Accounting in Tech – Tax Accounting at Airbnb

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.

Jennifer is a Tax Manager at Airbnb with a broad background. She started her career in accounting at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where she spent several years as a Senior Tax Associate. When she was ready to pursue other roles, she tried a few things before ending up with Zynga and now Airbnb. In her current role she is responsible for developing the complicated tax framework used by Airbnb to do business across the globe.

The Accounting Path: What was your path to accounting?

Jennifer: When I first started college at UC Berkeley, my top priority was to study a subject that was interesting to me, hence my major in Mass Communications. I knew as long as I was passionate about what I studied — the good grades, the career opportunities, and the networking – all of that would all fall into place. Throughout college, I actively sought out business and accounting classes because I knew it was important to build a strong accounting foundation, regardless of what industry or role I landed in. I also got an internship at a local CPA firm, knowing it’s really important to explore a particular field and get your feet wet. The internship helped me build my resume and attract the attention of the Big 4 firms. I ended up pursuing tax because the work was interesting and the idea of working at a Big 4 public accounting firm was appealing.

The Accounting Path: How did you end up in accounting from Mass Communications?

Jennifer: UC Berkeley made it really accessible for me to study different areas, irrespective of whether or not I was a business major. I worked all throughout college, for a bookkeeper and as an office manager for a local real estate development company. Right before my senior year, I realized I needed something for the summer to beef up my resume and stay competitive, so I reached out to a local CPA firm and applied for an internship. I enjoyed the experience, and when the fall recruiting season came around, I realized how valuable it would be to start my career at company like PwC. I knew that joining the Big 4 would give me access to a variety of clients and industries that I would otherwise not have access to in my career.

The Accounting Path: What was that early time at the Big 4 like?

Jennifer: At the beginning, the Big 4 was like an extension of college – you’re surrounded by other fresh graduates, who are eager to learn and explore the world of public accounting. This was the perfect environment for me at the time and a real bonding experience for me and my coworkers. In fact, many of the colleagues I met at the beginning of my career at PwC are close friends of mine today.

One of the things I wish I had known when I started PwC is how many different types of accounting opportunities exist. Even within tax, your career can take a totally different turn, depending on whether you are servicing high net worth clients or startup companies like Airbnb. Often you get assigned to a role, and I wish I had known all my options earlier on so I could pursue what I really wanted to do. I was 4-5 years in my career when I realized that the tech industry was where I wanted to be, primarily because the tax landscape in the tech world was new and unchartered territory. My Big 4 experience was a critical part of my career because it allowed me to build a professional network that has proven to be invaluable time and time again. In fact, the last staff I hired was somebody I had worked with at PwC. I still keep in touch with all my managers from my time at the firm and it’s a great network to have.

The Accounting Path: How did your role evolve at the Big 4?

Jennifer: I started PwC as a Tax Associate and left after 4 years as a Senior Associate. The work you do varies depending on the type of clients you’re assigned to. When I first started PwC, I was assigned to a coach that was not easily assessable. Instead of wandering around aimlessly, I actively sought out people who would support me and found a great manager who took me under his wing and mentored me throughout my career at PwC. In order to succeed at any company you’re at, you have to find someone that is going to root for you early on, someone you have a great working relationship, because it gives you the freedom to drive your own career with a sounding board that you can trust. As my career developed at PwC, I realized the idea of making partner was not appealing to me and I began to research other opportunities outside of public accounting.

The Accounting Path: How did you transition into industry?

Jennifer: I was interviewing between busy seasons at PwC and, as the next busy season was quickly approaching, I accepted an offer to join the accounting team at Jamba Juice’s corporate office. I soon realized it wasn’t the right role for me and I thought I would give public accounting another try, this time at a mid-sized firm. I soon realized that returning to client service was also not the right choice and, fortunately, around that same time, a former PwC manager reached out to me to discuss an opportunity at a tech company where he was currently working, which turned out to be Zynga.

Eight months after I left PwC, I started a new role at Zynga and was introduced to some of the most extraordinary group of people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I’ve been having an amazing time ever since.

The Accounting Path: What do you like about the roles you have had in industry?

Jennifer: The best thing about being in industry is that you really get to understand the ins and outs of the company you’re working for. Being in industry is also great because you get to deal with issues and complex problems that you would otherwise not be able to see as a service provider in public accounting. In the tech industry, and in the start-up environment in particular, you are on the frontline, identifying and solving business issues as they arise. A big turning point in my career was when I joined Airbnb and I started working on projects that are meaningful and impactful to the business. At Airbnb, tax is a complicated topic and I’m proud to be part of a team that is focused on making a difference.

The Accounting Path: How has your role changed and where do you see your accounting career changing?

Jennifer: Because of Airbnb’s size and growth, roles are constantly changing and evolving. The task and projects I worked on two years ago when I first started at Airbnb are not the same assignments that I work on today. Most of my projects have increased in size, scope, and complexity – and so has the team! As the company continues to grow, I can see my particular role getting more specialized.

The Accounting Path: What sort of things are you looking for when bringing someone new on?

Jennifer: There are three things I look for in particular from a candidate: 1) Prior work experience, 2) Team fit, and 3) Values. It is also a plus if a candidate has Big 4 experience. There are a fair amount of us at Airbnb that are former Big 4 professionals, and we all share a similar work ethic and attention to detail. At the level the company is at, it is hard to hire anyone right out of college.

The Accounting Path: If you had to do it all over again would you do it different?

Jennifer: I interviewed with three out of the four Big 4 accounting firms during my senior year of college. If I had to do it all over again, I would have been more thoughtful in my selection process for deciding which firm to join. As different companies are interviewing you, it very important that you are also interviewing them. Talk to existing employees there, understand what you are getting into, and ask the right questions – What do you like about the company? What do you dislike? What could the company do differently to make it a better place to work? Where do you see your career at the company in five years? Are there opportunities to transfer internally, work remotely, go on assignment, etc?

I also wouldn’t have been such a rush to leave my Big 4 role. Being deliberate and thoughtful in any choice you make, especially as it relates to your career, is really important.