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02:46 PM
Lisa Valentine
Lisa Valentine
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From the Ground Up

Simplicity and restraint - and established governance processes - guide CIO Robert Asensio in building Darwin's technology infrastructure and integrating applications.

Not many insurance company CIOs get an opportunity to do what Robert Asensio, CIO of Darwin Professional Underwriters, has done - build an entire technology infrastructure from scratch. One way to approach such a monumental task might be as an overexcited child in a candy store, grabbing a little bit of this and a little bit of that from among a wealth of technology offerings available on today's market. But Asensio exercised restraint in his technology purchasing - partly because Farmington, Conn-based Darwin ($100 million in gross written premium) is a new company with a small technology staff and budget, and partly because he's learned from large insurers that technology purchases can quickly spiral out of control, leaving companies with "too much technology stuff," says Asensio.

Still, while avoiding acquiring too much technology, Asensio has brought in plenty. In the two years since Darwin's inception, Asensio installed 21 servers, including mostly IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) X345s and X346s running WebSphere on Linux, and an Oracle (Redwood Shores, Calif.) database server running on Linux; Cisco (San Francisco) network equipment, including a PIX 515e firewall and 6500 series router switch; and a multiflex T1 line to connect to the outside world. Additionally, Asensio has implemented policy administration, accounting, billing and claims systems, as well as a Voice over Internet Protocol phone system from Cisco.

An overriding theme of Asensio's technology decision making, he says, is simplicity. "Simplicity is a huge consideration for us," relates Asensio. "The opposite of simplicity is a complex environment that requires a lot more people and time and effort."

Simplicity was the No. 1 reason the insurer moved to VoIP, which enables the convergence of data and voice onto a single network. "The key reason we chose VoIP is the simplicity of the infrastructure," Asensio explains. "Staff who know networks can also run our phone system. There's one wire going to each desk."

Guided by Governance

To ensure that every technology decision makes sense, one of Asensio's first tasks was to establish a governance process that he says tightens the involvement of senior management with IT. He explains that each technology initiative must have an owner who is responsible for building the business case, including a statement of benefits and costs. This sets the expectation that every technology investment is a companywide decision for which the entire management team takes responsibility, he asserts. To keep the technology environment as simple as possible, Asensio adds, as part of the IT governance process, Darwin limits purchases to technology that is compatible with its existing environment.

The first system Asensio attacked was policy administration. "We needed to be dynamic as a business, and our systems would have to respond quickly to changes in products and ways of distributing products," he recalls.

During his search for a solution, Asensio found the Dragon policy administration and workflow system from OneShield, a relatively new vendor based in Westborough, Mass. Though he considered solutions from more-established vendors, Asensio says none of the large vendors offered the flexibility the company needed to customize its specialty lines of business and take advantage of changing distribution methods. "What's interesting about Dragon is that it's a rules-based engine so you are not really coding and developing in a traditional sense, but you are configuring it," says Asensio. "It's infinitely adaptable."

But, given Darwin's relatively small IT staff (eight professionals), Asensio also wanted a system that would be easy to configure. "We were looking for a policy administration system that would make us not only efficient internally, but one that was efficient to develop," he says. "With Dragon, we've taken a step or two out of the traditional development cycle." Within six months, the policy administration system was up and running.

Asensio also wanted to ensure that Darwin would not be hindered by its technology vendor. "I wanted to take ownership and control over our destiny," he explains. "With a lot of vendors, carriers are at their mercy for enhancements, partly because they are strapped by their own legacy [systems]. They may want to move to new architectures, but it's too difficult to do that and keep their existing customers happy."

Of course, there is risk involved in working with a new vendor, but Asensio says there is risk no matter which vendor you select. Plus, OneShield's aggressive pricing fit within Darwin's modest budget, he notes.

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