Mysterious mages among us


I.M. Wright with a light bulb in his mouth. Roaming the halls of Microsoft (or any mid- to large-sized business), you’ll find mysterious mages seemingly directing the inner workings of our business. Their powers are elusive to the rest of us. Are they friend or foe? Do they control our fate? I’m speaking of the magical members of the legal, human resources (HR), and finance departments.

Most engineers know that lawyers, HR managers, and financial analysts play important roles in our business. These co-workers are full of policies, requests (demands?), and deadlines. They can seem intimidating and unsettling. They are certainly misunderstood. We’re part of the same company, but it’s unclear if we work for them, they work for us, or if there’s some mysterious detente.

Allow me to pull back the curtain and reveal the roles of legal, HR, and finance—how they help keep our business running smoothly and effectively, who they serve, and how you can best make them partners in our shared success.

Who’s in charge here?

If the same role can be found at a software company, a fast food chain, and a fashion agency, that role probably isn’t the core competency of the firm—it’s a support role. Lawyers, HR folks, and finance people support our business.

The core competency of Microsoft is software and technology. All other roles and aspects of the business serve that core competency. Does that mean we get to order around or ignore legal, HR, and finance representatives? Of course not. Those areas are critical to running an orderly, responsible, and profitable business. How can you partner with folks in those areas to be more effective, efficient, and successful? Let’s talk about each one.

Let's kill all the lawyers

Lawyers have been the targets of humor and hostility for centuries. Why are they still thriving? Because there are two kinds of lawyers: yours and others. Your lawyers are wonderful. They explain society’s rules to you, help you achieve your goals within those rules, and protect and defend you from other lawyers—the horrible ones out to get you.

The company’s lawyers are your lawyers—they’re wonderful. They are here to help you with your business matters. (For personal matters, you need to hire a personal lawyer.)

Unfortunately, many engineers misunderstand the role of their lawyers. Your lawyers aren’t here to tell you what to do. Instead, you explain to your lawyers what you’re trying to accomplish for our business, our partners, and our customers. (Depending on the subject, this may take a while, so be patient.) They will advise you on how to achieve those goals within the rules, what risks there might be (places to be careful), and will even draft contracts and communications for you, as needed, to protect our interests.

Lawyers are so awesome that you might be tempted to pretend you’re a lawyer. That’s a big mistake. Stay away from interpreting laws, patents, licenses, and contracts on your own. Software isn’t written in casual English, and neither are legal documents. You stick to understanding code, and let lawyers stick to understanding legalese. If you need to interpret legal documents, including patents and license terms, talk to your lawyer first, and let her use her superpowers to help you.

Eric Aside

Remember, if you ever need to discuss a legal question or document with your lawyer, do so over the phone, in person, or send email to your lawyer (on the to-line) and put “Attorney Client Privileged” in the subject line. Don’t forward or add people to a conversation; ask your lawyer to do it.

Also, my friends in the legal department would remind you that while you have discretion to take action that is within the law, you do not have discretion to do something that would violate the law.

For more about patents and open source, read NIHilism and other innovation poison.

More human than human

Human resources is probably best known for driving our employee review process (Connects, people discussions, promotions, and rewards). HR folks also provide training, answer questions, investigate issues, and help with all manner of people matters.

Many engineers only encounter HR folks when being asked to follow some policy, take some class, or fill out some form. It might feel like you’re working for HR, when actually you’re working for Microsoft—HR is the go-between. Think that’s just semantics? Wrong. HR is working for Microsoft to attract, develop, and keep our talent—the lifeblood of a technology company. You are that talent.

Need help recruiting? That’s prime HR territory. Think HR training missed the mark for our people and our business? Tell them and they’ll fix it. Have any kind of personal issue regarding yourself, your family, or your co-workers? Involve your HR representative, and he’ll shower you with support. Believe any policy or process is unfair or reinforcing the wrong behavior? Alert your HR person, and she’ll work hard to understand the issue and correct it over time.

Being in human resources is not an easy role; these professionals are often assigned to difficult situations. Getting a chance to make an employee’s life better can make their whole week. We all need help during challenging times. Involving HR can be a game changer for you and your family, while reminding our HR people of why they love their jobs.

Eric Aside

If you’re a manager, don’t pretend to be an HR person, a doctor, or a psychologist. If one of your employees has a personal issue, please refer him or her to your HR representative, who will connect your employee with the proper resources.

If your personal situation requires taking some time off, read Some time away.

Obvious financial motivation

Financial analysts might appear to provide the least benefit for their cost to the typical engineer. Yes, we all enjoy an uptick in the stock price after the finance department releases particularly upbeat financial earnings, but we all contributed to that uptick (as finance readily appreciates). Otherwise, to the engineer, the finance department is about forcing you to fill out expense reports, predict future expenditures (including hiring), explain past expenditures, and generally make it more difficult to allocate work and resources across organizations.

Sometimes the work you’re doing makes sense, but the way the finance department accounts for it doesn’t. This impacts group managers more than leads and individual engineers, but finance requests have a way of percolating pain past people like pachinko pins. You struggle to figure out how to charge equipment, services, licenses, or vendors, particularly across groups. You can’t easily forecast future expenditures because the accounting doesn’t align with the business model, strategy, or plan.

Fortunately, financial analysts are humans living among us. It’s true! You can talk to them. Explain how your group does business, particularly across orgs. Discuss your plans, how you spend money (people and resources), and how you intend to make money. (Don’t know? Figure it out!) Much like your lawyers, your financial analysts aren’t here to tell you what to do. They are here to explain our funding models, advise you on the risks (places to be careful), and even adapt our accounting to better reflect your plans and simplify your business.

Large changes to accounting are complicated and typically are done at fiscal year boundaries (planned in April, implemented in July). However, smaller changes can happen as needed to help you run your business smoothly. As finance department folks will tell you, making your job easier makes their job easier.

Eric Aside

Your admin is your key link to the finance department, so ensure he or she is looped into changes. Need to understand more about budgeting? Read On budget.

Better together

Lawyers, paralegals (who assist lawyers), HR directors, HR managers, finance directors, finance managers, and financial analysts are all professionals working with us to run our business smoothly, responsibly, and profitably. You can connect with the ones affiliated with your business via an internal web search. These professionals support the core of our software and technology business, and engineers are part of that core business. Many engineers think they’re still doing school projects—not running a business.  Wake up and grow up!

Our business partners in the legal, HR, and finance departments are here to help you work smarter, safer, and easier, by informing you, advising you, and adjusting our procedures to make you more productive. They can’t do it alone—their role is to support you.

If you have a question or are frustrated by something that just doesn’t fit with our plans and the way we work, reach out to your lawyers, HR folks, and finance wizards for help. Sure, they can’t really do magic, but they’ll partner with you to make your life better and our business more successful.

Eric Aside

I could write a similar column about marketing, sales, customer support, and many other aspects of our business. We’re all working for the same company, and we win and lose together.

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