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Member Insight: Technology Is Disrupting Controllers and Their Companies

FEI Manager of Accounting Policy Dianora Aria De Marco recently sat down with Sharon Virag, Vice President, Controller & Chief Accounting Officer at Aetna, to discuss how technology is disrupting the controller’s role in the financial suite . Disruption and change management are major themes at FEI's Current Financial Reporting Issues Conference (CFRI) this November.

Dianora Aria De Marco: Tell me a little bit about the day in the life of a controller, especially as a controller of one of America's largest health insurance companies.

Sharon Virag: It's really a mix. When you think about the controller's role, it's really a mix of, one, having the right people, the technical questions that you get as a chief accounting officer and then what is the technology, what is the process, what are the internal controls. 

A typical day is trying to figure out how do you balance all of those together and make sure that your focus is exactly in the right place, at the right time, to make sure your financials are, of course, are quality financials and accurate and everything.

De Marco: Would you say that the role has changed much in the past 10 years?

Virag: I think the biggest thing for us is really introducing the change management aspect of it. It's still the mix of all of those things. Now, there's so much more technology. Now, there are so many more things that are changing in the industry. 

The regulatory environment is changing, FASB is  changing, but the companies are changing themselves so fast, so rapidly with technology that we're all working really hard to keep up and understand our companies.

This includes making sure that we understand how they're being impacted, how they're changing, and then how are we changing our financial processes, our accounting processes to match.

De Marco: It sounds like it'll be a lot different in 10 years from now.

Virag: For sure. That'll definitely happen. I think if we think about all the different technology that people are talking about, whether it's artificial intelligence or whether it's robotics, blockchain. When you think about all of those and trying to figure out how does that impact the way in which you're doing it today and then how is it impacting all of these same facets. 

What does the talent need to be in the future? What is the technology going to look like? How does your technical accounting expertise actually get integrated into all of that new technology? It's a totally different ballgame.

De Marco: It makes sense that as the chair of CFRI 2017, that the theme this year will be Corporate Reporting in an Era of Disruption. Why disruption?

Virag: Everybody always asks me that, "What's keeping you as a chief accounting officer of a Fortune 50 company, what keeps you awake at night?" Those are the kind of topics that I think we need to talk about. 

In the past, we have focused a lot about the technical aspects of the job or the regulatory aspects, and we're certainly going to do that again, how do we take care of our stakeholders, our shareholders, our audit committees, and we're going to continue to do that at the conference this year, too.

I think it's really important to also go to those things that are changing the job and make sure that we're talking about those as a peer group, and that includes the talent aspect, that includes what is the disruptors that are coming to the companies. That’s so that we can be thinking about, so how does that extrapolate into the accounting function and really make sure we're addressing it?