By Adam Turner
While learning a programming language was once the domain of IT specialists, today it starts in primary school. This is because programming unlocks the full power of computers to perform difficult tasks and answer complex queries.
While accountants already take advantage of tools like Microsoft Excel, a simple programming language like Python helps to streamline workflows and improve data manipulation when deeper insight is needed.
First released in the early 1990s, Python is a general-purpose programming language designed to be easy for non-technical people to learn, read and write. Its name is a nod to British comedy legends Monty Python, but it is a serious tool used by people in a wide range of professions.
Python is more flexible than Excel, and it offers greater efficiency, scalability and auditability. That said, the programming language also allows users to get more from Excel.
Rival programming language R offers similar benefits, but Python is typically considered easier to learn. While R is better suited to creating visualisations and statistical models, Python is a better fit for accountants looking to work with large amounts of data and perform non-statistical tasks.
The popularity of Python has built up a strong global programmer community. As an open-source language, a wide range of free add-ons and tools are available online. These help users to tackle different tasks, so they need not solve every problem from scratch.
Employers are clearly seeing the benefit in accountants embracing Python. An analysis of 2016-2021 finance and accountancy job postings revealed that Python was the technical skill that saw the largest jump in demand (up 33 per cent), according to a 2021 report from recruitment agency Robert Half and job market analytics firm Lightcast (previously known as Burning Glass).
In accounting, Python’s key uses include automation, data cleansing and data analytics. This helps accountants save time while enhancing data-driven business insights and output accuracy, says Ow Ghim Siong, deputy head of data science at RSM Singapore.
“In reality, data is often messy and time-consuming to process,” Ghim Siong says.
“Python’s ability to read in vast datasets, in a range of formats from different sources, and to cleanse unstructured or incomplete data, frees up accountants to perform higher value tasks.”
“Python also allows accountants to automate tasks, especially those that are repetitive and involve clear logical steps. For example, when generating monthly reports, Python helps you to do it faster and with fewer errors,” he explains.
Python is a powerful data analysis tool, making it well-suited for financial reporting, modelling and forecasting. Accountants can use community-supported Python packages to perform complex data analysis, such as predicting price trends and cash flow projections, without needing to code from scratch.
While Python can create dynamic charts and dashboards, Ghim Siong says it may be more time-efficient to explore dedicated business intelligence (BI) tools, if the sole objective is interactive data visualisation.
“If you’re talking about visualisation tools for accountants, enterprise-level options like Power BI or Tableau may be more suitable,” he says.
While Python is not primarily a visualisation tool, it can be a powerful aid in “data storytelling”, says Dr Stuart Black, Melbourne enterprise fellow in the department of accounting at the University of Melbourne.
Along with uncovering insight, accountants must also be able to clearly convey that insight to stakeholders who might be less familiar with the data and less financially literate, says Black, who is formerly national partner for strategic capabilities at Deloitte Australia.
“Rather than just bombard people with infographics and factoids, Python offers powerful ways to slice and dice data so you can frame it in a way that helps people really understand the recommendation that you’re putting in front of them,” Black explains.
Black considers Python to be a fast and accessible programming language and scripting tool for accountants to learn. He views the process of learning any programming language’s coding structures and logic as extremely useful for accountants who want to go beyond number crunching and improve their analytical thinking.
“If you’re looking to start somewhere then Python is a good choice, but one of the key benefits is not what Python or R can do for you but how they get you thinking about challenges in a more analytical, procedural and repeatable way,” Black says.
“A very senior partner with one of the big four firms in the transaction services area recently told me that digital and data skills are now considered a core competency.
“They won’t hire anyone without them, so if you’re not beginning to think this way then it’s going to start affecting your career prospects.”
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By Adam Turner