When I was considering whether to take a job in Google’s finance department, a successful entrepreneur friend of mine told me I was making a mistake. He felt that designers and engineers added value to the world by creating new products, but the only thing finance people did was to say no. Given the pride I had taken over the years in creating valuable products like the CellKey system, I wondered whether I was making the right choice.
After a couple years here at Google, I agree with my friend that there are far too many people within corporate finance departments that are beancounters. Their only goal is to make sure the sums add up and that the processes are being painstakingly followed. Anything that disrupts their routine is fought with every fiber of their being. I made a mistake last fall that meant that Google had to pay out invoices faster than net 30 terms, and I spent weeks begging the team in accounts payable to vary their process this one time. Other finance teams have frustrated me by sticking resolutely to their quarterly plans even when the environment had shifted since those plans were made.
That being said, good finance people provide a level of clarity and objective vision to the executives. Finance takes a separate look from outside the product domain to review revenue and cost trajectories, as my team at Google does for the Revenue Force team. Our CFO, Patrick Pichette, asks every product leader what they’re going to get done next quarter and what resources they’ll need to get there, and then he follows up the following quarter by evaluating their success on achieving those goals with those resources. By having that outside check, it forces product teams to re-evaluate their own success every quarter rather than trying to launch at all costs.
Finance can also help the executives make decisions across product lines. Product people often want to invest in all the cool ideas they have and won’t prioritize to make the hard tradeoffs, because it’s like choosing one’s favorite child. The finance team can provide a framework to the execs for valuing the different product initiatives for the company to help the execs make those tradeoffs at the corporate level. This doesn’t necessarily mean making decisions purely based on profits – corporate objectives might include other metrics like user adoption, as is the case for Google products like Chrome and Android. But having a consistent framework makes it easier to compare products across the company.
Evaluating the business model for a product is also part of finance’s responsibility. Even if a product is technically excellent, the business model surrounding it may not be successful (e.g. Signature going bankrupt despite the CellKey instrument being on the path towards success, or Google Wave). Good finance people understand the product vision and the potential market, but can tie those lofty goals back to the prosaic P&L statement, and provide a viewpoint on whether the assumptions embedded in that model make sense and are achieving corporate objectives.
Lastly, great finance people can change the way executives think by giving them a new way to frame their businesses. Because the finance team is looking at things from a different perspective, they can provide insights that the executive team might be missing. It means going beyond the numbers to provide strategic insight that changes the priorities of the executives. I’ve been fortunate enough to see my manager do this a few times with the Google execs, and the value of providing that new perspective is huge.
This vision of a good finance person is actually well aligned with the value I provide as a generalist, connecting different perspectives and providing new viewpoints based on integrating those perspectives together. So while I agree with my friend that product people are creating value in a more concrete way, I believe that finance people can create value through changing the way the rest of the company thinks about the business. We’ll see if I can start changing the way product people think about their counterparts in finance.