Nov 12, 2010

Breaking the mold: steering clear of the Big Four

This post is in no way meant to belittle the career choice of any person I do or do not know.  It is solely my personal thoughts on an oft thought of topic.

A little over three years ago I took my first college Accounting class: Introduction to Financial Accounting.  Among other good things that came from that class (such as meeting my future wife), I learned many new things about Accounting.  I was introduced to assets and liabilities, the Accounting cycle, debits and credits, and the basic set of financial statements.  I also learned early on that I had been blessed with a talent for Accounting; with studying and repetition I was able to understand well the once foreign topics that the class covered.

Going into that first semester I was anxious to see how well I would fare in Accounting.  I had no prior experience or background in Accounting, and had only recently been turned on to a degree in Accounting after my brother-in-law recommended I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad.  But after just my first successful semester in Accounting I was fairly certain that I would continue with the degree and eventually pursue a career post-college.

As I continued taking Accounting classes, I learned early on that the consensus career a graduate in Accounting should pursue is in public accounting.  And the pinnacle starting point in public accounting is with the "Big Four." (Talk about a buzz word.  If you ever want to impress upon Accountants that you know what's up just mention the Big Four and you'll have them tricked like a blond on April Fool's Day.)  I didn't know much about the Big Four back then.  What I did know was that they are highly respected in the Accounting world and that I wanted to work for them when I graduated.

As I began to ask around what it was really like working for a Big Four firm.  I spoke with many people and did some research on my own, and very quickly I learned that most everyone said the same thing about working for a Big Four firm.  In a nutshell it was this: "You get hired, you make good money, you work crazy and long hours for 3-5 years, then you take that experience and use it to get you a job somewhere else."  (I did speak to and have met people who are set on developing their career solely at a Big Four firm but they are in the minority.)

Most everything sounded fine and dandy about the Big Four firms.  They are very prestigious so I figured working there would be great for my resume.  They pay well.  They have many resources.  They have great benefits.  You gain valuable experience.  But one thing that everyone kept saying started to bother me: the long hours.

Initially I thought that the long hours was a bit of an exaggeration.  "Come on," I thought, "there's no way someone can actually work 70 (or more) hours a week."  But they can.  And they do.  Especially during the even-busier-than-normal tax season (roughly January to April).  This presented a major problem for me.

First, I was nearly married at this point to my beautiful bride, and the value of my personal free time increased dramatically.  I hadn't even ever worked a 40-hour work week at this point in my life, much less a 70-hour work week.  The thought of working 11-hour or more work days did not sound appealing at all.

But then the devil on my shoulder would start to shout, "Hey!  You'll be making $50k a year!  Don't worry about it man!  Tough it out!  It's worth it!"

Dudley Dawson wrote an amusing post on this topic titled "PwC, Deloitte, E&Y, and KPMG: Big 4 employees modern indentured servants."  He writes:
The definition of indentured servant is: a form of debt bondage worker. The laborer is under contract of an employer for usually three to seven years, in exchange for their transportation, food, drink, clothing, lodging and other necessities. Unlike a slave, an indentured servant is required to work only for a limited term specified in a signed contract.

Big 4 employees are not necessarily under contract, but there is an invisible contract keeping most of them employed for far too long.  Normal human beings would not agree to working 70-115 hours per week, but they see the carrot dangling.  They see the Partner pulling down huge figures and sitting in meetings where other executives do nothing but pretend to be busy, shake hands, and exchange millions of dollars.
Well, is it worth it?  Is burning yourself out for 3-5 years worth the "extra" money and the good looking resume?  I am sure for many people, it is worth it.  I am sure for many people at the Big Four firms they do really well there.  I am sure there are many who come out of the Big Four and end up with great paying careers ahead of them.  I am sure that many people who have left the Big Four firms never regret their choice to work there.  For me, I don't think I would have been one of those people.

I have a beautiful and hard-working wife.  I have a son who I love immensely.  I have friends.  I have many hobbies.  These are the things I enjoy.  For me, choosing to work at a Big Four firm would mean choosing to sacrifice for at least 3-5 years these things that I enjoy.  That's not worth it to me.

Let me repeat myself from above: This post is in no way meant to belittle the career choice of any person I do or do not know.  Every person in this world will go through the same decision process that I have gone through.  Many will decide how I have decided.  Many will decide to go work for a Big Four firm.  Many will decide none of the above.  To each his own.

As for myself, I am happy in my non-Big Four career.  I enjoy my time at work and my coworkers.  I also greatly enjoy my time off from work and the time I get to spend doing the things I enjoy.   I don't know how many other soon-to-be or recent graduates are going through the same back and forth argument that I went through.  Maybe I'm the only one that arrived at the Big Four crossroads and stood there for forever, wondering whether to go left or right.  I chose the right, by the way. :-)

I hope that this post might serve as some level of motivation to even one person out there who has decided against the Big Four firms.