Why Systems Are So Hard to Build

My guest this week is Bill Jenkins (youtube, mp3). Bill is a technology specialist in the insurance industry. I like to joke that the customer satisfaction rate for insurer systems is 0. But does that need to be the case? I’ve finally had the chance to ask these questions of an out and out expert. Bill has headed up internal technology projects at insurers, he’s run the technology at brokers. He’s been a consultant. A Board member. An industry standards advocate. If there is a puzzle in insurance technology, Bill has probably thought about it and here he is today to help us all better understand why we struggle with technology in insurance.

First, the classic question. Why so many systems? This one always puzzled me. It’s not just about acquisitions. It’s because it’s actually easier that way! Such a satisfying answer (for me) since it aligns with the idea of hidden and underappreciated costs as being the main reason why some problems persist in the world.

BJ: some carriers have multiple and duplicate systems so I worked for a large/ medium sized carrier and we had a eight billing systems.

DW: why, acquisitions?

BJ: Partly Acquisitions partly because it’s one system than address one problem with the other system did so they decided that they needed that this additional functionality that the old system didn’t provide. We just want another one. We had three Bop systems. I was listening to a talk that the chief technical officer at the Hartford was giving and he said every year that goes through the examination and review to determine if they should replace all their legacy systems they had over 330 system. I said to replace all these are they that they projected out would be in 50 years or so and the cost would been astronomical. So all they did was just add systems.

Bill on how project management can achieve great things:

BJ: we also use the project management discipline that we called black hat white hat. Black hat was a hired gun. A project manager who comes in and his or her and only charge was to make sure that the specifications for the system were done and was going to be followed for the requirements of the system and that the time frame that was said would be adhered to. The white hat was an internal project manager who basically made sure the right people were on a project to do the work and also did all the reporting to the Senior Management and navigated the political Waters.

BJ: We built the entire system in 9 months.

DW: Wow, so these things can be done.

BJ: let me tell you the antithesis. Next time around we went with an internal project manager, kept the same skunkworks: 22 months…

DW: So what’s the difference?

BJ: Project Management

DW: So what makes a good project manager?

BJ: well first of all the problem with an internal project manager, and I argue this all the time even when I sit on boards and people are having project problems, a project manager for internal may know all the project management disciplines but they pretty much don’t have the personal characteristics to do the work. You have to be a pitbull.

DW: Put the black hat on

BJ: Put the black hat on.. and you go native too quickly so therefore your scope creep becomes scope leap and you’re fitting more and more into the project and doomed to failure.

And we cover so much more, including how legacy systems are defined by what data they capture and how the information technology industry is perhaps 150 years behind other infrastructure industries. We have a long way to go but things can (will!) be dramatically better!

By the way Bill recommends a book In Search of Excellence, which will hit my reading list soon.

Thanks to Bill for his time. And thanks for listening!

Are you an actuary? Someone you know? Check out the Not Unprofessional Project, content dedicated to Continuing Education Credits for Actuaries, especially Professionalism credits. CE On Your Commute!

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