Sowmya Gopi is well aware that people generally dislike auditors.
“We are basically there to check that you are doing your work properly. Nobody likes that and I have grown quite a thick skin over the years.” she said.
She may be right in thinking that nobody enjoys it when auditors come to visit. Yet, auditors exist for a very important purpose as they check that a company’s controls are operating effectively and that financial transactions are in accordance with laws. This is true of Sowmya’s current role as Principal Auditor of Anti-Financial Crime Group Audit at Deutsche Bank.
“The first line of defense are the relationship managers, while the second line are departments like compliance and risk management. We basically serve as the third line of defense when we audit the compliance department,” she explained.
That statement was not meant to be melodramatic. According to the 29-year-old alumna from National University of Singapore (NUS), banks turn down potential clients if due diligence shows up irregularities.
Deutsche Bank processes millions of transactions every day. “As an auditor, you have to verify statements and information the front line departments give you,” she explained.
Sowmya makes sure that the bank adheres to proper anti-money laundering protocols and controls. Her work is important not just for the bank, but also because it affects the economy.
Laundered, tax-free business profits create an unfair playing field that is stacked against the honest business owner. Furthermore, every dollar that sits in a Seychelles offshore account is a dollar that is not circulating within the healthy economy.
“India’s recent rupee recall was also to serve the purpose of combating corruption and money-laundering. By removing the 500 and 1,000 notes, they are forcing people to bring out the black money they have gained through illegal means.”
Sowmya does not mince words when she describes the tough realities of audit in the Big Four where she started her career. “The job is challenging and turnover is very high. My time there really taught me resilience,” she recalled of her 4½-year stint. “Most people are out of there in three or four years.”
Even if you studied Accounting and Finance in NUS like she did, do not count on an easy transition to working life, she warned. Audit is one level removed from the accounting fundamentals taught in the classroom because you are inspecting other people’s work and every firm in the Big Four has a different methodology.
“Be prepared for lots of learning on the job,” Sowmya cautioned.
The rigorous curriculum at NUS was good mental preparation for her eventual role in the Big Four, but Sowmya also recognises the importance of time management and people skills that she cultivated as a student ambassador and committee leader.
These abilities were gained during her tenure as the Director of the Bizad (Business Administration) Club Student Ambassadors and as Secretary for The Ridge – a magazine run by the NUS Students’ Union (NUSSU)
As a student ambassador, one of her roles was to pitch NUS Business School to visiting foreign students and wow them into staying. At The Ridge, Sowmya was responsible for meeting minutes, editorial direction and even the occasional feature.
“I once did a book review about The Great Gatsby,” she said with a laugh. “On top of that, I had to juggle about five core and non-core modules every year. It was important to be efficient and work smart in order to manage the heavy load.”
“Where NUS really helped were the soft skills you get from CCA and school life. Whether you are in internal audit or external audit, you need to learn how to talk to people. People are not going to give you the information you need if they do not like you,” Sowmya explained.
Today, Sowmya’s role means that she is on the other side of the desk. However, just because she has survived the trial by fire of Big Four auditing does not mean it is all smooth sailing for the rest of her career.
Sowmya has to keep learning and thinking creatively in order to stay ahead.