Zurich Insurance UK says low-code adoption has been key to DevOps success

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood September 1, 2021
Shifting from waterfall development practices to agile, DevOps and low-code isn’t easy - but Zurich Insurance UK has seen huge benefits for the business.

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(Image by Dirk Wouters from Pixabay )

Zurich Insurance UK has recently adopted low-code practices and integrated business and IT teams to help drive a sustainable DevOps culture across the enterprise. Head of UK DevOps, Barrington Clarke, explains that by using this agile approach, the insurance provider is able to more quickly respond to both business and customer needs. 

Shifting from longer lead times to an agile DevOps approach was driven by executive leadership that wants the business to be able to react quickly when opportunities arise. Clarke explains: 

Our Chief Operating Officer had come over from a smaller insurance company that had an in-house software development capability, and had become a bit frustrated that it could take so long just to get some innovation, or a small application written. 

He tasked the IT function to look at how we could rebuild both an in-house capability and a rapid application development capability, and we were soon setting up a DevOps function that I was asked to lead.

Adopting DevOps requires both a huge change in both processes, organization and culture. A key part of the transition for Zurich Insurance UK has been closely integrating IT teams with Business Analysts, so that there is a clear understanding of business requirements from the get-go. 

However, as Business Analysts have little to no traditional coding experience, Zurich Insurance UK also introduced the use of Mendix - a platform that enables low-code development. Clarke says: 

With low code, you can attract talent from both a traditional computer science background and a business background, as the barrier of entry for development is lower. Using a low code platform also allows us to develop software very fast and we can iterate on that perhaps faster than traditional software development.

In addition to this, agile development has been adopted as the core approach, which centers around focusing on user needs, starting small, and testing frequently. Clarke says that agile and DevOps gives the Zurich Insurance UK business space to change its mind, without the concern that huge development costs have already been sunk. Clarke explains: 

I think it's unfair to ask an insurance professional to be very firm and clear about what they want out of a new system at the very start of the development cycle, and never allow them to change their minds. 

DevOps, the iterative nature of agile delivery and low code lends itself to recognize the fact that the business won't always know what it wants, it might change its mind, but also that software developers don't necessarily know how to deliver that - but they can explore and find out together. 

I am also convinced, quite frankly, that agile, DevOps and low code is the future of business: we need to move completely away from traditional linear waterfall, which in my opinion does not suit market-facing or customer-facing development now.

Speed to market 

Since these changes have been introduced, Zurich has been able to put applications into production in weeks, rather than months. One example is the company's ‘FaceQuote' app, which asks customers to take a selfie to estimate their age, using third-party facial recognition software. The app then calculates a monthly premium based on this estimate. 

Uptake for FaceQuote was strong and the development costs were modest, according to Clarke. The development team consisted of just one low-code developer and one UX/UI expert, with the front-end taking only four days to create. The total development time was just seven days. 

Another example was Zurich Insurance UK's complete rewrite of its processed broker quotes operation, which has cut turnaround times from days into minutes and hours. Central to these successes has been the collaboration that the DevOps culture enables between business and IT. Clarke says: 

Because we're an internal team, we can sit closely with the business, understand their problems, and go with them on that journey. So, we attend operational meetings, we have regular meetings with the product owners, we look at the backlog and ask, ‘Where's the business unit going? Where's your business segment going?' And that means we can work with them to deliver what they need for their business, as opposed to that older, traditional IT supply and demand model.

Embracing change during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic placed huge strain on companies across the world, where changes had to be introduced in a matter of days to support both employees and customers. As a key financial services provider, Zurich Insurance UK faced increased demand from customers, whilst it also had to ensure its employees could operate effectively from home, in many cases. The company's low-code, DevOps culture helped it respond rapidly during this time, according to Clarke. He says: 

Digital transformation is not just delivering an application: it's actually forcing a change of business process in the very way that you do business. And in fact, some of the biggest digital transformation projects the DevOps team has delivered have been in the last year or so during COVID-19, and they've been significant. 

Where things were challenging is when you've got a difficult business and technical problems to solve, the ability to get in an office around a whiteboard and sticky notes and thrash things out face-to-face wasn't there, so it did take a little bit longer. But the bottom line is we've delivered nearly a dozen or so applications in the last couple of years or so and the pace of change hasn't relented at all.

With persistent change now in place, Zurich is now also thinking more broadly about how it can modernize its systems and processes. Part of this is looking at legacy IT, where, for example, the company is upgrading its 1,4000 Lotus Notes applications. But equally there is a recognition that how the business supports development may need reassessing too. Clarke says: 

Embracing low code, agile and DevOps has allowed us to think and operate differently, and to seize on opportunities that were not there before.

I think we've also seen that the traditional annual planning annual funding cycles are not always best equipped to deal with rapid change and an evolution of the way the business wants to run, so I can see that changing as we move forward.

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