Industry Insights – A Conversation with Kathy Yakal

Kathy Yakal (with a friend)
For this week’s installment of our Industry Insights series, we spoke with Kathy Yakal, a freelance journalist who has been writing about personal software and business applications since 1983. Yakal specializes in financial software and has written for PC Magazine, Barron’s, Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine and The Progressive Accountant.

Our conversation with Kathy covered a mix of topics from innovations to mobile access to the consumerization of business software, all in the framework of the accounting and finance arena. Here are the highlights… 

INTACCT: You’ve been writing about financial software for roughly 30 years. What have been the top three innovations you’ve covered in this space since then and why? 

YAKAL: First, the World Wide Web, because it opened the floodgates for online transactions and other exchanges of financial data. Next would be the Q&A exchanges in tax preparation software, because they make the IRS' voluminous regulations almost understandable. Third, I would have to say is the introduction of customizable reports in accounting software and the ability to exchange report data with Microsoft Excel. This allows businesses using one-size-fits-all applications to grab the precise set of numbers that they need. 

INTACCT: Are cloud and mobile as important, aka “game changing” for accounting and finance as other industries? 

YAKAL: Yes, definitely. These trends are at least as important in finance, if not more so. They open up so many potential revenue streams – geographically and in terms of services offered – and let CPAs and staff get out of their offices without sacrificing productivity. 

I'm not sure if the ability to work 24/7 is a good thing for your personal life, but mobile and cloud computing change the accounting profession in many, profound ways. CPAs can see what's up with their clients' data at any time, without having to swap files and freeze some activities. It's easier to offer outsourced bookkeeping. Data loss is less likely thanks to remote backups and a natural disaster doesn't have to shut down a business for weeks. There's also less need for IT support. Accountants have more time to become true business advisors, not just number-crunchers. Virtual accounting gives clients more time to make their businesses flourish instead of wrestling with their balance sheets and payroll taxes. 

INTACCT: How seamless is moving to the cloud for accounting types? 

YAKAL: Cloud computing is not without challenges for everyone. CPAs will need a different kind of technical knowledge. Unless the vendor helps them, they may have to stitch together a few different applications to get a unified cloud financial solution. Accounting departments have their own trials in adapting to the cloud. But these are mostly training issues, which means CPAs have yet another service to offer if they can help clients transition to using cloud software. 

INTACCT: Providing access to financial data via the Web and mobile devices can scare some people, what do you recommend they do to appropriately mitigate the risks of doing that? 

YAKAL: The usual precautions come to play. It's a pain, but companies must require complex passwords and force users to change them at least every three months. In a perfect, well-financed world, employees wouldn't be accessing Facebook from the same computers where they work with sensitive company data. Businesses would have a stable of dedicated business smartphones or tablets for employees who need them. But most small companies don't have the luxury of supplying employees with multiple devices. 

Should employees be allowed to access company data from their personal smartphones? Smartphone security – any kind of wireless security, really – makes me nervous. I won't even do online banking with my phone. The stable of antivirus and anti-malware solutions for desktop PCs and notebook computers is more evolved, and there's more choice, so I find these devices safer for remote access. 

INTACCT: How would you describe the ongoing consumerization of business software? 

YAKAL: I remember the dreadfully unattractive DOS-based accounting screens of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The maturing of the Windows operating system itself forced developers to brighten up their UIs and make them more visually appealing. People came to expect the same pretty icons and helpful navigational tools in their accounting software as they were getting in other applications. 

I think that double-entry bookkeeping has been translated skillfully to PC screens, and that's thanks in large part to Microsoft. Accounting software developers made their offerings look and work like other Windows software early on and adapted tools including drop-down and local menus, icons and buttons, and other common interface conventions. Credit goes, too, of course, to companies like Intuit and Sage that many years ago took a ledger and paper-based system and made it possible for non-CPAs to manage their company's money in a friendly, understandable PC-based setting. 

Of course, the perception that a well-designed UI somehow makes arcane accounting concepts accessible can be misleading. Users still have to understand basic accounting rules to use these programs and sites effectively. 

INTACCT: What really makes accountants, analysts, and finance people happy at work—aside from a nice salary and benefits? 

YAKAL: I would say, in no order, they want helpful, easily-accessible help files for software and affordable, easy to reach tech support personnel. They appreciate tools that accelerate cash flow, such as merchant accounts and mobile payment options. They love applications that they can customize and UI conventions that are truly useful, not just decorative, and don't slow operations down. They enjoy working with clients who follow standard accounting procedures and who don't turn everything in at the last minute and expect an immediate turnaround. 

INTACCT: Now for a few fun questions… 

Which job from your past was the most fun and why?
YAKAL: Hands down, my favorite job was the four-plus years I spent at COMPUTE! Publications in Greensboro, North Carolina, from 1983 to 1987. It was fascinating to watch the jockeying for position going on with the early hardware and software companies. At one Consumer Electronics Show (CES), 17 new personal computers were introduced. I loved interviewing the industry personalities who were trying to figure it all out. 
Are you more of a cat or dog person? 
YAKAL: I have one scaredy-cat, a huge Maine Coon who's afraid of everything. I also have an older, wiser, smaller Calico who is prone to sneezing fits and rarely makes any noise when she meows. I'd like to have a dog someday—but not a Labradoodle. 
What is your favorite weekday indulgence? 
YAKAL: That would have to be watching recordings of "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones" on Monday nights. I grow weary of the Don-Megan storyline on the former, but the latter just keeps getting better. I do have to close my eyes sometimes, though. 

Want to connect with Kathy? Be sure to follow her on Twitter (@kyakal). You can also follow Intacct on our social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn

Do you have interesting industry insights you’d like to share? Do you know someone that we should interview? Send your suggestions for consideration.

Previous Industry Insights Conversations: 
June 6 – Darren Root 
May 30 – Laurie McCabe 
May 17 – Daniel Hood
May 9 – Jeff Kaplan
May 2 – Mike Vizard


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