Editor's Note: This is the first in INN's new "Day on the Job" series, in which INN editors spend a day with insurance executives to find out how they overcome the challenges they face on a daily basis.
"If you're in IT and are unable to adjust, you're in the wrong profession." When Pat Rayl, 2nd VP of IT of Aflac tells me this, it sums up her day perfectly. Pat adjusts. She protects, analyzes, manages and adjusts.
The first adjustment to her day starts around 7 a.m. On this particular day, Pat has to adjust to an editor and photographer always at her heels. But, like every day, from her office-complete with family photos, awards and numerous stuffed Aflac ducks representing her long tenure at the supplemental insurance carrier-she starts by studying the daily operational report. She diligently reviews the report, which contains infrastructure and application incidents and outages for the last 24 hours, glitches and challenges, and follows up on any urgent issues that need attention before Aflac's daily operational board review meeting at 8 a.m.
Also evident on Pat's mind is a meeting in two days to discuss operational changes within the 550-person IT department-fortunately, these changes will not result in layoffs, but rather changes in responsibility. Pat, for one, will be named VP of Technical Process Management, which means her role will change drastically. However, it's business as usual as 2nd VP of IT today.
In between reviewing the report and the meeting, Rayl receives a notification indicating she needs to finish an end-of-the-year Sarbanes-Oxley report before the end of the business day. Unruffled, she heads into the operational board review meeting, with laptop and Blackberry in tow, which I'll come to find out go with her everywhere, and everywhere is an accurate word.
As we walk into the meeting Pat greets everyone, their laptops also in tow, with a smile and a "good morning." The group of 16 IT staffers (and one teleconferenced in) in this morning's meeting get right to the topic of utmost importance-a mainframe hardware upgrade scheduled for the following weekend. While Pat will meet with the project lead in about an hour to discuss the painstaking details of the upgrade, the team discusses the schedule and plan-who will be in the office and who will be on call, what the succession plan will be in the event of a problem, etc. The group also discuses the prior day's issues and what needs to be done to resolve them. Luckily on this day there are no business-altering issues that need to be addressed.
As we walk out of the meeting, Debbie Lewis, one of Pat's seven direct reports, says "if Pat's day is anything like yesterday, you'll be all over the place." Debbie's right. Aflac spans four buildings in the Columbus, Ga., area-some at least eight miles apart. And, we will be making the rounds today.
But first, Rayl has a half hour to get back to her office and finish up that SOX compliance report before she meets with one of her direct reports, Chris Christian, about the weekend upgrade. However, there is a glitch with the report and Pat needs to get further direction and information and leaves a voicemail for the appropriate person. Chris arrives at Pat's door for their meeting, and Pat sets the unfinished SOX report aside to focus her attention on Chris and the risky, once-every-other-year task at hand.
"How are you staffing this? What are the risks? Who will this impact? What are the planned down times? How many updates are you going to send to the team? Do we have vendors supporting us? What do you need from me?" The questions flow freely from Pat to Chris.
The question that stands out, "What do you need from me?" is met with "just be available." Pat's position requires her to be available continuously. Though this isn't an every-weekend occurrence, it is evident that the life of a technology professional is not an 8-5 job with weekends off. "The few times I've gotten called, it's been for an issue that has the potential to put us at risk of having systems available to the business users who need them," Pat tells me.
She relies on her team to act proactively, doing everything necessary before making that call. But, in her leadership role, she willingly provides them with the resources, tools and processes they need. And, with that, she presents Chris with even more questions.
"I'll be glad when this week is over," Chris says. And, Pat responds, "Me too."
As Chris leaves her office, Pat jumps back online to discover that she has received the information she needs to complete that pesky SOX report. As she explains this to me, I stop my attempts to Tweet a comment regarding an INN story. I ask her if she partakes in social networking, to which she responds "no, I don't have time for Tweets." By the end of the day, I'll find this to be an understatement.
Going the Extra Mile, Literally
Next on the agenda is a meeting at the Tower-another Aflac facility about eight miles away from Pat's office within the 550-IT-employee-housed Information Technology Center (ITC) building-with other company volunteers involved in drafting and contributing to Aflac's annual corporate social responsibility (CSR) report.
On our way to the Tower, Pat takes a detour, driving instead to Aflac's data center, which is also where the special investigative unit is housed. Walking past the closed doors and into the heavily secured data center that is the hub of all Aflac data activity, I can see Pat is in her element.
The data center hosts systems that are used by the 60,000-plus field associates and employees not only in Columbus, Ga., but in Albany, N.Y, Columbia, S.C., Omaha, Neb., and various territory offices across the United States. The data center staff monitors more than 300,000 job processes over the course of a month and, with approximately 20,000 monitoring points, assesses the performance and availability of 800 servers and more than 200 applications. Their focus is to ensure that the field associates and approximately 4,500 Aflac employees have the systems they need available to support the policyholders and payroll accounts.
Though she doesn't have a reason to visit the center today, I think she's glad to see the preparations being made for the weekend upgrades. We don't have long to spend at the data center, and believe me, we could have stayed there awhile, as I am mesmerized by Aflac's system- and activity-monitoring capabilities. Instead, it's back to the car for a drive to the Tower for the CSR meeting.
Representing the IT side of the company at the CSR meeting, Pat isn't anyone's supervisor. She is a peer. The group of nine, which has a vested interest in how Aflac excels in a number of areas including philanthropy, diversity, environment, etc., works together for a greater good. While participating in this role isn't technically in her job description, Pat takes it seriously. She sees the value and visibility that volunteering brings to Aflac.
Pat spent seven years in technology with Indianapolis Life before beginning her 20-year tenure at Aflac, first in application development and ultimately moving into the infrastructure side of the business. "Part of why you choose to work at Aflac is because of that dimension," she says. "From a corporate viewpoint, in today's environment, you're not always going to find a corporation that operates in the manner that Aflac has. And so you want to contribute to that. I occasionally stop and think, 'I've worked at some really great places, but never to the extent that I've seen or experienced working here.' I want to have others recognize what Aflac does and come join the company."
No one can deny that the accolades help the visibility and advancement of IT, but Pat says that's not the big picture. "IT gets pretty good visibility anyway, because we're so much a part of what the business needs. And we are part of the business. So I think we get an appropriate amount of showcase and recognition."
With CSR report deadlines set and discussed, we head back to the ITC for an enterprise systems budget meeting. Attended by eight staffers, most of whom I'd met in the operational review meeting earlier that day, each awaits their turn to discuss the numbers for which they are responsible. Budget meetings can be dry, but we all know they're necessary, Pat says.
It's 2 p.m., and we're ready for lunch in Pat's office. But before we can eat, Debbie arrives at Pat's door to go over a presentation for the reorganization meeting. Knowing what the rest of the afternoon has in store and that she won't have time to finish the presentation slides, Pat had e-mailed Debbie sometime in the past two hours, asking for her help. Pat quickly explains the status of the slides and what needs to be done. It's clear Pat has built an efficient two-way communication avenue in which her direct reports can go to her for help and vice versa.
This kind of collaboration with peers and staff members is something that keeps Pat passionate about her job. "Working with team members and offering them different viewpoints and having them say, 'you know, that's really valuable,' is great," she tells me. "Those kinds of interactions are the ones that I look back on and think 'Wow, that was a good day.'"
But the day isn't over. Next up is another meeting. This one on the Aflac Group Cycle Review. Aflac Group, previously Continental American Insurance Company, was acquired to provide Aflac greater access to the group insurance market. Due to significant growth with this segment there is a need to automate manual business processes and monitor capacity and throughput to meet the demands of the business. The Aflac Group Cycle Review is to ensure that batch cycle issues are addressed to minimize the risk of the group system not being available for the business users. Additionally, application performance and tuning opportunities are discussed and prioritized. The team also discusses the timeline for a new processor to be implemented the following weekend.
Foreshadowing the information set to be announced that upcoming Friday, Pat sits down with her now-supervisor, Mike Boyle, CIO, and begins talking about the meeting and the status of the reorganization. As blues music plays in the background in Mike's office, Pat explains where she is in improving Aflac's technical process management. It all makes more sense now, knowing Pat's new role. Mike tells me he expects Pat to improve and standardize Aflac's technical processes. "We need to be less of an artists' colony and more of an engineering company," he says, "and Pat's balanced perspective and varied background will help with this."
Pat is energized, so I hoped to talk with her more about her new responsibilities, but she's running a tad late for a brief transformation meeting to firm up the last-minute details of the IT reorganization.
Rehashing the Day
As we finally wind down in Pat's office after her last meeting, we talk about her busy day, and I realize all of the tasks she completed throughout the day that I didn't see—e-mails, phone calls, voicemails, etc. Many parts of the day were typical, except she usually enjoys more one-on-one interaction with her direct reports, Pat says. She schedules these meetings regularly because she feels it's important to maintain communication and make sure her direct reports are receiving everything they need to do the job they're expected to do. It also helps Pat maintain a proactive management approach while gaining greater insight into everything going on in her department.
One thing is made clear throughout the day: Pat is a high-touch leader with her hand in all aspects of IT. I realize this is why she asks so many questions and has so many "update" meetings—she asks so she can answer. Being a generalist in IT, she needs to know any and all that is transpiring. In fact, to each and every question asked of her by either her direct reports of by management, Pat offered a satisfactory answer.
This proactive approach bleeds over to her relationship with management. "I want to provide management with the necessary information before someone else comes to them asking questions," she says. "That drives a lot of open communication. I really stress the transparency, too. I'm not going to try to manage the message or the situation. It is what it is. Do we sit down, evaluate it and find out where we have opportunities to improve? Yes, definitely. But if it's already occurred, it is what it is. And, we have to own up to it, good or bad."
At 6 p.m.—an early departure from the office for Pat—we walk out to our cars and I ask what she has planned for the evening. "I noticed a request to review an assessment of our software development life-cycle process. And, I have to finalize some documents and presentations that we'll review as an officer team tomorrow and practice for our big meeting on Friday," when her title, responsibilities and role will change. So, basically, more adjusting.
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