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How FWD is driving its digital strategy

FWD’s group chief technology and operations officer talks up how the pan-Asian insurer is driving change faster and putting technology at the heart of its services

Operating in some of the world’s fastest-growing insurance markets, pan-Asian insurer FWD Group has been a strong proponent of cloud computing to keep pace with the needs of its business.

Earlier in February, it teamed up with Amazon Web Services (AWS) in a five-year agreement to host its core business applications on the hyperscaler’s cloud infrastructure. This follows an earlier deal with Microsoft to deploy Azure cloud services, including Azure OpenAI.

While moving to cloud has given FWD the speed and agility to move faster, it’s equally focused on creating good experiences for customers and employees. The company, which was founded by Hong Kong billionaire Richard Li in 2013, has over 13 million customers in 10 markets, including Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Japan.

In an interview with Computer Weekly in Singapore, Sandeep Pandey, FWD’s group chief technology and operations officer, dived deeper into the company’s broader digital strategy, including mitigating concentration risks, training its own tech talent, along with building a technology foundation to support future initiatives.

We’ve heard a lot about the partnerships between FWD and the hyperscalers in the past few months. What’s FWD’s broader digital strategy behind those moves?

Pandey: Our focus has always been about changing the way people feel about insurance. We were always about putting customers first, so there’s a lot of focus around making insurance easy for our customers. Insurance is also a very sales-driven business, so we have to create good experiences for our customers, employees and distributors. We are very fortunate that everyone, including our top management, is very passionate about creating these experiences – that our DNA and how FWD differentiates itself from everyone else.

Can you dive deeper into your technology strategy and how you’re using technology to enable those experiences?

Pandey: When I joined FWD over three years ago, we started with three strategic pillars – protecting FWD customers and employees; delivering change faster; and putting technology at the heart of the company. We kept our technology strategy simple and consistent, and we made sure we went to each of our markets to understand their pain points from a customer and distribution perspective.

Our technology strategy is also our business strategy, and that’s a very important differentiation. Our first strategic pillar is about enabling cyber security for our customers and colleagues, which we have not forgotten as we transform. Our second pillar, on delivering change, faster led to us adopting DevOps and CI/CD [continuous integration/continuous delivery], which has accelerated our move to cloud.

We are fascinated about generative AI and the value it’s going to bring, but we have to constantly look at the foundation. We need to keep building so we don't get caught up with red tape and be strangled by our own self-inflicted injury because we went so far ahead with something without fixing the foundation
Sandeep Pandey, FWD

In December 2020, 27% of our workloads were on cloud, and we grew that number to 97% within three years. That gave us the speed and agility to move faster, particularly during the pandemic.

With cloud, we have to keep in mind that it has to be scalable and secure. While we worked with partners to uplift our cloud capabilities quickly, we also needed to make sure we have internal expertise. That’s why we’ve introduced cloud centres of excellence that deliver shared services.

At the same time, we had to improve our operational efficiency. So, things like FinOps [financial operations] are important to manage cloud costs. And we removed 180 applications from our estate, so it was not just about lifting and shifting applications to the cloud. 

We also started a technology academy more than two years ago for employees to undertake cloud certifications for free. Today, over 2,000 employees have obtained over 4,000 certifications. All of that has positioned us to be ready for the future.

When it comes to our third pillar of putting technology at the heart of what we do, it is about leveraging technology, not as an afterthought, but at the centre when we are thinking about our product and business strategy.

Across the group, we have 11 KPIs [key performance indicators] for all our markets, so everyone has a north star to work towards. Different markets may be at different starting points, but they all have targets on when to achieve the same maturity that’s in line with the group strategy.

And we go back to the drawing board every year to tweak our strategy. For example, when AI [artificial intelligence] came along, we looked at how we can embrace the technology. Today, we have over 600 AI models that are being used across the business in areas like fraud detection and underwriting, but we also needed to look at AI governance and make sure there’s no conscious or unconscious biases.

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Having moved the majority of workloads to cloud, how are you mitigating the risks of being locked into the hyperscalers and ensuring you have some flexibility to move out if you need to because things are evolving so quickly?

Pandey: That’s true, and that’s why we have a multi-cloud strategy right from the beginning. But generally, even if people say they are using multi-cloud, 95% of their workloads will be with one provider. We were very conscious that we’re going to have workloads properly divided because you and I know things will happen and we need to be prepared. Today, our workloads are equally divided between Azure and AWS, and we will do the heavy lifting if we need to move from one provider to another. Within a market, we also look at city-level contingencies so there’s no single point of failure.

But we can’t have two sets of code for Azure and AWS as that will create inefficiencies. That’s why we have embraced DevOps and a mix of technologies like Terraform so we only need to develop something once in a group landing zone and publish it on any cloud. Of course, there will be some configurations needed, and that’s why we must have the expertise and not just outsource everything.

We are also looking at our contracts with the hyperscalers. For example, when we customise and create AI models, we should have the copyright and not the hyperscalers. We also create with open technology, so that if we have to change providers one day, we are not caged by one provider.

How are you supporting teams in different markets to achieve their KPIs, especially those at a lower level of maturity?

Pandey: The two KPIs that are relevant in this context are cloud adoption and application rationalisation. We had a clear target to move from 27% of applications on cloud to 70% in the first year, so we looked at what needed to be done for that to happen. It’s fine if you don’t have the expertise – we did the entire heavy lifting in the first year. I had regular meetings with the CTOs in different markets to track the status of the move, but as leaders, our ability to roll up our sleeves and jump in to handle things is very important.

We were very conscious that we're going to have workloads properly divided because you and I know things will happen and we need to be prepared. Today, our workloads are equally divided between Azure and AWS, and we will do the heavy lifting if we need to move from one provider to another
Sandeep Pandey, FWD

That comes very naturally to me because I have an engineering background and I get into the day-to-day things if needed. It helps to instil confidence in the CTOs that I’m with them and not throwing them into the fire. We also celebrate achievements and whenever we solve a big problem. Having that culture of appreciation and recognition is part of our values, but demonstrating that by leading by example is important.

You also have to be constantly aware that people draw energy from you. They follow you and look at you, so you have to be authentic, be yourself and be with them. That to me was a huge success factor because we had to do the heavy lifting ourselves, and I’m very fortunate that everyone, including the executive team, supported us.

We’ve talked a lot about what’s happening between your teams, but how are you engaging the business as well?

Pandey: No technology strategy can work without engaging the entire team. I presented our technology strategy to all the CEOs in the different markets, listened to them and incorporated everybody’s input. That’s the engagement model we’ve always followed for any project. In product development, for example, we work with product and distribution teams. Our group chief digital officer, Ryan Kim, and my team also interact closely with the business to make sure we understand their challenges. If we have a technological solution, then we present it in a way that makes sense to them.

Personally, I’m very passionate about engaging. I speak with all the CEOs at least once a month, whether it’s through email or picking up the phone to ask how everything is going and if they need help. Closing the loop is just as important. It’s not just about getting something done. We’re very good at doing 97% of a task very well, but the last 3% – or what I’d call finesse – is what people lack. That’s why I’m very particular about not keeping an issue open and if it has been addressed, it should be closed completely with satisfaction.

With the shortage of tech talent everywhere, what’s your thinking around building in-house capabilities versus working with a partner or vendor to augment your capabilities?

Pandey: We have a very healthy mix of in-house and partner expertise. For new technologies like generative AI, we work with partners like Microsoft but we have an AI academy as well. In areas where skills are scarce, we get help from partners. I won’t profess that we have to do everything internally – for example, if there’s an important project that we need to deliver within six months because of a regulatory mandate, we engage partners who augment our team because we’re not TCS or Cognizant, which have thousands of people they can deploy. But after the job is done, we’ll build the capability internally and then move them out.

Even as mundane tasks can be automated with AI or robotics in future, there are core things we have to do internally. By core, I mean an understanding of our workloads. Are they secure? Is there network segmentation? Where is the traffic moving? Where is the concentration of traffic and what is my weakest link? Having that visibility is core to our business, and that includes providing capabilities to help a market launch new services based on what we’ve done in another market.

We also come together regularly as a team to not only track our KPIs, but also share learnings from different markets. We also invite external speakers such as analysts and other thought leaders to share what’s going on in our industry. We need to have that outside-in perspective to keep ourselves grounded.

One of the in-house capabilities we’ve built is our modular architecture, or middle stack, that supports our customer, distribution and employee experience. No one in my knowledge has a clear mandate and strategy to do something like that. They may be thinking about it, but we’re far ahead. By modularising something like an address change, for example, we’ll only need to create it once and let the front-end systems use it.

I like what you’re saying about modularity, which is forward-looking from an enterprise architecture perspective. It helps to reduce technical debt from having different teams build different things to solve the same problem rather than riding on a common platform.

Pandey: You’ve articulated it very well, and I’d say having a strong foundation is very important. If you look at an iceberg, it’s just as important to look at what’s beneath the water, which goes far deeper. We are fascinated about generative AI and the value it’s going to bring, but we have to constantly look at the foundation. We need to keep building so we don’t get caught up with red tape and strangled by our own self-inflicted injury because we went so far ahead with something without fixing the foundation.

What keeps you up at night?

Pandey: It will always be cyber security because we are regulated in every market. What keeps me up at night is making sure we don’t miss something that’s very obvious. There’s a famous saying in India that the darkest place on a lit candle is just below the flame of the candle. That means we don’t take anything for granted and keep an eye on everything, because threat actors are becoming far more sophisticated. With generative AI and the computing power they have now, the threats will become bigger.

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