Some of the hottest fields in business call for exactly the skills that the accounting profession offers, according to IBM’s Leon Katsnelson.

SwissCognitiveIn a keynote address on artificial intelligence at’s 2017 Digital CPA conference, held in San Francisco in early December, Katsnelson, who is director and chief technology officer for strategic partnership for data science at IBM, introduced the accountants in attendance two of the newest professionals on the block: data scientists and data engineers, both of which are only about five years old, he said, but are already in the top ranks in terms of compensation.

Data Science

“To be a data scientist, you need three things,” explained Katsnelson. First are programming skills – not necessarily full coding capabilities, but a familiarity with the field. Then comes a certain facility with statistics and math. “And you need domain experience – a deep knowledge of a business.” It’s the last part that speaks most to the accounting profession, he explained: “Domain experience is the hardest thing to find – and that’s what accountants bring to the table. Without your skill and your knowledge, there is no data science.” He reported that he’s seeing larger accounting firms build data science teams from the ground up, and while smaller firms may not be building their own teams, he suggested that they do need to start deepening their comprehension of the field. “You need to understand the technology to be able to select the right tools and to advise clients, because they’re struggling just like you are.”

Why information matters

Top among the reasons why data, data-related tools and the ability to work with them will matter in the future is that they all surround and relate to machine learning and artificial intelligence. “Machine learning is like a rocket engine and data is the rocket fuel,” Katsnelson explained. “In traditional programming, we’re teaching the machine how we do the job – we’re telling it, ‘Repeat what I do.’ AI is about teaching the machine to learn how we learn – to learn from data.” The development of AI will cause major shifts in how companies process and report information — it will move from data that comes in periodically, with occasional errors, to data that flows continuously and is more trustworthy — and accountants are in a position to facilitate that transition. […]