By Nathaniel Luce
With artificial intelligence and big data capabilities evolving and growing on what seems to be a daily basis, an increasing number of business functions stand to change with them. Audit is no exception – the big 4 accounting firms are leveraging AI, machine-learning, and even drones to process huge amounts of financial information quickly and deliver smarter insights to clients. Improved capabilities will have a dramatic impact on an auditor’s day-to-day responsibilities.
In her role as an Operations Manager in Deloitte’s Audit Innovation group, Sara Simonds (MAcc’09) guides a 150-person team of auditors and developers tasked with building those capabilities. Through new software, mobile applications, and more, her team is developing solutions that deliver the “Deloitte way” to clients in an increasingly innovative fashion.
“My current role has given me so many opportunities to use everything I learned at Vanderbilt, starting with my first class freshman year through my masters,” Simonds says, “really thinking strategically and understanding how all pieces of the audit go into what we’re seeing as the future of audit.”
“My current role has given me so many opportunities to use everything I learned at Vanderbilt…really thinking strategically and understanding how all pieces of the audit go into what we’re seeing as the future of audit.”
As an undergraduate in Vanderbilt’s Human and Organizational Development (HOD) major, Simonds heard about the MAcc program her junior year. “I was a little unsure about what I wanted to get out of it, but I loved the idea of getting a business background to complement the interpersonal skills I learned in HOD,” she says.
After earning her bachelor’s degree and, a year later, her Master of Accountancy, Simonds took the offer she earned through her in-school internship at Deloitte and took advantage of the opportunities a Big 4 firm can provide, getting involved with Deloitte’s Learning & Development program. “We have a great resource in Deloitte University,” she says, “but even more important to me was the opportunity to connect with people.”
Learning & Development has been a core feature of Simonds’ career at Deloitte. She facilitated a number of trainings throughout her career and authored training materials. As a member of the firm’s Manager Development Program (MDP), she had a learning rotation in Deloitte’s Global Center of Excellence and worked on new hire training as well.
Her commitment to learning has afforded her special opportunities to train at scale. “Last year, I spent a month at DU working with new hires,” she says. “We had around 700 per week…in total almost 3,000 new hires. It was amazing experience to see them take a training that I had actually written.”
During that month at DU, she reached out to a Nashville-based partner to discuss new opportunities at Deloitte. That partner connected Simonds to another Nashville-based partner within Audit Innovation. “She said she had something coming up that was perfect for my background in HOD and accounting,” Simonds recalls. “After I took a closer look, I made the transfer over.”
After a year in the group, “audit innovation is definitely where I see myself going forward,” she says. “There are so many things we’re doing that are going to change the way we audit, and it’s really exciting to be a part of this.”
Simonds credits the MAcc program with offering a variety of classes and experiences that separated her from the pack, as an associate and manager. “I never just had an accounting focus. Vanderbilt gave me a broad view of what business is,” she explains. “I got that feedback in Deloitte from day one: I had a business acumen that other first years didn’t.”
Through the early recruiting cycle, Simonds developed an ease with networking that has helped her grow in the firm. “In MAcc, you’re literally recruiting from Day 1, with some of the highest-level partners you’ll ever meet,” she says. “Now I sit in meetings with the head of Deloitte US, or the head of Deloitte Innovation, and I’m not intimidated because I was able to have those (high-level) conversations at MAcc.”
Over the last six years, an effective combination of hard and soft skills has helped Simonds grow and thrive at Deloitte – one that she began building at Vanderbilt. “MAcc prepared (our class) for every aspect of what you need to be successful in the Big 4, which is having the accounting knowledge but also those people and interpersonal skills.”