The Hartford CIO Eyes Business Impact Of IT
Q: Your degree is in electrical engineering. How did you segue into information technology and why?
I was always interested in technology. That's how I got into the electrical engineering program in college. My interest was the business application of technology, and I really wasn't interested in being a design engineer for 40 years, so after I got my undergraduate degree I went right into the MBA program with the idea that I wanted to get into technology management/technology application for business. I was recruited out of business school by EDS back in the '70s and went through their systems engineering program and got the bug for information technology there and stayed with it ever since. It really was a great experience back in those early days because there were a lot of talented people working for the company at the time, so it was a great learning experience.
The work I did for EDS was predominantly consulting assignments on large projects for customers. It included health care companies, oil companies, utility companies. We were looking at how to use technology to make their business more effective, efficient and competitive. The culture at that time was certainly one of not just a focus on delivering results and delivering business impact but on schedule and under budget and meeting expectations and more, so that was the culture I was raised in for my early years.
Q: Both The Hartford and you personally have received some awards recently for technology innovation. What are some of the projects you have underway that warrant this recognition?
To put this in perspective, my feeling is these external awards and recognition that the company has received are nice but it's kind of not what we're really about. The measure that's really important to us is the impact the technology deliverables have on the business. So if we're providing great technology that provides terrific service to the company and helps us win more business...then we're successful. The awards are a nice form of recognition for the staff and people in the company because they do acknowledge you've accomplished something meaningful and frankly, in the workplace we tend to finish one project and solve one problem and move on to the next. Celebrations are important but they're short and sweet...so the outside recognition serves a purpose, but it's secondary to having an impact on the business.
Part of [the reason for the recognition] is I think we've tended to be early to market with some business capabilities that were technology enabled and that's always been important as part of our company's competitive strategy. We don't want one thing to set us apart because if you have one thing someone else is going to figure it out and copy it...technology is clearly part of our business strategy and we want to use it as a vehicle to provide great service to customers...and design and implement innovative solutions for our customers. That drives us on the technology side to be a little bit more aggressive. That said, we're never pushing technology for the sake of technology because it's new fun and interesting. We're pushing it if we think it will have a significant business impact.
We had some large customer service applications with integrated imaging which contributed to us receiving customer service awards for a number of years. We've been an early adopter of XML technology and have implemented real time business to business interfaces with a number of independent agents...meaning what we've done is created the capability for independent agents to come through a portal through a secure extranet to get access to tools that help them sell to their customers.
We also created products where a distributor might have an automated system that can talk to our automated system, so an agent can work inside their existing automation environment and that communicates with our system behind the scenes, so they can do real time insurance quotes, for example. So we've been able to drive out work and improve cycle time by doing that. Whatever they need to serve the customer. Those examples are just a couple over the last few years where we've been early to market with capabilities that helped us grow our business. We continue to raise the bar on the things that make us easy to do business with and provide extraordinary service, and some of the newer things include working with speech recognition technologies, working with sophisticated voice response technology using some something called Voice XML.
Generally we're looking to continue to raise the bar on what we can do from a service standpoint. The bottom line is we want to be easy to do business with for customers and distributors and we want to do it the way they want to do it and that means having multiple options available. We probably have more distributors and electronic connections to trading partners and more options than just about anyone in our industry.
CRM is a big focus. Over the years weve made significant investments in our call center technology -- and that work continues. Depending on the product line, we generally operate in all 50 states. There's a pretty wide variety of products and services we provide.
Q: What's your view on the implementation of new technologies and bleeding edge versus a more conservative approach?
I think our philosophy is to be near the bleeding edge but not bleeding. It's a very tough balancing act because we want to be early with technologies that can have a real business impact. We would never opt to be early with a technology just because we thought it was cool. Our screen is, is the potential advantage to the business adequate to justify the risk of being an early adopter, and where we think it is we'll be a little more aggressive. Where we don't think it is we'll be a fast follower. The whole development of our e-business platform, certainly within our industry we were aggressive in creating [one] for our company. It included a number of common components that could be used across our businesses because we felt the ability to do business over the Web would be a critical competitive issue. I think we put up our first Web site in 1994 but we were making pretty aggressive investments in e-business technologies in '99-2000 and as a result we've been able to build some of these electronic connections to distributors and trading partners earlier than most.
On the flip side, Linux is a new technology -- it's only over last couple of years that companies have been more aggressive in using it for larger commercial applications. There's a lot of hype around that, and we felt we didn't want to be an early adopter of that, because we didn't see a real direct impact on the business. Now as companies are starting to have some success with Linux as another platform that might have some price performance advantages, we decided it's time to roll up our sleeves and start testing out what it takes to install Linux, get applications up and running on the system and support it. We're installing Linux on a server and will be moving a sample life application on to the operating system. This is strictly a test at this point. That's one example of where we went a little slower because we didnt see the direct business impact on customers.
Q: What are the ingredients of a good vendor relationship?
That's an interesting topic because in the technology business your top vendors are really critical to your success over time and while you're not going to be best friends with your top vendors you really have to have a good working relationship with them. There's a number of things that are important and it starts with honesty and integrity. You've got to be able to negotiate hard with your vendors to get good cost-effective deals for the company. But once the contracts are done you're going to work closely together for a number of years and you really rely on vendors to deliver what they promised and you have to honest with them about what's important and what is not and you have to make sure you have contacts and relationships at the senior levels with your most important vendors. I think you've got to make sure your on-site account teams are doing a great job and know what' expected of them and that they'e recognized and rewarded for doing a good job. I' a firm believe that you can negotiate hard and get good deals with vendors and hold their feet to the fire on delivery but have a relationship that' good for both parties.Q: Is more money being spent for network security this year and have you hired a CSO post-9/11?
Spending is up a little but not a large amount. Information technology security has always been a priority for us. We're a financial services organization so this is pretty critical and always has been. We've had a director of IT security who is now called the CSO and that really didn't result from 9/11; it's just a trend in the industry. What has changed is there's a lot more visibility and senior management attention on network security. I spend more of my time on network security issues. Senior management, including the board of directors, spends more time looking at IT security issues.
Q: Are you doing anything different as a result of this added scrutiny?
We have a continual process assessing where we are and testing our security and upgrading our security capabilities. Every year we enhance our security capabilities. It's a continual process and we've been doing that for years. It didn't start last year.
Q: How large is your IT department and what skills are you in most need of right now?
Hartford's IT staff is about 3,500. I have solid line responsibility for about half that staff and dotted-line responsibility oversight over the rest. We [also] have IT application people who report directly into line of business people. Candidly, we're somewhat fortunate that we have pretty experienced and skilled staff. We have had a relatively low turnover over the years and a good reputation as a good place to work. Typically, people are looking for the opportunity to work on interesting and forward-looking projects, fair pay, and a good working environment, which has contributed to a relatively low turnover for us. Specific skills: we're look for good architects, Web developers, and business analysts. We actually have done some things fairly innovative on the recruiting side. We have an internal consulting company, which operates much like an outside consulting company and what that has done is give us a vehicle to recruit people with good consulting experience. That's been a great vehicle for us to bring people into the company.
Q: Who do you report to?
Right now I report to our CFO. I reported to the chairman for some time and there were some recent changes he made so now I report to the CFO.
Q: What else is occupying the bulk of your attention these days?
I think the interesting thing about this job is also the curse of this job, which is you're involved in a lot of different things and that's no different today than it has been. I'm involved in looking at new technologies and pretty involved in some of the technologies we're using for our portal...I'm also involved in some of our operational strategies and how we're taking our technology infrastructure work and how to make that more flexible and cost effective. I'm involved in finding and developing IT talent. I'm involved in most of our major vendor deals, so a pretty good variety of things on any given day.
Q: Which of your skills has served you best in managing IT?
I think it's very hard and you probably can't succeed in this role with a one-dimensional skill set. You have to be pretty well-grounded technologically. You've also got to understand the business you're serving, and have good relationships with the business leaders. You have to know how to manage projects and get results and as you move up in the organization ultimately that becomes creating the environment where can succeed. Where they can run projects and be successful. Where they have the resources to do the job. Probably the thing that is most important at senior levels of IT is to be a good communicator. You have to be able to communicate to your people what you're trying to accomplish, why it's important and you've got to support them in breaking down the barriers and succeed in trying to get the work done. Really all those things you need to be effective at this level.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to advance their career the same way you have?
I think you've got to find projects that are important to the company that are visible that have a meaningful, positive impact on the business and you've got to deliver results. I guess I would add, don't shy away from the most challenging projects because that's where you're going to hone your skills and get recognized.
Q: What keeps you awake at night?
I put in a fairly long day so by the time I go to bed I sleep pretty well. Theoretically, there are a lot of things that could keep me awake. All these systems that need to keep running and threats of cyber attacks. To be honest, though, that doesn't keep me awake at night because we have a really good team and because of that I'm pretty confident our systems are going to keep working well and serve the business well. Probably the thing I do worry about is a competitor coming to market with some technology-enabled business capability that we don't have. We're constantly looking at what our competitors are doing and we don't want them to beat us to market with anything important. We have a lot of work underway in customer service and enhancing service we provide to distributors. So what we're doing are more enhancements than anything breakthrough. Q. What do you do in your spare time?
If you've been in this business a while, one of the things you learn is to keep a good balance in your life. One of the ways I get that is we have a place in New Hampshire on a lake in the mountains and I go there on my weekends and on vacation with my wife. And we go there with friends and family and do all those things that help you maintain that balance -- boating, tennis, skiing, having friends over; I also love to read. It's a great place to relax and gain perspective.
Know any CIOs or CTOs who might be good subjects for a CIN interview? If so, contact Esther Shein at firstname.lastname@example.org.