The five minute CIO: Jonathan Boylan

22 Feb 2013

Jonathan Boylan, CTO at FINEOS

Differentiating through big data and changing collaboration in business through social media: this week we talk to Jonathan Boylan, chief technology officer at FINEOS, the Dublin-based insurance and claims software maker.

As CTO, what does your day-to-day role involve, and what are your main responsibilities?

My main responsibilities are looking at how our products work in our target markets. I do have the technology responsibility that I’ve had for a very long time; I don’t run development these days, I’ve moved more to the market side – looking at potential new markets and controlling and steering our R&D priorities and spending. I’m also looking after how we communicate with our markets and our customers. It might be a little unusual role for a CTO.

My original background was working in IT with an insurer but I’ve been with FINEOS for 16 years and there were 10 of us when I started. I effectively came on board to design our product suite. I had architectural roles, then operational, management and development roles and in the last few years I’ve been moving towards the product and market side. I’ve kind of crossed over from an operational, development and management role to more of a strategic alignment-product management role.

That’s a shift we often see where people who started out in technical roles move into business-focused ones. Did you have to reskill in order to change focus?

I did a short stint in Harvard Business School around leading product innovation but really, from the early days in FINEOS I was involved in how our products met a market need at a software design level.

I was never in a pure internal software management role – it was always more market-facing. When you’re in a 10-person start-up, everybody does customer management, everybody does sales and that’s one of the benefits of an old-fashioned start-up. When you’re getting out doing pre-sales, you learn a lot on the road. So it was a relatively natural progression.

Because FINEOS is a technology company itself, is there a greater sense in the company of the strategic role of technology, rather than it just being an operational tool?

Absolutely. We couldn’t sell our technology without telling our clients it’s strategic. In the main, it’s actually not a tough sell in the insurance industry; it’s had huge dependence on IT for 50 years – for launching new products, for managing risk. Insurance companies couldn’t exist without technology, literally.

How important was technology in helping FINEOS work its way out of the global financial slump – especially as it affected the customers who had been buying from you?

Really, the key thing from a technology point of view was that we were very current before the crash. We did invest significantly in our products during the crash period, but our technology platform was already current going in, which meant we could focus on features the market needed outside of the basic platform.

We’re seeing a really strong surge, particularly in the US, and we would not be on that wave if we hadn’t invested in our product over the past two years.

What implications did that R&D programme have for how you handled product development?

It’s a combination of the crash and what we’ve been doing in recent years – becoming very market-aware, using product management and Agile disciplines to bring our products very close to market needs and bring new features to market very quickly.

Recently, we’ve focused on building a suite of products distinct from each other, each focusing on a target niche. That’s been a huge shift for us – we can meet the needs of niches much more closely.

One of the features that you added to FINEOS Claims was analytics: is this intended to tap into the big data trend? What has the feedback been like from customers so far?

It is broadly part of a big data trend. Our particular focus is on predictive analytics: analysing the claims case and trying to predict how that claim will develop in a machine-oriented way.

It’s broadly using analytics to better understand trends in the data. It’s been very well received and is a significant differentiator.

We felt the technology was in a place where we could add extra value by doing more analytics. It’s being talked about in the insurance claims world, but not heavily done.

How big a part will mobile technologies play in future versions of your products, if any?

We’ve had apps as part of our offering for a couple of years with a view to consumers being able to access their claims through native apps. Recently, we added mobile device support for our core claims system. That’s responding to the mobilisation of the office and the mobile working environment.

At the moment our clients are largely tied to desks and phones and we think there’s an opportunity to be a bit more flexible with that.

Because FINEOS is a technology company, does that make you more prepared to use technologies at an earlier stage than some other businesses?

Internally, we’re quite progressive, I would say. Our internal IT department has the challenge of serving 350 so-called technology experts [laughs].

We’re quite heavy users of private cloud for development and test. Pretty much everything internally is virtualised and on a private cloud. We’re also using public cloud for demonstration systems and some test systems.

Because we have a private cloud infrastructure, it’s not actually a huge [cost] advantage. For the public cloud, we might have to do a demo tomorrow in Kansas City and also have something going on in Sydney. We can set up a server in the public cloud in the US and then flip it over to Sydney a few minutes later. We’re also using it for potentially launching a product to our market that will be in the public cloud.

We’re strong advocates and believers in technology and its ability to add value to a business. Another example is our adoption of VoIP for our phone systems. The big advantage is, we have a lot of people in home offices or on the road and now we have instant messaging and presence, so you can talk to them whether they’re at home or in an airport lounge. It’s made a huge difference to our ability to collaborate internationally and to bridge some of those tricky time zone issues we’ve had for years.

What other technology trends are you actively watching and considering where they could apply in the business?

I think social is very interesting in an enterprise business context around collaboration and communication. Specifically, within our environment, the claims process is highly diversified: you’ve got insurance staff, brokers and clients. You may have employers involved, medical experts, repairers, valuers and assessors: a whole range of people collaborate to work on a claim, and that collaborative environment isn’t heavily addressed by the insurance systems which focus on the insurance staff and treat everyone else as outsiders.

The reality of the process is, it’s very collaborative and that’s what makes it time consuming from the consumer point of view. We’re trying to look at breaking down those boundaries to speed things up and get a better outcome.

We can see what social technologies have done for speed of collaboration, even in our personal world …. Social has sped up the world, from the Arab Spring through to a new baby in the family, and that is only beginning to happen in business. I think there’s a lot of potential for social to make a huge transformative difference in business.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic