CA Specialist Designations Series – Part 4
Beyond Numbers · May 2011
By Marlyn Won, CA, CMA, MAcc, and Michelle McRae
Are you interested in learning about money laundering, terrorist financing, mortgage fraud, and identity theft? Would you like to piece together the financial trail in criminal cases? How about quantifying the extent of losses sustained by a client? If these activities interest you, you may want to look into the CA·IFA specialist designation.
Or maybe you're interested in getting immersed in all aspects of IT systems—from strategic planning and architecture development to information
management and system reliability? If so, the CA·IT specialist designation may be of interest to you.
This last instalment of our series on the CA specialist designations endorsed by the Chartered Accountants of Canada spotlights the CA·IFA and the CA·IT.
The CA·IFA designation is granted by the CICA through its Alliance for Excellence in Investigative and Forensic Accounting ("IFA Alliance"). Established in 1998, the IFA Alliance is responsible for
research and education in, and certification and promotion of, this very specialized field. Qualified applicants must successfully complete the Diploma in Investigative & Forensic Accounting (DIFA) Program. Recognized by the legal profession, law enforcement personnel, and the courts, this designation is held by more than 250 members in Canada.
Investigative and forensic engagements can include financial analysis related to theft, financial
statement manipulation, stock market fraud, supplier kickbacks, and more. Cases involving product liability, intellectual property claims, and business interruption are just some of the cases that require a quantification of economic loss. CA·IFA designees may also be asked to testify as expert witnesses.
To gain some insight into what it means to hold this designation, we spoke to three BC CA·IFAs. Jennifer Blacklock, CA·IFA, provides consulting in the area of forensic and investigative accounting for crown corporations, private companies, and regulatory and professional bodies. She has over 20 years of experience in the field, and earned her IFA designation in 2000. Suzanne Schultz, CA·IFA,
is the vice-president of KPMG Forensic and an associate partner with KPMG LLP in Vancouver.
Suzanne conducts major financial investigations, quantifies economic losses, and provides litigation support services, as well as advising on anti-fraud programs and controls. She earned her CA·IFA
designation in 2006. Meredith Yu-Askew, CA·IFA, is the senior forensic accountant with the
Government of Canada. Meredith provides litigation support, forensic accounting, financial analysis, and expert witness services to police and government organizations. She earned her CA·IFA designation in 2003, and was a member of the first CA·IFA graduating class and the first person in BC to earn the designation through the DIFA Program.
Why did you pursue the IFA?
Jennifer Blacklock, CA·IFA: The specialist designation pursued me, really. I had been a CA for about 14 years and had worked in the forensic accounting area for 11 years by the time the IFA designation was established. I wanted to do this work exclusively, and I knew the CA∙IFA would help me get new work and stay in the field.
Suzanne Schultz, CA·IFA: I first heard about forensic accounting while I was in university, and it intrigued me. It appealed to my sense of ethics and my interest in legal matters. I liked that it wasn't just about the numbers, but also about people. I liked that the work was project-based and that each engagement was a completely new situation.
Meredith Yu-Askew, CA·IFA: I saw an ad in the newspaper for a forensic accountant, looked at the job description, and thought: "This looks very interesting." At the time, I did not have the training or experience needed, and the CA∙IFA program was just getting set up. So I went to
the library and found all the books on forensic accounting that I could (all five of them) to
prepare for my interview. I got the job, and
enrolled in the DIFA program.
At what point in your career did you get the IFA?
Jennifer: Again, I'd been working in this field for about 11 years before the specialist designation was established. When the IFA came along, I jumped at the chance to get a designation that gave specific credibility and visibility to the work that I was doing.
Suzanne: I worked in KPMG's forensic practice for about three years before starting the DIFA program, which was about six years after qualifying as a CA and a year or two after obtaining
the chartered business valuator designation. I saw the program as an opportunity to continue developing my investigative and forensic accounting skills, and to distinguish myself as someone who was committed to the practice of forensic accounting.
Meredith: I decided to pursue the specialist
designation approximately 16 years after qualifying as a CA. At that time, I'd been working for the BC Ministry of Finance for seven years, my children were getting older, and I was ready for new challenges.
What was the process like for you?
Suzanne: I completed the DIFA program in
two years and received my designation shortly thereafter.
I found the DIFA program to be very structured, which added to the challenge of balancing the demands of my work and my studies. That said, it provided unique and invaluable learning opportunities. In my view, the integrative capstone, which is an interactive experience that includes
a moot court with actual lawyers and judges,
as well as mock interview scenarios, is the best aspect of the program. The involvement of lawyers, judges, and experienced forensic accountants results in an incomparable opportunity for feedback and personal development.
What surprised me most about the program were the diverse backgrounds and work
experience of the individuals studying alongside me. My class included a lawyer, an investigator from a securities commission, an individual working with an organized crime agency, and an individual from the Canada Revenue Agency.
Jennifer: I had the advantage of being grandfathered into the program, so the process of earning the IFA designation only took about six months.
The most difficult part of the work was getting experience at the higher levels—going to court and working at the planning stage with the legal staff or the client. You are definitely an assistant until you get credibility yourself; fortunately, the designation gives you some of that credibility in the early stages.
The continuing professional development is centrally located in Toronto, which is not feasible for me; however, I've been able to supplement my professional development with courses from the Certified Fraud Examiners – Vancouver Chapter and the Institute of Internal Auditors.
Meredith: It took me two years to get the
specialist designation, and I was surprised that the load was manageable. The program is
designed for people who have day jobs. I like the distance education feature and the topics.
What benefits have you experienced?
Meredith: The specialist designation gives me more credibility as an expert witness in court, and as an investigator with the BC Institute's Professional Conduct and Enquiry Committee.
I have now spent 10 years in this field, and I still find the work very interesting. I like to be involved in the administration of justice. It gives me great satisfaction when the results of my
forensic accounting work and expert witness
testimony are found to be useful by the court in arriving at decisions. The work is not always glamorous, and sometimes it can be frustrating when we have to abandon certain cases, but at least we can say that we tried all we could.
Jennifer: Initially, the designation gave me credibility and distinguished me and my experience. Credibility and differentiation continue to apply to my current work as well—I get much of my work because I'm a specialist in this area.
I enjoy doing investigative work for regulatory bodies, crown corporations, and other clients, and working on my own gives me the flexibility to balance my work with raising a family.
Suzanne: A key benefit of the CA∙IFA designation is that it identifies an individual as being
well-qualified and experienced in the field of
forensic accounting. The designation indicates that the individual has not only completed a program of study, but also has experience and meets ongoing requirements related to working directly in this field.
In terms of the work, I find that every
engagement is different and every day is unpredictable—I'm always dealing with something new, and that keeps me interested.
Who should consider earning the IFA?
Suzanne: In my experience, the individuals who are best suited to this field are those with a strong foundation in accounting, who are
analytical and enjoy digging into details, while possessing the ability to communicate complex financial information in a clear and concise manner. Generally, this includes individuals in accounting or boutique firms who provide
litigation support, forensic accounting, and
investigative services, as well as those working for various government regulators and enforcement agencies.
Meredith: Somebody who is very patient, highly curious, and able to think like a crook. Also, you really have to be creative and be able to think outside the box. And you need to have strong auditing skills and enough experience to ensure that you feel confident approaching each case.
Jennifer: People skills are extremely important in this line of work. Handling clients who have suffered a loss or interviewing uncooperative witnesses can be a challenge. Stress and conflict go with the territory, so you need a thick skin and a clear head under pressure.
Report writing skills are also important. This
is the product of your work, and it will be
scrutinized in detail. You need to have an
analytical mind, but one that is open to alternate possibilities. If you love solving problems, great; if you love solving them in several different ways, so much the better.
What's the demand in the marketplace?
Jennifer: In my experience, the work increases as the result of an unsettled economic climate. After the storm blows over, when there's a chance to look at what happened, the demand for this work is at its highest.
Suzanne: There continues to be strong demand for the skills and expertise of CA∙IFAs. The
economic climate is one of several factors that drive this demand. An economic downturn
affects the demand for forensic accountants in
a number of ways: First, ongoing fraud that
may have gone undetected in a more buoyant economy begins to surface as management
increases their scrutiny of spending and cash flows; second, corporate downsizing can threaten existing fraud risk-management programs and controls, at the very time when companies
and individuals are facing increased financial pressure and increased fraud risk—creating a perfect storm of opportunity and motive.
Meredith: Forensic accounting is very expensive, so the jobs are traditionally with large CA firms and with government. The industries looking for this expertise include insurance companies, major banks, and even the Law Society for
their trust funds. Work is also available in civil litigation involving significant dollars.
The skill-sets are really specialized, so job
opportunities may be limited. At the same time, the competition for these jobs is also limited,
as there are fewer than 300 CA∙IFAs in Canada at the present time. Moreover, our skill-sets
are portable to other countries, and many
engagements have an international angle.
Any advice or lessons learned?
Meredith: This line of work isn't for everybody. You deal with incomplete information all the time, as well as uncooperativeness and a high level of pressure. But it's rewarding—it's like solving puzzles.
It's important to note that opportunities to gain experience in the field often present themselves in regular accounting and auditing engagements, or in volunteer work, when financial red flags pop up. If these situations grab your attention, and you can't let go, that's a good sign.
Jennifer: Try to get some experience in this
specialty area before you embark on this path. I'd recommend waiting until you have about five to 10 years of CA experience before looking at specializing.
It is hard to cut corners in this business where experience is so important. Try to look beyond the obvious—don't jump to conclusions. Cross every "t" and dot every "i," and then some.
Suzanne: Interested candidates need to understand the importance of three key areas: paying attention to details, keeping an open mind, and collaborating with the team to gain different perspectives in order to ensure that all bases are covered.
For me, it was beneficial to have some practical forensic accounting and investigative experience before committing to the DIFA program.
First, it allowed me to assess whether forensic accounting was a field that I wanted to pursue seriously, which was important given the time commitment and costs involved. Second, I
was able to draw on my experiences when
approaching my course work, which made the DIFA program more manageable.
Once you're in the program, make the most out of the capstone session—it is your best
opportunity to learn from seasoned forensic
accounting professionals and to get personalized feedback from judges and lawyers.
The CA·IFA designation would likely appeal to any CA who's interested in assessing financial evidence, quantifying economic loss, testifying as an expert witness, preventing fraud, and/or performing other litigation-related work. As
described by these three designees, the work
environment and the challenges for a CA·IFA are rather unique, and require highly specialized skills, along with a healthy dose of scepticism.
If you're interested in learning more about the CA·IFA designation, visit www.cica/ifa.
The CA·IT designation is granted by the CICA through its Alliance for Excellence in Information Technology ("IT Alliance"). Established in 2002, the IT Alliance encourages and recognizes the IT services provided by CAs. The IT Alliance is currently developing an accreditation program to give future CA·IT candidates access to educational courses that address all of the competencies required
by the CICA's IT Competency Map. Until this program is launched, candidates can apply for the CA·IT designation through the experience route application form, by demonstrating that their work experience aligns with the competencies covered in the Competency Map.
The IT Competency Map categorizes information technology services into the following core
areas: 1) business information technology strategic planning; 2) enterprise information technology
architecture; 3) business process enablement; 4) system development, acquisition, implementation, and project management; 5) information systems management; and 6) system reliability.
Currently, there are more than 225 CA·IT designees in Canada. To gain some insight into what
it means to hold this designation, we spoke to three BC CA·ITs. Penelope Hedges, CA·IT, is a
director of Integrated DataTools Inc., a Vancouver-based company that provides project management, business analysis, selection, and implementation services for commercial and custom-built business applications. She earned the specialist designation in 2005. Kevin Hiebert, CA·IT, is a senior
functional analyst for the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), headquartered in North Vancouver. He earned the CA·IT designation in 2006. Paul Schmidt, CA·IT, is the information technology partner at Wolrige Mahon LLP in Vancouver. The firm provides assurance, taxation, and other management advisory services. He earned the specialist designation in 2004. All three candidates were grandfathered into the program under the experience route.
Why did you pursue the CA·IT?
Penelope Hedges, CA·IT: Information technology runs in my family's blood. My parents were
publishers in Edinburgh, and they implemented the first computer typesetting system in Scotland in the 1960s. I grew up with punched tape and card processors that looked like knitting machines.
The CA·IT designation gave me professional recognition for my work in the IT area, and helped to distinguish me from my competition.
Kevin Hiebert, CA·IT: I was always interested in the latest technology, and looking for ways to
leverage it in my work in accounting, audit, and tax. When I learned about the IT specialist designation for CAs, I recognized it as a way to identify myself as someone with skills in both worlds: business systems and the financial functions that they support.
Paul Schmidt, CA·IT: I'd been asked to assume an oversight role for Wolrige Mahon's information technology needs in the late 1990s. At that time (as is the case today), rapid technological change was having a dramatic impact on the way public practice firms did their work. With emerging trends such as paperless audit files and office automation, it's not surprising that my oversight role quickly evolved into a full-time position.
My responsibilities include overseeing all aspects of the firm's internal IT needs relating to software, hardware, the Internet, and any change management. I also provide technology consulting services to owner-managed businesses. Getting a CA·IT designation was a logical next step to demonstrate my knowledge and experience in the field.
At what point in your career did you get the CA·IT?
Penelope: I qualified as a CA in 1980, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I did litigation support and insurance claims work. From the mid-1990s, I was a full-time custom software developer.
In the last couple of years, I've moved to consulting and project management, helping clients put together their requirements, researching the options available to them, and taking them through the data migration, implementation, testing, and training processes.
The CA·IT specialization was developed around 2004, and I obtained the designation in 2005.
Kevin: I started pursuing the specialist designation approximately nine years after earning my CA. I'd worked for eight years on enterprise
resource planning implementations, and I
wanted to show my colleagues and clients that I had come to understand a wide variety of
competencies in IT systems management.
Paul: I started to pursue the CA·IT in 1999. By that time, I'd been a CA for four years, and had worked in assurance for seven. I always had a natural aptitude for technology and had been considering a change. When the opportunity arose to assume the role of IT manager, I took it. I wasn't really sure where it would take me, but the decision to specialize in IT proved to be a good one. I was admitted to partnership in 2003.
What was the process like for you?
Kevin: Because I'd already worked in the field for a number of years, it only took me a few months to be granted the specialist designation through the experience route. I thought the application form for the experience route was well laid out, with easy-to-follow instructions.
Penelope: The process only took a few months, but that was after 12 years of full-time work in the field.
Paul: I was grandfathered into the program through the experience route, because I had almost six years of full-time experience in the IT specialty area already. I found the IT Competency Map to be highly technical. The five-year experience requirement to qualify was long, but I believe much of what you learn can't be learned from a textbook.
What benefits have you experienced?
Paul: The biggest benefit has been recognition as a "technology specialist" while also having a CA designation. This has allowed me to influence the way Wolrige Mahon operates, since I make most of the decisions on what technology to buy and how it will be implemented.
Technology can be frustrating, but it is quite rewarding to help others use it, and to increase overall efficiency—both at my firm and with clients.
The IT industry is broad and moves at lightning speed, so I never get bored. Keeping up to date with the change is particularly difficult, but the stringent ongoing professional development requirements help. This challenge is also what makes the work interesting.
Penelope: I like the intellectual challenges I face in the work I do. I've done everything from soup to nuts in the context of small- and medium-sized business organizations. People know me for my IT knowledge and skills, and they're impressed with the fact that I'm also a CA and can bring those business skills to the project at hand.
Kevin: Last year when I applied for a job in ICBC's finance services department, my CA·IT designation helped me demonstrate that I was well-positioned to bridge the worlds of their functional analysts and developers on the one side, and their internal customers—the finance business analysts—on the other.
Along with major software implementation projects, I have taken contract CIO positions, volunteered IT services to NPOs, and facilitated courses for the CA School of Business. While working on some US consulting projects, I found that my CA·IT designation gave me instant re-cognition among my peers, especially on projects supporting Canadian subsidiaries.
With this designation, the work that I can do includes: analysing system capabilities and requirements; developing prototypes, system design, and configurations/customizations; and finding solutions for automating workflows, transactions, and interfacing—essentially looking at where the data comes from, where it needs to go, and the steps needed to make it happen.
Who should consider earning the CA·IT?
Kevin: Candidates should have a keen interest in staying on top of the best new technologies
in business systems, and enjoy taking on the challenge of applying these technologies to
organizations, even amid resistance to change.
Also, you need to have a technical aptitude
to design and test code and tools for data extraction, transformation, reconciliation, and other aspects of systems integration and interfaces.
Paul: If an individual enjoys technology, and has a natural aptitude for it, this path may be the right one to take. Much of IT involves a "way of thinking" about issues and how they can be
resolved. Someone who can approach issues from a problem-solving perspective and doesn't mind rolling up their sleeves will thrive.
Penelope: Someone with strong left- and right-brain skills. On the one hand, you need to be a rigorous analyst; on the other, you need to be
able to deal with people and be creative in your solutions.
Often IT goes hand in hand with change
management. End users can become unsettled with new work environments and suspicious that their jobs are at risk. You need to be able to show them that they can do more with less, and more easily.
What's the demand in the marketplace?
Penelope: My clients typically use downturns in the economy to retool for the next upturn. My work has been relatively consistent over the years—almost counter-cyclical. As for this specific designation, clients find the concept of the CA·IT interesting, but no one has specifically asked for it.
Kevin: Increasingly, employers are looking for people who understand the systems and development life cycles, support processes, strategy/ risk considerations, and efficiency opportunities that come from properly implementing and
supporting financial transaction and reporting systems. They may not ask for the CA·IT by name, but they are definitely very interested in the combination of skills it represents!
Paul: Although employers don't specifically
request the IT specialist designation, this specialty, coupled with the CA designation, carries a lot of weight and credibility. Also, the breadth and scope of the technical skills required under this specialist designation have many applications
in industry and is helpful for those aspiring to become a company's CIO or COO.
Any advice or lessons learned?
Paul: We're living in a period of unprecedented change. Our foundations are shifting, with roles and responsibilities blurring between personal and business, as well as between administration, operations, and technology. I often tell young CA students that the most important skill they can possess is the ability to adapt to rapid change. This is particularly important for IT specialists who will be working on the front lines of this change.
As well, I think it's important to remember that in most organizations, technology is not the job—it's only a tool to get the job done. If you keep this perspective, you will have success.
Also, experience is a big differentiator in this field. The practical aspects of working with
and implementing new technologies are rarely outlined in books or courses—they come from working with and seeing them in action.
Penelope: My general advice would be to always do work that stimulates you and that you enjoy.
To anyone considering this career path, I'd advise starting as soon as possible. Try to steer your CA training to assist you in getting the
specialist designation. That said, you also need good business sense and experience to be useful to your clients, so you shouldn't restrict your work to IT until you've got a few good business years under your belt.
Kevin: It takes a person at least five years to
satisfy the IT competency skills map and obtain the required experience hours for the CA·IT
designation, so I'd recommend obtaining IT experience as soon as you can.
At the same time, as much as you may love
the IT side, don't neglect your professional
development in the core areas of accounting, audit, and tax. Keep a good balance between the two, and you'll stay "fit" to find solutions that are based on up-to-date knowledge from both domains.
Also, on the job learning is important, and
getting involved with different projects will
help to expand your experience and knowledge base. Getting on projects for small-, mid-, and large-tiered accounting systems will definitely add to your experience portfolio.
The CA·IT designation is applicable to candidates whose work experience for the last five years
covers the core areas in the CICA's IT
Competency Map. With the increasing integration of information technology in all aspects of
business operations, the CA∙IT specialist will continue to be an integral member of the team for any organization. If you're interested in learning more about the CA·IT designation, visit the CICA website at www.cica/it.
A word about the series
We hope you've enjoyed our CA specialist designation series, and that it has given you food for thought about potential career opportunities—whether you're a newly qualified CA or an established CA looking for a career change or recognition in your specialty field.
We'd like to end the series by offering a final note of thanks to all of the CAs who agreed to be interviewed: Thank you for sharing your stories!
Marlyn Won, CA, CMA, MAcc, is the president of MW & Associates Advisory Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based management consulting firm. She works on various projects for the ICABC,
including the Industry Insights e-newsletter.