Let’s chat about AI, Part I: A practical discussion for CPAs

By Mitchal Derksen
Jan 15, 2024
Photo credit: ojogabonitoo/iStock/Getty Images

Artificial intelligence (AI) is arguably the most disruptive technology to gain widespread attention and adoption since the inception of the internet. But for many professionals, including CPAs, AI is still a proverbial black box.

Recognizing this, we’re launching “Let’s Chat about AI,” a three-part series of articles by Mitchal Derksen, CPA, CA, founder and CEO of Numu Technologies in Vernon. Mitchal is a software developer who works with AI every day. In this series, he will discuss why CPAs need to familiarize themselves with AI, offer practical advice on getting started with AI tools, explore the risks and ethical considerations CPAs need to address when using AI, and answer the most frequently asked questions about this transformative technology.

We hope you enjoy this first instalment. Look for parts II and III in the March/April and May/June issues of CPABC in Focus, respectively.


In today’s fast-paced world, AI is not just a buzzword—it’s a game-changer, especially for us CPAs. At Numu, we work hard to understand how to build and implement AI for accounting use in a manner that is both safe and beneficial. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I’d like to share some of what we’ve learned about AI and the transformational impact it is having on our profession.

Let’s dive into why it’s becoming increasingly important for CPAs to understand and embrace AI.

First, there’s a growing need for CPAs to be tech-savvy. AI tools are becoming a staple in our industry, offering smarter ways to handle data, enhance accuracy, and provide deeper insights. But here’s the catch: These tools are only as good as the hands they’re in. This means CPAs need to get comfortable with AI—and not just as users but as informed practitioners who really understand what’s going on under the hood.

Next, it’s about who’s steering the ship. When it comes to integrating AI in accounting, CPAs shouldn’t just be passengers—we need to be in the driver’s seat. It’s not enough to wait for tech experts to hand us solutions. By getting involved in the development and application of AI, CPAs can ensure these tools are fine-tuned to meet the unique needs and ethical standards of our field.

Lastly, the speed at which AI is being adopted in all industries is nothing short of breathtaking. It’s rapidly transforming the way we work, automating routine tasks, and opening up new avenues for strategic analysis. To stay relevant, we have to be adaptable and keep current.

In short, AI is a critical piece of the puzzle in the modern accounting landscape. By gaining the right skills, leading the charge in AI integration, and keeping pace with technological advancements, we, as CPAs, can tap into the potential of AI to truly excel in our roles.

Practical AI uses for different roles

Here’s a quick look at how AI tools can be applied to specific positions within the accounting field:

  1. The CFO/partner

    If you’re a CFO or a partner in an accounting firm, AI can be a strategic ally that helps with both decision-making and risk management. For example, sophisticated tools like predictive analytics can forecast financial trends, and AI-powered platforms like IBM Watson1 can analyze market trends and internal data to predict future financial outcomes. Additionally, AI-driven financial modelling tools can automate complex financial scenarios, saving you time and increasing accuracy.

    But AI doesn’t even need to be this complex to be useful. Simple tools like ChatGPT are great at summarizing reports, documents, and contracts to help you quickly understand long-form content at a high level (just copy and paste this article, ask ChatGPT to summarize it, and see what happens!).

  2. The controller/manager

    If you’re a controller and/or a manager, you can leverage AI for efficient financial reporting and compliance. AI tools like MindBridge Ai Auditor will help you detect anomalies in financial transactions, thereby enhancing the accuracy of your financial statements and reducing the risk of fraud. Moreover, AI can automate repetitive tasks such as data entry and reconciliation, allowing controllers to focus on more strategic activities.

    For managers at smaller businesses or public practice managers looking to help their small and medium-sized clients, AI-powered bookkeeping services like Agile BK can be game changers in terms of speed and accuracy. For controllers or public practice managers who work with larger companies, tools like BlackLine or FloQast can streamline accounting processes, helping to ensure timely and accurate financial reporting.

  3. The accountant/analyst

    If you’re an accountant and/or an analyst, you’ll find that AI can be a powerful tool for data analysis and management. AI-powered data visualization tools like Tableau or Microsoft Power BI, for example, can transform complex data sets into understandable and actionable insights. AI can also assist with real-time budget monitoring and variance analysis, enabling accountants to provide timely financial advice and adjustments.

    Additionally, robotic process automation tools, such as UiPath or Blue Prism, can increase your efficiency and accuracy by automating routine tasks like data entry, invoice processing, and bank reconciliations. Even simple, no-code automation platforms such as Zapier or Make (see next page) can transform your day-to-day workflow in this way.

How to get started with AI

Embracing AI in your accounting practice doesn’t have to be complex or expensive. By starting with accessible AI tools and applications, you can gradually build a more AI-integrated practice. Whether you begin by enhancing client communications, optimizing Excel usage, or automating routine tasks, your journey into AI can start with a few simple and practical steps that will help you integrate AI into your daily workflow. Here are some examples:

Chat interface: Enhancing communication and information management

Start by exploring AI chat interfaces like ChatGPT, Bing Search/Windows, or Google Bard.2 These tools use natural language processing to understand and respond to queries, making them user-friendly for various tasks.

For example, AI chatbots can simplify client communications by handling routine inquiries, scheduling appointments, and filtering communications using tone of voice. They can also speed up the process of summarizing and drafting communications—just don’t forget to have a human being review any outgoing messages before hitting send.

AI tools can also intelligently route communications to the appropriate department or individual, ensuring that client queries are addressed promptly and by the right people. They are also excellent at summarizing large volumes of text, which can be particularly useful when you have to quickly generate a brief from lengthy financial documents. Again, however, it’s important to note the need for human review to ensure accuracy and relevance.

ChatGPT and Excel: A powerful combination

Excel is one of the most powerful basic tools that accountants have in their professional tool kits, but most of us only ever scratch the surface of its capabilities. With a bit of training, anyone can develop simple yet powerful spreadsheet applications to automate routine workflows, generate analysis, and more

AI tools like ChatGPT can make your Excel tasks even more manageable and efficient by providing step-by-step guidance on creating and troubleshooting formulas. They also provide the easiest way to learn how to structure complex, nested functions that let you quickly filter, parse, organize, and manipulate data using conditional triggers.

Streamlining processes with no-code integrations

Finally, “no-code” tools like Zapier and Make allow you to integrate various applications without having to perform complex coding. These platforms can connect your accounting software with other tools, automating workflows such as data entry, report generation, and even email notifications. Although they’re not fully fledged AI applications, these tools save time while also reducing the likelihood of human error.

Learning to code – supercharging CPAs

As AI reshapes accounting, CPAs with skills in both accounting and software development are becoming increasingly sought-after. And as more of us learn to code, particularly in an easy-to-learn and finance-friendly programming language like Python,3 we’ll not only expand our skill sets—we’ll also help to ensure that CPAs are in the driver’s seat when it comes to implementing AI in the accounting industry.

If this sounds daunting, it’s important to remember that software development is ultimately just a problem-solving exercise using logical processes with structured data—something very similar to what we learn in our training as CPAs. Additionally, platforms like LinkedIn Learning and Udemy are treasure troves for online courses. Catering to all levels, from beginner to advanced, these courses let you learn at your own pace while gaining expertise from industry professionals.

Python: The ideal starting point

Python’s simplicity and readability make it perfect for accountants who are new to coding—in fact, you can think of it as a gateway to data management, analysis, and AI integration. Its user-friendly syntax and extensive libraries facilitate quick learning, enabling you to carry out tasks ranging from data analysis to task automation with relative ease.

Embracing coding in Python can not only empower you to leverage AI effectively—it can also open up possibilities for innovation, such as enhancing Excel macros and developing bespoke AI tools.

Developing spreadsheet applications

Python’s integration into the latest versions of Excel has transformed data manipulation capabilities. You can now use Python for advanced data analysis and automation within Excel, surpassing the limitations of Microsoft’s Visual Basic for Applications for macros. Python also enables direct access to the ChatGPT application programming interface (API), adding AI-powered intelligence and interactivity to spreadsheets.4

If you use Google Sheets, you can leverage Google Apps Script, which is based on JavaScript, for similar functionalities. Google Apps Script’s compatibility with Google Workspace can enhance both team collaboration and spreadsheet utility.

Customizing workflows and automations

Python’s versatility enables you to create custom workflows, review triggers, and automations. With the integration of large language models like ChatGPT through their APIs, these custom tools can respond to natural language prompts, making them more intuitive and user-friendly. This reduces the need for technical manuals and lowers the barrier to entry for other team members who might not be as tech-savvy.

Key resources for CPAs

When we talk about AI in accounting, it’s important to remember that with great power comes great responsibility. So in part two of this series, which will appear in the March/April issue of CPABC in Focus, I’ll delve into the risks, potential pitfalls, and ethical considerations of AI in accounting and discuss how to navigate these challenges effectively, ensuring that the adoption of AI in our field is both beneficial and responsible.

In the meantime, you’re welcome to visit numutech.com/infocus, where we’ve curated a free learning library for CPAs interested in learning more about AI and software development. You’ll find a variety of resources, including quick, DIY worksheets designed to help you build your AI skill set and links to external resources that my team has found extremely useful.

Stay tuned for part two, and let’s continue this important conversation together.

What do you want to know about AI? We want to hear from you!

Mitchal and his team of CPAs will be creating a list of FAQs for part three of this series in our May/June 2024 issue, so please send your questions and thoughts on this topic to infocusmag@bccpa.ca with the subject line “AI in Accounting.” Says Mitchal, “Your participation is not just welcomed—it’s essential. Together, we can ensure that CPAs navigate the AI landscape successfully.”


Mitchal Derksen, CPA, CA, is the founder and CEO of Numu Technologies in Vernon. He and his team of CPAs focus on researching and responsibly developing AI for accounting.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2024 issue of CPABC in Focus.

Footnotes

1   CPABC does not have any affiliation with IBM or other brands discussed in this article, and neither CPABC nor the author are recommending any of the brands mentioned as a solution for you or your business. References to other brands or tools are provided as examples for information purposes only.

2   Not available in Canada at the time of writing in November 2023.

3   Python is an open-source programming language that’s free to use.

4  “The ChatGPT API is an interface provided by OpenAI that allows developers to integrate the ChatGPT model into their own applications, software, or platforms.” Source: Gyan Prakash Tripathi, “How To Use ChatGPT API In Python?”, as at November 2, 2023.

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