Liberty IT’s tech director: ‘The real challenge is finding out what the customer wants’

18 Aug 2017

Liberty IT’s director of technology, Dave Anderson. Image: Liberty IT

Dave Anderson, director of technology at Liberty IT, discusses software development and how he ensures it marches in step with real customer needs.

Liberty IT develops software products for US Fortune 100 company Liberty Mutual.

The company employs 540 people in Liberty IT between offices in Belfast and Dublin, and about 80pc of this Irish workforce are software developers.

Dave Anderson joined Liberty IT 10 years ago as a software developer and today leads the company’s drive towards technical excellence.

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 the director of technology for Liberty IT here in Belfast and in Dublin. I run a team of architects who work in Liberty IT and I’m responsible for the technical direction of some of the teams here, and also supporting senior technical staff in the work they do.

I also work on some of the technical content, from an internal and external perspective, to make sure that our technical practices are as good as they can be. I am responsible for advising and communicating some of the technology strategies across the company and I am part of the executive team to make sure we are on the right path.

There is also a connection with Liberty Mutual Enterprise where I would also work with some of my peers in other business units in technical strategy for the entire enterprise as well, which again keeps us well connected into the overall global enterprise.

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

I am involved in the development of technical products, platforms and capabilities.

Liberty IT is almost 20 years old now and we pride ourselves on our technical practice. It is important for me as the chief product owner of our technical practice to make sure it is consistent and self-defined for our company, and also for our internal customers to know how we work from a technical perspective.

For that, we have created an approach we call the Liberty IT (LIT) method, which is a goals-driven framework that helps our engineers and our leaders understand how we work. It is very closely aligned to extreme programming (XP), but with things added on to enable the enterprise and be more customer-centric.

That’s a framework our engineers use that helps them with the latest practices and techniques. We want it to be a more evolving and alive framework, more like a collaboration platform.

We have people using the latest techniques such as impact mapping, example mapping, clean code or behaviour-driven development. These are all complex, technical techniques, and teams require support from experts internally to help them.

The second part of our technical capability – because we are such a large company and invest in technology as a differentiator in how we do business – is that we look at different capabilities down the line with different partners to try and make sure we are on-trend and working at the scale that we need to be.

For example, with public cloud, it is not just about moving your applications to the cloud – there is a whole different way of working you have to embrace.

There are technical capabilities such as extra security techniques, different ways to monitor and deploy your software. There are a whole host of technical capabilities that are under the hood to enable the cloud native.

It requires senior technical people to be well aligned, and briefing the company and making sure that we are moving forward in a responsible manner.

How complex is the infrastructure you work with?

Being a Fortune 100 company, the one thing that always works for Liberty IT is that we would always work on large software systems.

I joined as a developer 10 years ago and the first thing that struck me was the scale of the operation. Some of our systems are absolutely huge and so it is hugely rewarding and fulfilling to work on such a big system that has so many people on it.

Given that we are running consumer and business insurance products in North America and other countries, it is a very large-scale platform.

That is good because it requires best-of-breed engineering practice.

Do you have a large in-house IT team?

I have an extended virtual team of technology architects and there are around 30 to 35 in that team. We see ourselves as the technical leadership of Liberty IT, which has approximately 540 people in Belfast and Dublin.

It’s less enterprise architecture and more technical excellence and direction and alignment. It is a tight and very collaborative group, and then we can go back in and influence our local teams across all the different business units that we report into.

It’s not so much a team, but more of a community.

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

Some of our systems are of such a large scale that, sometimes, it is hard to figure out what is the right thing to do next.

And, if you put yourself in the customer’s shoes, the customer has a need and we need to solve that need – so we do a lot of customer-centric work.

One of our teams works on a consumer-facing website and they recently had a very interesting problem. They were getting feedback from the business partners that some of the functionality was difficult for customers to find. The traditional way was to start off a large project and if people couldn’t find something, you put in a search component.

Given that it is a large complex platform, that would be quite a large undertaking. So the team went at it from an MVP (minimum viable product) approach and put a probe into the site and tested to see if search would work and if people would actually use search.

They probed it for four weeks from a KPI perspective. It prompted a huge discussion with the business and, instead of this huge outlay on enterprise search, we put in a test-and-learn probe and agreed that if more than 1pc of users used search, then we would start building out that capability.

It was a great way to learn and, interestingly enough, just 1pc of users did use search and so they realised that search wasn’t the solution to the problem, so they ended up making some customer experience tweaks.

Sometimes, the biggest technical challenge isn’t really the technology, it is finding out what the customer wants.

The best way to do that is to do customer-centric probes, testing the user, which is a much more mature way of making software changes rather than just assuming you know the answer.

What big trends are on your horizon?

Given that we are working with the latest cloud technologies, it is more about business transformation and platform-as-a-service and functions-as-a-service.

We build our applications in a very different way. The definition of cloud changes every year as the big public cloud vendors change their offerings, so, in order to keep evolving with that and the latest trends, it means you have to work in a very different way.

Five years ago, using machine learning would have been a very complex task. Now, you just acquire a service and get something up and running in days.

Trying to take the business along with that rapid development way of thinking is a trend and something that is exciting but challenging, too.

For those of us who have been developing for years, it is a very radical way of thinking, but combining the business mindset, customer centricity and public cloud technologies really changes our way of working.

The thing that excites me is the way we are working on the new public cloud platforms.

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

Being an insurance company, we are very metrics-driven.

Within Liberty IT, something we have been experimenting with is the idea influenced by Daniel Pink’s book Drive, where you have three axes: autonomy, mastery and sense of purpose. If you measure the autonomy of a team writing software, are they driving their own destiny in an enterprise environment?

Then you look at mastery in terms of having the skills to build all the things they need to build. And, finally, sense of purpose – a really good team has a business KPI, which is customer satisfaction.

I find it is an interesting way of framing the discussion, because a lot of traditional companies will use agile metrics but often, the business metrics don’t relate to the teams. So there is definitely a lot more of a product mindset in the Daniel Pink three-axis framework.

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