Some people are under the impression that a person must be a CPA in order to be an “accountant”.  That’s not true.  Accountant is a very generic term, encompassing  a wide variety of roles – some of which require certifications and some that do not.  In fact, not every accountant even strives to be a CPA.

I received dual Bachelor of Science degrees in Accounting and Marketing.  Unlike many of my peers, I wasn’t overly fond of financial accounting (balance sheets, income statements, etc).  I much preferred cost accounting – figuring out how much a widget cost to make and finding ways to shave a few cents off the cost.  Cost accounting is more complex than it appears on the surface, because of the makeup of costs.  Some costs are completely fixed, some are completely variable, and some are fixed within a certain range.  There’s quite a lot of analysis and algebra involved – which is probably why I liked it.

My other interest was in auditing – particularly in fraud detection.  I took two auditing classes in college, the second of which was essentially a series of case studies on some famous fraud cases – taking a look at what led up to the fraud and how it could have been detected earlier.  I can only imagine how much more interesting this course would be today, in the wake of Enron, Madoff, and the other major fraud cases of this century.

I was interested in gaining certification, but not as a CPA.  I was interested in becoming a CMA (Certified Management Account) or CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner).

However, as a 21 year old college senior, I had to face reality.  Employers had an interest in accounting students who were pursuing the CPA designation.  So I signed up for the exam and bought a couple of massive study guides.

Fast forward to the spring.  I have landed a job – working in an IT department.  The basic gist of the job is that I will provide support for accounting systems (it ended up morphing into a much different role over the years, but that’s a story for another day).  Not only was a CPA not required, it wasn’t something that seemed likely to advance my career much.

During the spring semester, I had been balancing the job search with a full course load (18 credits) and a part-time job.  In particular, one of my marketing classes ended up sucking up a ton of time.  In a nutshell, I had to determine which was more important – my grades or my performance on the CPA exam.  Due to their permanence, grades won out, and I prepared for the CPA exam much less than most of my classmates.

In spite of the fact that the CPA designation wasn’t required for my job and that I had little interest in becoming a CPA, I decided to sit for the exam anyway.  This wasn’t pure folly – I did have some things working in my favor.  I was a good student in college, doing particularly well in my accounting classes.  Also, I had taken many more accounting classes than were required (as electives), so I had a broader base of knowledge that the typical student.  Parts of the exam were essay, meaning that writing style would count for some of the score – and I’ve always tended to do well on essay tests.

The biggest factor, though, was that I had already paid to take the exam.  I think the fee was about $200 – a ton of money for a poor student.  I wasn’t going to flush that money down the drain without giving it the old college try.

The final week of my college career was very interesting.  The CPA exam was scheduled for later in the week, so I needed to work with my professors to schedule all of my finals for earlier in the week.  In the span of a couple of days, I took exams in topics ranging from Auditing II to Romantic Literature.  I’ll always remember my very last final – Romantic Literature.  The exam was one question.  The question was this (paraphrasing): “On the first day of class, we discussed what the class thought Romantic Literature was.  How have these ideas proven to be true or false over the course of the semester?”  Simple, but brilliant.  I aced the exam, and walked out knowing that I had aced it.

After that exam, I jumped into my Ford Taurus (a ten year old car, and the first of three Tauruses I have owned) and drove from Ames to Waterloo (Iowa).  I checked into my hotel (the cheapest in town – I’m not very picky when it comes to hotels).  That night, I met up with a friend and her boyfriend.  We went to a restaurant and chatted for a while before going our separate ways.  The boyfriend, Chris, was in the early stages of running a popular tech-centric website.  We talked about the Mac/PC divide, and he suggested that I start something similar to his site, but devoted to Macs.  I didn’t feel that I had enough tech knowledge to do it (and I was probably right), but in hindsight it might have been a good idea to take a suggestion from the creator of LockerGnome.

The next day, I showed up at the site of the exam.  It was pouring rain and I was totally unfamiliar with the area.  I ended up parking about a half mile away and got drenched.  I finished the morning session early and made a K-Mart run to buy dry clothes (apparently the hotel was too far away to make it there and back in time for the afternoon session).

It became apparent fairly quickly that I wasn’t going to pass the exam.  That’s not particularly noteworthy – most people do fail the exam the first time (although my wife passed on her first attempt).  Armed with the knowledge that a miracle was not going to occur, I sat back and enjoyed the process.  I had absolutely no stress, and just focused on answering the questions to the best of my ability.  At the end of the second day, I finished up a couple of hours early and jumped in the car to return to Ames.  I graduated over the weekend.  The next week,  I commenced with my out-of-state move for my new job.

I was not at all stunned when I received notification that I had failed the CPA exam.  The scores were high enough that I actually briefly entertained thoughts of giving it another chance, before sanity prevailed.  I gave away my study guides to someone who needed them (or perhaps she planned to use them as doorstops).

At the age of 35, the number of professional designations I have is … zero.  I think that professional designations are a great way to certify specific knowledge.  However, I have spent my time actively pursuing knowledge – in a wider variety of area than is typical.  It may change at some point, but at this point, I have no plans to become certified in anything.