The pandemic was expected to hit the insurance industry especially hard, but insurers that that were already using cloud and emerging technologies to meet modern customer expectations were able to adapt and weather the COVID-19 storm.\nSanlam, a South African financial services group, sold more insurance products in the first four months of 2021 than it did during the same period in 2019, even though McKinsey & Company forecast that the coronavirus pandemic would hit the insurance industry twice as hard as the 2008 financial crisis.\nDescribing the cause of the slump as \u201ca perfect storm of poor market returns, reduced customer demand, declining disposable income and distribution disruption\u201d, the December 2020 research report from McKinsey stated that the sector would take twice as long to bounce back as it did during the 2008\/2009 recession.\nIn the face of these dire predictions, the Sanlam group\u2019s success can, in part, be attributed to the work of their younger business units, which predominantly sell online. Sanlam Indie, one of these businesses, raised sales by 68% from January to April 2021.\nIn this Q&A, Giulio di Giannatale, technology lead at Sanlam Indie, discusses how emerging technologies, like cloud \u2014 particularly SaaS and PaaS \u2014 have enabled them to move with the speed of the Internet and do financial services differently.\nCan you tell us about Sanlam Indie, what makes you different from regular life insurers?\nAt Sanlam Indie we want to help people achieve financial independence and freedom by allowing them to buy a policy in a matter of minutes as and when they need it. Part of this entails educating our clientele while selling them a policy so that they understand what they\u2019re getting and why they need it.\nThis is important because a lot of our clients are first time life insurance buyers so they often don\u2019t know what they\u2019re looking for. Our customers are people who don\u2019t want to interact with a broker. They\u2019re more comfortable transacting online and they\u2019re savvy enough to help themselves. Thanks to digital solutions, our customers can explore their options and buy a policy that is right for them in one place without ever having to leave their homes.\u00a0\nHow do your processes compare to non-digital or non-cloud ways of doing things in your industry?\nThe biggest difference from the client side is that they can buy a high-quality product from us at any time of the day without having to go through a long and complicated process. It takes about 10 minutes for them to have a policy underwritten and in their inbox. Within the traditional industry, there are multiple human beings who have to do a series of manual tasks to get a policy issued, which can take weeks. We\u2019ve streamlined our process by using an adaptive underwriting engine that presents customers with a series of very simple questions to answer.\nWe\u2019re not using AI or machine learning here, it\u2019s just a rules-based system developed by an actuary, which determines what an appropriate premium would be for the life being insured. A normal person without any health issues would probably only need to answer five or six questions to get issued with a policy. Someone with a more complex medical history will have to answer a few follow-up questions and may have to do a medical check.\nYou\u2019re a cloud-first business. Why cloud?\nIndie was built cloud first from the ground up. PaaS and SaaS give us the freedom to focus on our business because we don\u2019t have to build and manage the infrastructure side of things. This approach also means that we don\u2019t have to have a broad range of expertise around the services we\u2019re using because it\u2019s AWS\u2019s job to take care of that.\nThe other cool part of it is that we don\u2019t have to make a long-term investment. If we want to do a POC or test something, we just switch it on and if it\u2019s not successful, we switch it off at the end of the month after paying for what we\u2019ve used. The agility to switch services on and off without a long-term contract is very appealing for us.\nWhat new services have you trialled in this way? \nCompliance is probably the best example. We had a very short window to become compliant with South Africa\u2019s Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), which aims to protect and regulate the use of personal information. In the cloud it was easy. We could put in a reverse proxy server and, in a very short space of time, we could add the additional layer of abstraction that was needed to be compliant. In addition to this, cloud gives us a lot of flexibility when it comes to data and the collection and analysis of this information. With cloud, we can store all of the data around our client interactions and then later use it to gain insights around who our customers are and what they want.\u00a0\nWhat cloud platform and cloud-based software do you use and why?\nWe use AWS as our hosting platform. AWS has a wide breadth of services so anything that we want to play around with is available to us. They\u2019re also very fast at bringing new services to the market. The scale that AWS affords us is ground breaking. We don\u2019t have to build for our best days; we can build today and scale or downsize when we\u2019re having a busier or a quieter month.\nWe use Google Workspace as our productivity suite. This really opens up enterprise-type collaboration to us, which is especially useful for our remote team. We\u2019re container driven. We don\u2019t have any servers; everything is serverless. In the traditional days, we\u2019d build and deploy these monolithic servers but now we deploy small components that are standalone and can scale on their own. If a component breaks, it\u2019s just one component. Our future goal is also to go fully event driven so that we can replay any events coming through the system without losing any integrity on the client side. If a component breaks, there might be a slight delay while the system is down but there\u2019s no integrity loss. \u00a0\u00a0\n\u00a0Any key learnings from your experiences with cloud?\nFor me, the cloud is so valuable because you can build something that scales with your company over time, so it eliminates technical debt. If the company has to move quickly in a different direction, you aren\u2019t bogged down by legacy systems. With cloud, it\u2019s possible to start an enterprise scale business with a very small team of people. You no longer have to hire a massive team of engineers to look after your infrastructure.\u00a0\nHow does the tech team work with business, especially in terms of developing ideas for new services? \nWe have what we term \u201cLinks\u201d in our team. They are business people, with business knowledge who work alongside the development team. So if we\u2019re building a dashboard for our operations team, we\u2019ll have a Link from that team working with us to make sure that we build a product that actually meets their needs and is well related to the business. We\u2019re quite lucky in that we\u2019re like a start-up in a big firm. So we have the freedom to innovate and try things out without needing to get approval from head office. Obviously there are constraints; anything we do has to comply with broader governance and compliance regulations.\n\u00a0Any advice for IT leaders who want to challenge their industry\u2019s status quo same?\nFailure isn\u2019t a bad thing. It\u2019s okay to not get it right the first time. If you persevere and keep going, you\u2019ll get better at it over time and hopefully you\u2019ll find success along the way.