SJ interview: Dr Sally Anne Hinfey
This issue, Chaynee Hodgetts interviews Dr Sally Anne Hinfey, vice president and deputy general counsel, legal at Momentive (SurveyMonkey)
CH: Thank you for making time to speak with us. Please tell us about yourself - what is your current role?
SAH: I am vice president and deputy general counsel in the legal and corporate affairs team in Momentive (maker of SurveyMonkey) and I lead the global privacy team.
CH: What does your firm do? What does your firm or company do differently?
SAH: Momentive collects and analyses human sentiment at scale. More than five mn people build and send surveys each year using our products Momentive, GetFeedback, and SurveyMonkey. We process about 9bn answers annually, and more than 1bn machine learning predictions per year. Our insights engine is powerful and constantly getting new data; so not only do we have a lot of data, we’re constantly getting new insights.
CH: Which qualifications led you to the role you're in today?
SAH: Before going in-house, I was a technology lawyer with a focus on intellectual property and privacy law in a leading Irish corporate firm (A&L Goodbody). I had also done a PhD in intellectual property law in UCD prior to qualifying as a solicitor. The PhD required me to understand how technology – and specifically databases and software – are developed and maintained. Working in technology, it is useful to have legal training and education background where you understand technical terms and keep abreast of how technology is advancing – and so I believe my PhD and years of practice gave me qualifications and experience which were very transferable to my current role.
CH: How did your career path unfold?
SAH: I trained in the large corporate law firm environment after finishing my PhD – and was often tracked into technology law issues during my training, given my specialist postgraduate experience – and so the path from that point onwards was relatively straightforward. However, I very much fell into technology law by accident.
I had completed the eight FE1s immediately after my BCL degree in UCD and was registered on the European Law LLM in UCD as a fast follow on from that, when I realised I had more interest in the thesis element of the LLM than in any other aspect of the curriculum. At that point I had not signed a training contract with any firm so I was not tied to a deadline for finishing college. As I had chosen copyright law as my focus for that thesis I made a snap decision overnight to swap to a PhD and follow through the research for the full 3 years.
It was pure luck and happy accident that brought me to the technology side of the house from there – and I obtained my training contract with Matheson when I was in the later half of the second year of the PhD. I took up that training contract just as I was wrapping up the PhD in 2005. After qualification, I moved to a boutique IP practice for a while to gain litigation experience as, up to that point, I had dealt mainly with non-contentious issues – and I felt like I needed to have that in the mix to be a more holistic lawyer. From there I moved to A&L Goodbody for a further two and a half years, working on a greater spread of technology law issues including IP, privacy, consumer law and contract. I was recruited out of A&L Goodbody by a client who wanted an intellectual property lawyer to help establish their IP portfolio in Europe – and from there I was fortunate enough to be recruited by SurveyMonkey (as it was then) to be their first legal hire outside the US and assist with their burgeoning European business.
When GDPR started to creep up on us in late 2016, I volunteered myself to my new boss (our general counsel Lora Blum) to take over the readiness efforts – and from there I expanded the privacy team, so that we are now a cross-functional group focused on, not just data protection legal advice, but also privacy management and privacy governance.
CH: What do you enjoy most about what you do?
SAH: There is always a new challenge and technology is always evolving to present you with new issues to examine as a legal adviser. I also really enjoy the collaborative side of working in-house, because I get to see how everything is run and built from end to end and can be, accordingly, much more pragmatic as a lawyer because I have a 360° viewpoint.
CH: What do you find most challenging about what you do?
SAH: There is always friction between technology and the law and so it is a challenge to try and find the sweet spot where they work harmoniously together, instead of working at odds to each other – in privacy law we refer to this as achieving a positive-sum, not zero-sum, outcome (in other words, aiming for the win-win scenario where your business is complying with its legal obligations but is also still able to achieve its technical goals).
CH: What is a typical working day like for you?
SAH: As I work for a US west-coast based company, my day probably appears very disjointed to a person who works standard 9-5 hours. While I do have legal colleagues in Dublin who I occasionally work with, my own team is entirely in North America (which is a bit unusual). Two of my team are based in Canada, while one person is in Portland and one is in Utah, so I often joke that the inside of my head looks like the Grand Central Station time-zone clocks.
I would always start at just after 9am (with second coffee in hand) by going through all the emails that came in overnight and making sure I respond to anything urgent or sign any agreements that have been routed to me for signing. Urgent emails aside, I might triage other communications which could include documents I am being asked to review or comment on and work my way through those until around 12pm. I then take a relatively long lunch break where I go for a run (or a walk when I’m tired) and come back and make myself lunch and cook the dinner for my 6 year old twin girls so it is ready when they get home.
By around 2pm, my team members in Canada will be online, so I might speak to them over Slack, email or Zoom and do our weekly 1:1s on Zoom. At 4pm I pause again to go collect my children from their after-school care. I get them home, make sure they eat something and check their homework. Then my husband high-fives me as he takes over childcare and I go back to my desk for around 4.30 - 5pm, at which point the west coasters in California have come online – and I start all my evening meetings. Meetings usually run up to around 7pm at which point I pause and go back out to spend a little time with my family and put the kids to bed. Every other night I might also work for an additional slot of time 8.30pm - 9.30 /10pm, depending on whether there are urgent things that require my attention in the US. On a quieter evening I might just respond as needed to my team on Slack or over email if they have questions. Our company uses Slack a lot and that is a fantastic resource – but it is also something you have to be careful of, as it can mean you never switch off. After 9.30pm at night, I try my best not to check it any more and trust that if something was very serious or urgent, I would get a phone call from someone on my team.
CH: Are you involved in any charitable or pro bono work?
SAH: No, to my shame, I am not involved in anything specific beyond having run the Calcutta Run with some of my colleagues in Dublin this year. I am executive sponsor of the DEI team in Dublin and as a business Momentive places a lot of focus on DEI initiatives. The DEI team in Dublin has organised charitable events and when I can find the time, I try to help out.
CH: Where do you see your firm heading in the next few years?
SAH: Hopefully I see us heading for fast growth and further expansion into the Enterprise and MRX (market research) space. Both of these areas are huge markets for us with lots of potential for our business to mature and grow. I would also like to see us expand our user base in Europe further and help our customers to steer their businesses through the current market choppiness and uncertainties presented by a recession. I also believe, now more than ever, direct customer feedback is more valuable than any implicit data or third hand data from brokers. It is more reliable and provides more certainties for businesses wanting to judge their market opportunities and weaknesses accurately.
CH: What are the latest developments in your firm currently?
SAH: Last year, we rebranded our corporate name from SurveyMonkey to Momentive, which was a massive undertaking. Now that we’re more than a year out from that rebrand, we are focusing our attention on SurveyMonkey, which is still our beloved business-friendly survey solution.
With that directive, we’ve recently launched our global ‘Give the people what they want’ campaign to reintroduce SurveyMonkey to the public. We believe that anyone from small businesses to conglomerates can make informed choices by asking, listening, and acting on insights. In the UK and Ireland, we’re working with social media influencers to share the various use cases of SurveyMonkey, from planning an event to getting employee feedback. In the US we have a new ad campaign starring the actor Giancarlo Esposito.
CH: What are the main projects you are working on at the moment?
SAH: Without giving too much away, we are working on a lot of exciting privacy initiatives to include co-operating with a smaller company in the privacy solutions space to help us develop some privacy specific tooling both for internal use and also eventually for customer use. We hope to make improvements in how we ingest and manage data to further our data governance goals as well as making our products easier for customers to use while complying with their own data protection obligations.
CH: Which things would you most like to change in your sector?
SAH: I’d like to see greater communication and co-operation between regulators and tech companies which result in benefits – ultimately, and most importantly, for customers.
CH: Are there any laws you think need to change? Any laws that currently work well?
SAH: All regulations are a work in progress, irrespective of the industry. Privacy laws are no different. The only issue is that technology moves at a speed which can often outstrip the speed and readiness of regulation to predict and address change. A more dynamic regulatory environment for technology would benefit everyone but in order to have regulation moving at a faster pace we would have to dismantle or exempt ourselves from some of the slow moving organs of administration, especially at the European level. That is unlikely to happen and so, in the absence of this, I hope to see consistent and standardised guidance on how to comply with high level principle-based laws, like GDPR, coming from the EU regulators in the future.
CH: What would your advice be to new starters in your firm or role?
SAH: I give the same advice to anyone starting out - don’t be afraid of the things you don’t know how to do or don’t fully understand yet. A certain degree of maturity can be achieved by doing, so just get stuck in and give it a try. We have an excellent legal training system in Ireland in my opinion, so you are well prepared for legal practice by the time you reach an in-house role. However, the nice thing about being in-house is that no-one expects you to have all the answers. When you don’t know something, it is totally ok to just say that and instead tell your clients you will go find out!
CH: What one thing do you wish you'd known before now?
SAH: When I was a more junior lawyer I wish I had known even senior lawyers don’t know everything. There was a certain amount of reverence and fear with respect to partners when I was a junior. I wish someone had just reminded me that they are just humans and can be wrong or /make mistakes too. It would have helped me to be less hesitant about expressing my opinions and thoughts when I was starting out. Everyone at every stage of their career can have useful insights and novel ideas and we should embrace that across the legal sector.
CH: What do you do to ensure work-life balance when you're not working?
SAH: I run as often as I can. Not big distances, but between 5-7km on a good day. I spend time with my family (twin girls and husband who is not a lawyer!). They are the biggest joy in my life.
CH: What are your hopes for the future in your own sector (and field of influence)?
SAH: I hope we will see a point in time when companies all see the competitive advantages of embedding privacy in their business models from the outset and seek to actually push the boundaries of innovation in the areas of data science and AI/ML. This technology will benefit data protection and data security so we can safely utilise the large amounts of data online to the advantage of society as a whole, without the need to identify a person from that data and without risk to a person’s identity or personal information.
Dr Sally-Anne Hinfey is the vice president and deputy general counsel, legal at Momentive (maker of SurveyMonkey) in Dublin. She is also global head of privacy for Momentive. She has a PhD in law from the University College Dublin, and was interviewed by Chaynee Hodgetts, our features & opinion editor and barrister with Libertas Chambers: momentive.ai