Insurance companies seek IT pros
ready to hit the ground running
“Your work will have a bigger and better impact if you have a broader understanding of your business and your customers’ needs.” – Emma Chen-Banas, Mass Mutual
“I never took a job just to get a promotion, but promotion often followed. This tells me that if you enjoy what you do and deliver results you will be recognized.” – Elaine Martinelli, Hartford Financial Services
By Claire Swedberg
Insurance companies are regaining energy after a down year. Companies working in casualty, life and healthcare insurance are starting to look for IT specialists with subject matter expertise and/or high technical skills; preferably both.
“There’s tremendous opportunity in this niche right now,” says Margaret Resce Milkint, a managing partner at the Jacobson Group, which links professionals with prospective employers in the insurance and healthcare sectors. “IT leaders who understand how technology advances the insurance company’s objectives are going to be in high demand.”
However, the days of bringing in inexperienced IT folks and then teaching them the ropes may be gone for good. Companies today are looking for techies who can hit the ground running because they already understand the demands and challenges an insurance company faces.
“They’re looking for IT visionaries who also have exceptional tactical skills,” Milkint says. “There’s a hunger out there for this type of business leader, who understands regulatory scrutiny, IT governance, organizational design and effectiveness, and above all, operational excellence:” all things that must concern an insurance company’s CIO.
Web-based and business-oriented
Most pros in insurance IT today are part of a major transition out of legacy systems and into a Web-based model. At the same time they must meld IT with business operations, because these two previously disparate groups are clearly coming together. The insurance pros profiled here are involved with these trends and even driving trends themselves in a variety of ways.
Maria Odiamar Racho: consulting in technology and ops at Allstate
Maria Odiamar Racho is an organizational effectiveness consultant in the technology and operations department of Allstate Insurance Co (Northbrook, IL). She’s working to blend technology and operations, which previously acted independently of each other. The combined department employs more than 10,000 people.
Racho’s father is an Allstate agent, and she got her start at a local Allstate agency in Chicago right after high school. She went on to DeVry University (Chicago, IL) where she completed a BS in computer IS in 2000.
Racho discovered that she enjoyed computer-related work, and moved on to a job at Allstate’s Buffalo Grove, IL office. She started out testing systems for Allstate, then joined the auto product testing team.
The company was still using a mainframe system but preparing to move to a Web-based system which would let customers communicate with the company over the Internet. Shortly after Racho arrived at the company’s IT department she became team lead. As old software products were phased out, her team was responsible for testing the new products that replaced them.
By 2006 she was managing IT teams across the U.S., plus another team in India and one in Ireland. But then she got interested in doing a different kind of work. A mentor had suggested that she take a personal inventory: decide what parts of her work gave her the greatest energy. When she learned that Allstate needed a highly experienced IT pro to take over as an organizational effectiveness consultant, “I knew that was what I wanted to do,” she says.
Today her primary role is “leading a program focused on culture.” That includes giving a diverse workforce a sense of community and inclusion, creating an environment where people can be collaborative and do their best work. “It’s been a journey of people finding their voices,” she says. “Our focus is on connecting to our customers, and we believe we can do that best by unleashing the potential of the diversity we have in our own employees.”
The process has also meant bringing the operations and technology groups together. “It’s easy to get disconnected when you’re just programming,” she says. When technology and operations work together, staffers begin to connect their own work with that of others, and see the impact it has on customers. Racho has also helped develop virtual teams, with team members working in multiple locations.
She believes it’s time for all insurance companies to begin making these kinds of changes. “Insurance companies have been more traditional, more set in our ways” when it comes to business structures, she says. “But for us to be responsive to our customers’ changing needs, we have to tap into many working styles and mindsets.”
People with skills that are transferable within the industry have an advantage, Racho adds. “If people want to concentrate on insurance they need to learn about the field!”
Soni Katta: impacting the business at American Family
Soni Katta brought a background from a variety of companies when she joined American Family Insurance (Madison, WI), an auto, home, health and business insurance company, last year. A native of India, Katta earned her 1996 BS in electronics and telecom at Osmania University (Hyderabad, India). She moved to the U.S. with her husband and completed a 1998 MSCS at Marquette University (Milwaukee, WI). Grad school, she says, was one of her best career choices: “It helped me get to where I am today.”
American Family is her first insurance-related job. She finds the work not only interesting but fun. The job includes leading projects, supporting the company’s agents, mentoring individuals and heading up committees. “The fact that the work I do makes a positive impact on agents and the company’s business makes me eager to come to work every day,” she says.
In all her jobs, her strengths have been her ability to lead, work in a team environment and quickly adapt to changing situations and technology. “Of course coding and analyzing are like second nature to me,” she adds with a smile.
Katta had a very early interest in physics and astronomy, although software development was never on her list. But in high school she took a basic programming language class “and right away I knew I wanted to pursue computer technology,” she says.
After she got her MS she found a job as a programmer/analyst at AITSI (Madison, WI,) a startup software company. She worked with several clients and learned several software platforms, experience she’s used throughout her career. She worked as a consultant at GE Medical Systems for six months, then spent time at home with a new baby.
In 2002 Katta became senior programmer/analyst at Mercury Marine (Fond du Lac, WI), a leading manufacturer of recreational boat engines. “At a senior level, I helped boost Mercury’s B-to-B business and established architectural standards and frameworks for programmers to follow,” she says. She also led several Sarbanes-Oxley-related and Six Sigma projects.
Agility will be important for IT pros of the future, Katta says. “Technology is changing the world so fast; we must move at the same pace in adapting to the new technologies.”
Elaine Martinelli: shared services CIO at the Hartford
Elaine Martinelli is SVP and CIO of technology shared services at the Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc (Hartford, CT). Throughout her career, she says, her greatest strengths have been broad knowledge and strong professional relationships, both internal and external to the Hartford.
Martinelli decided early in her career that she didn’t want to specialize, and she’s moved nimbly from accounting to IT to management and higher management. “My transferable competency has let me move around and up because people see I have a record of being able to do almost anything,” she notes.
She started with a 1971 associates degree in accounting from Post University (Waterbury, CT). Then she found a corporate accounting job while continuing on at night for a BS. “Halfway through the night program I decided that accounting was too repetitive for me,” she says. “The company I worked for was starting to automate its financial systems, so I took some IT courses and switched careers.” Her accounting background is still useful, however, “for all the large financial decisions I make.”
In 1983 she joined the Hartford as a systems analyst. She soon moved up to manager of specialty billing and manager of property and casualty billing. In 1991 she became program manager, and in 1993 moved to director of the annuities and mutual funds IT division. One of her tasks in this job was total transformation of the company’s annuity IT technology.
In 1996 Martinelli moved to VP of healthcare options. She led a project that included the transfer of business from another company. Two years later she was named VP of the personal lines automation division.
In 2001 she became VP of Hartford Technology Services, an internal consulting company. This, she says, “is the only place in IT at the Hartford where you can run a profit-and-loss statement, which is the reason I wanted the job.” Her accounting knowledge helped her land it.
Martinelli moved up to SVP in 2003 and added CIO of technology shared services and accountability for infrastructure in 2005. In 2008 she also took on the Hartford’s business resiliency office and the HR IT function. Last year she added service management to her responsibilities.
In addition to these specific jobs, Martinelli oversees the company’s infrastructure organization: hardware, software and desktop support, as well as corporate apps used by the company’s finance, law, marketing and HR organizations. She leads the Hartford Technology Services Co, an internal IT consulting group, as well as infrastructure architects and the business resiliency office.
A recent reorganization also put her at the head of the service management organization, which crosses all lines of business technology to ensure that all the company’s business systems are reliable and available. “It’s no small task given that we have over a thousand software applications at the Hartford!” she comments.
Martinelli has always sought out jobs where she can learn new things. “I give myself a three-year goal on any role and I’ve held to that system in my twenty-five years at the Hartford. It’s one year to learn a role, a year to nail it, and a year to figure out what I want to do next and get there!”
Just lately she’s begun expanding that life plan to include seeking out new challenges within existing roles. “I never took a job just to get a promotion, but promotion often followed. This tells me that if you enjoy what you do and deliver results, you will be recognized.”
Some of Martinelli’s career moves were a bit disruptive to her personal life, she admits. At one point she commuted between Pennsylvania and Connecticut for two years during the integration of an acquisition. The results were worth the inconvenience, she says.
Leadership development at the Hartford
The Hartford recently expanded its entry-level leadership development program, hiring twenty IT pros to groom for future leadership roles in the company. “In fact, these young, driven professionals were responsible for designing and launching a company-wide social networking site,” says Lori Rodden, HR VP.
Emma Chen-Banas: around the world to Mass Mutual
At Massachusetts Mutual Insurance Co (Springfield, MA), Emma Chen-Banas focused early on a worldwide communication approach to business and technology. That focus has taken her around the world.
A native of China, she earned a diploma in English at South China University of Tropical Agriculture (Hainan Island) in 1992 and a BSCS from Fuzhou University (Fujian, China) in 1994. Later she added a 2000 MBA at the University of South Australia and a 2008 MS in technology management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY).
When Chen-Banas was in school in China she learned about the global business community through several internships. “That led me to take English and CS. And later, when I was working as a programmer, I figured that an MBA would help me move from a technical role into a management one.”
She joined Sara Lee China in 1992, and became IT manager at Sara Lee’s Greater China HQ. She moved to Acer Computer International in Singapore in 1998 as an e-business consultant. The next year she joined General Electric Healthcare Asia (Singapore) as IT/e-business manager for Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
In 2002 Chen-Banas joined Honeywell Asia as digitization manager for the company’s Asia Pacific, corporate and global business services, and in 2004 moved to London, UK to work at Honeywell International as IS director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. She became a Six Sigma black belt in 2004 and a certified PMP in 2006.
Chen-Banas came to the U.S. in 2006 to join Mass Mutual as an AVP, working on the company’s modernization project. Today her responsibility is business process improvement for the enterprise technology organization.
“My primary focus is on implementing Lean Six Sigma strategies to improve effectiveness and efficiency,” she says. The program adds Lean Six Sigma methodology to employee training to reduce costs, simplify processes and optimize services.
Chen-Banas is the current co-chair of the Mass Mutual Asian employee resource group, which has more than a hundred members. The group focuses on increasing awareness of Asian cultures. It serves as an internal resource for the company’s marketing and brand recognition programs in Asian market segments in the U.S., and for business opportunities in Asia. It’s also a support network for Asian associates working at Mass Mutual, and does community outreach projects.
Chen-Banas says she’s always been interested in new technologies and new gadgets. That, she confides, is one reason she decided early to pursue IT and eventually chose IT and business management for her career path. “I like both the technical and managerial aspects of the profession.”
She also likes being in the U.S. “I have always enjoyed discovering new places and made expanding my cultural experiences a high priority. It’s been a tremendous learning experience along the way!
“I have a great desire to learn; I want to continuously improve both professionally and personally. I love to obtain new knowledge and equip myself with the right tools for my work.”
As a manager, Chen-Banas makes sure the whole team understands the company’s strategic goals and focus, organizes the team to make the goals and objectives happen, and supports the team to achieve success. “I encourage innovation and open and diverse dialogue, provide coaching, remove barriers, reward team members fairly, and provide them with opportunities to help them grow.
“I’m not afraid to make a decision or adjust my approach if it makes sense,” she adds. “Your work will have a bigger and better impact if you have a broader understanding of your business and your customers’ needs.”
What trends does Chen-Banas see in insurance IT? Security, for one, with more and more proprietary information needing to be protected. “We will also need more ‘green IT’ pros who have the ability to make our hardware and software greener by improving power efficiency,” she says.
V. Eudell II is an AVP for Nationwide
V. Eudell II, an AVP in Nationwide’s IT business solution area, has his own effective management style. It includes communication and compassion, he notes.
Eudell began with a 1987 BSMIS from Howard University (Washington, DC). He has a masters certificate in IT project management from George Washington University (Washington, DC). He picked courses which he hoped would net him a good job as a developer, but he also had an interest in leadership and took the opportunity to lead teams in school.
His first job out of college was with NCR Corp (Dayton, OH) as an application development consultant; he progressed to project lead and team leader. He left NCR as a team leader for national platform and global technology, and moved on to a role as manager at J.P. Morgan Chase. In ten years there he moved up to director and senior director.
In 2008 he joined Nationwide as AVP in the corporate application organization. Supporting “IT for IT,” he was responsible for providing asset management and governance to the company’s entire IT community. He also offers IT apps support to groups including IT infrastructure, IT finance, enterprise solution delivery, enterprise production assurance and enterprise risk management. The support may involve IT ops, business management, infrastructure engineering, document solutions, delivery services, infrastructure planning and more.
“With J.P. Morgan Chase I traveled internationally and domestically for many years,” he says. “Nationwide offers me a more favorable work/life balance, and has also given me increasing responsibility and leadership opportunities. I believe I am definitely in the right place now for both my career and my family.”
As a manager Eudell maintains an open-door policy and is passionate about engagement and communication. “Trust breeds trust and allows for easy communication and success,” he says.
Looking toward the future, Eudell thinks that the important IT skills will be in the areas of Java development, pair programming and agile development. In general, strong communication skills will be a plus. “The demand for these is only going to grow,” he says firmly.
Kate Hartman: at Harleysville, a great deal of flexibility
At Harleysville Insurance (Harleysville, PA), application developer Kate Hartman works with Web technologies. She started at Harleysville in 2005, eager “to try out a big company because all the companies I had worked for were small. I wanted to reach a broader audience, use the latest technology and implement more changes.”
Her first assignment at Harleysville was on the company’s agent portal, accessHarleysville. The system lets agents enter quotes, look up accounts and do their billing online. Over the years she and her team have turned the system into a centralized “window into Harleysville,” she says.
Hartman was born in Uzbekistan. She came to the U.S. in 1997 at the age of seventeen and went right to work. She barely spoke English when she arrived but learned it quickly on the job, then went to night school to study Web development and progressed to a 2006 BSCS from Philadelphia University (Philadelphia, PA).
Hartman is a wheelchair user, but her disability has not stopped her from pushing forward in her studies and career. By 1998 she was a Web developer at a small software company in the Philadelphia area. Next she worked for a finance company in Jenkintown, PA, doing very specific development aimed at helping martial arts schools use their Web-based software to collect payments. And now she’s at Harleysville.
“Harleysville offers me a great deal of flexibility,” she says, both in her work and in the way she gets the work done. The company makes it easy for its employees to work in the office or remotely, and provides a great deal of flexibility. That helps everyone be innovative, Hartman adds.
“I was very lucky that I worked with Microsoft technologies early in my career,” she says, but she’s careful to keep abreast of the constant changes in technology. “One of the most important things for people coming into the field is keeping on top of changes,” and, she says, this is certainly true in the insurance industry.
“With insurance it’s important to understand not only the technology, but how a policy gets written,” she adds. “You need to understand the whole process and that will help you as a developer.”
Trudie Joseph manages apps development for GEICO
Trudie Joseph is manager of application development for Government Employees Insurance Co (GEICO, Chevy Chase, MD). GEICO’s revamped website for claims service was launched in 2004, with Joseph as project manager. Her work today is similar, focusing on rewriting apps to be more Web-based and external.
She oversees about forty people and four team leads, analysts and developers. She also acts as liaison between business and technology, and that’s where her background in software and business management is very useful.
Joseph earned her 1984 BSCS and 2007 MBA at the University of Maryland-University College. She had expected to go into chemistry, but some fascinating computer courses convinced her to set her sights on CS.
She completed her BS and found a programming job at insurance company USF&G (Baltimore, MD). She learned teamwork, project management and leadership skills, then moved on to GEICO in 1999 to continue her programmer/analyst work, rewriting and building out new apps.
“We have groups that keep an eye on regulation changes,” she explains. The analysts decide what changes may be necessary and what impact they may have, and pass the work on to the developers.
Joseph participates in the initial scoping of projects and problem identification. “This usually translates into enhancements to the current application, but occasionally requires us to research external products to meet our needs,” she says. “The outcome is a high-level user-requirements document which becomes part of the system development process.”
Joseph also goes to career fairs to look for new talent for the company. Her advice to applicants is to “make sure you know what you want, and understand the company you are applying to and the kinds of projects that are underway there. You should also be prepared to ask the right questions when you have an interview.”
She likes her job, and thinks she does it well. “Some managers just want to get the work done, but I bring compassion to the table,” she notes.
Laura Haas: from finance to IT and now AVP at State Farm
Laura Haas started in finance and moved through several IT-related and other technical positions to director, and now to her current role in HR. Her objective after college was to learn the basics of the business world and then try to move into leadership, and the goal has worked well for her. Today she’s AVP of human resources and diversity and inclusion at State Farm Insurance Companies (Bloomington, IL).
Haas earned a 1984 BA in finance and a 1986 CPA certificate at the University of Illinois and is currently in the school’s executive MBA program.
She began as an auditor at People’s Bank (Bloomington, IL) in 1984, and in 1986 she moved to State Farm as an accountant. She took several years off when her children were born, but returned to State Farm in 1992 to work in HR as a business analyst, working on IT-related projects. She moved to the IT department in 1996 to work on financial systems.
In 1999 she became a manager in the IT department, and was soon promoted to staff director for IT execs and tapped to oversee a company-wide structure study.
In 2002 she assumed responsibility for providing hardware and software solutions for the company’s 17,000 agents. Next came director for planning and analysis, and finally her current position as AVP for diversity and human resources. Today her responsibilities include diversity and inclusion, overseeing the interface between HR business and IT, as well as client services and the program office.
“In conjunction with my peers and the VPs,” she says, “we provide leadership and direction for the HR department.” Haas manages the department’s vendor and compliance issues and provides data-reporting capabilities related to the company’s staff. She’s responsible for day-to-day HR support of more than 23,000 corporate employees. Under her direction, the program office manages budget, planning, communications and the HR IT portfolio for the department.
She feels the diversity she focuses on is essential to State Farm’s success. “It’s how we create a dynamic business environment to serve our customers.”
Michele Halleran: apps development at Highmark
Michele Halleran is currently an applications developer III at health insurance company Highmark (Pittsburgh, PA). She earned her BS in IT at the Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY) in 2001 and her MS in Internet IS at Robert Morris College (Pittsburgh, PA). Halleran has a hearing impairment, but with the proper tools she’s very much in control, she says.
She entered college with an interest in forensics, but then she discovered computers. “I knew I liked computers and IT was a hot career, so I really fell in love with the idea of IT,” she says. She completed a co-op doing Web development in an engineering lab, and another at the Department of Defense doing programming work.
When she graduated from college she joined Bender Consulting Services (Pittsburgh, PA), an agency that places talented computer pros with disabilities in competitive employment. Bender put her in touch with Highmark.
She started as a programming analyst I in Highmark’s reimbursement department, then moved into legacy modernization as part of a five-year initiative to speed up the company’s claim processing, possibly even get it done in real time. The project is now in its third year.
Halleran reads lips and uses a videophone. She has an IM system to communicate with coworkers and an occasional interpreter for meetings. Some of her coworkers have learned to sign, Halleran reports with appreciation.
Today Halleran is working with Cobol, transitioning to a graphical user interface for the system. With her team, she analyzes existing systems, designs improvements and, after approval, puts them through unit testing and into implementation.
“What I like most about Highmark is the friendly culture,” she says, “It’s a great place to work, with lots of flexibility.”
Highmark seeks high-energy techies
Sara Oliver-Carter, director of corporate staffing at Highmark, notes that “We seek dedicated, dependable, high-energy, innovative thinkers with strong communication, analytical and related technical skills.”
A diverse workforce is critical for Highmark to remain competitive in the marketplace and continue to attract top talent, Oliver-Carter adds. “We want to be aware of, understand and appreciate our differences: not only cultural differences, but differences that represent diversity of thought, brought to our organization by diverse groups of individuals.”
DIVERSITY-MINDED INSURANCE COMPANIES
See websites for latest openings.
|Company and location
|Allstate (Northbrook, IL)
|Personal lines auto insurance
|American Family Mutual Insurance
(Madison, WI) www.amfam.com
|Auto, home, health and business insurance
|BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina
(Columbia, SC) www.southcarolinablues.com
|Health insurance products and services,
government contract admin, electronic
payment and transaction-processing services
|GEICO (Chevy Chase, MD)
|Harleysville Insurance (Harleysville, PA)M
|Property, casualty and life insurance for
businesses and individuals
|The Hartford Financial Services Group
(Hartford, CT) www.thehartford.com
|Auto, life and home insurance
|Health Care Service Corp
(HCSC, Richardson, TX) www.hcsc.net
|Customer-owned health benefits company
|Highmark (Pittsburgh, PA)
|Humana (Louisville, KY)
|Mass Mutual Insurance (Springfield MA)
|Whole life insurance, retirement and
|Nationwide Insurance (Columbus, OH)
|Insurance, investments and banking
|State Farm Insurance Companies
(Bloomington, IL) www.statefarm.com
|Auto, life, fire and health insurance
|WellPoint (Indianapolis, IN)
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