Reflections on a Career in Public Accounting

January 12, 2021

Ray JohnsonBy Raymond N. Johnson, CPA, PhD

As I look back on a long career in public accounting, I have been blessed to work with a local firm and two national CPA firms, prior to becoming part of the faculty at Portland State University. I have also been able to engage in a number of professional issues while serving the profession in Oregon (both with OSCPA and the Oregon Board of Accountancy), nationally with the AICPA and NASBA, and internationally with IFAC and the International Accounting Education Standards Board.

There are so many people that I owe a debt of gratitude to for your professional guidance, leadership, and mentorship, ranging from my fellow CPAs in Oregon and beyond, to OSCPA past presidents and past chairs, former colleagues on the Oregon Board of Accountancy, to colleagues and leaders all over the United States and around the world. For me, the CPA profession is a global family, and it has been a personal blessing to serve with so many people who have devoted their time to advancing the accounting profession.

I also thank my biggest supporter — my wife, Marilyn. Those of you who know her, know how engaged she is in this profession, and the issues we face.

A hallmark of my engagement in the accounting profession (with OSCPA, the Oregon Board of Accountancy, NASBA, the AICPA and IFAC) has been an openness to encourage members to speak their minds, and to explore all ideas respectfully as a group. I can recall any number of lively professional discussions. Often, when engaged in these discussions, we did not end up where we thought we would at the beginning, because of the good ideas brought to the discussions by other CPAs. Engaging in those discussions made the accounting profession better.

I have a comment that I want to direct to those who are relatively new to the accounting profession. Every time I have volunteered for professional service I have learned, and I have grown. For those of you who are new to the accounting profession — the profession needs your thoughts and ideas. Step up and volunteer. Don’t let the time commitment slow you down. You will find that you will get a tremendous return on your investment. I think you will find the time you spend with colleagues, addressing professional issues, incredibly rewarding. I certainly have.

I have a second comment for those who are new in their careers. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that allow you to learn. Early in my career, I had several incidents where I would spend 10–30 hours auditing something, and an audit manager or partner, would sit down with my work and in 10–15 minutes ask insight questions that I had not thought about.

One day I asked, “I spent a lot of time on this, and yet in a short period of time you saw something that I did not. Tell me how you were able to see what you did?”

I found that managers and partners would always take the time to help me learn and grow, and they helped me see relationships that helped my career grow. If you ask good questions — questions that help you learn and grow — there are numerous people who will mentor you in your career.

I want to share a story of something that happened the other day. My wife and I were working with our personal trainer. We were each standing on one foot, on a soft rubber pad. We were being asked to constantly move, while maintaining our balance on one foot. I think this is a metaphor for the future. We must be ready to move and change — while maintaining our professional balance.

That same day we were talking about the change around us. Our trainer commented that the only environment he has ever known is one of constant change! Recently I have had the benefit of participating in a variety of conversations about the skills needed by the next generation of accountants. One theme is constant. It is critical for CPAs to be technologically nimble. As much as we have had to adapt to learn new professional standards, we must also adapt to learn new technologies. The tools associated with data analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are here — and they will continue to change and evolve. The way CPAs will get work done in the future will not be the way we did it. Embrace change the way this younger generation does!

That said, there is a stable balancing point in the way we approach the issues of our profession. We must continue to:

  • Bring diverse membership and ideas to our discussions and organizations;
  • Make everyone feel welcome and valued in expressing their ideas and concerns;
  • Explore new ideas with respect and constructive discussion;
  • Demonstrate the values of professional skepticism and a data analytic mindset in all that we do; and
  • Honor the public interest in our actions, choices, and decisions.

Thank you, my colleagues, for participating with me in a wonderful professional journey. I look forward to continuing this exciting journey with each and every one of you who chose to volunteer and engage in the issues on the horizon for this vital profession.


Raymond N. Johnson, CPA, PhD, is an author and professor emeritus at Portland State University. He is a past chair of OSCPA Board of Directors, has served on The OSCPA Educational Foundation Board of Directors, OCPA/Legislative Action Committee Board of Trustees, and many OSCPA committees.

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