The Poor Man's Accountant

The game is afoot!

  I have a little puzzle for you to solve:
  Do you fancy yourself a Sherlock Holmes?
  Think you know all about tax returns and the tax-prep business?
  I received the following email on Saturday, April 23, 2011.
  What can you glean from it?  

Hi Taxman!

I just tried out your program and it's so easy to use. I love it.

I want to ask you a few questions about our particular intended use of your tax software.

Our office is one sole practitioner tax preparer (in Ontario) with 1000 clients plus his assistant (me...). Our clients are mostly seniors and their families but also some self-employed returns. The business has been going for 30 years on paper with no automation at all. Our process is to order the forms from Winnipeg. We create forms packages using the envelopes (stuff a set of three forms into one tax envelope, plus the previous returns and slips and the current year's interview sheet. That's our 'file'. Next Patrick (the tax preparer) does the return in pencil. He hands it to me to check and make two copies (one in ink for the government - one in carbon for the client). When the client picks up their returns they get two copies (one to mail, one to keep) and we retain the penciled return as well as copies of the previous year's Notice of Assessment.

It's an efficient business. Conversion to software can be a mixed blessing, right? First up -- we have to pay for paper, computer and printer. Yet the data entry might save time? Not sure...

So here's what we want to do. We want to load your software database with our client records for 2010 to get ready for 2011. In 2011 Patrick will do the returns in pencil as usual. He'll hand them to me to prepare using your software. I'm sure your software will check our calculations brilliantly. But before we use it to print we want to alter your form templates to print the form data on the government issued paper (cause it's FREE!).

Could you help? Of course we'd pay for your time to make the software changes. I have programming experience and can likely tweek the form templates and I'd share them with you too...

What do you think? Is this a practical approach? Patrick really can't change too much... he's 65 and been doing taxes the same way forever.



So what's the picture conjured up by this email? A cute little operation, cranking out the tax returns and begging for automation every step of the way. Poor Patrick (never called "Pat"), too old to learn a new trick, both feet firmly planted in the past, unable to put down that pencil — yet still sharp enough to bang out a thousand tax returns on his adding machine. And bubbly Karen, even though she uses a computer for email and has had programming experience, is still uncertain about the benefits of modern technology. Everyone is naively sitting on the fence, wondering if the Taxman can save the day.

Somehow they can make copies of the previous year's Notice of Assessment, but otherwise it's lining up the carbon paper and pressing hard. And writing in ink with carbon paper means you can't make a mistake. Each of them has to type all the numbers into their adding machines, double-doing the math, and both have to write in all the numbers on the forms: and yet Karen isn't sure that only entering the numbers in once might save some time. They're so scared of the cost of paper and ink that they'd rather rip the government forms into single sheets and hand-feed them into the printer, each side at a time. How can they not be charging enough to cover the cost of paper and ink?

Could it be that they're so out of touch with the real world that they're grossly undercharging for their work? Surely with a thousand customers they should be raking in close to $100,000 a year, right? They're sitting on a nice little gold mine that's only part-time work! Yet they're working so hard their hands should be bleeding. They should be begging for an end to their slavery — instead they have "mixed feelings." Patrick is either in love with pencils or he's scared to death of change. But Karen seems a bright girl with her programming experience, and she's not afraid to "tweek" my forms. Surely she knows all the tax rules by now — what does she need Patrick for?

They just need me to guide them by the hand. All they have to do is spend a little money and they'll be able to do twice the returns their doing now. And how can I not say yes to such simple, harmless, salt-of-the-earth folks? And Karen is willing to work on my program for free and even pay me for my time. And with old Patrick about to expire, maybe a little automation can kick him out the door early? Karen wants to use my program to check Patrick's calculations, but why have Patrick calculate at all? Do you think there's any money in this for me? All they want is to see my program all opened up, with all the code exposed. I can trust these guys, right?

Well? Is the whole thing plausible? Is there anything in all this that can't be true?

Admittedly I'm just a suspicious old fool, but it's all a little too... cute and stupid. In fact, the more times you read this email the more downright pitiful these folks seem to get. It's as if they've gone out of their way to paint themselves as the perfect marks. Is that a carrot I see dangling in front of me? But maybe I got them all wrong.

On the technical side, they're going to be hard pressed to find a printer that precisely feeds through the paper and exactly prints in the same spot every time. With the puny boxes on CRA's forms, they'll only be able to get close to the target — half the forms will look like near-misses. Yet maybe that's close enough for them?

But if Karen really had programming experience she would know that changing the form templates doesn't even involve programming. And she would also know that it would take forever to change all the forms so that only the data is printed and then to line up what you see on the monitor with what gets printed on the page. Some of my forms are so different the task would be impossible. Clearly Karen's programming experience is limited and she doesn't understand what needs to be done. But that said, some forms could be realigned and they could save some money, if she was willing to put in the hours.

The problem I have is that Karen is willing to pay for a computer and printer but balks at the cost of the paper. Based on my consumption, a 1000 returns would cost about $300 in paper. If we add in some more for the ink saved by only printing out the data: the whole need to see my code is to save less than $600. Even if it was a joy to convert my program, surely it isn't worth $600 to have to hand-feed the forms in. But what do I know? Maybe these hardworking folks have the time and it's worth the money to them?

No out and out lies so far. There's no proof of a scam, is there? Is there anything else?

Well let's crunch some numbers. Most people don't receive their T-slips until after mid-February and taxes are due April 30, 2 1/2 months later. And if we add another couple of weeks to do some self-employed folks who have till June 15 to file, then the bulk of the tax returns have only 91 days to get done. If our intrepid team works six days a week, and let's say Karen is padding the figures and there are only doing 936 returns, then that works out to 12 returns a day. For an eight-hour day that's one return every 40 minutes — easy, right?

Patrick is not the only one to have slaved away for 30 years doing tax returns. Let me tell you about long ago, before they even had computers, when I too wielded a pencil. That was when I worked for H&R Block and let me tell you what I learned. I had Patrick's job exactly, except that I probably had easier returns to do. I too used a pencil and a calculator, and someone else checked over my work. And back then I did a study to see how many returns I could get done in a day. What do you guess? One every half an hour?

If they were lined up in the waiting room, and I worked my buns off, with an average amount of luck I could get eight returns finished in one day — an average of one an hour. And those were exceptional days that rarely happened. Over the whole tax season I would average five returns a day. Detailed analysis showed that it's the dealing with the customer that eats up the time. You have to ask them questions, figure them out, get the info off them and there's always stuff missing. With half the people you ended up doing their return three times as the numbers keep changing. This is when I learned there's no money in working for H&R Block at a 20% commission.

And remember back then the provinces didn't have their own set of forms and there was no pension splitting. Even a tax savant would have to redo both spouses' returns at least three or four times before knowing the best way to split up a pension. The grunt work has doubled since the good old days. Yet old Patrick can do it all by hand and his average day beats my pencil-pushing best by another 50%. If he has a slow day with only four returns done, that means the next day he needs to do twenty returns to catch up. And to get 936 returns done, he has to keep up that pace six days a week for the whole tax season!

And what about today, me on my computer versus 65-year-old Patrick with a pencil? At the end of the tax season I'm a burnt-out shell of a man, my mind turned to mush, and I don't even get 300 returns done. That's not to say I couldn't have worked harder and put in more hours, but a guy who works in an office downtown was bragging that he does 350 returns in the tax season. So no matter how you slice it, Patrick is kicking our butts! He has to use a calculator to figure out taxes owing and if there's any CPP or EI overpayments — I just press a button. Yet he still over triples my output! Why hasn't this guy's hand fallen off?

And though the physical feat is amazing, the mental feat is all the more so. At H&R Block I learned that you can't do income tax returns by rote. Years of experience doesn't make the whole thing an automatic routine. It isn't just doing the math and copying the numbers. In your mind you have to be constantly running through all the rules and checking whether they apply and always on the lookout for wherever it is you're missing. This is called thinking and after four hours of it your brain is as tired as your arms would be after four hours of digging. The brain is full of cells and they run out of chemicals just like your muscles do. But not Patrick's brain. When does he get a chance in the day to clear his head? Eight hours straight he's averaging a return every 40 minutes. The guy's a machine. For stupid old me, thinking is actually tiring work! (And again I learned there's no money in working for H&R Block.)

So to buy the 1000 returns, either out here on the West Coast we are hopelessly inefficient, or somewhere in Ontario there's a quiet little office where Superman is writing out tax returns at the speed of light. And what about the seniors who love to sit around and chat? I have some old guys it takes me half an hour just to coax out the door. Does Karen grab these old farts by the collar and summarily throw them into the street?

Have I proved my case beyond a shadow of a doubt? How about the date of the email? Just over a week to go in the tax season and Karen's got all the time in the world to try out my program and email me about it. Shouldn't she still be sweating out her 12 returns a day? I'm buried under a pile of tax returns and here she is eagerly preparing for next year! How can it be so easy for them? And how can someone in the tax-prep business expect someone else in the tax-prep business to have any time to answer a longwinded email on the second-to-last weekend before the tax deadline? They sent it on a Saturday thinking I had the weekend off!

Can they really be that good? Maybe Karen just beefed up the numbers to make them seem more important. Maybe otherwise they're basically legit. What do you think? Is there any one thing that cannot be true, regardless of their superhuman abilities?

Did you spot it? I learned it back when I worked for H&R Block, but you didn't have to be in the tax business to know this one. Anyone who's filled in papers for the government could know. And certainly if you had ever taken a tax course or worked for any tax-prep company, then there is no way you could not have known. Back then, everyone in the business sent in everything written in pencil. CRA doesn't have a rule saying tax returns must be in ink. They aren't going to erase your numbers and change them on you. You can fill in your census or cast your vote with a pencil. You can't have lasted 30 years in the trade and not have seen pencilled forms sent off to the government. To my mind, that's an unforgivable mistake.

In fact, if Patrick actually was doing returns back then he would have learned that the final forms had to be in pencil and that an eraser was your best friend. You can't afford the time redoing each form you screw up on writing in ink. And you get extra points if you also realized that Patrick would have somewhere along the way come to realize, as anyone who has ever played with carbon paper knows, that carbon copies never look good. Even way back then, they had figured out that photocopiers were worth the price.

So ironically, in the end, the one who is redundant is Karen! She doesn't have to be filling in the forms in ink. Patrick could cut her hours in half and replace her with a photocopier. And if we computerized, we could probably get rid of her altogether. Especially with Patrick doing 1000 returns a season, you wouldn't want to get rid of him. That's not to say that Karen and Pat are actually real people. All we know for certain is that whoever wrote this email doesn't do taxes for a living. Nor are they likely to be old enough to have lived in a carbon-paper-using world.

The email is well written and seems to be from someone whose mother tongue is English. But to leave in a spelling mistake — as if spell-check wasn't used — makes me real suspicious. It probably took a lot of work to come up with an innocent reason to see the insides of my program. It's definitely a step up from the Nigerian-lawyer scam and I should be honoured by all the effort directed at attacking little old me. But what were they thinking? If I'm smart enough to build this program, then how can I be so dumb as to give it all away just because of one cute, convoluted sob story? Don't worry folks, I was never in danger — the only way they're going to get this program is by prying it from my dead fingers. They must think me a kind-hearted, generous, senile, old fool. Wrong on all counts.

And exactly what was the plan? Why steal it? Surely it would be too much work updating it every year. Probably they wanted to stick in a virus. I give the program away for free and they still pick on me. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

And if they wanted money off of me, then that again proves they know nothing of the tax-prep game. When they did the math they probably figured that if you don't have a 1000 customers then you're not going to make any money. At least they got that right! The sad secret is that there's no money in doing tax returns even if you don't work for H&R Block.

Monday, April 25, I emailed back:

I'm up to my neck in tax returns or I'd give you a longer reply. Your email seems quite impossible. How many times does Patrick have to redo a tax return to figure out the best split-pension amount? I use the computer and I have to switch medical expenses and charity between spouses and it takes me 4 redos before I get the lowest taxes payable. I can't do 300 returns in a season but Patrick does 1000 all by hand! And then you copy them out in ink, which is not required by CRA! Not even a photocopier?
And then you think you can tweak my program to exactly match up and print the government forms you receive from Winnipeg. All so you can save on the paper! Are you doing the returns for $5 each?
Clearly you are much more efficient than me and I can see why you are worried about the mixed blessings of converting to software. I should go back to doing returns with a pencil and eraser, but unfortunately, unlike Patrick, I can't perform miracles.

And then I received on Tuesday, April 26:

Hi G,

You made us smile! When things settle down I'll write to you again. For now I'll just say that I'm eyeing your software to use to cheaply automate two aspects of the tax file .. document production and error checking.. in short ... my job. I have alot of experience with scripting languages ... used to work for a company called "C.omputer A.ssisted K.nowledge E.ngineering" (CAKEware) ... and the prospect of spending 100 hours doing the forms doesn't faze me ...

Good luck with your work load!



Still in undercover, covering their butts. They probably already had it half prepared thinking I would argue that it would take too many hours to change the program — but I didn't even mention that in my email. And what my email did say they brushed off as a joke.

But shouldn't I have made them laugh — isn't that the expression? No one in North America would bother to write that I made them smile. Smiles don't count on this continent. Where in the world would a smile be worth mentioning?

Someplace where they have a "work load" and not a "workload" or just plain "work." Someplace where they think that a female in Ontario might end her email with "Cheers." China or India?

Anyways, I haven't heard from them since.

Have I missed anything? Could Sherlock Holmes have found more? When I read the first email I knew I had to share it. An outsiders view of the tax business, with all the common misconceptions. In my mind I pictured the scene from A Christmas Carol with Karen as Bob Cratchit, working by candlelight, scratching away with a quill pen. And right next door sits Patrick, old Scrooge, too cheap to even pay for the paper. A quaint but cruel scene, which is probably how the whole world sees us bean-counters.

Once I realized they wanted me to hand over all my code to them, I knew they were crooks. Going through and finding the proof was just for fun. And I would have thought that even if no one point was itself a killer, then surely the sum of all the incongruities would be sufficient to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, in anyone's mind. But when I sent my analysis to some friends, I found that I hadn't swayed all the hearts of the jury. There were still some who believed that Patrick and Karen could be living, breathing people. Maybe Karen just lied about the number of returns they did, but otherwise, she really does exist. Maybe they really didn't know about ink not being required, or they just like doing it in ink. For some people, all things are possible. That's how O.J. got off. Some are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, and that's what the bad guys are hoping for.

The one final lesson we can learn from these emails is that the bastions of my program are impregnable. No doubt they first tried to bust into the program and failed. If these cunning emails are the exorbitant lengths they have to go to, then rest assured my defences are so thick they can be seen from space. What've they got for Plan C?


Adventure of the Dancing Men: AM HERE ABE SLANEY

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