As chief technology officer at Applied Systems, Rich Belanger (pictured) is helping morph something older into something new.
Illinois-based Applied Systems is a 35-year-old insurance industry stalwart with 2,700 global employees that builds brokerage automation systems focused on automating all aspects of running an insurance agency. In technology years the company is an elder statesman. It is also in the middle of a transformation that Belanger is helping to guide.
“It’s been around for quite a long time,” said Belanger, who joined the company initially as vice president of product development. He’s Applied’s first-ever CTO.
“At Applied we’ve had a leadership position in the industry for many years, but our customers want us to deliver even more innovation to the market [and] allow them to take advantage of data through new technologies,” Belanger said.
Applied’s new initiatives under his tenure include a “data lake” - a collection of a wide variety of both structured and unstructured data in one analytical environment. This allows the combination of data in new and flexible ways not possible with older data warehouse-type technologies, Belanger explained. This would also allow Applied to integrate into the ecosystem of tools that customers use. Additionally, Applied is building a next-generation series of APIs and is also now using Google Cloud, with additional fuel through an investment relationship with Google via its private equity arm. In addition, the company is moving to a 100% browser native front-end solution for its key Applied Epic Cloud Management System product.
“When I joined a couple of years ago, just before the pandemic, Applied was talking about the need to kick off some of these initiatives,” Belanger said. “It’s been under my leadership that we’ve actually launched [them] and are now delivering value to our customers.”
Pain points and facilitation
Belanger has served as CTO for just over two years and joined Applied initially as vice president of product development. The veteran executive said he brings some key skills to the job.
“My primary focus is to be the lead technologist who is driving the best customer experience, the best tools and capabilities for our global customer base,” Belanger explained.
He said that the “data lake” and other initiatives in place or to come have stemmed from talking with customers and employees alike.
“I got to spend time … hearing about customer pain points, [and] talking to our internal staff about where we wanted to go as a company,” Belanger said. “Working together, we identified these areas as key pain points for our customers.”
A particular pain point was with the company’s Applied Epic product, whose front end is a Windows native client, which means you have to install software on individual laptops and desktops. The new browser native product update Applied is building runs in standard Chrome or Firefox browsers everyone uses, allowing Applied to deliver updates and innovation more quickly.
“It takes advantage of a lot of the tooling that’s out there for other browser solutions and it makes it a lot easier for our customers to train and onboard new staff to deal with very complex mergers and integration,” Belanger said.
Simultaneous actions and ultimate goals
Other technology improvement initiatives are going on simultaneously, Belanger explained.
“Once a quarter we do something that we call ‘Development Day’ where we take the whole technology and product management organization and we focus on development,” he said. “We’re actually doing an innovation hackathon, where we’ve got 20 teams across Applied who are coming up with product enhancements powered by our new technology, with the goal of driving them into the product over the next few months.”
Changes made so far at Applied circle back to Belanger’s goal as CTO for customers.
“The technology solutions that we’re delivering – the browser, our new data lake and our APIs – are really helping to accelerate innovation,” Belanger said. “When a customer has a great idea or we see an opportunity in the market, we can roll out a solution to it much more quickly than we could five years ago.”
Ultimately, Belanger said, he sees technology as a way to enable employees and customers alike.
“For employees we’re working to drive a consumer-simple and friendly employee experience, and move away from the sort of old-school enterprise systems approach,” Belanger said.
With that in mind, Belanger said, the bar is being set for both by larger consumer technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, in terms of customer experience and ease of use for their products.
“Those are the things we want to emulate. For too long, enterprise technology solutions have required heavy training and use of unfriendly user interfaces,” Belanger said. “We’re actually moving on the employee side to adopt a much simpler, more consumer-friendly set of solutions. That’s also what we’re trying to do for customers.”
Belanger said he envisions Applied reaching a point where it can go from product vision to development and launch in a matter of weeks or months.
“I’d like to see us being able to deliver end-user experiences that delight our customers,” Belanger said. “I know that sounds silly for an enterprise software company but why shouldn’t we make it a delight and … positive experience to use our tools?”