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CIO interview: Adam Miller, group head of IT, Markerstudy Group

The insurer and Auto Windscreens owner is using cloud-based virtual desktops to ease acquisitions and support home working during the pandemic – and its IT chief has a growing range of projects on the go

Adam Miller, group head of IT at Markerstudy Group, has a straightforward mantra for leading technology at the fast-growing insurance company: “Keep it simple. The less complexity there is, the more likely you’re going to be able to manage everything successfully.”

Markerstudy is one of the UK’s biggest insurance companies, employing more than 3,500 staff. It became the UK’s fifth-largest motor insurance provider after completing the purchase of the Co-op Insurance underwriting business in 2020. The group includes a range of brands, including Brightside Insurance, Insurance Factory and Auto Windscreens.

Miller joined in 2015, having spent 16 years with AXA Healthcare. He viewed the move as an opportunity to test his IT management skills in a new business environment. After joining as a deputy, he became head of IT in July 2018.

As well as being accountable for all IT services delivered to the businesses within the group, Miller’s remit developed further through 2021. His executive role now includes leadership of the product management function, which covers all aspects of change to existing and future insurance products.

“Markerstudy has grown and grown, so I’ve got a much bigger role than when I joined,” he says. “It’s been great for my own career development, and it’s taken me down the path I was looking to go.”

Miller says the fast-growing nature of the company and its disparate interests mean the work he is involved in moves quickly. The rapid pace of change makes the role interesting, but it also brings important challenges, especially when it comes to bringing new businesses into the Markerstudy fold.

“You can find yourself involved in quite a wide variety of activities,” he says. “So, for the last three months, I’ve been quite heavily involved in all our due diligence activities. Just before Christmas, we announced the Clegg Gifford and BGL Insurance acquisitions, subject to regulatory approval, and I’ve been heavily involved in that process.

“Then yesterday, I was back in with my team as we were planning out the rest of our activities over 2022 – we’ve got quite a big change roadmap ahead of us. So there’s a lot of variety, and that’s one of the most interesting aspects of the role.”

Building a new platform

When Miller joined Markerstudy, he found a firm that had already been acquisitive and was keen to make more purchases. This ongoing acquisition process helped the company to expand, but it also created a complex range of systems and services.

“We had a couple of years of really squeezing everything down and consolidating,” says Miller, explaining the activities he became involved in after joining the group. “Equally, we were busy sorting out the desktop estate and driving people onto a Citrix platform.”

Markerstudy had been using Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops for several years, which were running on-premise in two datacentres. Those foundational efforts proved apposite two years ago. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Miller and his business had already developed the makings of a platform that would enable the switch to home working.

Before the pandemic, Miller estimates that 70% of the user base was working on Citrix, but most employees were in the office. As social distancing became the new normal in March 2020, his team explored how they could use the Citrix platform to support people who worked remotely. In response to Covid-19, they transitioned to Citrix Cloud Services.

“Keep it simple. The less complexity there is, the more likely you’re going to be able to manage everything successfully”

Adam Miller, Markerstudy Group

Early tests proved the technology was appropriate for small groups of workers. However, as the challenges of the pandemic became clearer, Miller’s team knew they would have to prove the viability of Citrix at a larger scale – and quickly.

“It was a moment of crisis,” he says. “So, you’re confident in yourself that this approach is going to work, but you’ve not tested it en masse.”

The good news is the project ran smoothly. People transitioned to home working quickly, with very little service disruption.

“Putting everyone out onto Citrix Cloud allowed us to deploy the devices that we had in the offices out to home users,” says Miller.

“We sent out batches of equipment that we configured to talk to Citrix Cloud and users could sign in to their Citrix desktop running within a Markerstudy datacentre.”

Supporting a hybrid approach

Another key component that supported the transition to home working was Markerstudy’s decision to standardise on the IGEL cloud workspace operating system (OS) and to convert laptops, desktops and HP thin clients into locked-down, centrally controlled devices.

Today, 85% of users have an IGEL-Citrix solution, with 3,000 IGEL OS licences purchased, along with IGEL Cloud Gateway, which connects and manages the home-based devices outside the corporate network. IGEL’s Universal Management Suite provides a single, simplified window from which to manage the environment.

This project was proposed and managed by IGEL partner CloudDNA, which worked alongside Markerstudy’s internal infrastructure team.

“We had already been looking for some policies that would help us to work anywhere,” says Miller. “Ideally, you’ll get to a point where you can deliver Citrix on any device, and you can access it from any location. So that was the idea originally – to create that flexibility.”

Like other businesses, Markerstudy is continuing to think how it will support its workforce in a post-Covid era of hybrid working. Miller says one of his main aims is to ensure that the reversal of the work-from-home implementation runs smoothly – people are returning to the office in a phased approach, with many spending two or three days a week in the office.

He believes the key to supporting employees is consistency of user experience, regardless of where someone is working. “Having someone who can work on something at home – and it’s no different to if they’re working in the office – really helps,” he says. “I’ll go back to my mantra: you’ve got to try and keep everything as simple as possible.”

Miller refers to a conversation he had with a peer in the medical sector late last year. That experienced executive explained how medical professionals who need to work with patient data across multiple platforms often face a range of security layers and might need to sign in to as many as eight systems. Miller wants to provide something very different.

“We want to create a clean, easy-to-use platform for people every day, whether they’re in the office, at home, travelling, or wherever they are,” he says. “The aim is that our people can just rock up somewhere, turn on and start working – regardless of where that location is.”

Changing internal processes

Miller says one of the big areas his team has been working on for the past three years is the firm’s ratings capability, which judges the risk and suitability of individuals who are looking for insurance, such as motor vehicle cover.

Consumers look for insurance quotes through a range of brokers and aggregators. These requests are passed on to Markerstudy’s ratings platform, which deals with more than 600 requests a second. The platform is run on Microsoft Azure, alongside the tech giant’s Data Lake and API Management Gateway.

The technology orchestrates a range of services to assess risk and make decisions. “It’s a complex piece of development, but it’s been very successful for us – and I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved,” says Miller.

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Another key achievement for both the IT department and the business was the 2020 acquisition of Co-op Insurance. Miller says there was some concern that the merger of systems and services would prove extremely complicated. However, the team met its targets.

“The actual migration itself, although it was a very intensive period, ran smoothly,” he says.

“I was particularly pleased with how users were cutting over – the first batch that we cut over were running very smoothly the following day. You sit there and you’re thinking, ‘What’s going wrong, what have we missed and what’s going to break?’ And although we got a bit of noise, the bigger issues never came, so the early-life support went really smoothly.”

Miller says the key to success was a combination of factors: “Having a strong technical foundation to put people onto was key. But so was having the right buy-in from business colleagues, who had done all the prep, so that when we executed the cut over on that migration weekend, it went very smoothly. Everyone played their part, and it was a real team effort.”

Providing better experiences

Miller says he has a range of priorities for the coming 12 months, including absorbing Clegg Gifford and BGL Insurance, once those acquisitions receive regulatory approval. He will also continue to “tidy up” some of the systems and processes that came with the earlier acquisition of Brightside.

Day-to-day operational concerns must be addressed, too. Miller points to continuing work on the company’s datacentre and IT estate. “There is a reasonable amount of work that’s going to carry on behind the scenes,” he says.

Miller will also be focusing on how to make the most of the cloud. He will be working with IGEL and CloudDNA to consider what the next generation of the company’s desktop estate might look like. “I think that combination is going to keep us quite busy,” he says.

Beyond his immediate focus, Miller expects his team to place much greater focus on the applications the business uses. He expects to beef up the company’s IT engineering capability. The result will be a much more efficient application estate, both in terms of internal and external customers, within the next two years.

“We’re looking to provide better experiences and more digital experiences,” he says. “Markerstudy has, historically, been very much a broker-based organisation. Some of our recent acquisitions are moving us more towards the direct consumer space – and that shift explains the focus and drive around application development.”

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