Professional Spotlight: Jessica O’Keefe

Jessica O'Keefe, CPA

The path toward obtaining an accounting credential looks different for everyone. Whether you’re on the road toward becoming a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, Certified Internal Auditor, Certified Information Systems Auditor, Enrolled Agent, Certified Fraud Examiner — or whatever career path you’ve chosen to embark upon — there are a few unavoidable obligatory steps one must initially take. Many accounting credentials require a Bachelor’s degree in either accounting or finance, some amount of work experience that is often determined by either the level of education attained and/or your geographic location, and finally to take either the CPA Exam, CMA Exam, or any of the other respective exams your prospective accounting certification demands. Once you’ve fulfilled all the experience requirements you need to obtain the accounting designation of your choice, your accounting career path becomes whatever journey you make of it.

In this professional spotlight, we interview financial professional Jessica O’Keefe for a brief view into her years-long pursuit of obtaining her CPA and CISA certifications as well as her opportunity to build upon her accounting skills outside of the United States. Read on to learn about the many twists and turns one finance professional has traveled on her journey in accountancy.

Tell us about your educational background.

Jessica O’Keefe: I was interested in a variety of subjects in high school, but never really considered business and accounting seriously until college. I started at the University of Maryland as a computer science major, and then joined QUEST, a 3 year, multi-disciplinary honors program with students from the business, engineering, and computer science fields. This exposure to the field of business led me to change my major to accounting in my sophomore year. 

What was it like balancing your first internship with your University course load?

J.O’K: I started my first internship during the summer after my sophomore year, which allowed me to work full time outside of school. Then, after my relationship was established with the firm, I was able to negotiate continuing with some part-time work a few days a month during the fall. This worked out well as I had no Friday classes, so had the flexibility to work a couple Fridays each month. However, I understood the importance of focusing on my studies during my junior year, so we mutually agreed that I would stop working around the Christmas holidays.

Can you describe your first job? Did it at all prepare you for your career?

 J.O’K: My first job was with a local electrical engineering firm in the summer after my sophomore year. I think it was great to get some early experience in a small business rather than an accounting firm, as it allowed me to really understand basic accounting and business processes in a real world setting. My responsibilities included processing purchase orders, invoicing, and payroll. It also helped me realize that while this was a great first experience, I ultimately would want to work in a larger firm with younger personnel and more challenging experiences. I applied for my Big 4 internship the following fall. My interview for this position was very relaxed and came from my connections in my hometown, so it was a very low pressure way to start in the work force, but allowed me to build confidence for future interviews.

You had a really interesting opportunity to intern abroad. Can you tell us about that experience?

J.O’K: My internship was through KPMG, so the initial interview process was similar to other Big 4 internships. I made connections with recruiters at school through events they hosted and career fairs, and then went through a series of on-campus and in-office interviews. After accepting your internship with KPMG, you are offered the option to apply for more selective internship opportunities such as the Global Internship Program (GIP). One of the things that initially attracted me to KPMG was their strong additional internship opportunities and willingness to invest in their people even as early as their internship. I submitted a written application and then had a phone interview and ultimately was selected for a group of around 30 students in the GIP. We were from offices across the U.S. and spent 4 weeks of our internship in our U.S. offices and then 4 weeks in 10-15 locations around the world. My global internship was in Malaysia with 3 other interns. The main business language in Malaysia was English, and the KPMG methodology and processes were very similar to the U.S., so we all still learned valuable skills, but were lucky enough to build these skills at a variety of international companies. My team was also extremely welcoming and took me out to lunch and dinner almost every weekday to make sure I got a great cultural experience as well.

Jessica in Malaysia during her Internship at KPMG.

Which accounting designations have you obtained, so far?

J.O’K: I passed all four sections of the CPA exam between graduation and my August full-time start with KPMG. I passed my CISA exam in 2015, after about 3 years of work experience.

What was your experience like studying for these Exams?

J.O’K: For the CPA, most people I know were taking the exam soon after college, so my biggest advice to them is to continue with your own study tactics that made you successful in college. At this point, you know what works best for you and should stick with those same processes for the CPA. For the CISA, it tends to be a different situation where people have been working for several years and are studying while working. I have two pieces of advice for the CISA – 1. A lot of the CISA material is information you learn on the job in IT and Audit fields. Therefore, I think the most effective way to study is to start with a pre-test. There are five areas/subject for the CISA, so if you already score reasonably well in a couple areas, I would devote more time to the weaker areas. I think it takes less time to go from knowing 40% to 70% of the information in a topic area than going from 70% to 90%. 2. Do the practice questions. A lot of the CISA questions seem to have several right answers, so it’s not just knowing the material, but also knowing how questions are presented and learning what the ‘most correct’ answer is.

How much time passed between graduation and your first job offer?

 J.O’K: I accepted my full time offer with KPMG after my internship the summer before my senior year of college.

Did you have any interest in any one area of accountancy in particular?

J.O’K: I initially looked at internships with the Big 4 due to my accounting major and expected to take an internship in audit or tax. However, upon speaking with the recruiters, they made me aware of another potential internship due to my second major in Information Systems (IT Attestation internship with our advisory practice). At that point in time, I didn’t really have any experience or preference toward audit or tax, so thought the internship would be a good opportunity to try a different path than most of my other fellow accounting majors and take the advisory internship.

There’s a lot of buzz about how accounting firms are changing. We’ve heard that things like AI and outsourcing certain work to offshore resources are impacting the work that young accountants do at a firm. Have you witnessed any of this?

J.O’K: I have heard this concern, and while I recognize technology will continue to change our profession, I don’t think it will lead to a reduced need for accounting and business students, especially in the Big 4 firms. While we will continue to use technology and outsourcing, this will allow our staff to perform higher value tasks. Ultimately, public accounting is a people business, so we will always need people to communicate with the client and transform data to provide analysis and insight. My advice would be to continue to focus on soft skills to show value in the client space and think about what technical skill set you can bring (how will you provide analysis based upon the greater availability of data?).

If you had to do it over again, would you still earn have pursued your credentials?

J.O’K: Definitely. Although my field is not traditional accounting, I still think there is real value in being a CPA, as it is a signal of your ability to prepare and take a difficult exam and your commitment to ethics and continuing education. For the CISA, my firm paid my course, exam, and certification fees – if you are in a position to earn credentials through work, I would definitely encourage you to take advantage of that. Although the CISA is not as challenging of an exam as the CPA, I think it provides a similar signaling of your commitment to your field and elevates your standing with clients, employers, and coworkers.

Any other credentials you’re thinking about getting in the future?

J.O’K: Not currently, but in the future I would consider getting a CISSP or PMP depending on the direction my career progresses in.

Jessica’s professional headshot, today.

Where would you like to pursue an internship abroad?

Let us know in the comments!

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