and in spite of the similarities it is different and needs to be considered as such, especially if you wish to leverage the Power Platform correctly. Furthermore, it is one thing to develop an excel model for yourself, but quite another to develop one for use by others.
So what, if any, conclusions can we draw from the above?
Accountants certainly aren’t the only people that the skills noted above and not every accountant will be subject to the barriers noted to the same degree. The biggest deciding factors in achieving PowerApps/Power Platform success are DESIRE and TIME.
What is clear to me that there are insufficient individuals that have been drawn to the PowerApps / Power Platform beacon at this time, relative to the opportunities it presents, but it seems clear to me from my experience in every business that I have operated in, that the need for business systems that fill a business user story is as great as ever.
So whether you are teacher or a tele-sales operator there is an app out their waiting to be built and as an recruiter or team builder, think outside the box about the skills you actually require and use the above as a checklist to help you on your way.
One final point for those of you waiting with baited breath (or am I reaching out to the lions here…?) about becoming a lion tamer instead, you might want to take a look at this…