Interview - Mike Kistler

Financial Reporting
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Today’s guest is Mike Kistler. Mike started his career at PwC and has since worked at two of the most recognizable names in business: Google and Amazon. This has led to many opportunities for Mike, including launching products, working in emerging markets, and living abroad. Read on!

Contents:

  • The intersection of computer science and accounting
  • Living abroad
  • Working across multiple time zones
  • Setting yourself up for professional success

Thank you so much for being here, Mike! Can you start by telling us about your background?

I attended school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (go Cornhuskers!). I went through the JD Edwards Program (now the Rakes School of Computer Science and Management). You had to major in either business or computer science, and then minor in the opposite. It was a good program for students interested in computer science to also get a business background. It gives them insights into how their development projects work on the business side. For accounting or finance majors, it provided more technical skills and the opportunity to get experience coding. The program enables students to work with real companies on software development projects during the school year. I enjoyed that opportunity to work with a lot of really smart people while pairing a professional environment and school.
When I finished undergrad, I decided to go the MBA route through the Raikes School rather than master’s in accountancy. I know a lot of people who have gone both directions. When I was looking at long-term options, an MBA was the one that fit for me.

What did you do upon graduation?

I joined PwC in their audit practice. It provided a strong accounting foundation and a broad set of experiences. I worked on clients in banking, aerospace, and large fund companies. I spent most of my time with a multi-national financial services client that also had a tech component. PwC is a great company, there’s a lot of value starting in Big Four. It’s a known commodity in terms of training and experience, which can be applied in many different ways. That’s proven true in my career as well as several of my peers.
I’m definitely thankful for my experience with PwC. I have many fond memories from my time there, and I met a lot of really great people. In terms of leaving, I never thought I’d leave and I was more planning to go the partner track. But the exposure I was getting within PwC opened up some other things that I was interested in-specifically an interest in working more internationally. By really understanding what clients do, I found that PwC wasn’t going to be my home forever.

Where did you go when you left PwC?

I went to Google and switched gears a bit. I wasn't in a typical accounting role; it was a finance project management role that also had some subledger accounting responsibilities where I was able to pair my accounting and technical experiences. Working at PwC really solidified my appreciation for working internationally, so when Google approached me for this role -- where I’d be working with accounting, finance operations, tax, treasury, legal, and engineering teams plus have a lot of international exposure -- it was super interesting to me. Ultimately I took the role and got to be involved in launching a number of different products across some super difficult geos. I really just enjoyed learning and this enabled me to understand local accounting, tax, and compliance requirements in many of the different places that Google does business.
Later, I had the opportunity to move to Singapore and help roll out some of our APAC Play business. It was a short-term assignment and a super interesting experience living and working in APAC. When I moved back to the Bay Area and took a role in Google’s accounting org, I was working on Google Access, Energy, and Fiber with some international aspects again. Through a number of organizational changes, this role had taken more of a domestic focus on Google Fiber. Around that time, Amazon invited me to attend a networking session. That led to an invitation to interview for a position that fit really well with my skillset, so I relocated to Seattle to explore this new opportunity.

What’s it been like working for Amazon?

I've been here about four years and my role has evolved quite a bit over that time. I started in Seattle where I managed retail revenue accounting. I had a number of statutory audits (think of these as financial statements for a local country) as well as our global retail revenue accounting team. I worked on the Singapore and Australia launches from Seattle and that scope combined with my past experience ultimately led to taking an APAC role where I have been living in Australia for 3 years. While in Australia, I have also taken on some of our North LATAM responsibilities extending the best practices we have developed in APAC to LATAM.
Amazon is constantly changing, which is both good and challenging at the same time. You never fully know what's coming next. With the growth that companies like Amazon and Google experience (especially in emerging countries or new products), things can change quite rapidly and you have to be adaptable to that change. It's not necessarily comfortable at the time, but you're learning and growing which is the important thing. I really enjoy learning, trying new challenges, and figuring things out. I like learning about different countries, their rules and how those regulations came about. It is almost like learning about history for accountants. It is interesting to see how different jurisdictions compare to the U.S. and how to fit those two things together, because ultimately we have to meet requirements both locally and in our global consolidation.

How do you manage working across so many time zones?

There are pre-COVID and post-COVID answers to that. Pre-COVID, we did global initiatives and I would travel and get a lot done in-person. Post-COVID, we're doing many of those initiatives virtually. So in a post-COVID world, there are more boundaries that you have to set on your time otherwise you would be working around the clock. You have to figure out how to be flexible, but also not working 24/7. My day usually starts at 6:00 AM because that allows for the best overlap with the Americas. Most days I have a call immediately, which is different than most of my previous roles. Note this is not the typical experience, but it is typical for me with several LATAM geos in my scope. There are a lot of great tools to manage across time zones that I have found useful. Turns out that we’re not the first ones to do this. One thing that I have found incredibly helpful is that I have a calendar widget for my browser that shows what time it is everywhere that my team, business partners, and family are located. It helps to prevent contacting people in the middle of the night or during typical meal times.

How does your schedule compare to public?

With my current role, I work quite a lot with the Big Four firms across the different countries in which we have local filings. This leads to sharing busy season to a certain extent. We're trying to move through those busy seasons faster and working to spread them out to reduce the peaks. It's a very similar challenge to what you have in Big Four, we're just doing it on the corporate side.
For roles with month-end close, it's very different than Big Four. In Big Four, we didn't necessarily have something that had to happen every single month in such a short window. In general, I probably work similar hours to when I was in Big Four. There are definitely times where I've worked more and times where I've worked less. On average my schedule is similar just with different drivers of peak times.

How have you leveraged your computer science background in the real world?

Yes, I have absolutely used my computer science background. The audit firms have a manual process to assign auditors to inventory counts, and there was a perception around the office that the system wasn’t “fair”. I saw an opportunity to help address this problem and reduce the manual effort required as well, so I wrote a program in Java to take in team member availability, eligibility, past inventory counts performed, and seniority. This wasn’t part of my role, it was just an opportunity to apply computer science to help solve the problem. PwC was great about supporting that as well and even had an innovation contest to generate ideas within the firm and reward innovation.
I haven’t done any coding for production software at Google or Amazon, but I have written some scripts to help with efficiency and automation. Oftentimes, the way I use my computer science background is understanding how others are writing scripts. It’s less about writing the code and more about reading it and being able to understand the code that’s already there.
Even if I’m not writing or reading code, an understanding of computer science has helped when speaking with engineers, managing projects, and thinking through business requirements with an engineering lens.

You’ve lived in 5 cities and 3 countries during your professional life. Can you talk about those experiences?

Interestingly, the move from Kansas City to California was probably the most challenging. It wasn’t culture shock, but it was the biggest change in relation to access to our family and friends. Prior to California, we were within a few hours driving distance of them. Living in California changed holidays and how we stayed connected with friends and family.
The Bay Area is a unique place, obviously it’s been impacted by startups and now some much more mature technology companies. You can surround yourself with other nerds just like yourself. It’s a place where people from all over the world come together. That makes it easy to meet other people in a similar situation and interests as you.
When we were getting ready to move to Singapore, we were able to quickly find people in the Bay Area that had lived and worked in Singapore before. That helped us better understand what it was going to be like and made the move less complex, especially considering we had never been to Singapore before. It helped knowing what to expect, what was going to be hard and what was going to be easier than you might expect. When we got there, we connected with several other ex-pats and got involved in the community through a church that was helpful with networking and making friends. It’s super important to connect with other people early on. Both Singapore and the Bay Area make that really easy.
Seattle is a great place to enjoy the outdoors and of course cheer for the Sounders. It also had lots of great local restaurants. Most recently, living in Australia has been an incredible experience and has supported my new scuba diving hobby.

What are some best practices when looking for a new role?

You may want to balance the number of changes you take at one time by considering a few categories. I try to balance the risk vs. benefit of a change by considering a couple of categories. The first is company - are you changing companies or changing roles within the same company? Another is function - are you switching from accounting to sales or another function that’s completely different? Changing companies and functions is going to have more risk than just changing one of them. Not that it can’t be done, but this is something to keep in mind and not something you want to be doing all the time. When I went to Google I changed both because I saw the potential benefit.
Another best practice is to make sure your working style fits with the manager or the team you’d be joining. Finding people that you like to work with and who can help you grow and develop your skillset is important to consider beyond just the scope. Notably this is much easier to evaluate when taking a new role internally. Sometimes the scope isn't the most important factor, which can surprise you when evaluating a role and what is most important.
When changing roles, make sure you are solving the core problem or priority for the change. If you're concerned about the hours, don’t switch to a role that’s going to have just as many hours just because the scope appears interesting. Think about what you really want and then prioritize. There's no such thing as the perfect role, each will have its pluses and minuses.
Finally, find people that are willing to be a sounding board and speak with them about the new opportunity. Sometimes the best advice that you can get comes from you talking through it and having someone to bounce ideas off of.

How can you set yourself up for long term career success?

My approach is to think about where I want to be in the next five to ten years. What are the skills that I need? What’s the balance between career growth and working on certain scope? People change and priorities evolve over time. Building a reputation and a skillset that is transferable and can grow with changes in the business has been central to my career so far and I anticipate it will continue to be important.
My best performance comes from work that is motivating and when I’m working with smart people that I can learn from. We are not going to know everything; that’s just not realistic. However, it is realistic to leverage all of the individual strengths of a team, learn from each other and make the team better. By making the team better, you as an individual are growing.
Another important learning is that people are not mind readers. If you have a preference or an interest, you have to ask or you may never get the opportunity. Also, people will reach out to you with opportunities throughout your career. You can only say “no” so many times before they stop considering you. One of my mentors from Google told me that number was three, I don’t know if there’s science or data behind that number but it sounds reasonable. Opportunities will likely never be on the timeline you planned, so be flexible. Understand that just as you have preferences, companies have requirements that they are working with as well. Some of the best opportunities come when you’re not expecting or ready for them.

Any general advice you’d like to share?

For students, I would encourage trying a course where you have to code. Don’t worry about getting an A+ in the course, the experience will pay off regardless. Even if it’s a single course, it’s worth the experience to understand and think about problems with an engineering type mindset.
Another thing would be to invest in learning Excel. When I first started at PwC, one of my seniors took away everyone’s mouse. That forced us to learn all of the shortcuts and become way more efficient with Excel.
Regardless of where you are in your career, never stop learning and finding what energizes you. I get a lot of energy from my work; building solutions or organizations to solve problems is something that makes me tick. You have to figure out what is it that drives you. From there, try to figure out how to create your opportunity and your role around that.

What’s next for you?

I plan to keep learning and continue to work on solving different challenges. Personally, I am drawn to areas where I can have an impact by solving problems while surrounding myself with smart people that are interested in learning and making a difference. I might also continue to improve my home office/guest room/storage container.

How can readers connect with you?

Readers can find me on LinkedIn