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Zurich UK’s Head of DevOps on low-code, shadow IT, and in-sourcing

"... I find it liberating."

As Head of UK DevOps for insurer Zurich, Barrington Clarke has his hands full overseeing an ambitious array of projects that are very much a case of out with the old, in with the new.

Among the old are over 1,000 Lotus Notes applications that need to be decommissioned; the new, he describes succinctly as a “very large programme of digital transformation”.

The former military intelligence officer, who served in the Falkland Islands and in in Bosnia, is recruiting widely at the moment, as his team helps deliver that digital transformation -- which includes delivery of scores of new applications and modernisation of hundreds of new ones across the company.

Happily for Clarke, Zurich UK made a notable effort some years ago to in-source talent, a move he attributes to Zurich’s Chief Claims Officer (then Head of Operations and IT) David Nichols.

This happened, he says, came after stakeholders got “increasingly frustrated that it involved a lot of third parties and quite a convoluted process to get software projects done, pilots done, innovation done, so he [Nichols] tasked the IT function to look at ways of in-housing some software development, and began to rapidly iterate rapidly prototype software.” (Dear reader, sometimes, good things happen...)

Zurich UK's Barrington Clarke, Head of DevOps

Zurich is adopting a low-code approach to DevOps.

One of the moves the ~$55 billion by market cap insurance giant (which employs over 6,000 in the UK) made was to adopt a low-code approach to much of its application development; specifically, using the Mendix platform to help iterate faster and more efficiently.

As Clarke puts it: “We've invested significantly in the platform, built a portfolio of over 27 applications; with great effect introduced Agile and DevOps practices to the business, and been very successful in delivering a very broad range of applications. So not just mobile, or not just apps for those insurance claims business, but a broad range of applications across the whole UK business”, he notes, adding “we've just invested in a significant amount of money in the MuleSoft Anypoint API platform, which will be coming online in September.”

Tackling legacy applications

Among the highlights to-date have included rebuilding a critical legacy policy application used to calculate premiums and capture data for terrorism coverage. This was one that over 700 underwriters were spending huge amounts of time to enter and manually adjust datasets if a policy needed to be re-written; something that took hours each time and which was causing data integrity threats to a system already fraught with accuracy issues. (As a surprisingly frank case study reveals, this sat on an out-of-date 2002 SQL Server build, for good measure.)

Another, Barrington Clarke tells The Stack, was delivery last year of an application called the "My Plans Portal". It's a classic tale of an old-fashioned digital shift that sounds simple, no doubt wasn't, but which now completed has resulted in real dividends for the company and its customers: "We had a book of insurance business with around 1.5 million customers. Although there was a digital portal for support, not all their data and information was was available and required sometimes a telephone call in order to service a customer's requirements.

See also: TSB COO Suresh Viswanathan on building an IT team, tackling an analogue legacy, and “innovating on the fly”

"We replaced that with a Mendix portal that communicated back into Salesforce. Basically, the customer can now log on and get all their pension and investment information in one place. That's also integrated to our back-end system, so any other tasks or activities that had to be done could be put into a workflow.

"That had a huge impact on the business and had a huge impact on our customers."

(Mendix is a low-code application development platform that lets developers build containerised apps that can run in any environment. It implements a stateless runtime, so any instance available can handle a user request, and offers a handy database connector to plumb a wide range of databases into apps built via its platform. The company was bought by Siemens, itself a major user, in 2018. Gartner, for what its’ worth. estimates that by 2024, low-code application development will be responsible for more than 65% of application development activity.)

Digital maturity

There's a lot of work to do, however, and Clarke is recruiting heavily (Mulesoft, Mendix, Salesforce experts all particularly welcomed...) As he notes: "Our architecture teams have delivered a digital maturity model, which is actually an incredibly insightful piece of analysis, to look at where we are mature digitally, where we need to enhance our capabilities digitally. That could be at the front end, when a customer comes in and accesses data; it could be servicing their policy; it could be taking payment for their policy, etc. So that enables us to focus our money and resources on the areas that we need to improve to improve customer outcomes.

"What this has enabled us to do is not just deliver digital transformation in siloed lines of business, but look at what UK-wide transformation we need to do; e.g., the introduction of AI, the introduction of data enrichment..."

Working with a strong in-house team has been a particular treat, Clarke -- who had previously periodically dipped in-and-out of civvy street IT jobs for full-time roles with the British Army -- notes.

See also: James Gfrerer: former Veterans' Affairs CIO on stewarding taxpayer’s dollars in complex IT environments.

As he puts it: "If you aggressively outsource, every conversation or interaction is expensive, and sometimes it can be a barrier to innovation and experimentation. So for example, my team will do very basic proof of concepts, perhaps three or four weeks long, and non-chargeable, to just thrash out a concept; to use a new technology; to help the business visualise what that technology might do for them.

"And it would be simply more difficult and expensive if you have to outsource.

"Also, every time you have to move to another skillset, or another team, every 'boundary' of that team means there's a cost and a handover. Having your own people means you can just swarm on it and get things done. I find it liberating. [Our] DevOps team will have Mendix team, a Salesforce team, it'll have a Mulesoft team, a smartCOMM team built in. When we're delivering applications, we'll have an internal team that can do the full end-to-end development and system integrations for those technologies. That is just quicker, easier, and cheaper.

"We've got a large recruitment programme for next year as well as we're going to expand those team areas" he notes, adding: "I'm recruiting a blended team of hardcore computer scientists and and business people that are using the low code platform. I also recruit people from the business [into the DevOps team] because although they might not have that computing background, and they need to be brought on mentored and educated, they bring with them insight into the way that Zurich operates and that can be very valuable."

Goodbye, Lotus Notes

Meanwhile, those pesky legacy LotusNotes applications. As Zurich UK's Head of UK DevOps notes: "We have about 1,000 Lotus Notes applications within the business.

"Some of them are really simple: they're basically just forms and you can convert them using automated processes to things like SharePoint. But if they've got some complex business logic, complex UI workflow, we've taken the opportunity to redevelop these in Mendix," he notes.

"Many of these applications haven't beeen developed for three, four, five years, so they don't quite fit the operating model of the business. That drives shadow IT, like monster spreadsheets. The ability to replace these applications, amend them and update them is an ongoing one, but we've been able to do we amend it, because low-code makes it so quick to do those to do those sorts of activities."

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