From time to time, UDig is going to feature an interview with one of our IT consultants out in the field. This week, we feature Matt, a software developer with an insurance company in Richmond, Va. He was placed by UDig in March 2010.


What trends are you seeing in IT that are specific to the insurance industry?
For one, we’re seeing a much stronger focus on the user and data.  As processing and connection speeds have increased during the past decade, not as much emphasis has been put toward making applications as quick and responsive, since the increases in computing and networking have given birth to a more natural speed.  I don’t mean to imply that there isn’t a focus anymore on writing intelligent applications that do things quickly, but just that we no longer need to go out of our way to write code specifically for responsiveness.

And how does that translate to the end user?
We’re able to focus more on making the user’s job easier through the user interface.  Things such as AJAX searches (think Google instant), autocomplete, dynamic forms, and more allow the user to make less key strokes and not have to cross-reference other information for codes or IDs.  The easier the application can make the user’s job, the more productive the user can be, which leads directly to increased productivity and profit for the company.  In the insurance world, that relates directly to how many policies can get quoted, bound and issued.

You also mentioned data, which is hugely important in the insurance industry.
Yes, there is a concept among insurance agencies of Master Data Management.  The focus of this is addressing cross-application data and management with an emphasis on multiphase business capabilities.  To put that into perspective for the insurance industry, the information that we gather from perspective clients should persist throughout all of our applications and not need to be reentered.  If I receive a statement of values for all the locations a client wants insured, there is no reason that I shouldn’t be able to use that same data later to produce the client’s policy documentation.  While this is a basic concept, if you ask many underwriters, you’ll quickly see that there is a lot of rekeying occurring in the industry right now.

Plus, you get those multiphase business capabilities.
Correct. For us, this means that two years from now, when we want to renew your insurance or give you a new quote, that original data should still be there.

Obviously the recession has taken its toll, but how are companies reacting in terms of cuts to IT departments? IT, after all, is essential to the business operations.
Even though it was recently declared that we are “out of the recession,” companies are still struggling and hiring is just not occurring.  While these companies may not be receiving as much work and may have idle workers on the service branch of their company, I can assure you that their IT department has been working just as hard.  Times like these allow companies to address their product’s problems and build enhancements.  However, often times they still need extra support to get it done in a timely fashion.  No company is going to hire a full-time IT member right now unless they are growing, however, now is the perfect opportunity to bring a staffing consultant to fill a temporary position, or even a temporary job with the opportunity for full-time.  This is a great situation for all involved.  The worker gets a job – and we all know based on unemployment rates that a job is a blessing – and the company gets someone to assist with the job at hand but without too much obligation.

What’s one of the biggest issues that insurance companies face these days?
The biggest problem insurance companies are having right now is just keeping up with the ever-changing technologies.  To the outside world, the Information Technology sector has stabilized.  The average person hasn’t seen huge developments like the explosion of the Internet or the takeover of mobile convenience everywhere for quite a while.  It would appear on the outside that not much is changing.  That couldn’t be further from the truth for those of us in the business.  On a weekly basis, we see products released that will make our applications do their job better, and so we scurry to find ways to integrate them.  If you throw around the word Java, a lot of people can relate to what that is as a technical term.  However, how many of them know about C-Sharp or Ruby on Rails?  Do you know what the changes are between Oracle 10 and 11g, and how to utilize them to make your application better?  The average company is just struggling to stay even three steps behind right now.

Is there any sign of slowing down?
Absolutely not.

What types of skills do you recommend candidates have before going into your field?
The best recommendation I can give someone going into the IT field right now has nothing to do with a skill set.  I know most people will list .NET, Java, basic database skills, stuff like that.  They aren’t as important as you would think.  The best skill an applicant can have right now and the best thing to express to a potential employer is the ability to quickly learn and adapt.  You may get hired on to a job to work with Java, but six months in the same job, the executive decision may be made to switch to C-Sharp or a different programming language.  The same goes for databases.  If you can learn and understand the more basic concepts of good programming, database design, and design patterns, you’re really a better applicant than someone who has six years of experience and is not willing to move out of his or her niche.  This is especially true for consultants.

How many hours would a consultant expect to work each week, and why?
In my experience, this varies.  When you first get to a client site, expect either a rough couple weeks or a few easy weeks followed by a couple rough ones before everything levels out.  Either you will be struggling to learn everything new during those first few weeks and putting in 50-plus hours, or you’ll be slowly brought into the fold on things as the company tries to get prepared for you (this happens more often than not).  In that case, you may struggle to find things to do to put in 40 hours a week for the first few weeks, then once the company has wrapped its head around what it needs you for and how it will handle you, expect a quick explosion of work (50-plus hours again).  I know that it sounds strange that a company would hire someone they are not “ready for,” but I assure you it happens a lot.  Companies will hire before they have requirements drafted for projects or will miss a deadline close to your hire date.  In such case, enjoy your relaxing two weeks because someone will be playing catch up afterwards… and it will most likely be you.