A funny thing happened during this year's All Star Conference. Well, actually, not all that funny, but not as bad as it could have been.
My plan was, as I have done for any number of conferences in the past, to tweet and blog away at my heart's content for the two and a half days. During the opening session I was sitting in the very back corner of the conference hall (my favorite seat for various reasons – some of which I probably don't understand and others which I do understand but am not quite sure you want to know about) with my laptop fired up and ready to go. Only a half hour in and I had already tweeted two bon mots– timeless thoughts for the ages – and had a few notes on a potential blog post. Another great idea came up and I opened my computer to share it with the Twitterverse. Instead of the screen lighting up, I heard a series of eight very loud beeps and watched as the entire thing shut down.
I rushed out of the room to see if I could figure out what was up. Multiple openings of the laptop; multiple beepings – none of which led to the machine actually turning on. No, what was once the receptacle that held my thoughts, dreams, work, and idle pleasures had become a useless piece of occasionally beeping plastic.
I found an IT expert and he uttered the lines I dreaded to hear. "I've heard this before. I think your hard drive is fried."
He then followed with a question that bounced around in my skull a few times before it nestled in the special part of the brain reserved for just-how-stupid-can-you-be moments. "You've backed it up, right?"
You see, the world is full of auditors who constantly preach how to do things right. And then those same auditors do not fill their own prescriptions. Or, in other words, for the last six months I had been telling my wife "I need to start backing up my files" and I think you can guess from everything I have just said how well I had fulfilled that desire.
Now the good news is that, eventually, I found it was a problem with the screen, not the hard drive. And I now sit with the plastic actually acting like a tool of great value and all those pretty little files are nestled in their electronic beds just waiting for me to wake them and use them as I need.
And I have purchased a backup system (which I have not yet used, but will, soon - honest, really, I swear.)
But this is not a story of how auditors should practice what they preach (although I may dive into that pool of sharks later.) No, I want to approach this a slightly different way because I recently came across the following quote from J. Robert Lennon (by way of Austin Kleon):
Treasure nothing, be willing to throw out anything. The story you just wrote that you are proud of should not be coddled and worshipped. You can do it again. If your house burned down with all your work inside it, you would still be the writer you are, and you would continue to be worth something.
Having your entire hard drive disappear feels much like having your house burn down with all your work. It leaves one with a complete since of loss – where do I go, what do I do, what next? Trust me, all those thoughts were running through my head in the first hour or so before I found out my files might not have disappeared. But there are a few other things internal auditors can pick up from this quote.
First, in a very pragmatic way, no matter what work we have done, we should be able to recreate it. I think many auditors live in the great fear that files will be lost or hard drives will crash or any other litany of disasters will happen that will force us to recreate our work. And, yes, none of us have time to waste redoing work we have done before. But such a disaster wouldn't be the worst that can happen. One of the interesting things about our work is that it can be recreated. You can redo the tests, you can speak to interviewees a second time, you can recreate the workpapers, and, even if you spent the last month hammering out a report to get it just perfect and then lost it somewhere in the ether, you can still write it again.
(Which raises questions about why it took you so long to write the report – but that, also, is a debate for another day.)
Loss of all that information is a significant blow, but it is far from the worst that can happen. To quote Lennon, "You can do it again."
The second lesson requires a minor adaptation of the quote. "The audit you just completed that you are proud of should not be coddled and worshipped." It shames me to think how many auditors I speak with who talk incessantly about the audit they completed two, three, five years ago as if it were a recent accomplishment. Good job, now move on. You are not the work you have completed; you are the work that you will do.
Which leads to a third lesson. Lennon is talking about the need for writers to understand that they are not defined by the words they have already written, rather by their ability to create. Similarly, we as internal auditors are not defined by the work we have completed; we are defined by the work that we can do – by the value we can provide, by the understanding we can share, by the assurances we can provide. The past has established our reputations (which, in some cases, may need to be changed), but it doesn't define who we are. We are in charge of that with every project we undertake.
Oh yeah, there is one more important lesson. Back up your files.
And, by the way, it's nice to be back.