In the past decade, the ancient industry of insurance has been shaken up by seismic technological change, accompanied by an explosion in the number of startups leveraging the latest developments in IoT, analytics, Robotic Process Automation and more. But many view insurtech as a “winner-takes-all” market, meaning only a fraction of these contenders will translate early growth into real success. How can a CTO help his or her company go the distance?
As CTO for the innovative insurtech platform wefox and a veteran of five successful rounds of fundraising, Sergi Baños Lara is a good person to ask. During a recent PentaBAR CTO Talk, “Building a Unicorn: The CTO of wefox Shares his Learnings,” Baños Lara met Pentalog’s Chief Platform Officer Cornel Fatulescu to discuss the challenges of bringing an age-old business into the 21st century, taking on a whole spectrum of topics such as fundraising, participative governance, DevSecOps, and tech debt. Read on to find out five smart moves a CTO can make to meet all these challenges while remaining a driver of change.
Move 1: Think hybrid
“The reason we’ve been successful is because we have a unique approach,” says Baños Lara. Unicorn wefox is a hybrid beast: a full-stack company that sells insurance based on an indirect-distribution model, creates the technology to deliver on that brief, and provides advice to customers. A company like this needs a CTO to match: someone equally at home in the worlds of business and technology. Baños Lara confirms that at wefox “Technology is not just to serve business, but is part of business […]. If technology doesn’t contribute to the strategy really early on, later there is a misconnection.” He helps to craft the company’s business message, but he also plays a liaison role, breaking that message down to his technology teams.
While this may sound a bit like trying to write the script and act in the movie at the same time, Baños Lara explains that it’s possible with the right balance of skills. Many CTOs have a good grasp of hard skills, but he stresses the importance of also developing soft skills such as communication and storytelling. In an industry that deals with the intimate details of its customer’s lives, it’s even more essential to remember the human factor.
Move 2: Turn skills gaps into opportunities
When Baños Lara entered the industry seven years ago he hit the ground running, making CTO by the age of twenty-five. But as an avid diver in his spare time, he is all too aware that a rapid rise to the top comes with risks of its own! He believes it is vital for up-and-coming CTOs to stay humble, and above all, to acknowledge their own skills gaps and then work on filling them.
When Baños Lara started out at wefox he spoke very little English, so he moved outside his comfort zone to fix this: “I started every single meeting saying ‘Apologies, my English is not good, correct me if I’m wrong’ and this created some fresh relationships with some co-workers that helped me and supported me.” Since he came to the company from a telecommunications background, he also had to learn about the specifics of the insurance industry. But he says that with the right attitude every knowledge gap is an opportunity to shine. A successful CTO doesn’t have to be omniscient: for Baños Lara it’s far more important to “be able to say ‘I don’t have the answer for that, but tomorrow I will be able to answer you.’”
Move 3: Keep governance flexible
Baños Lara feels that governance is often misunderstood. People often associate it with gatekeeping and control, but for him it’s about driving efficiency by streamlining ideas. “Instead of discussing the same approach […] several times, what governance does is standardizing, creating guidelines for the benefit of everybody.” And the decisions of the wefox governance board aren’t set in stone: all his teams are free to challenge them by taking part in the Request for Comments process, as long as they can frame problems, opportunities, and risks based on facts, not opinions.
Move 4: Teach the role to develop talent
Although a good CTO values each employee’s particular brand of expertise, when it comes to DevSecOps Baños Lara warns against ring-fencing skills by focusing too much on role definitions: an agile methodology benefits from employees who are familiar with all the company’s activities. For instance, at wefox “The QA is not the only one doing QA” and conversely “I really want my QA people to develop the testing and automate the testing.” This won’t be achieved simply by sending staff to training courses: team members need to educate each other about their roles in a way that develops talent across the board. Sharing knowledge also helps to successfully “migrate the culture,” which Baños Lara identifies as one of the secrets behind wefox’s impressive staff turnover rate of just two percent.
Move 5: Be crystal clear about tech debt
When dealing with technical debt, Baños Lara believes it’s crucial to keep a sense of scale. “We struggle with the definition of technical debt because we are trained to apply macro definitions to something that can […] be micro.” Sources of this debt, he explains, can range from a single function that has not been changed for several months to an entire legacy platform, and he avoids a one-size-fits-all approach. Some of the teams at wefox follow the standard DevOps practice of allocating 20 percent for everything they do, others tailor the allocation to each deliverable, applying a milestone-based approach. But however they do it, every team must “include technical debt as part of their day-to-day, because otherwise you enter the dichotomy of focusing one team into technical debt and the other team into delivering features.”
Move 6: Bring the vision pitch to life
Baños Lara believes that the concept behind insurance is “something beautiful: you have a problem, I help you.” But this ideal of bringing comfort in an unpredictable world can’t survive without sound technological foundations. During fundraising rounds, his role is to support CEO Julian Teicke as he pitches the wefox vision and strategy to potential investors, but this isn’t just about working through a due diligence checklist. Baños Lara considers that working hand-in-hand with investors, providing examples and making demos are all key to wefox’s success in attracting backers. “Our vision includes technology, includes what we want to accomplish, what we are delivering, and we are able to demo it and show to investors that it’s real […] not just something that is a projection or an idea.”
Conclusion: No one is an islan
With increasing pressure on insurtech companies to scale up fast, CTOs in this industry are only too aware how quickly the role can evolve from a hands-on technical role to one that demands skills such as management, communication, and business strategy. But in the rush to build a 360-degree portfolio of skills and become ever more versatile, CTOs can forget one thing they don’t have to become: perfect. Baños Lara wraps things up with the following pearl: “No organization is perfect. So you have to work on your own organization, work together with the people in your team, because the changes are not going to be driven by you. […] The changes are going to be made by the entire team and limited by them […]. Make sure you don’t take all this onto your shoulders.”