The five-minute CIO: Karl Heery, Aon Centre for Innovation and Analytics

22 Apr 2016

Karl Heery, head of IT at the Aon Centre for Innovation and Analytics (ACIA) in Dublin

“Skills atrophy is something I fear – my credibility as a technology leader depends on it,” said Karl Heery, head of IT at the Aon Centre for Innovation and Analytics (ACIA) in Dublin.

Karl Heery is an experienced technology leader and architect specialising in the financial services industry, proficient in enterprise architecture and IT strategy and who has a track record of success in delivering significant programmes of change.

As head of IT at the Aon Centre for Innovation and Analytics (ACIA) he is responsible for driving the organisation’s AWS cloud strategy, leading the transformation to Agile across the centre, overseeing the development of strategic projects and platform and driving lasting value for clients through high-value analytics.

‘Understanding the insurance domain is critical and we’re privileged to be surrounded by teams who are keen to help widen our lens on what our business is trying to achieve’

Previously he held senior IT roles at Aegon Ireland and Goldman Sachs.

Aon is a provider of risk management, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, human resource solutions and outsourcing services. Founded in 1919, the company has grown to employ 66,000 people worldwide.

Aon has invested $350m globally in boosting its analytics technologies and capabilities.

The ACIA in Dublin employs around 150 people and last year announced 30 new jobs.

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology rollout across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

The Aon Centres for Innovation and Analytics (ACIA), based in Dublin and Singapore, represent the cornerstone of Aon’s $350m investment in analytics and lie at the heart of Aon Inpoint. In ACIA Dublin, we deliver value through analytics by ingesting Aon data through our global data pipelines, into what is one of the world’s largest repositories of risk and insurance information.

Our value proposition to our global colleagues, clients and carriers is to help them make more informed business decisions through actionable insights.

We place a huge focus on user experience and visualisation of data through our web-based analytics portals.

We deliver everything through cross-functional Agile teams, and have scaled to 19 teams across ACIA Dublin, engaging with stakeholder groups across Aon globally on our various products.

We’re cloud-first in everything that we do, having taken a big step into Amazon Web Services (AWS) in 2015.

What are the main points of your company’s IT strategy?

From a global Aon perspective, our vision is to be recognised as the best technology organisation in our industry, by being architecturally-driven, services-led, and by focusing on availability, productivity and our platforms for growth.

From an ACIA perspective, the main points of our IT strategy are to:

  • Define and execute the architectural capabilities that will lead our business to greater success
  • Increasingly deliver enhanced analytics on high-quality data
  • Minimise data lag by optimising our data pipelines
  • Democratise analytics by exposing data and tools for self-service
  • Provide a rich and highly personalised user experience (UX)
  • Instrument and analyse usage of our tools
  • Provide a secure and robust infrastructure environment for our analytics with computer power to match our appetite
  • Delivery incremental value to our products, continuously, through Agile cross-functional teams.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

We employ both Infrastructure and Platform-as-a-Service (IaaS/PaaS) capability of cloud to bring our solutions to market. The nature of what we do – ingesting and processing data from across Aon globally – is hugely demanding on our infrastructure, and so we look to the scalability/elasticity of cloud to handle the peaks and troughs of our ETL workloads in a cost-effective manner.

‘As an innovation centre, we have not just a mandate, but an expectation, to explore new ideas for improving what we do and how we do it

Our data warehouses provide a single source of truth in a canonical data model, and are exposed as a service to ACIA analysts for ad hoc and automated analytical work. We provide an ecosystem using Docker, Redis and Hadoop for the exploration of data and hosting of statistical models and algorithms written in Python and R. Our analysts across the centre deliver visualisations and other impactful analytics through use of tools like Tableau and Alteryx. The output of all this work is served to a global user base through rich and personalised web portals built using React/Redux, D3.js, Highcharts, and supported by API middleware.

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

In our cloud estate, it’s crucial we monitor and manage the utilisation of our infrastructure. The basics include automating the shutdown of DEV servers outside of business hours, managing storage, and right-sizing instance types based on actual load. Establishing a discipline early around cost awareness and responsibility is important in ensuring we realise the full benefits of our cloud adoption. As an extension of this, we also see cost management opportunities in changing attitudes towards more ephemeral infrastructure, spun up on demand for a single short-term purpose.

We also maintain a strategic bias towards OSS (open source software) over COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) as an effective means of managing our cost base. There are clear examples where a mix of the two is warranted and, in those situations, we assess the vendor on their integration capabilities and how cloud-friendly their pricing model is. After all, there is no point in having an endlessly scalable infrastructure environment at your fingertips if your software licence keeps you bound to a handful of CPUs. We find vendors generally respect the need for organisations to experiment and prove out the usefulness of new technology before committing. We expect our engagements with vendors to have low-cost barriers and minimal commitments. If the solution is sound, it’ll create a certain stickiness factor anyway and we’ll gladly see adoption rise.

How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?

Certainly. Like so many organisational entities, we’ve experienced some growing pains as our success has propelled us on to newer things. As we move forward, we balance the healthy respect we have for our past solutions with an appetite for fresh invention. But we recognise that we own it all, and refactor ruthlessly towards a target architecture that we deem is right for our business now, rather than allow costs to multiply by carrying any technical debt from the past. This is the culture we are driving constantly. Our move to cloud presents the sort of opportunities we need to simplify our architecture, and is one of many projects that serve as a vehicle to deliver us closer to a greater (simplified) set of capabilities.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

The IT department in ACIA is nearing 40. We employ both in-house permanent and contractors (onsite), with limited outsourcing of certain specialist skills and non-differentiating capabilities (e.g. 24/7 global monitoring and support). We are fortunate to be surrounded by global technology teams who share in Aon’s values and vision, and have found kindred spirits across the organisation who have partnered with us to deliver the capability we need to operate a secure and robust IT environment.

In ACIA and the Analytics domain specifically, the line between IT and business is deliberately blurred. ACIA is an organisation of 140-plus extremely IT-literate colleagues – over 17 different nationalities, united through languages like SQL, Python and JavaScript. This creates a great environment for collaboration between all staff as our people focus on the technology we employ to solve the business challenges we’ve been given.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

I’m responsible for defining the architectural direction for ACIA Dublin, for the technologies we choose, for the Agile delivery practices we employ, for the fit and quality of our end solutions, and for the availability, performance, security and general service management of our applications and infrastructure. Of course, I have a fantastic team to lean on for so much of this, and we’re maturing our competencies more every day.

On a personal level, I make it my business to go deep on technical issues whenever I can. Skills atrophy is something I fear – my credibility as a technology leader depends on it I feel. I’ve complemented my degree and masters in software engineering with certifications in areas like Java, Cloud and Agile. Though I don’t commit to trunk anymore, I’ll occasionally be found cutting my teeth on a new technology, or as we describe it “breaking surface tension” to take it from something I’ve read about, to something I’ve used at least once. It’s always worth the personal investment of time as it strengthens the foundation of technical knowledge that I relate back to, whether in a tech team talk or the boardroom.

Understanding the insurance domain is also critical and we’re privileged to be surrounded by teams who are keen to help widen our lens on what our business is trying to achieve. I am a big proponent of business process mapping, Lean and generally understanding all the capabilities of an organisation and how they fit together to deliver our value proposition. This context helps align us to the current reality and future direction of Aon.

What are the big trends and challenges in your business, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

In analytics, cloud adoption obviously is front and centre for many. Being able to exploit the elasticity of cloud at pay-as-you go pricing is critical in a business where the velocity, variety veracity and volume of big data is ever increasing, and machine learning models grow in complexity and computational demand.

We see another challenge in emerging successful analytics businesses – that is, how does one simplify the path-to-live process for data science workloads written in a range of languages. We use Docker and related frameworks to configure lightweight portable environments which will slipstream into production for scale and operational support.

‘The pursuit of improvement is relentless and continuous within ACIA, wider Aon, and so many other great organisations’

The nature of our analytics products lends themselves well to early feedback and incremental delivery. As our posture through Agile and cloud continues to improve, it has paved the way for more serious discussion on continuous deployment and DevOps. As with all trends, it’s vital we start by defining the term and success measures within the context of our organisation. It has proved a fascinating discussion so far as we look to further streamline and automate our deployment pipelines across all areas of delivery (ETL, AppDev, cloud etc) and adapt our culture towards frequent low-risk releases on an ephemeral infrastructure environment.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

We look to instrument all that we do, from profiling end-to-end application performance with synthetic transaction monitors, to usage and performance metrics across our portfolio of visualisations tools. Ultimately, we’re interested in tracking how the analytics we produce change the course of business for a client, carrier or colleague – an elusive measure sometimes perhaps, but worthy of our every effort. It starts by capturing as much of the context and interaction around our analytics solutions as possible, to get insight into our impact.

‘Avoiding silos and aligning feature teams to deliver end-to-end value will continue to maximise our success’

At a macro level, the foundational KPIs like service availability, releases per month, number of priority incidents etc, are all extremely relevant given the global reach of our solutions. Beyond that, we watch for trends in Agile team velocity, and their trajectory against release plans.

Our service desk stats – measured by volume and size of tickets – are always enlightening too, as they provide empirical evidence of any technical debt in an existing system. Anything that potentially adds to the TCO (total cost of ownership) of an application, must be assessed judiciously and the elimination/automation of these prioritised against development of new features. If that prioritisation is healthy and value-driven, then I believe we are being effective.

Are there any areas you’ve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

The pursuit of improvement is relentless and continuous within ACIA, wider Aon, and so many other great organisations. There are so many plots and subplots to our story at any one time in the area of continuous improvement, and we have the privilege of seeing them weave together as ACIA writes its next chapter.

As an innovation centre, we have not just a mandate, but an expectation, to explore new ideas for improving what we do and how we do it. With the support of our global Aon colleagues, we are helping to strengthen Aon’s position in the marketplace. That is not a responsibility we take for granted, and it’s essential we convert our opportunities to real value. So, yes, I think IT can improve – in every dimension of what we do. Our goals for 2016 are many, but one to note is strengthening our architecture planning methodology, in concert with our business to maximise the direct tangible value we deliver.

The key ingredient to this, I believe, will be in how we organise our product teams to deliver. If there is one law of software development that cannot be avoided, it is probably Conway’s Law – “organisations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organisations”. And so avoiding silos and aligning feature teams to deliver end-to-end value will continue to maximise our success.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?

Too much to possibly cover here. Exploring new data sources, with new techniques, that generate fresh actionable insights through rich and tailored portal experience, exploiting cloud-native architectures – all towards our end goal of enhancing the value we deliver to Aon clients, colleagues and carriers.

In summary, it’s a really fascinating time and we intend to make the most of this opportunity for Aon.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years