During his undergrad studies at UC Santa Barbara—where he double-majored in psychology and sociology and minored in music—Cole Leksan undertook an unpaid internship at Playback Recording Studio as an opportunity to explore audio engineering and production as a potential career.
In addition to gaining experience in audio production, he was also evaluating a professional path in music therapy. “I’ve played music since I was a kid, so I thought music therapy could be a compelling way to blend my creative interests with my educational background,” Cole tells me about his early career goals.
The internship allowed him to sit in on recording sessions and learn about the industry standards of high-fidelity recording for music and film. “Playback had a great roster of well-known talent like Katy Perry, Travis Scott and Jeff Bridges—I felt lucky to land an intern position at a studio of this standard,” he says.
By graduation, Cole was playing in bands and organizing local shows, and at Playback he had been promoted to run recording sessions as an audio engineer. Soon after, he took over the studio manager position and oversaw Playback’s bookings and operations.
His career path, however, was about to head in a different direction.
Learning a Different Chord
“First, it was through this experience that I discovered what role music should play in my life. I realized I was more interested in producing my own projects than I was in engineering and managing other artists. I also became comfortable with enjoying music and recording recreationally, not necessarily professionally.
“Second, as the studio manager, I got my first taste of managing a business, including bookkeeping and basic accounting. The accounting was uncomplicated, however, it was still influential for me as I thought about pivoting my career. I first contemplated the option of pivoting my career path to work in business management, finance or accounting as a result of this experience.”
Because of his new accounting tasks as studio manager, Cole was privy to what seemed like a challenging outlook for the studio recording industry in the time of digital production and home studios. “The ever-evolving music industry was pressuring Playback’s top-line revenue, so I recognized that it was becoming time for me to pursue a career change.”
Local speaker-manufacturer Sonos would provide motivation for him to make the leap as he became friends with members of their engineering team, who would come to Playback to test out new designs.
“Sonos was well regarded as an up-and-coming, pre-IPO company in town, and I was keen to get a foot in the door,” he says. “Sonos’ company culture seemed like a great fit for me.
“I was able to find a role on the sales and customer experience team through the connections I made at Playback; my job was to speak with customers as they contemplated buying Sonos and to advise them on which sound system would be best for their listening environment.”
Being a customer experience rep on the global eCommerce side of the business was just one of his duties. “While working on this team, I assisted with back-office order management, and we had a close relationship with the accounts receivable team because they facilitated customer refunds.”
Then came the turning point: a position on the accounts receivable (AR) team opened up.
“It crossed my mind that it would make sense to apply for the AR role they had open,” Cole recalls. “At this point in my career, I wanted to develop a more specialized skill set in order to expand future professional opportunities. I’ve always been fairly analytical and comfortable with numbers—and I had enjoyed the financial aspect of my former studio manager position at Playback—so the jump to the accounting and finance route made sense to pursue.”
Understanding Performances of Another Kind
In 2017, Cole began as an accounting analyst at Sonos. Not long after, he started our Certificate Program in Financial Planning and Analysis as he wanted to know more than just the basic ins and outs.
“When I moved to the accounts receivable team, I had little experience with corporate-scale accounting,” Cole admits. “I learned AR quickly on the job, but still needed to educate myself on accounting principles and theory. I decided it would be best to go back to school. I had friends who worked in corporate finance and in FP&A, and they recommended FP&A as a potential career because they enjoyed the strategic and forward-looking nature of financial planning over the retrospective nature of corporate accounting work.”
From there, Cole found out about us through a relative whose friend had a positive experience with the program. “I was enticed when I learned that UC Berkeley approved these courses, and I read in student reviews that the Extension courses were very similar in structure and content to the UC undergrad and M.B.A. courses. I felt that the financial planning and analysis certificate program could provide me with the knowledge I needed to advance my career in corporate finance and accounting.
“Additionally, it was appealing that the classes were offered online in a fully remote setting, so I had the option to complete the program from home, at my own pace after my workday was done.”
Beyond the relationships he built with his instructors and fellow classmates, Cole also attests that the online platform worked for his learning style.
“Although I only met my instructors and classmates virtually, I was able to form personal relationships with my peers and was able to network with students who were working in careers similar to mine. I connected on LinkedIn with almost all of them.
“The instructors were very helpful via email—and always quick to communicate—so I never had an issue messaging them,” Cole continues. “There were times when I would be working on homework and get stuck on some of the questions, but the instructors were always able to point me to the right spot in the book or lecture material to help solve the problem.
“I enjoyed learning online because it required me to read each of the textbooks in order to fully digest the concepts in each course. Compared to my experience going to large lecture halls in college, for me this program experience was more direct and self-educational, which led to a stronger understanding of the material.”
Which of the courses provided Cole with the greatest career benefit, then and now?
“In these classes, I learned about the fundamentals of the three core financial statements: profit and loss (P&L), balance sheet and cash-flows statement. I gained an understanding of how to analyze these statements in a manner that taught me how to evaluate the health of a business through the trends depicted in them.
“The Managerial Accounting course had an immediate impact on my career. Around the time that I took this course was when I transitioned into an FP&A position at Sonos, managing portions of the company’s budget. I also learned how to forecast fixed versus variable, direct versus indirect, driver-based and activity-based costs—all of which were skills I used in my day-to-day forecasting work.”
The Managerial Accounting course helped Cole as he moved into other roles in FP&A. “I developed a sound knowledge of corporate expense planning and capital investment analysis, which I have used for the purposes of modeling the return on investment (ROI) and net-present value (NPV) of various investment proposals.”
In the Financial Statement Analysis course, Cole learned about the interdependencies of the three financial statements, which was helpful for evaluating capital expenditure (CapEx) proposals and revenue-generating investment opportunities that he reviewed for work. “Understanding the top and bottom lines of a P&L in both GAAP [generally accepted accounting principles] and non-GAAP terms is critical for developing margin targets, allocating capital and distributing company budgets across the executive staff,” he adds.
As his career progressed, Cole was also able to apply what he had learned in Enterprise Risk Management to his work. “I gained a much deeper understanding about the variety of ways that currency and foreign-exchange (FX) translations impact corporations. I have been able to apply the information to work through constant currency revenue and operating income modeling. The Enterprise Risk Management course taught me how currency hedging through swaps and forward contracts can stabilize a business in times of economic uncertainty.”
Putting Theory Into Practice
By the end of 2019, Cole moved on from Sonos to become a senior financial analyst at Procore. His education with us brought unexpected benefits in his job search.
“When I applied for the position at Procore, many of the interviewers asked me about my supplemental education experience through UC Berkeley Extension,” he commends. “I believe the hiring team recognized my commitment to professional development and it was one of the reasons why I was selected for the job. Based on the response I received from recruiters and hiring managers, I felt as though they respected my commitment to continuing education and that this program carried weight, which qualified me ahead of other candidates.”
This change to a new industry was just another step in his ongoing pursuit to gain relevant professional experience. Near the end of 2020, Cole joined corporate FP&A at Zoom. “I had close connections who worked at Zoom, and I was familiar with how well Zoom treats their employees and customers,” he says.
“When I saw an opportunity to apply for a senior financial analyst position at Zoom, I jumped on it. The role I applied for was slightly different from my previous position at Procore: There I had been a FP&A business partner, primarily focused on maintaining the company budget. At Zoom, I moved into a corporate FP&A role, which was more focused on top-line planning and broader financial consolidation.”
Cole found that the knowledge he gained in our FP&A certificate with regard to P&L management and GAAP versus Non-GAAP financial modeling was critical for success in his new position.
“Some of the UC Berkeley Extension program projects included corporate forecasting using publicly disclosed financials to generate discounted cash flow and forward earnings valuation models,” he imparts.
“Evaluating financial performance and trajectory from this perspective taught me how to identify corporate strengths and weaknesses across the three financial statements. These are skills that I still use frequently as we forecast our financials and prepare for quarterly earnings calls.”
Not only did he gain a fundamental understanding of corporate accounting and finance theory from our certificate, but he says he also received an education that helped him grasp the core mechanics of a corporate finance environment. “I was provided the tools I needed to succeed in my job as an FP&A analyst and FP&A manager.”
Tools and skills that for the past year he has been utilizing in the role of financial manager in Zoom’s corporate FP&A department.
“UC Berkeley Extension laid the foundation for my career and helped propel me to the position I am in today,” Cole enthuses. “In corporate finance, it’s important to comprehend how to read into financials in order to understand the health of the business. The Certificate Program in Financial Planning and Analysis formulated the base of knowledge that I apply in my work as an FP&A manager.”
He continues, “Choosing to pursue a certificate for career advancement depends on your individual circumstances, career goals, and the specific program's reputation and content. As someone who has personally experienced the benefits of the UC Berkeley Extension program, I can sincerely vouch for its effectiveness in advancing my career and providing essential theoretical knowledge to work in corporate finance. The program has been instrumental in helping me succeed in my job and significantly contributed to my professional growth.”