The Accounting Path is doing a several part series taking a closer look at different areas of accounting in the tech startup world. We will be talking to several members of Airbnb’s accounting team to learn more about their roles, the paths they took, and what working at one of Silicon Valley’s hot startups is like.
Ashley is a Senior GL accountant at Airbnb after previously working at PwC and Lucasfilm, where she worked in Financial Planning & Analysis. She provides a unique perspective as someone who started in accounting moved over to a finance role and landed back in accounting. She currently works across several groups to ensure the close process runs smoothly and management has the insight it needs to understand the business.
Accounting Path: Walk us through your path into accounting.
Ashley: When I was younger, I went to my parents to try and figure out what I was going to do. I was really good at math, and they were like: “You who know who is good at math? Accountants! They make a good living and there was ample opportunities for employment.” Come to find out, I ended up really enjoying the profession as well.
I started by taking an accounting 101 class in high school, where I learned the basics. As a high school student, it was really helpful because my parents had always done my finances. It also didn’t hurt that the first half of each class was filled with a lesson and then the second half was for playing dominoes, which happened to be my favorite past time.
Accounting Path: At that point, did you know that’s what you wanted to do?
Ashley: It was good to be exposed to accounting, and I knew I was good at it, but that wasn’t what I initially wanted to do when I got to The University of Texas at Austin. I planned to study Corporate PR but I didn’t get into the School of Communications. I had also applied to the McCombs School of Business and they had a 5-year program that prepares you for the CPA exam, including the 120 hours of undergraduate coursework plus the additional 36 of graduate school you need, so I started there. I loved the program, the curriculum was well developed and the professors were highly qualified.
Accounting Path: What was your accounting progression in school like?
Ashley: I started the Masters in Professional Accounting the beginning of my third year. As part of the program at Texas you do an internship in your forth year. All of the big accounting firms came to interview us. We submitted our resumes in bulk and the top three cities you were interested in working and then they whittled down who they were looking for. I interviewed with each of the big four and landed with PwC as I really liked the culture.
Accounting Path: How did you end up in a position in public accounting?
Ashley: I actually liked tax a lot at first, because it felt like a puzzle you had to solve. Then I dug in more and there were too many rules and too much structure. I also really liked the idea of cost and management accounting because you could explore inefficiencies. However, I talked to one of my professors and he advised that it was important to go through a public accounting company at the start of your career. It gives you exposure and helps you make a better decision as to what you want to do.
Accounting Path: How did you like Big 4 accounting and how did you end up at a smaller tech company?
Ashley: I did the internship with PwC and then was hired full time after college. I had a particular interest in Consumer and Industry Products and Services (CIPS), so I was put on a large energy client and, soon afterwards, PwC won the Levis account and it was the perfect transition for my team.
After two and a half years I was promoted to senior, super over worked, and looking for a slightly better quality of life. At that time a friend reached out about a job in Financial Planning and Analysis at Lucasfilm. The opportunity gave me ability to learn about different areas of finance, so I moved over to the private side. I liked industry a lot, but I did miss the resources, training, and career path PwC provided.
Accounting Path: Where did other people go after the Big 4 and how did life change in the private sector?
Ashley: There were quite a few who stayed on until they became an experienced senior or manager and then made a move. The move from the Big 4 to a smaller company was like night and day. It went from a streamlined process to trying to figure out how to build everything out. I was learning a lot: What does it mean to budget and forecast? How do we operate efficiently? Who are your business partners? Which was a great experience, but after a while it felt fairly disaggregated and disconnected. I decided to leave Lucasfilm to take some time off to decide what I really wanted to do when a position opened up at Dropbox, which offered a service I utilized frequently. I realized I could be much more impactful in my work if I fully understand, use, and believe in the product of the company.
Accounting Path: What brought you to a small startup like Airbnb and back to accounting?
Ashley: At Dropbox I did more financial strategy and found myself working with the accounting team a lot. We were rolling out processes that didn’t yet exist and I really enjoyed having an impact across the entire company. Airbnb was a similar size and at a similar stage as Dropbox so I thought I could have a similar impact. I really appreciate the opportunity accounting provides to come up with new solutions, raise questions, and have the autonomy to figure things out on my own. I think you want to stay ahead of the curve and at smaller companies you are just trying to keep pace. Working in that environment I am able to bring in experience from my last role and help the next company get ahead.
Accounting Path: Where do you see your future and what skills do you think are important to succeed?
Ashley: I can only see myself going to smaller companies. They are sometimes hard because things are moving so fast it’s hard to have accountability across the organization. At small companies it’s important to look for people who bring solutions to the table, who want to be successful and drive change. You can’t be afraid to ask questions and push against the status quo. That is something I look for in my peers because I think that’s how you make things more efficient and drive change.
Accounting Path: If you look back would you still do it the same way?
Ashley: Would I do it all over again? I like where I am and I feel like I’m being challenged on a day-to-day basis. The word of advice I would give is test out accounting earlier in life so you understand what it is all about. Work for a couple companies when you are in high school or college to help you evaluate or get exposure to areas you maybe aren’t familiar with in the industry.