CIO Spotlight: Paul Acevedo, CSAA Insurance Group

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? “COVID has really accelerated adoption of digital and self-service across industries; we are making major investments in the digital customer experience across the customer lifecycle.”

CSAA Insurance Group

Name: Paul Acevedo

Company: CSAA Insurance Group, a AAA insurer

Job title: Executive Vice President, Chief Information Officer

Date started current role: May 2019

Location: Walnut Creek, CA (currently working from home)

Paul Acevedo leads the company’s technology organisation, including teams responsible for consumer-and agent-facing digital experiences, data and analytics platforms, core application systems (policy, claims, financial and HR), information security and foundational infrastructure. He joined CSAA Insurance Group in 2011 and has served in executive leadership roles for digital, data, telematics, and business architecture. Prior to that, Acevedo held product and marketing leadership positions at startup and established technology companies – including BMC Software, ITM Software, Sun Microsystems and Terraspring – developing a range of enterprise software and cloud infrastructure solutions.

What was your first job? My very first job was while I was in high school – working retail in a local clothing store. I liked it – especially the customer service part.

Did you always want to work in IT? Not in IT specifically – I don’t think I knew what IT was as a function when I was a kid or that it was a “thing” in non-tech companies. I did know from a very early age that I wanted to work in technology – either software or electronics. At the age of 13, I learned BASIC from a book and was submitting programs for publications in computer hobbyist magazines to try and make some extra money. I was also into building DIY electronics kits. A dream job for me at the time would have been writing commercial software or building electronics products. I thought it would be really cool to have my own company that sold software that I wrote. Not exactly a mainstream idea in the 80s.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I was torn between studying computer science and electrical engineering due to my interests in both. I opted for electrical engineering, getting my bachelor’s in EE and subsequently my master’s while I worked at General Electric Aerospace as a systems engineer after undergraduate. After I got my masters, I left GE to work at a really small firm in the defense industry that built simulators to test avionics systems. It’s there that I got more into the program-management side of things and decided that I wanted to build my business acumen. So I decided to go back to school. My spouse and I moved to Silicon Valley and I pursued an MBA from Stanford. I figured this was the ideal place to be to grow a career in tech.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Like many, the places I worked were really a function of opportunities available to me at the time. How I landed at first in aerospace was simply because it was the best opportunity that came through on campus recruiting. The same is true of the startup that I first went to after business school. That startup, Terraspring, was selling to enterprise IT – my first exposure to IT as a function. I learned a ton about IT in that job, especially infrastructure – Terraspring was an early pioneer in infrastructure automation and cloud.

I spend the next 10 years or so working in the IT technology product space as a product manager. My first opportunity to work in IT was pure serendipity. One of the founders of a startup I worked at was a former CIO, who had subsequently returned to IT to lead the CIO function at CSAA Insurance Group. He recruited me to join his leadership team as CTO. I was fairly burnt out on the software business, so I decided to try working in IT for a while, to see what I could learn. I would have never thought to pursue a role in IT had I not been approached with the opportunity. I figured I’d do this for a couple years and return to software. Ten years later I’m still here, now as the CIO for the last couple. It’s been a great company, and the interesting and challenging work just seems to keep coming. Insurance is sometimes stereotyped as being a slow-moving industry – I’ve found that not to be the case.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? COVID has really accelerated adoption of digital and self-service across industries; we are making major investments in the digital customer experience across the customer lifecycle. What is especially exciting is that we are now taking a digital-first approach to designing new insurance products, which totally changes the game with regard to how we are building our digital experiences. Within IT, speed to market and agility are critical ingredients, so we are continuing to drive greater automation and use of cloud. Finally, cyber continues to be on everyone’s mind; we increased investment significantly in 2020 and expect this to be the new norm.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? Our CEO, Tom Troy, is really leaning in on technology. He believes that we need to act like a technology company selling insurance, not an insurance company that uses technology. To support our strategy of growth, Tom is looking to my team to help the enterprise aggressively launch new products with new channels and deliver new digital experiences to the market this year. He understands the value and power of a strong, modern API platform to underpin our work, along with a strong data foundation. To this end, we are totally revamping our APIs and continuing our migration to a modern, cloud-based data platform. Finally, we are constantly looking at our internal processes to see how we can speed time to market – through evolving our agile practices and automation.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? Well, I’m not sure about what is conventional for the CIO. I’ve talked to peers in the industry and it does seem that there is a good deal of variability where at least two functions sit: digital, and what I call technology product management. I come from a technology product background. I believe that a strong technology product management function is key to building and evolving great experiences for customers, agents and employees. Our digital function includes a product management function, along with an in-house UX design function. Having these closely integrated with engineering and working closely with other functions in IT allows us to better integrate digital efforts with our core insurance product work.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? My team leads the digital product organisation; as such we manage the roadmap and prioritisation of new digital capabilities and experiences. However, our model for executing digital transformation relies on cross-functional teams drawn from multiple business functions. We are not simply layering digital on top of legacy products and channels, but building new products, designed for digital from the ground up. These initiatives are led using a two-in-the-box model, with a business leader and technology leader working together. Our decisions on prioritising digital work is directly linked to our strategic priorities, as proposed by our executive leadership team and ultimately decided by the CEO. For example, we have explicitly and clearly prioritised growth initiatives in 2021 and the digital capabilities that support this are likewise prioritised at the top of the list. We are designing these capabilities to support growth; however, to do so we need to deliver great customer experiences to be successful.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We carefully track metrics for both sales and servicing – quote completion, conversion rates, transactions completed in the self-service channel, to name just a few. These metrics guide where we target improvements and optimisations. We don’t think about KPIs as a tool to quantify the value of IT.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it?  Historically, we have a very strong culture that values inclusion, service excellence, employee development and community service. It is a collaborative culture. We also recognise that we need to foster greater innovation and speed; we are very deliberately encouraging both.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Software development, cloud and cybersecurity skills are most challenging to find in the market.

What's the best career advice you ever received? I forget the exact quote, but it goes something like this: “You are 5-6 decisions away from having the easiest job.” It was advice that my mentor passed on to me. Of course, the 5-6 decisions are who you hire to lead your teams.  

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. We have formal succession plans down to the manager level. I think the biggest challenge in developing high performers to be strong senior IT leaders is helping individuals build a different skill set. Technical and execution excellence makes for a high performer up to a certain level of leadership; preparing for the VP or CIO level requires strong strategic thinking, business acumen, communication, and relationship management.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Invest in developing your communication skills. The ability to take something that is complex and communicate it in a simple and effective way is incredibly important and valuable. Don’t underestimate the time and effort it takes to do this well. I’m still at it. Also, ask a lot of questions and seek to learn. You might be surprised at the opportunities for improvement you will discover by being intellectually curious.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I’m most proud of my leadership team that I put in place when I took the role of CIO. They and their teams have done amazing work for the enterprise in the past two years.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Staying better connected with more people. Taking more opportunities to make new connections and learn from them, and exchange ideas with others.

What are you reading now? The Rook – recommended by my teen daughter.

Most people don't know that I… play guitar.

In my spare time, I like to…… practice guitar .

Ask me to do anything but… make small talk with strangers.