I Tweeted a moment ago that “the term QuickBooks ® is an oxymoron”. That’s not entirely fair. QuickBooks is a great program that my accountant is thrilled with. And I absolutely concur that it keeps the books. But is it quick? Not for me, it isn’t.
During the course of my lifetime I have taken a grand total of two accounting classes, both of which I passed, but neither of which I understood. I actually made an “A” in my MBA accounting course, but to this day I attribute that to academic benevolence and much-appreciated graduate school grade inflation. My undergraduate “C” came only with the patient assistance of my dorm neighbor Howie Lewis, who to this day regrets having ever volunteered to help me once I had become hopelessly lost by mid-semester.
Take the whole “debits” and “credits” thing. As Howie dragged me through one assignment he once told me that all I had to do is draw a T on a piece of paper and remember “debits to the window, credits to the door.” Or maybe it was the other way around. Whichever way one tossed credits and debits, however, Howie was confident that this keen insight cleared up the entire mystery of double-entry accounting. In class, however, the professor prattled on about how adding something to an account was sometimes a debit and sometimes a credit and it depended on this intricate ecosystem of nonsensical rules that Italian merchants figured out centuries ago. She never once mentioned windows or doors so I became lost and blamed the whole mishap on Howie.
It made no sense to me. Our sophisticated system of modern financial reporting was grounded on a methodology used by Italian merchants hundreds of years ago? We haven’t made any progress since then? I was an English major, though, so I knew what to do. I skipped to the back of the book, read the final chapter and headed for the university book store to find the Accounting 101 Cliff’s Notes.
As for my stormy professional relationship with accounting, it has been ever thus. Over the years I became proficient at reading and understanding the outputs of accounting exercises (income statements, balance sheets, large invoices from accounting firms) but never the magic going on behind the curtain. Accountants loved it that way. For years I’ve worked with CFOs, controllers and outside accountants who quickly learn that they can tell me anything about the “why” a financial report is structured the way it is, and I’m helpless to push back. They find it great sport to make up terms and concepts to glibly rationalize any accounting convention, whether real or imaginary. Once during my questioning an accounting explained they were forced to proceed in a certain way based on “Johnson’s Revenue Generation Convention”. That sounded vaguely off-color to me, but I recognized it for what it was – just one of a zillion ways that an accountant learns to say “because that’s the way the Italian merchants did it.”
Fate plays cruel jokes. After years of working with talented financial minds I now find myself deep within the bowels of QuickBooks on a regular basis, slogging slowly through general ledgers and journal entries, wondering which entries are debits and which are credits and where in the hell the windows and doors are in the entire equation and why I’m paying taxes when I’m not making any money. I will never know. But whatever happens with my books, I know one thing.
It won’t happen quickly.
© JPECA Inc. 2011