Srini Koushik of Nationwide thinks out loud about how handhelds are influencing enterprise computing overall.Interview conducted by Alan Morrison, Galen Gruman, and Bud Mathaisel
Srini Koushik is senior vice president, CTO, and CIO of shared applications at Nationwide. He previously held three other executive roles at Nationwide in the area of IT over the span of eight years. Before Nationwide, Koushik was CTO of business innovation services at IBM Global Services.
In this interview, Koushik ponders the state of mobile security, sheds light on Nationwide’s broad mobile constituency, and considers where new interface modes may open new application opportunities.
PwC: What’s your role at Nationwide?
SK: I have what you would consider the traditional CTO functions of R&D introduction of new technology into the company, governance over the enterprise architecture, and architecture in general. My functions also encompass information risk management, which includes security and compliance. Then there’s shared services and shared applications, which include applications such as Nationwide.com. My team consists of about 1,400 people.
What’s notable about Nationwide from an IT perspective?
From an IT standpoint, the cool thing about working at Nationwide is that—from the board downward— they absolutely recognize IT as a differentiator. We are probably more heavily in-sourced than most of our competitors. Over the past eight years, we have needed to get very good at managing and supporting our shared infrastructure and introducing new technologies.
We know about your mobile applications on the customer side, but we’re also curious about other kinds of applications you’ve developed. What sort of mobile workforce do you support?
We were the first insurance company to come out with an app on the iPhone. That was primarily aimed at our insureds, our policyholders. Over the last year and a half that we have offered the application, we have enhanced the features to do a lot more things such as paying bills and other capabilities. That app was very focused on B2C [business to consumer].
The B2B [business to business] component of our mobile strategy is all about how we enable our exclusive agents, suppliers, and wholesalers. We provide tools for lookup and sales effectiveness. We have a mobile app that many of our agents use—they can take a picture of a car, for example, and they can upload it and store it on our cloud storage through their BlackBerry.
From a workforce standpoint, our claims operation is a pretty big operation. Claims has always been at the forefront when it comes to using emerging technology, so that workforce is always going to be at the top of our list internally. We are increasingly trying to make capabilities available to our associates, primarily to employee-owned devices.
How did you start with employee-owned devices?
When I was a consultant at IBM a few years ago, we used to talk about pervasive anytime, anywhere access. It’s taken a few years, but it’s getting there. We started to look at the variability in the marketplace. How much and how far do we want to go with supporting the devices? The iPhone and the iOS operating system we definitely have to pick up, and also enable support for Android. We are still evaluating whether we want to do BlackBerry or Windows Mobile 7 as a platform.
The remote management capabilities of these devices are important. When somebody loses a device, the ability to do a remote wipe is important. As a financial services company that’s very highly regulated, it is absolutely important that we try—to the extent possible—to avoid putting data on a device. We have seen a lot of progress in that space. One of the big things that has really helped us, especially in the last eight months, is desktop virtualization.
With virtualized desktops and on-demand applications, all of your data stays on our servers and you just access it from a screen. That allows us to truly jump into this base and start enabling. We have a carefully thought-through pilot that allows individuals to bring in their own devices. We are giving them access to our core applications via personally owned devices.
Today we have support for people who can bring their laptops and their own device, whether it’s a Mac or any PC. Some people also bring iPad tablets. A variety of Android tablets and smartphones are in. With a selected set of individuals who have a variety of these devices, we are working with these technologies to determine what the experience looks like. What are some of the challenges we will need to overcome before a large-scale roll-up?
We have about 100 people on the pilot, including the CEO. It’s going very well. Initially, it was just access to e-mail and calendar. Then the pilot provided a virtual desktop where users could bring up different content and review it. We gradually started giving them different capabilities. We’re trying to establish what types of users need what types of functions. From that we can establish a support model. We absolutely think that in the next 18 months, our entire desktop and client computing environment is going to change significantly because of this.
How are you dealing with Android being a bit behind security-wise?
Good [Good Technology] fundamentally allows us to put a protected space on the device. It allows us to secure and encrypt the data access. But it’s not entirely what we need it to be. We’ve been pretty careful to not dive in head first. We did the Good pilot. Even though we were happy with those results, we thought maybe an even better way to do the pilot is first to provide just a virtual desktop instance. For us to do that, we need to make sure that things like the SSL VPN [Secure Sockets Layer virtual private network] capabilities are strong enough.
Once the security issues get resolved, what do you think the implications will be of different interface modes that might be possible on an iPhone or the iPad, for example, versus a Windows PC or Mac? Any idea what direction that might be headed in?
Right now, it’s all driven by an eventdriven interface, primarily through a mouse and keyboard. Once you embrace a different interface mode, you can rethink how much data you want people to type in. If you look at most apps that are getting rolled out on an iPhone or that type of device, you really don’t have to use the keyboard as much.
And then the mouse starts becoming less necessary, so what do you use the mouse for? If you need to click on a precise spot, a mouse is pretty useful. But if it’s a multi-touch interface, and I can now start using one finger to do something, or two fingers to do something else, that becomes powerful. This is what most of the iPad devices look like. I think it starts challenging the way we build user interfaces.
When it comes to claims application design, what would the front end look like? How would you build that same Web-based app as a native app, so that when the claims adjuster is walking through a house after a hurricane to establish the damages, how do they use the multi-touch and the GPS to start pulling in specific coordinates? Can they use the device to measure the size of the hole on the roof? Can they use a device like this to make the job easier?
I’ve been proven wrong several times in the past, but I believe that the days of the keyboard and mouse might be gone. You will get to a point where you flip the monitor and make it horizontal to the table surface, and then the interface behaves more like a multi-touch interface.
Does this also have implications for rethinking data visualization?
When it comes to spreadsheets, trying to do the same thing a mouse and a keyboard do with a multi-touch interface is going to be very difficult. But you can do it by looking at visual representations of data.
I will give you an example. Newsmap (http://newsmap.jp/) brings up a screen, and the visual interface is very indicative of what story has been viewed. It’s all represented as squares on the box, and the size of the squares describes how many people have accessed this page and stayed on it. It uses screen real estate to show the importance and the relevance of the story. A Newsmap-type of site works much better on a multi-touch interface.
I believe we will get to the point where you will look for visualization of data in such a way that these devices become the natural way to use things. Apple’s Keynote is an example. I have built a few presentations using Keynote on the iPad, and you can do some pretty decent presentations at this point in time. Apple hasn’t addressed all of the issues yet, but the company will revise as it goes forward.
It sounds like there are two different camps of users that you are supporting: the people such as the claims adjusters who are obviously on the road a lot, definitely using the mobile device most of time, with certain kinds of input that they need to provide; and then finance and accounting, for example, who might be on the older-style mouse-and-keyboard interface for quite a while. Could you pretty much treat them separately?
Yes. It will take a while to change that second population, but the first one is really looking for convenience. The biggest part for our claims reps is the interaction with the insured. When somebody has a loss, the face-to-face interaction is a big deal. To the extent that the device or the computing infrastructure that you give them is seamless to the way they interact with people, it’s very useful. Contrast that with somebody who is sitting and looking at spreadsheets and creating PowerPoint presentations. We are looking at the opportunities for us to continue to figure out how to use mobile devices there.
What kinds of mobile vendors are approaching you and your company most frequently and with what kind of messages?
It’s been the small players, a carrier because of the two-year contract that we signed with them, and the device vendors wanting to talk about where they see mobile heading. The device vendors are pretty serious about the business marketplace. They are bringing a lot of their thought leadership and showing how you can build applications. They are just trying to get mind share in this space.
It’s been helpful because we are able to let them know our requirements from a product standpoint. For example, we tell them our camera is going to be critical for claims, here are the reasons why, here are the things that our claims reps do, and it’s important that we have this type of camera. These vendors are getting used to working with the enterprise environment.