As a mentor with Females in IT and Telecommunications (FITT), Suncorp Life CIO Fiona Floyd knows how important it is to get the gender balance right, and to embrace diversity in IT.
Floyd spoke with CIO Australia about her involvement in gender diversity activities within Suncorp’s technology teams and the need to be more creative when sourcing talent, as well as her work on simplifying Suncorp’s application landscape and reducing complexities.
What does an average day involve for you at Suncorp Life?
Like most CIOs, there’s no such thing as an average day. I have dual reporting lines to the CEO of Suncorp Life and also to the group technology function. Most of my days involve a mixture of activities that include running the Life business and running a technology team.
Depending on where we are in the annual business cycle, my focus may be more heavily oriented towards strategy and research so that we can front run the business planning activities and provide our business peers with some thought pieces for consideration during planning. Then at other times of the year, my focus would be very heavily on delivering the latest tranches of the Life program of work.
I also support Suncorp Life’s business in New Zealand, with a team on the ground there. That adds an additional dimension to most of my day-to-day planning and delivery activities.
There are two other things that I’m quite heavily involved in. The first is that I sponsor our gender diversity activities in the technology teams across Suncorp Group. We’ve got a small mixed gender core team that’s drawn from the various teams across technology which is focussed on addressing the gender diversity challenges that most large technology teams experience. The second is my involvement with FITT (Females in IT and Telecommunications). I have been a mentor with FITT for the last three years. So I also spend some of my time mentoring a talented young female from another organisation.
What are some of the challenges you face in your role as CIO?
The first is not having infinite amount of money and resources, which I guess most CIOs can relate to.
Like all businesses, we have to prioritise our investments and we do this by ensuring that our initiatives are tightly aligned to our business strategy and our target architecture. We don’t tend to trade-off one versus the other, the alignment needs to be with both. The process of prioritisation is overseen by a forum that includes a senior representative from each business unit across Suncorp Life. This ensures that we’ve got good transparency of decision-making and it eliminates back-door deals.
The second challenge would be carving out time for my team to spend on innovation. It can be too easy for us to get too caught up in the here and now delivery.
To address this, we run a scheduled number of innovation days throughout the year which are called ‘ShipIt’ days (because they are fast!). Essentially, the objective is for the entire team to spend a day working on specific, pre-agreed activities that allow the teams to learn and experiment as well as demonstrate a tangible business benefit. The idea is to get working code into production by the end of the day. This has been hugely successful for us, with solutions delivered ranging from new mobile applications through to time savings in our nightly batch windows. The thing I love about this is that the team gets to try out new things and to learn in a safe environment, and at the same time our business gets a usable outcome.
The third challenge, which is another ongoing one for me, is our legacy application landscape which is very resource hungry. Our application landscape grew in complexity over many years as this business grew through acquisition. Regression testing new items in a legacy application environment like ours can take a long time which is a challenge when speed to market is a big imperative in our industry.
So, in order for us to focus our resources on growth activities, we’ve heavily invested in test automation and test-driven development to try and minimise the cost and duration of regression testing. The initial investment required was paid back within months, and it’s continuing to do so. Having initially invested about a quarter of a million dollars into this, some of our test activities in our legacy environment dropped from in excess of two weeks to about 20 minutes. Having cracked this with one of our major legacy applications, we’re now well down the path to doing this with our other major legacy apps. We’re finding that as time goes by and we get more experience we’re getting even better results from that as well.
What are the major projects you are currently working on?
About 18 months ago we defined our target IT architecture which we’re now delivering in tight alignment with our business strategy. Our intent is to dramatically simplify our application landscape by reducing the number and the complexity of applications in production and therefore reducing our overall TCO (total cost of ownership). We’re doing this by taking more of a vanilla approach to our package applications and by leveraging a shared online framework across the group. The first tranche of the program delivered a new end-to-end capability for our intermediated business earlier on this year.
Right now we’ve got two more tranches of the program underway. The first is deploying the intermediated solution to our New Zealand business and the other one is delivering a new end-to-end capability for our Australian direct business. In parallel with that, we’re also decommissioning applications and migrating books of business to our core platforms.
Finally, like everybody else in financial services right now, we’ve got all the usual compliance projects to contend with including tackling the implications of the FOFA legislation.
What are the three biggest issues facing CIOs today?
Now that CIOs have a seat at the executive table, I think managing the service provider versus revenue generator dynamic can be challenging. When times are tough, service functions such as technology can be a lightning rod for the frustrations of the business units. Tight alignment of the technology strategy with the business strategy and clarity around the value that the technology group brings generally helps to ease that natural tension.
The second one is how to bridge the generational divide across baby boomers, Gen X and Gen Y. For the first time, CIOs are simultaneously managing three different generations in our customer groups, stakeholder groups and our teams. Each of these groups has their own unique take on what technology can do for them and the CIO’s role in that. So I think in fact our role is more complex than ever before.
The last one is something that’s getting a lot of airplay right now, and that is access to a strong pipeline of talent. Technology careers do appear to be suffering from an image problem, largely in my opinion due to how technology is taught in our schools, and also due to some of the sensational headlines about offshoring. As CIOs, we need to be more creative about the types of talent that we source and where we source them from, we need to look beyond the traditional computer science graduates.
What’s your favourite gadget?
It’ll have to be the iPad. I never thought I’d say this about a device, but I’m secretly in love with my iPad.
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Follow Rebecca Merrett on Twitter: @Rebecca_Merrett