Beyond the books: How a career in accounting led Alanna Niskanen to working at a smart home tech company
Guest Blog Post By Diane Kazarian
In my new role as PwC’s Greater Toronto Area (GTA) Managing Partner and a strong supporter and leader of diversity, inclusion and innovation, I’m always looking for new and exciting stories to tell. Recently, I spoke with one of our younger alumni about her time at PwC Canada in Emerging Company Services (ECS). She told me how the firm prepared her not only in how to conduct an audit but also to be an advisor on broader business processes.
During her seven years at PwC, Alanna Niskanen specialized in providing audit and assurance services to growing and emerging companies of all sizes. Now she is six months into her role at one of them: ecobee, a Toronto-based smart thermostat tech company that holds roughly 30% market share in the smart thermostat category in North America, according to NPD, a Canadian market research group.
One of ecobee’s main competitors is Silicon Valley giant Nest, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. At ecobee, Alanna is valued for her insight into what financial decisions its leaders should make—and how those decisions could affect the company’s overall operations and competitiveness.
In her time at both companies, Alanna has worked with many people who she would describe as helping her to “move the dial” beyond providing advice alongside auditing services. Through her mentors and the values both companies align themselves with, Alanna has learned that her colleagues, no matter how senior, will support and trust her to make decisions, enabling her to grow and develop beyond her job title.
Advising as well as auditing
At PwC, Alanna was selected to be part of the ECS team. This gave her the opportunity to use her skills to support new and emerging Canadian technology companies. During her time at PwC, she got to work with over 50 clients.
Alanna found it very fulfilling to help these businesses evolve into leaders in their respective industries. “What I really loved about the experience was working closely with founders and CEOs,” she said. “I got to learn from the ground up, to see companies from the inside out and how they were growing as we helped them with their financing.”
In her ECS role, she felt like she was acting as an advisor while she was auditing. She was able to develop relationships with clients, who would then come to her not only for accounting questions but also for business and operational advice, such as what accounting system to use to scale, at what stage they should set up an audit committee, or for assistance on fundraising rounds.
Beyond the books at ecobee
Alanna’s experience at PwC gave her the tools to understand how to effectively scale a business.
After over seven years with the firm, she felt the time was right to apply her skills and passion to a more singular focus. She’s now Senior Manager, Finance at ecobee. Beyond the company’s mission to reduce people’s greenhouse gas footprint, she was attracted by the company’s successful rapid growth and its decision to stay in Canada.
One of the perspectives Alanna is excited to bring is the importance of processes. She believes it’s imperative for any business that internal processes evolve at the same rate as the business growth.
“Processes need to be in place today for us to be able to grow for the future.”
She’d like to break one of the big accounting myths that accounting and finance departments focus on historical info and data only. This is not the case for growing, innovative companies.
Alanna wants to make sure ecobee has the right processes and structure to report on future strategic goals as well—not just where the company’s been, but where it’s headed.
Trailblazing in male-dominated industries
During her time at PwC, Alanna felt well-supported by both male and female colleagues—an aspect she considers crucial to moving the dial. Her team members taught her the importance of working hard, but also of having fun and maintaining a well-balanced life. And they reminded her to always be herself.
Now, she’s found similar mentors at ecobee. “I’m grateful to once again be working in an environment with these same core values,” she said, adding that it’s a testament to the strong culture that’s been created at ecobee, which has similar values to PwC, including the importance of being yourself.
“Right from the beginning, David Brennan, ecobee’s CFO and fellow PwC alumni has played a significant role in not only welcoming me to the finance team but also instilling the trust in me that I can make an impact across all departments,” Alanna said. “I am the type of person who likes to dive right into things and build from the ground up - without his belief and trust in me, there is no way I would be as comfortable as I am now and truly feeling like I can make a difference every day.”
Ultimately, she thinks the best way companies can demonstrate that they truly care about gender equality is by making sure they have women in key strategic roles. “Companies can say gender equity is important to them, but if you’re a female applying for a role and you’re being interviewed by two males, it’s hard to take it at face value.”
For women, Alanna says it’s important not to hesitate or get discouraged when applying for jobs in male-dominated industries. “Know your worth,” she emphasized.
“Put your foot in the door. If you’re qualified for a role, then you have a right to be heard.”
While Alanna may not be writing code, she is writing the future of a successful Canadian startup—and of women in the tech business. She’s an example of how women are playing a key role in shaping the technology innovation hub that is continuously growing in Toronto.
Watch more of Diane’s conversation with Alanna here.