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CIO interview: Generali’s Yanna Winter on the power of data integration

Yanna Winter, CIO and head of IT at insurance firm Generali, discusses how to slice up the legacy IT elephant in the room to enable data-driven applications

Yanna Winter is CIO of Italian insurance firm Generali, which operates 150 IT systems running in 20 countries. She describes her job as “complex with relatively modest budgets” and “the most interesting” she’s had in her life.

Winter sees the role of IT in the insurance firm as identifying what the business wants from a functionality, regulatory and cost perspective. “Regulation is not optional,” she says. “Cost is not optional. Over the next four to five years, we don’t have bottomless pockets. We are all budget-centric. The budget gets fixed once a year.” But, she adds, there is flexibility in where the IT budget is spent.

Based in London, Winter is responsible for IT across all of Generali’s UK businesses. She took on this responsibility 18 months ago, and admits that the IT her team manages is “complex” – she describes it as a multi-dimensional jigsaw.

Speed in getting the right data for the right reasons is at the heart of her new, multi-year IT strategy, which took a year to develop. Borrowing from military tactics, she says the IT strategy is about dividing, conquering and integrating. It involves four steps – integration, infrastructure, data and applications.

For 2020, the goal is to transform the IT infrastructure. In 2021, Winter hopes to transform data in Generali. Application transformation is on the calendar for 2022.

“Only when our data transformation is finished will I be happy”

Yanna Winter, Generali

In 2019, the first step of her multi-year plan began with IT integration. “Our previous enterprise service bus was 10 years old and nearing end of life,” she says. “We selected the MuleSoft suite in July 2019 to provide cloud-based iPaaS [integration platform as a service] and API [application programming interface] management.”

If a large, complex monolithic system is the elephant in the room for almost every large-scale digital transformation initiative, Winter wants to be able to slice the elephant into buckets and create safe islands of stability.

From an integration perspective, this means the IT team needed to provide the level of functionality required by the business through building blocks that surface functionality in large, monolithic business systems. The approach she has adopted involves identifying the various components of the infrastructure – which pieces constitute business logic, which are back-end systems and which pieces can be swapped out. 

Coping with coronavirus

No amount of planning could have foreseen the crisis that has unfolded in 2020. As part of the IT infrastructure modernisation pillar in Yanna Winter’s strategy, Generali started ordering new IT equipment in January 2020.

“Everyone in the UK got a laptop, and these arrived a week before lockdown,” she says. “We retained a small skeleton team to configure the new machines.”

Along with the laptops, Winter says Generali put in place paperless office technologies and collaboration via Microsoft Teams. During the first weeks of the UK lockdown, the facility team was tasked with scanning paper documents in the office. The document-scanning task is now provided through a managed scanning service.

“Only when you open up a big application are you able to understand how to integrate,” says Winter. From her experience of the IT integration project, she stresses the importance of understanding the pain points and using APIs as a thin veneer sitting on top of the systems.

Data is another elephant in the room. For Winter, it is not realistic to copy all data into one place, clean it and then prevent anyone from messing it up. “I will not be able to physically copy and clean my data in one place. We need to know where the data is, where the systems are, and then integrate the systems and the data,” she says.

The data transformation is something that keeps Winter awake at night. “Only when our data transformation is finished will I be happy,” she says. With the right data, Winter says the business can build new applications. IT can then decommission everything else.

Outsourcing and cloud services

During her IT career, Winter spent two years, between 2013 and 2015, at analyst firm Gartner, specialising in financial services. From her experience of discussions with IT leaders, she says outsourcing is never an “all or nothing” conversation. “If you select vendor X, you give them your wallet,” she says. “I need to control the wallet.”

Her approach is to retain what is core to the business, such as the enterprise architecture and the end-to-end system, and then outsource strategically. “We assess what to outsource in an analytic manner to ensure what we get is fast and gives us a competitive advantage,” she says.

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From an outsourcing perspective, Generali is currently decommissioning its datacentres to migrate workloads from on-premise to the public cloud. “My strategy is cloud-only,” says Winter. “If it is not giving us a competitive advantage and is not efficient, I want it to be someone else’s problem.”

Generali uses managed service providers to look after its non-core applications, which tend to be hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS). Through her analytical approach, Winter assesses the IT value chain, with the goal of retaining control in areas of technology that Generali can use as a market differentiator. 

For instance, applications that support portfolio management, risk management and multinational programmes offer the company a competitive advantage. “These are our systems and I put them in Azure,” says Winter. For everything else, the company uses either an outsourcer or a software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider.

Legacy systems may well be the elephant in the room for enterprise digital transformation projects, and for Winter, back-end integration is critical to managing the beast of legacy IT.

At Generali, her IT strategy aims to put in place software and APIs that work in the background, to divide and conquer legacy IT by integrating the data flows the business needs. The easier it becomes to surface data from legacy systems, the quicker new data-driven applications can be developed.

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