Advocate for the cloud

Advocate for the cloud
One sunny morning in Toronto this past summer, a group of media, business people, and various dignitaries waited for mayor John Tory to arrive at the Delta Toronto near the Air Canada Centre for a surprise press conference hosted by Microsoft Canada.

Once the secret was out, however, it didn’t matter that the mayor was late. The reason for the event reflected something many people had been waiting much longer to come: a data centre that would offer a local facility to host the computing infrastructure and applications that Microsoft delivers via the cloud.
Even though he wasn’t on site that day, Jonathan Leibtag was among those applauding the news.

“It really makes a big difference,” says Leibtag, a corporate counsel who works on Microsoft Canada’s legal team. “All those questions people had had about cloud computing were really being answered once they knew we were going to have data centres in-country.”

Even for someone employed at the world’s largest software company, it might seem strange that Leibtag would be excited about a data centre. Yet the disruptive nature of cloud computing — which is changing not only  the way IT services are provided but the way agreements between vendors and customers are formed — have made his role somewhat unique for an in-house lawyer.

“The benefits [of cloud computing] are typically understood by the time we get involved in terms of cost savings, flexibility, and so on. They’re sold on the value proposition,” he says. “But when you start talking to the chief privacy officer, the head of infosecurity, new questions come up: What kind of data protection can you offer? Who has access? How do you deal with government requests?”

There are still many issues in cloud procurement that would be typical of other IT processes that in-house lawyers are probably better suited to address, Leibtag says. For the others, he finds himself often acting not only as a typical in-house counsel but as a source of peer support for those on the client side — effectively helping make the sale of things like Microsoft Azure, an enterprise cloud computing platform, a safer and more trustworthy experience.

“If I were to say how has my role changed, it’s less about negotiation than about education and explanation,” he says. “If you think about it, a lawyer is supposed to be an advocate, but we have to be advocates for our customers as well.”

Leibtag admits he didn’t become a lawyer with a sense that cloud computing would be a defining force in his day-to-day work. After graduating from McGill with a bachelor of commerce, he spent a year abroad at Stockholm University studying international law before completing his education at the University of Western Ontario.

At Torkin Manes LLP, Leibtag spent four years assisting with acquisitions and private equity transactions, a good proving ground for the work he does now in helping companies understand the business model behind the sometimes-nebulous world of cloud computing.

“It’s not something I expected, but it’s something I enjoy,” he said. “It’s nice to be adding value to the business, but not just through the legal deliverable. It’s also demonstrating and helping discuss and explain how our products work and meet customers’ compliance obligations.”

Those efforts include not only sitting down with customers as sales are being finalized but conducting workshops with Microsoft’s sales teams to help them understand what kind of objections or concerns may come up in early customer discussions. The regulatory impacts alone can be daunting. Financial institutions might wonder whether moving to the cloud would go against the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions’ cybersecurity guidelines, for example. Others might be concerned about how to ensure data stored in the cloud complies with PIPEDA, or what the possible passing of Bill S4 could mean in terms of data breach notification requirements.

“It’s a matter of communicating what’s coming to the pipeline to make sure it’s top of mind and anticipating where legislation is going,” he says. “People won’t use technology they don’t trust. Many operate in a regulated environment. Lawyers are well suited to build that trust. It’s really kind of helping them along their journey.”

Sales people aren’t the only ones taking such workshops. Customers and prospects come in to Microsoft’s Mississauga, Ont.-based headquarters for similar sessions led by engineers or account people.

If that sounds more collaborative than what is typical in many other kinds of organizations, Leibtag suggests the benefits also cross departmental lines.

“I think it’s new for the sales team, but there’s an interdependence. It really is a one-team approach now,” he says. “When it comes down to negotiating a cloud deal, it’s not just an account manager anymore. All the questions need to be addressed by different subject matter experts to go to the cloud.
I’ve never been in sales before. It’s great because I learn a lot about sales, and they learn a lot about law.”

Beyond mapping out contract terms and ensuring Microsoft certifications align with what the tenants of those new cloud data centres are asking for, Leibtag says another important aspect of his team’s work is influencing public policy and ensuring legislators recognize Microsoft as a thought leader in the space.

“Because technology constantly evolves and legislation is often a laggard, it’s a matter of working hard to stay on top of the concerns,” he says. “We’re hearing about mass data breaches, which really started with Edward Snowden. Security is really a C-suite issue now.”

It’s also an issue that’s getting more complex by the day, with companies like Apple fighting the FBI in the U.S. over demands for increased access to consumer technology. The cloud is also helping create global, massively disruptive competitors to established industries, whether it’s Uber in transportation or Airbnb in the hospitality sector. Canadian companies want to gain the same competitive advantages that others have seen through moving to the cloud, but they also don’t want to introduce unnecessary risk into their organization.

Leibtag says what motivates him is the opportunity to be proactive in meeting cloud computing challenges head-on, rather than scrambling to explain the ramifications after problems have already emerged.

“In a lot of other in-house roles, you’re really focused on things like limitations and liabilities — this is not just that,” he says. “I’m looking at helping make the business case for cloud computing to our customers.”

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