Put a group of engineers together discussing projects and sooner or later the discussion will turn to beancounters. No, beancounters aren’t an apparatus for counting individual beans, we use the term to refer to the accounting department. As you might guess, this is not a term of high regard.

There’s no denying that most engineers have a few quirks. In fact, if we’re not socially inept introverts you wonder just how good we are at our profession. Falling into that same category myself, I’ve never been shy about using those traits to demonstrate my own engineering prowess.

Flawed as we are, we tend to look down on accountants. When I think accountant, I visualize legions of dour faced, humorless old men. I honestly don’t know why because during my entire career I’ve only encountered one bespectacled man with a picture of Ebenezer Scrooge on his desk. Most of them have been very nice people until I talked to them about money. Just like you should never feed Gremlins after midnight, you should never discuss money with accountants.

Beancounters isn’t derogatory as much as a description of the way we view their personality. If I give them a jar of beans, they’re not satisfied until they have an accurate count of those beans. If I turn in an expense report for a meal, they want all the details. What was the cost of the meal? When did I eat it? Where did I eat it? Where’s my receipt? Why did I tip at 18.2%, instead of 15%?

Then again, maybe it’s only when they come together in groups that they turn into beancounters. You know, the people who created our travel reimbursement policies, our purchasing policies and our tax forms. It’s not an accident that having to fill out your travel reimbursement report reminds you of the last time you tried to do your own taxes.

I know why I’m an engineer, I enjoy fixing problems and creating the future. I can’t imagine what motivates someone to become an accountant? A love of creating spreadsheets? A desire to control other people’s money. A conviction that everyone should be using double entry bookkeeping for their checking accounts.

Like engineers, accountants come in wide variety of skill levels. Some are very good and some are very bad. I honestly don’t know what the good ones are doing but the bad ones are the ones creating this year’s tax forms and looking at travel reimbursement policies for new ways to torture us.

Still, there’s a part of me that can only admire the accountant’s fascination with details. Even when they are asking me for a completely priced bill of materials for a product that hasn’t been designed yet, that constant drive for detail sets them apart from the rest of us. I firmly believe that without good accountants, you have no way of knowing which direction your money is flowing.

I don’t have to like their constant demand for details to appreciate their results. It’s not that I wasted 30 minutes of my life trying to understand why the IRS was having me fill out the Qualified Dividends and Capital Gain Tax Worksheet for a $26 dividend, it’s not that I’ve ever wasted four hours in an airport waiting for my connecting flight because the direct flight cost $50 more but when a discussion at work shifted from beancounters to Heaven, I knew my next story would be about a Heaven controlled by accountants.

A Question of Balance, check it out.


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