Keeping Pace with Facebook’s Tremendous Growth, the Importance of Maintaining Your Network, & the Biggest Challenge Facing the Next Generation of Accountants
Matt Banks and I have known each other since we were in the same start class at Ernst & Young. I have a memory from the first week of training when we voted on who was most likely to be an accountant when they retire, whether as a CFO or a partner – Matt was the overwhelming choice.
Now, I often use his story when younger accountants ask me what they need to do to become the Controller of a successful company like Facebook. I was lucky enough to sit down with him recently to hear a little bit more of his story. We talked about how his career has developed, the importance of building and maintaining your network, and the helpful lessons he’s learned along the way about being a controller at a public company.
Amy Hann: I’d like to start with your Ernst & Young story. If you look back on your 11-year career at the firm, what was the most important thing you learned during that time period?
Matt Banks: I think the most important thing was building and maintaining a network. You won’t see the rewards of it early on, but it pays benefits over the long term.
My relationships helped get me the jobs I wanted when I was at Ernst & Young. And eventually, it got me the role at Facebook. I wouldn’t be in the role I’m in now if it weren’t for the relationships that I built at Ernst & Young.
And the most important relationship that I built during those years was with my wife Lisa – we met in our start group!
Was there anything else that set you up for success at E&Y?
I’ve always been a tech nerd, so early on at E&Y I was vocal that I wanted to work on audits in the technology industry. My enthusiasm for the industry led me to be placed on those audits and because I loved my clients, I was able to develop quickly.
What kept you at Ernst & Young for so long?
The most motivating factor for me at EY was getting a diverse set of experiences. I served clients that were publicly traded, getting ready to go public, and also very early stage startups. There was always a project on the horizon that was exciting and challenging.
I also had a series of, what I call, fresh starts that kept me engaged and excited about the work. I was able to work overseas for two years. When I came back to the Bay Area I had another fresh start with a whole new set of clients.
How much of your success now is because you stayed at Ernst & Young for 11 years? Could you have been just as successful if you had left as a first-year manager?
Everyone has a different path and I think you could be just as successful if you left public accounting as a Manager or as a Senior Manager. However, I think I’m in the role I’m in today here at Facebook because of the fact I stayed at EY for a long time. I built a strong technical accounting acumen as well as an amazing network of the Bay Area’s best and brightest accountants during my years at the firm, all which has led to my success here.
Anytime I talk with people who are either starting at Big 4 or have been there for a couple of years, my advice is to stay as long as you can. The Big 4 partner track isn’t for everybody.
But the longer you can stay, the more diverse set of experiences you’re going to get and the better initial role you’re going to get out of public accounting. If you want to stay in the accounting world, the further you march up that chain, the better.
I’d love to hear a bit about your first role outside of Ernst and Young.
My goal when leaving E&Y was to find a role that was as broad as possible at a public technology company. When you called me about the Director of Technical Accounting role at Yahoo I jumped at the opportunity because it really played to my strengths. The role included a variety of responsibilities including revenue recognition, M&A, technical accounting, and stock compensation, as well as an opportunity to work on several special projects.
Was the transition from E&Y to Yahoo easier or more difficult than you expected?
It was more difficult than I expected. I think what you’re not prepared for when transitioning from public accounting to industry is the operational accounting piece of the job. What you don’t see from an audit perspective is what I call the sausage-making process, all the effort that goes into preparing the end product that the auditors ultimately see. I was unprepared for that and that took a while to get used to. Even on the technical accounting side, where you aren’t in the core operations as much, it still took some getting used to. I’m extremely grateful for the team at Yahoo, and ultimately my team early on at Facebook, that helped me learn the operational ropes.
At what point did you decide to leave Yahoo to join Facebook, and how did you get that job?
For several years I was focused on getting a job at Facebook. I’ve never been more excited about the long-term prospects of a company. I first inquired about opportunities there in 2007 and finally the stars aligned in 2012 for me to join the company. Having maintained my network definitely helped get me in the door!
Tell me a bit about what Facebook was like when you joined in 2012.
I started in January 2012, two days before Facebook filed their first S1 to go public. At the time, they had a little over 3,000 people. Fast forward five years and we have over 20,000 people. It’s been a fun ride.
I work with a lot of people who are skeptical of joining a company right before they go public. Did it feel like a risk for you to join at that time, knowing that maybe you wouldn’t have as much upside as someone who started at the company at an earlier stage?
I didn’t see it as a risk. I was very bullish about Facebook as a career destination from early on and I continue to be that way. I think you can’t have a network the size that Facebook did at the time and not continue to be successful and grow.
I understand that your first role at Facebook was as their Director of Revenue? Did that feel like a step down for you considering you had a broader role at Yahoo?
It might’ve looked like a step down on paper but the role really rounded out my experience. In addition to revenue, I also had some operational responsibility. The latter piece to me was super important because I needed to learn how to manage and run an accounting department. If you want to be a controller in a public company, even a private company, you have to have both technical and operational accounting experience.
How have your job responsibilities at Facebook evolved from the Director of Revenue position to a Corporate Controller?
After about a year and a half at Facebook, there were some changes in the finance leadership which gave me the opportunity to step into the Controller role, where I’m responsible for managing all the revenue teams as well as a lot of the GL functions. My role has continued to change over time as the company has expanded, which keeps things exciting!
My team now has 30+ people and my job is much more focused on people management, people development, managing and growing them, and making the right investments to expand the team. I focus a lot of my time on that and less of it on the core accounting aspects of the controller role. I tell people I work more in PowerPoint today than I do in Excel.
One of the main reasons why I’ve been successful in my role is that I’ve been able to build an amazing team – most of the team that I hired when I joined the company are still here and are taking on increasing levels of responsibility every year. Watching my team grow has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.
That really speaks to you as a leader. The fact that you can hire good people and retain them and give them a real career path.
I often meet with young accountants who are concerned about going down more of a traditional controllership path because it’s seen as a back office position, while positions in financial planning and analysis tend to be more strategic and forward-looking. Has that been your experience here at Facebook?
No. We are in no way a back office function at Facebook. I think the FP&A team is more embedded with the business but we couldn’t do what we do here without my team being very, very focused and working closely with engineering, legal, and product to build and launch new products.
The ability to work cross-functionally is a core skill that we value very much. If you want to continue to succeed and grow in any accounting or finance role, you have to be willing to do the back office work as well as the more strategic business support work.
You’ve obviously been with Facebook through a season of tremendous growth. What’s been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced as it relates to the company’s growth?
I think keeping pace with the growth has been certainly our biggest challenge. Our business is changing and evolving and getting more complicated, so I think staying up to date is a challenge.
It’s also important that accounting keeps a seat at the table. I don’t ever want the team to be in a place where the engineering or product group says, “Hey, we can’t launch this because finance isn’t ready.” That’s not a good place to be for us. So, we have to figure out how to stay ahead of what’s coming.
That goes back to making sure that accounting is seen as a valued business partner. If we were only a back office function, we wouldn’t have a seat at that table, and we wouldn’t have visibility into the roadmap.
I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about your career as a whole. Is there anything that you’ve learned in your career that you wish you would’ve known sooner? If you could talk to your 24-year-old self, what would you say?
I wish I would’ve learned to be a good manager before I became one. I recently read a book called First, Break All the Rules that focuses on strengths-based people development. I’ve learned from my experience and from this book that if there is someone on your team who is doing something that they are not necessarily good at, you focus a lot of energy on trying to improve that area as opposed to trying to think about what are the person’s strengths. It’s my job as a manager to put them in a position to really utilize their strengths.
For example, let’s say there’s somebody who’s really focused on the operational side of things, good at building systems and developing process, but doesn’t necessarily like the technical accounting aspects of their job. It’s important that they’re able to identify technical accounting issues, but the evaluation of them, the documentation, maybe you can give that to somebody who comes from a Big 4 and really enjoys the technical accounting work. It’s important to develop people in a way that makes them happy to be at work.
I agree – there is so much wisdom in that. Even taking it a step further, wouldn’t it be great if we could encourage people in their early 20s to go through a season of self-reflection to figure out what they are naturally good at?
To teach them not to chase the job that they think they should do, but chase the kind of job that matches with their natural talents? It would probably allow for good managers like you to do an even better job of putting those people in the right places.
Yeah. A lot of it is not just the manager focusing on strengths but like you said, reflection as an employee. What are the things you enjoy doing? Having that conversation with your manager is super important.
A lot of times people, especially early on, are looking for their manager to tell them what their career path is. It has to be a two-way street. The only person that can drive your career is you. Your manager is there to try to help you and enable you to get the opportunities and successes that will set you up for what you want to do but you have to be the person driving that. You can’t wait for someone to tell you what’s next.
What is the best decision that you’ve made so far in your career?
Clearly, the best decision was to join Facebook.
My years at EY were also incredibly valuable in my career. While Big 4 accounting is difficult and time-consuming, the decision to stay as long as I did has really set me up for where I am today.
What is the biggest sacrifice that you have made for your career?
The biggest sacrifice that I have made is not having as much time as I would like with my wife and two kids. My wife works full-time as well as the VP Finance for a high growth tech company. We both really value our careers and we love our kids tremendously. We have had to sacrifice some things to balance our passions.
As I have become more senior at Facebook, I’ve been able to balance work and life a little bit better. For me, work-life balance is being able to leave between 5:00 and 6:00, get home, and see my kids before they go to bed.
For other people, it might mean going to the gym in the morning and coming in later. It depends. It’s unique to everybody based on their situation. I think trying to figure out what works for you and what works for your manager and having an honest dialogue about it is super important.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge for the generation of accountants behind you?
I think the world of accounting is changing, and learning the new technologies that are coming will be a challenge. I think the role of the accountant is going to change pretty dramatically over the next five years.
I think things like robotic process automation, cognitive computing, AI, block chain ledgers are all things that will be part of the accounting function of the future. The core close and accounting work will become automated, so the accountant of the future will become more of an analyst, analyzing the data and providing business insights. This is good news – the accounting role will be even less of a back office function.
Automated data will allow the accountant to be able to provide faster, more real-time insights into the business. This will also impact the role of the audit firm. I think the Big 4 will be at the forefront of that through different auditing techniques that they’ll develop.
I think for people who are just starting a career in accounting now it will be important to become immersed in those technologies. The accountant’s ability to understand and apply them is going to be a valuable skill set. At Facebook we will need to hire people who have exposure to heavy automation, the virtual close, continuous close, and those types of concepts.
Wow. What a change from when you are I were sitting in an audit room together in 1999 and we had to dial in to get an internet connection!
I know. It’s crazy to think how much has changed. And now we are headed into another tech revolution that will dramatically change the way that we work.