The Apprentice


The ApprenticeMuch has been written about the Great Resignation and the issues insurers are having with the loss of institutional knowledge among the ranks of their technical and business subject matter experts. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that the ecosystem used to support their core business processes includes a plethora of components that have been cobbled together over a 30-40-year period.

Many carriers started with a monolithic core admin system that addressed all of the business functions needed to run an insurance company—from new business to agent distribution to billing to financial reporting and claims. Vendor versions of these systems needed to support multiple options for products and processes across a variety of client companies. They were written in the programming languages that were prevalent at the time (Assembler, COBOL, and PL/I) and tended to be well-designed and documented.

Understanding how to modify these systems required more than just knowledge of the functionality you were changing (i.e., underwriting rules); it often required knowledge of the overall architectural framework of the system, including the organization and access to data, the structure of rules and options (usually stored in tables), and the sequencing of processing required to complete a transaction.

Cultivating Talent in the Past

At the time, there was a dearth of programmers available to implement the many modifications needed to handle an insurer’s unique requirements. To address this, many companies looked to their existing business staff to identify resources who had the potential to become developers. They worked with their vendor partners to develop and run multiple tranches of multi-week training programs.

After the trainees completed these classes, they were assigned to specific subsystems and paired with knowledgeable developers to work side by side designing, developing, testing, and, most importantly, documenting modifications to the system. This arrangement was similar to the types of apprenticeships that plumbers, carpenters, and electricians engage in.

The apprentice developer would work their way up from basic tasks to more complex assignments to ultimately working independently. They learned the correct way to design and implement changes in a structured way that aligned with the system’s architecture. Over time (usually many years), they became the experts on the end-to-end ecosystem.

As technology evolved, new systems were developed using the “tech du jour” and grafted onto the ecosystem. Often, they replaced existing components that needed to be carefully pruned away. New cross-technology integration frameworks were created to bridge disparate systems. With each passing year and new technology, the resulting ecosystem grew increasingly complex. As a result, the number of people who truly understood each component and the “glue” that binds them together diminished. Often, the level of documentation also suffered, making the dependence on these subject matter experts more critical.

Filling Today’s Resourcing Void

Today, the Great Resignation has accelerated the departure of these key resources as well as many of the younger developers who were hired more recently. Companies are struggling to attract and retain resources to accomplish all the work that is required on their ecosystems. Satisfying that demand is only part of the problem. Teaching the new developers how to be productive may be a bigger challenge.

One way to address this challenge is to take a page out of the book of pioneers in the insurance technology industry and develop apprenticeship programs. By focusing on developing complete documentation, running training programs, and assigning trainees to work side by side with the remaining experts, companies can build a corps of knowledgeable developers who understand the inner workings of their unique insurance technology ecosystems.

Early in my career, I was part of the first wave of interns hired by my company and went through the process I described above. More recently, I oversaw a similar program focused on getting ahead of the curve of a fast-approaching retirement cliff. To address this, we developed a specialized training program and hired 60 trainees over six years. Since many of the trainees were hired with IT degrees, we had the benefit of seasoned staff members who were able to bridge between the old and new tech that coexisted in our ecosystem.

If you are interested in continuing this conversation, please let me know at [email protected].