Follow the trail for a top salary

Few people have the skills needed to test complex computer systems, so the rewards are high, says Roger Trapp

These days it is a rare accountant who does not have some information technology skills. Just turning up for work and attempting to do the job at one of the leading firms requires at least a passing familiarity with computers.

But a rapidly developing group of accountants who have specialised in IT in a particular way are in increasing demand. In the words of one insider, they are worth a lot of money because they are "as scarce as rocking-horse manure".

These are the people who practise computer audit - IT or electronic data processing (EDP) audit, or information systems (IS) audit, or simply computer audit, depending where you are coming from. What makes them so special is that banks and other organisations have begun to introduce such complex computer systems that only a few internal people know how they operate, with the result that the top management has little control over these systems and often even less idea about how to carry out checks.

The computer auditor is able to establish an "audit trail" throughout the system. What makes this skill so appealing is that it brings the IT system within the purview of the regular audit.

As Paul Wright, of the IT division of the financial recruitment specialists Robert Walters, points out, in audit occasional individual transactions are investigated to test the validity of information being presented. "So it is reasonable to test whether the computer is doing what it should be properly."

Because the exercise is a little more complex than counting widgets and comparing the figures with those in stock records, those able to do it can command relatively high salaries.

Since the IT industry is as ageist as any, candidates should be between 25 and 35 years old. The perfect profile, according to Mr Wright, adds experience in a leading investment bank. Since it is also more prone to jargon than most, extensive knowledge of such terms as "Unix platforms" and "client server environments" is also necessary. In return, the successful candidate can expect to be paid a salary of more than £30,000. A 35-year- old with top-flight experience might get £45,000 to £50,000, he adds.

US banks have traditionally been the highest payers in this area, but their British counterparts are starting to catch up in an effort to attract the right skills.

But it is not just in the City that this demand is appearing. In industry and commerce, according to Gary Watson, a director for that sector at the London office of the financial recruitment consultants Michael Page, there are so few with the requisite skills that it is a candidate-driven market.

Companies want these people - and are prepared to pay for them - because without having such skills in-house they are forced to seek help from either the software firms that supplied them or their external auditors - either of which could be expensive.

Such organisations are looking for candidates with hi-tech or computer studies degrees who went on to become chartered accountants, moving from general audit to computer audit within practice, and now want to move into industry. Successful applicants will typically be aged between the middle and late twenties and be paid up to £35,000 a year.

But, lucrative as it undoubtedly can be, computer audit is not the only option for the accountant keen to use IT skills. Depending on the applicant's background and expertise on certain systems, various back-office roles present themselves. Those with mathematical backgrounds might even secure positions in investment banks' trading or risk-making operations.

However, events of recent months - particularly the Barings dbcle and difficulties at SG Warburg - mean that City confidence has slipped. While the "rocking-horse manure" sellers are likely always to be able to find homes, others will have to try extra hard to attract offers.

According to John Zafar of Michael Page, "The thing that every employer looks for is personality. They have got to be able to demonstrate good communication skills."

Given generally-held perceptions of IT specialists on the one hand and accountants on the other, that might prove a tall order for many who combine the two specialisms.

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