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04:50 PM
Lisa Valentine
Lisa Valentine
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More Bang for the Buck

Andrea Randolph, CTO, MBIA Insurance Corp. "Lean and mean" is a guiding principle at MBIA Insurance Corp. (Armonk, N.Y.; $34 billion in assets), a financial guarantor of structured financings in the primary and secondary markets. For CTO Andrea Randolph, that means motivating her 38 full-time employees to take an enterprisewide approach to technology initiatives to enable the insurer to reuse solutions across its many divisions.

I&T: You started your career on the business side of the insurance industry. When did you transition to IT?

Randolph: When I was at Aetna [Hartford, Conn.] I had the opportunity to participate in a joint business/IT initiative. I was so interested in what the programmers and the IT project managers were doing that Aetna created a position for me in IT. That's when I moved over to the "dark side."

The trend today is for CTOs and CIOs to come from the business side and surround themselves with people who know technology. I did that back in 1985, so I guess the old is new again.

I&T: Describe some of MBIA Insurance Corp.'s recent technology initiatives.

Randolph: Our technology initiatives are driven by the organization's business needs. Of course, every CTO or CIO says that -- it's akin to apple pie and motherhood. So in that respect we're like everyone else. We try not to be a disjointed, siloed IT organization and [instead] work very closely with our business customers -- we call them customers and not end users -- to understand their pain points and what strategic opportunities they believe exist in the marketplace.

Like any company, MBIA has a number of discrete business units with their own technology needs. In prior years, IT focused on meeting the needs of each division. I had a group that worked on finance issues, a group that worked on new business division technology requirements, HR requests and so on. We took a step back and realized that we were not taking advantage of the obvious: We could implement a solution once and potentially reuse it across multiple divisions. When you look at end-to-end business processes rather than divisions, you see that these processes often require multidivision involvement. Today, our focus is on applying technology to make business processes more effective, efficient and profitable as opposed to only implementing 'point solutions'.

I&T: How are you accomplishing this reusability?


We are re-engineering Midas, our legacy client/server application, into a suite of applets available to business customers based on what role they play in the business process. It's our version of the [Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo's] MyYahoo! model. We will present on-line screens our customers need based on their work responsibilities, rather than ask them to navigate through the complex system. It's a customized application that is transparent to the business customer. We also tightened the links into the Microsoft [Redmond, Wash.] Office suite of products, particularly Outlook, so customers don't need to leave Midas to send an e-mail.

I&T: Are you working on or planning any other major IT initiatives?

Randolph: We're looking at enterprise content management (ECM) alternatives to manage our large amounts of data. This is a huge initiative, but the benefits will include reduced data management costs and consistent document management to support corporate governance and compliance. It will reduce our reliance on Microsoft SharePoint Portal Servers and allow us to archive and retrieve through our Microsoft Exchange server. We're in the final stages of selecting a vendor, but I still have more questions to ask. It's always good to measure twice and cut once.

Another large initiative is developing a security master file as a way to manage the relationships among financial instruments, holdings, organizational relationships and the like in-house. We're using [Microsoft] .NET with an Oracle [Redwood Shores, Calif.] database.

I&T: What challenges do you foresee with ECM?

Randolph: The trick for us is to implement ECM without changing the look and feel of the desktop experience. My goal, if we do this right, is to make it almost invisible to our business customers. For example, customers may think they are in e-mail, but the file attached to the e-mail will have meta data tags and be archived in the ECM database.

I&T: Did you look at available vendor offerings for the security master file initiative?

Randolph: We did, but most of the third-party offerings are designed for huge companies. We're much smaller; there's no point in buying something that is super-sized.

I'm really pleased with the way this project unfolded. Initially, the project team members thought they could buy a solution and spent time talking to vendors and getting educated. They determined that while those vendor offerings were wonderful, they were more than MBIA could use. They approached me about developing the system in-house.

I thought that was pretty brave. Having been in the industry for several decades, I've seen many instances where companies buy a solution and then throw a lot of money at professional services to make it work. For our team to say that they didn't think that approach was right for MBIA -- to put what's best for the company first -- demonstrated an incredible amount of maturity.

I&T: You speak highly of your staff. What do you do to keep them motivated?

Randolph: I allow people to see that you can have a balanced life, work hard and be recognized for your contribution. This sets up an excellent relationship between the employee and the company, and these individuals will do anything in support of the organization. Intelligent people are very grateful and remember when the organization flexed and bent over backwards to help them in some way, shape or form. We give staff a certain amount of flexibility, such as the ability to telecommute for a specific project or a specific period of time if they need to redirect their attentions elsewhere. We also make sure they continue to be mentored, trained and have the opportunity to network outside of the organization.

My IT staff is relatively junior, but they have the aptitude, acumen and enthusiasm to learn and be productive members of the group. I look for individuals who are hungry to learn and eager to make a contribution. If you're smart enough to identify individuals who, perhaps, don't fit nicely into the stereotypical template of what a high-caliber employee looks like, you'll find incredible human talent in the most interesting places.

I&T: Can you give an example of what you mean?

Randolph: We've sponsored interns from foreign countries through the visa process; this can be a very traumatic process. I then have an employee who is so focused, so aligned, so energized and so competent that the return on the MBIA investment can't even be quantified.

I&T: Are there any technologies you use at MBIA that you would call "outstanding"?

Randolph: We consider virtualization technology and the solutions from VMware [Palo Alto, Calif.] and PlateSpin [Toronto] to be outstanding. With virtualization we can build virtual servers on one physical platform, lessening our physical footprint in our production data centers, and have fewer people manage more servers.

We implemented a state-of-the-art disaster recovery infrastructure using virtualization along with EMC Corp.'s [Hopkinton, Mass.] storage area network (SAN). We are able to shut down our production data center in Armonk, N.Y., and recover 90 percent of our production systems and 100 percent of our production data within six hours.

At our disaster recovery facility we can bring up additional servers within an hour and a half. I find that to be incredible. The data replicated to our disaster recovery site is never more than 24 hours old, and we do it at a price point that is lower than almost anyone else in the industry.

Andrea Randolph
Title: CTO
Education: Gannon University (Erie, Pa.)
First Job: Aetna Insurance
Hobbies: "A wide range, including tennis, golf, snorkeling, hiking, jogging, reading and music, as well as any activity that involves interacting with people."
Greatest Accomplishment: "Is yet to come."

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