If You Want To Make A Difference, Know What You’re Doing

It’s difficult to find that sweet spot between doing what you love and getting paid well to do it. I know this well – I came into college as an English major, but after realizing I didn’t want to live in a cardboard box on the sidewalk I changed it to something more practical. I later applied to the business school, but after realizing I didn’t want to sell my soul as a salesman I changed it to something with more intrinsic value.

The goal of attaining a high-impact and high-paying job started looking more like a pipe dream. But the world tends to be generous toward those with high ambitions and a commitment to serving the greater good.

Sofia Hussain, Senior Forensic Accountant, Division of Enforcement, managed to find that balance. After studying English and Accounting, she manages to apply her two degrees as she combats fraud for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). She is as altruistic as she is opportunistic in helping others.

For her work, Hussain has been named a finalist for the Service to America Medals – the Sammies – the Oscars for federal employees. Hussain told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program how important it is to her that the SEC does its job better everyday.

Hussain sees similarities between her areas of study that many would overlook. “For me, English was analyzing stories. When I moved into being an accounting major, accounting was analyzing stories, but just with numbers instead of words. I think having a liberal arts background really gave me a strong analytical focus that might not have been present if I had just been a business major,” she said.

Hussain spent years at an accounting firm, but itched to be in the public sector. “I wanted to be on the other side,” she explained. So she came to the SEC with a fresh perspective, and ended up cracking cases of fraud using her knowledge of data analytics. One example? She helped in taking down a Ponzi scheme worth over $50 million.

“It was an international case and a country’s pension funds were actually invested in this hedge fund,” said Hussain regarding the scheme. “Being able to get that wire information electronically allowed us to go through it more quickly than we would have otherwise if it came in a paper format. We could then use the tools to track those funds and find where the money eventually ended up and get it back; that’s what really helped us make that case. And using technology to get to that end result much more quickly let us find out where else the money was.”

Hussain believes that her organization plays a pivotal role in the national economy. “Our goal at the SEC is to make sure that investors have confidence in the market and they feel comfortable that they’re investing their money. And if people don’t have the confidence to invest, that’s where our economy falls apart. Investors are the ones who are driving company growth and allowing companies to expand and hire more workers. And if people don’t invest in our markets, then companies can’t grow,” said Hussain.

New technology has made it easier to retrieve information, but Hussain highlights why it’s more useful to help identify pattern recognition.

“What the visualization software lets us do is take those spreadsheets of phone calls, let’s say across five different people, and we don’t know how they’re connected; we just know they all traded in this one stock. Well we can dump all of those phone calls into the visualization software, and in a matter of seconds see that one individual that all five other people called. So we’re taking what could have taken weeks before and hundreds of thousands of lines of data, down to a single picture in a single second,” said Hussain.

Some have been hesitant to accept her advice, especially considering her youth. Hussain just focuses on the results. “I’m not trying to change what you’re doing. It’s not that the way that you’re doing it is wrong; it’s just that there are other ways it can be done. I’m trying to make changes to help everyone do what they’re already doing even faster than before.”

Hussain simply wants employees to consider a more efficient way of using their data, not alter their entire process. Sometimes it’s difficult to convince others of what the future looks like. “You know that’s actually one of the toughest pieces of what I do, but it’s also what I’m most proud of is bringing new techniques and methods to all of my colleagues. So, taking the time to explain to people how they can do the work that they’ve been doing, but do it a little bit better and a little bit faster and why that makes a difference in their daily lives.”

It’s not always about gathering data; that’s been in practice for years. Today, it’s about gathering data quickly, efficiently, and analyzing it to catch certain patterns.

“So, previously without the software we would obtain people’s phone calls, obtain their emails, and track that in a spreadsheet in a table. And you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of phone calls; it’s hard to find the connections when you’re just looking at a table of information,” said Hussein.

Hussain faced her share of skeptics when making the move from the private to public sector. But she has no regrets.

“People have a certain perception of government workers sometimes. But I know what I’m doing and I know the difference that I’m making,” said Hussein. “I feel like I couldn’t make a bigger impact anywhere else, and that’s what I’m focused on. They can have their opinion, but I know what I do day to day and I know what my colleagues do day to day and that makes me really proud.”

You can find all our Sammies interviews here.

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