Q&A with Timothy Timpkins: Author of “Work It Out with a Pencil – Outrageous Tales from Twenty Years as an Accountant”

Accounting, Insight

Must reads for business leaders

I don’t think there are many biographies on accountants (are there any!?), but there is of course one very good reason for that.

Understandably the perception of accountants isn’t exactly the most colourful. But then, when you’re running a business you want your accountant to be as professional as possible and not necessarily the type to throw TV’s out of hotel windows. 

Nevertheless and contrary to scientific research, it turns out that accountants are actually real humans with emotions and a sense of humour! Author of “Work It Out with a Pencil” Timothy Timpkins, once a statutory, management and project accountant for over 20 years, is also aiming to prove this. 

With comical anecdotes (that those in Finance will find twice as funny) and personal moments that put a real personality behind the automaton stereotype, I caught up with Timothy to talk about his new book…

 

Tell us about the book and why you wrote it

It was something I’ve thought of doing for quite a while. I found myself in the position where I wasn’t having that daily grind of work and I wanted to do something different with my life. I’d retired from accountancy after 20 years and thought, what do I want to do for the next 20-30 years of my life? 

So it was twofold for me, I was keen to prove that actually accountants can have fun and that fun doesn’t involve balancing out a balance sheet or being on top of the latest tax information. The second part of it was more personal and sort of like a memoir for me, but I wanted to show the real side.

You had some entertaining accounting stories to tell…

You might be able to correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t know any other department in a business which has as many nicknames as finance: number crunchers, bean counters, number jugglers, we are very much the butt of a lot of jokes!

I stood up in a training course once and made this point and said “Well we don’t talk about procurement or purchasing guys as purchase monkeys or anything like that.”

You said that you wanted show that accountants aren’t “grey-suited” or at least don’t have to be. Do you think times have changed since when you first started out to now?

I think there’s still an element of the grey-suit – the other side to that is a broad brush assumption that we’re all tight fisted and mean. I said to a team of accountants once that the first thing you do whenever there’s a team night out is one, you go, and two, you buy the first round. With that you then kill that stereotype dead within 5 minutes.  I think what tends to happen is along with all the nicknames, we’re seen as some sort of dark arts magicians.

We went on a track day to Silverstone once and we got on a minibus as a group of accountants, and someone came on and said “There are meant to be 16 of you. How many are there?” and I said, “Well how many do you want us to be? Pick a number, whatever you want, because that’s what we do!” But I wanted to dispel those myths.

An Finance Director I worked with once did a fantastic presentation where he related year-end accounts to household bills and accruals and prepayments just like your gas bill. It just sort of takes the accountancy out of accountancy. So that your average man in the street can see that it’s not all just mumbo jumbo and actually it’s quite a simplistic process once it’s down in Layman’s terms for everybody to understand. I’d say there was probably a small amount of people that wouldn’t want to do that and like to have that, “Ooh give me 5 mins and I’ll give you the answer” approach. And I think the hard work is with those that prefer to have that sort of mystic about them – if anything they’re just promoting the stereotype.

Do you think you have been able to change some opinions of this stereotype?

I hope so. A lot of people on twitter have applauded the book which is very nice. It’s good that others can see that we’re not all boring and monotone. And I’ve had a few reviews of the book on Amazon and people are saying “Who’d have thought it? Accountants aren’t boring!”

How have times have changed since when you first started?

We don’t write in ledger books anymore for a start! When I first started I was still working with people who wrote with a pencil and did the old audit ticks, so technology has been the biggest change. What I would say and this isn’t probably just for accountancy either, is while that’s been fantastic it’s also been the downside for me because it’s far too easy for somebody to send an email or an instant message instead of going to talk to someone.

At one of the companies I mention in the book I said that I felt like Tony Blair’s speech writer, as I was drafting emails and I’d spent 45 minutes drafting an email to make sure that, one, there was no ambiguity in it, two, I wasn’t setting myself up for a fall and three, that I absolutely got the right message across in the right way. So while the technology has been really good it becomes something people can hide behind.

Even though there are lots of humorous anecdotes, there is also a very personal side to the book…

Part of the book was like a memoir and it was quite cathartic to go through, certainly with coming through the whole stress and anxiety thing. Before it hit me I would have been the sort of person to say “Pull yourself together!”, until it actually catches you and you have those feelings where you’re not under a duvet, you’re actually under some 3 tonne iron cloak and you can’t literally move. I was very fortunate that my company was fantastic in helping me through all that. I wanted to say to people, that you can talk about depression and it’s alright to feel that way.

It would be a great read for students too – Do you have any advice for students thinking about going into accountancy?

Don’t leave your sense of humour at the door because you’re going to need it! You spend a lot of your working week with people so try to promote accountants as human beings and not automatons who are just number crunching.

By all means there are rules to follow, but if you see any de-humanisation behaviour in your colleagues then try and promote the other way.

So what’s different about being an accountant to now being a writer?

It’s still hard work! I’ve spoken to a lot of writers and they tell you it’s a hard working industry. Firstly, I’m not a famous writer – I’m not someone who can knock it out and sell hundreds of thousands. But it’s also a book that’s ultimately about an accountant – it’s a hard sell as it is! To make matters worse the publishers decided to release it in the same week that Harper Lee bought out her To Kill A Mockingbird sequel. I’ve been up against it from day one! I’m up for a challenge but jeez!

What’s next for you?

In typical accounting fashion I’m waiting for my first sales report and royalty cheque! I would love to do more writing. Knowing that people have enjoyed it has been really encouraging for me.  I’ve also got quite an interest in wine and food, but the good thing for me is, while I don’t want to go back into a finance role, it’s always there – and, it’s always something people need. 

 

“Work It Out with a Pencil – Outrageous Tales from Twenty Years as an Accountant” is available from Amazon and has already received some glowing reviews.  

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