John Eastly, Vice-President and co-founder of Policy Works Inc., talks about what he's learned in over 20 years of developing commercial-lines software for the Canadian insurance industry.
High-performing teams are built around great cultures. Kevin Campbell and I both worked for Hewlett Packard many years ago. In those days, it had an incredible corporate culture, especially for an international organization with thousands of employees. It was a highly energized environment and one extremely focused on excellence, yet casual and friendly at the same time. The fact that it could be so much fun to work at a place where you were surrounded by people who were smart and talented really inspired Kevin and me.
We want the culture at Policy Works to reflect that. We want to do everything as well as we can and pursue excellence in every aspect of our business. But we absolutely want to have fun. It is not so much about pushing people but rather trying to draw their talents out. Everyone has to be enjoying themselves and committed to the group to get that kind of performance.
My informal mission statement for Policy Works is that “I want to come to work and have fun with my friends, building the best damn software possible.” That kind of sums up our culture, to me.
The success of a software company relies on its ability to understand the business situation and solve the real problems that people face in that setting. It sounds easy but it's actually incredibly difficult. You have to find out what people are struggling with, understand the nature of the problem and come up with the right solution.
One of our greatest challenges is the diversity of our client base. You have larger commercial brokerages with a full-time IT staff, and then you will see smaller brokerages with no IT department at all. They have dramatically different concerns, varying levels of technology and unique workflows. We try to seek out the best solutions that provide the most value for all of them.
We receive around 20 enhancement requests per week from brokers. That's 1,000 requests per year. It requires a pretty significant effort on our part to stay on top of tracking requests, but we welcome the feedback and input. It means that our customers are engaged with us and are demanding more. We obviously want to meet as many of their needs as possible.
People often focus on the solution, rather than working to fully understand the problem. So, we have to use techniques like the “Five Why's.” When somebody comes to you requesting a feature, you ask why they need it. So then they will give a shallow explanation of their problem, and you ask why they have that problem. You keep repeating the question until, eventually, you have drilled down to the root cause of the problem. In the end, the real problem may have little relation to what they are asking for in terms of technology; it may be a business process issue.
We're working hard at the front end of our development process. We're spending much more time reviewing and analyzing the potential work we could do, making sure we understand the best way to go about addressing the needs of our customers. So we are designing very lightly, discussing the design with customers, and ensuring we are on the right track before we really start developing.
The focus you have on a specific problem space is really critical for your success as a software company. There are a lot of things that can divert your attention and resources. We try not to be distracted by the bright, shiny objects that may come and go. We have focused on commercial lines insurance and we think we have the best product in this market. There are a lot of BMS solutions on the market that do accounting and abeyancing; a broker can go out and find one of these tomorrow. We don’t want to compete in that space.
Our philosophy is to be the best commercial lines policy platform and tie in to other systems. That is our clear focus, and everyone in our company knows that. As a result, we have integrations with the major BMS providers that represent the vast majority of brokers in this country. If a broker doesn’t have a BMS and uses salesforce.com or other applications, we can work to tie that in, as well.
The tighter your focus is on a particular spot, the more energy you can dedicate to your customers’ needs. Steve Jobs once said: “The best way to improve productivity among your programmers is to have them write less code.” I interpret that to mean your programmers should be spending their time working on the most important projects. You want them to write only the code that is going to have the greatest impact on the widest number of customers.