Episode 25

Automation, Digitization and Data with Aegon CTO Deb Waters

Digital transformation should be thought of as an end-to-end process, beginning with infrastructure and resulting in first class customer and distributor experience. Deb Waters, CTO of Aegon N.V., talks with Life Accelerated’s Anthony O’Donnell about how the global insurer has focused on simplification of core systems and of the customer experience powered by emerging data sources.

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Time Stamps

  • 00:00 Introduction to Deb Waters and Aegon N.V.
  • 01:53 What led Deb into her current role and what she does at Aegon
  • 04:29 The history of Transamerica and when Agon came into the US market as the acquirer of Transamerica
  • 05:28 How Aegon think about digital transformation in the US 
  • 06:52 Some of the most important business challenges faced by life insurers and how technology can address them
  • 08:17 The importance of utilizing cloud
  • 11:17 The importance of data and data quality in the insurance industry
  • 13:10 ChatGPT and using it to your advantage in insurance
  • 15:47 Concrete initiatives that are happening at Aegon
  • 18:54 How Agon has experienced the talent challenge and retaining employees
  • 20:47 How Aegon works with employees in different geographical areas
  • 22:34 What Deb would identify as the major external issues that her and her insurance industry executive peers are facing
  • 24:37 What Deb would identify as her three indispensable initiatives for digital transformation


Step into the world of innovation and visionary leadership within the life insurance space. Meet Deb Waters, a true technologist and trailblazing force behind the digital transformation of Aegon N.V.. As Chief Technology Officer and esteemed member of the Management Board, Waters thinks of digital transformation as an end-to-end process, beginning with infrastructure and resulting in first class customer and distributor experience.

On this episode of Life Accelerated, host Anthony O'Donnell sits down with Deb, and together they delve into her simplification of core systems and of the customer experience powered by emerging data sources and capabilities as well as the challenges that companies like Aegon face in the process. Waters shares her insights on employee retention and attraction, and the importance of creating interesting job roles. Additionally, she discusses the digitization of the retirement experience and the importance of customer feedback in the development process. Tune in to hear about the current status of Aegon and their progress towards digital transformation.

Key Takeaways:

    • Digitization will continue to be a priority, and specifically, continuity in the technology architecture is crucial for simplifying the end-user experience.

    • Moving to cloud-based software solutions is important for scalability and growth, as it allows automatic capacity expansion and eliminates the need for ordering and bringing items into a data center.

    • Improving the advisor experience, in an agile way, is key for digital transformation so that advisor concerns and client feedback is heard and solutioned.

Digital transformation should be about a customer-centric experience and an employee-centric experience. It should be end-to-end. It should be about simplification. It should be about making things easier for clients.

Deb Waters

Chief Technology Officer, Aegon N.V.

Our Guest

Deb Waters

LinkedIn Website

Deb Waters was appointed Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Aegon N.V. and Member of Aegon’s Management Board in February 2022.

She joined Aegon from Citigroup Inc., where she held various technology leadership positions. Most recently she served as Citi's Global Head of Private Bank Operations and Technology. Additionally, Deb was the Head of Inclusion and Diversity for Citi’s Institutional Client Group Operations and Technology.

Previous roles included leading Client Centric and Equities Technology, supporting the Equities, Research, Commercial Bank, Citi Velocity, and Markets Sales businesses. She also served as the Chief Operating Officer for the Markets Technology organization during her tenure. Before moving to Markets Technology, Deb Waters managed Markets and Operational Risk Technology for the organization where she started as a developer of Risk solutions.

Deb began her career at aerospace group Lockheed Martin before moving to software consultancy group Seer Technologies.


Anthony O’Donnell: Deb, it's a great pleasure to be with you this morning. Our guests on life accelerated range in their backgrounds across business and technology, but, uh, I think it's fair to say that you're a true technologist.

Deb Waters: Hi, Anthony. Yes. Thank you very much and I'm thrilled to be here, but I am a true technologist.

Anthony O’Donnell: Tell us a little bit how your career journey took you to your current role at Aegon.

Deb Waters: Absolutely. Speaking as a career technologist, I have a computer science degree, I knew I wanted to be in technology. I spent my early career actually in aerospace. So that was really interesting work. And from there I wanted to move back to New York.

And what do you do when you work in New York? You work in finance. I spent the majority of my career. Building software for different businesses within my old company. many, many jobs over many, many years. Building software that accelerated the business made the business more efficient. and about a year, half ago, I moved over to Aegon to join us as our Chief Technology Officer, and it has been a fun ride so far.

Anthony O’Donnell: What are your duties as Chief Technology Officer and, what are your responsibilities from a strategic point of view?

Deb Waters: So as Chief Technology Officer, I'm responsible for info security, which is as strategic as it gets these days. It's one of the most important things we do as a company to protect our clients and also to protect our own reputation. I'm responsible for data and really defining. How we best manage data and policies and procedures around data.

I run infrastructure, so any migrations that we wanna do to cloud and supporting our legacy platforms. I support and run technology for all businesses, so all the software that's built to help accelerate our business as well. And then of course, we have risk and controls and I actually even support procurements.

Anthony O’Donnell: All right. To put this into context, maybe you can talk a little bit about Aegon's place in the global life insurance and financial services market.

Deb Waters: Absolutely. So Aegon is an integrated, diversified, international financial services company. What do I mean by that? I mean, we offer investment protection, retirement solutions, and what's great is our purpose and our purpose is to help people live their best lives. So we are. Really focused on three core markets, which are the Netherlands, our home, the US, and the UK.

We have three growth markets, which are Brazil, China, and then Spain and Portugal we consider as one. And then we have a global asset manager. So we are a really diversified company. We're head officed in the Hague, which is where I actually am today. and we have a very strong presence in the United States under our brand, Transamerica.

Anthony O’Donnell: And what's the history of Transamerica and when Aegon came into the US market, as the acquirer of Transamerica.

Deb Waters: So, Aegon is a very, long living company. We have a 175-year history. We came into the US I wanna say 30 or so years ago. We were a really strong business, 20. So years ago and over the last few years, we had moved away from some of the strength in the industry and we are now building back our company and our reputation.

We were historically a really well known company. Our brand, which is the Transamerica Building in San Francisco, is a very recognizable brand. It still is our logo and we are very excited on where we're going with Transamerica over the next few years.

Anthony O’Donnell: All right. And I'm sure that a big part of where you're going in that, building back of the brand and, I'm sure everybody's familiar with the iconic. Building in San Francisco. So, a big, part of that is going to be digital transformation and why we're here today.

So how does Aegon think about digital transformation and in particular, about digital transformation in the US and how do you as a leader think about it?

Deb Waters: We and then me personally think about digital transformation really from two aspects. Most people will first go to their customer, how do we digitize and simplify and better serve the customer? But. Digitization is also about our own employees, and how do we actually make it better for our employees to serve our customers.

So first of all, we think about it from those two perspectives. Then we also think about it end to end. Because when you think about digitization, you can't think about a piece. You need to think about the whole flow and making sure that you are automating the entire process. It also involves all the teams.

This is not just a technology solution. It is working with the business partners with risk and control, with legal, with compliance, to make sure that we are putting the right controls, processes, and actually working with that broad group gets its a much faster time to market. It means making sure that we're creating user journeys, and those user journeys can be both internal or external customer facing, and it means being quick and involving to the needs of our clients.

In today's world, you can't succeed without technology and digitization is a key component for our client facing organization.

Anthony O’Donnell: And what do you see as some of the most important business challenges faced by life insurers and how technology can address them? I mean, this digital moment that we're in, I guess you could say.

Deb Waters: Well, first and foremost, when you think of digital, you have to think of data, and you need your data, right? If you're gonna digitize, let's say you have a bunch of emails. If you've had, 20 year old sets of data, chances are your emails are wrong. So you need to get your data right if you're gonna digitize, um, If you're gonna think about data, you then need to think about privacy, particularly for a company or an industry like ours where we have a lot of personal information about our clients and customers, and we need to make sure we're protecting that.

So, Putting the right technical controls around data privacy is really important. I think also when you think about digitization, it's about making things simpler. If you think about your personal life, everybody uses technology to make their life simpler. That's what it should be for an insurance company and for us at Aegon in particular, you should be able to quickly and easily.

Submit a claim in an automated way that gets it returned back to you as quickly as possible. You should be able to apply for insurance online in a very simple to follow digitization process. It's also about time to market, so it's about how quickly we can turn around that process, because within insurance there's a lot of actuarial needs and all those components take time to do. But if you have the process automated and digitized, it simplifies it.

Anthony O’Donnell: I thought it might be interesting to elaborate a little bit more on the end-to-end concept that you talked about. I think it's great that you're a c t o, you're a person who's experienced with the entire value chain, shall we say, of, insurance technology.

And I thought maybe you could elaborate on. How the whole stack matters, That you can't have this last mile customer simplicity without having the right infrastructure and other technologies, architecture beneath it. I thought you might comment on, how that works to, how that continuity is, is but also what are some of the technologies we're adapting to insurance that are so important today, like cloud.

Deb Waters: hen I talk end to end, it means from the start of the process all the way through to the end of the process, which would mean if we are creating a policy for a new. Client that our distribution network or advisors can easily. Display different products for the clients, or if we're talking about our retirement, a retiree or somebody who's investing for their retirement can pick which approach they want to retire.

So you create the front-end piece of that, making it simple for the client to do. But when you're dealing with the insurance industry, and we are behind other, we have a lot of legacy technology companies like ours that are 175 years old, have a lot of. Applications that have been around for a long time, and so they tend to be very monolithic applications, harder to change.

So what you need to do is you need to change the how it becomes how you're working. You wanna change those monolithic applications to smaller applications, more API driven so that you can change the components. And when you have those different components, you can then build those components into the interface that the either internal user or our customer sees.

And so it's also about time to market, right? Some of these legacy pieces, if you have a regulatory change, If you have a lot of legacy, that becomes harder. Or if you have an integrated multiple systems that do the same kind of processing, you have three times or four times or whatever times the amount of work.

So all of that becomes really important in thinking about what you're trying to do to serve the client. And then of course, in today's world, you wanna go to cloud. And the reason you wanna go to cloud is scalability. We intend to grow as an organization in order to grow. We wanna make it easy. If we have, the software on the cloud, as we expand, whether it's a new product or a new set of clients or information about the clients, you can, almost automatically get that capacity as opposed to historically where you'd have to bring something into your data center and you'd have to order it and it would take some time and it would be even more costly.

Now, cloud also, you have to be smart. Because if you're not thoughtful in how you implement your solutions in the cloud, you're not gonna get the benefit. So there's lots of different ways to do it, and that is really important part of how we're building technology now.

Anthony O’Donnell: So we have, the infrastructure question where we're moving systems to the cloud. And by this we address the classic problem in insurance over the last few decades has been one of systems integration. And this was one of the greatest liabilities of legacy core systems.

But now with the cloud infrastructure. We also have, as you were alluding to, the ability to integrate using APIs, connecting microservices. And I thought you might also elaborate on the evolving role of, data.

Deb Waters: I think that, If you are, again, a company that's been around for a long time, as opposed to a startup that has the luxury of building from scratch, and ensuring that when you capture the data, you put the controls on the UI to make sure I'm putting an address in or a phone number. US based phone number should be three digits, three digits, four digits.

It has to be digits, it can't be letters, things like that. Now what we've started to do is put those kind of controls to make the data quality better, but we also have to be really thoughtful in how you bring the data together. Many companies that have been around for a long time have. Multiple data repositories.

So you have duplicate data. You have to work together to bring all the data together, to make the data quality the appropriate level of quality You need to make it easy to maintain, and actually you even wanna make it possible if it's customer data, to allow the customer to maintain it. So once a year you put a note on your website, say, please go and check your contact information.

Ensure that it's fine. You do it in a very secure way. Whenever you talk about data, you have to talk about it really securely. But data is going to be key to every industry, not just our industry, right? Even if we look at chat, G P T, and we can talk about that a little bit later, Having the right data helps our sales force do a better job supporting a client.

Having our data helps the client get to what they need more quickly and more efficiently. and it also helps us analyze what would be in the best interest for our clients and how do we actually help those clients. So data is the core to so much that we are going to do as an industry and as a company.

Anthony O’Donnell: while we're still talking on a theoretical level, why don't you talk about, ChatGPT and generative AI. It's, we're in the month of, June, 2023, and this is a really hot topic. What's your take?

Deb Waters: It is a really hot topic. I think it's going to be a significant game changer. I think if I look from a technology perspective, where I see enormous opportunity is how do I make my developers more productive? You want, to do more. In order to do more, you need capacity. In order to create capacity, the best thing you can do is make your developers more productive.

Developers do a lot of repetitive tasks. They do a lot of what they would say, boring tasa. We have to document our code. We have to do error processing in our code. If you can leverage ChatGPT to do some of these. Tasks, then you can focus your development organization on anything that's creating you competitive advantage.

It gives them time to be thoughtful, to focus on what is actually important to the business. It takes the basic things out, and actually, frankly, I think it's gonna make your job really more fun. Every developer, if you ask them, doesn't like to do the boring kind of stuff. They have to. But what they love is the challenge and the problem solving that writing software creates and chat.

GPT is gonna create an enormous opportunity for that. There's also lots of other opportunities, with ChatGPT. Think of a servicing organization where you can call in and all the information about that client is right at your fingertips. In a very simple way, you know what the last call was?

Companies have struggled for years to pull up that information and make it simple and easy, or let the client self-serve. You know, they can ask the question and, chat, e p t is gonna be much easier for them to use and, talk in natural language and get the answers. So I think we're in for a big revolution.

I think it's gonna take us a little bit of time, and I think we need to be careful and thoughtful, right? there are dilemmas that come with it. It's not fully matured yet, but think over the next five years we're gonna see some really fabulous things coming out of this.

Anthony O’Donnell: Yeah, it's very interesting. I mean, it seems to me a lot like what we saw with RPA or robotic process automation. it seems like generative AI is providing a new avenue of automation and as such a new arrangement of what humans and machines can do.

Deb Waters: Absolutely. And it's gonna take time, by the way, for people to learn, right? If you think how you use this, it's about asking the right question, and it takes a little bit of time to learn how to ask the right questions. So it's gonna be a very fun time, frankly, and I think the next generation, this is gonna be an integral part of how they actually live and operate,

Anthony O’Donnell: Yeah, we will. It's gonna be very interesting as we work out the risk and the opportunity generative ai.

Okay, so we've been talking at a kind of theoretical level share with us some of the concrete initiatives that are happening Aegon. Some of the things that the company is doing to build back, as you said before, to differentiate customer experience and also, new efficiencies and internal processes.

Deb Waters: I talked about how Aegon has multiple businesses and one of our big focuses is, retirement. So if I talk about what we're doing in the us, we've made really big moves in the last couple of years on our retirement platforms from a modernization perspective, of course, from an architectural.

Perspective moving to cloud, being more API, specific, but from a digital perspective, we've actually simplified our ability to log on. We had multiple platforms and you had to sometimes remember different passwords. We've created a single entry point. We've made it easier for you to pick the plan you're interested in.

We put better information on the plans so that you can more effectively select the plan. We've added suggestions on some data and questions to, help you meet your retirement goals. We've made it easier to submit contributions if you wanna contribute. Actually, so much so that, there's a company called Corporate Insights.

Which is a company that provides competitive intelligence and customer experience research across multiple industries. we were ranked as excellent by them in 2023, 19. Companies were evaluated. But what it basically is saying is the work we've put in to digitize the experience around retirement is actually starting to be recognized in the industry.

We've done a lot of work in life to simplify the process, for our sales forces and our advisors so that they have a better approach even from prospecting all the way through to closing the policy itself and underwriting. that's been a really, really big focus for us in the US and UK.

We've also spent quite a bit of time focusing on our digital experience for the retirement. We've had an amazing program where we've actually worked with clients, again from an agile perspective. We've gone through it and then when we've gone through one of our sprints, we've actually asked clients, Hey, take a look.

What do you think about this? and made adjustments before we actually released. So we are really focused on simplifying our internal experience and then making sure that we are supporting the customers in a way that makes it easy for them to work with us.

Anthony O’Donnell: has Aegon been making progress on systems consolidation in the larger issue of systems integration?

Deb Waters: Yeah, slowly but surely, right? This, this is a big challenge, for many companies especially that have been around a long time or have grown through acquisition, so, You can't always quickly, especially in life insurance when your policies are, x many years long. So we are making progress on retirements, but we are also making progress on building layers on top of our complex backend to simplify the experience.

And again, it goes back to the how we're operating, make it possible to have that data available, to re-engineer our front ends, to make the experience better.

Anthony O’Donnell: Well, Deb, let's shift over to a discussion about staffing and talent. wanted to ask you how Aegon has experienced the talent challenge, or the Great Resignation as it's been called, and how your organization is attracting, recruiting and retaining top talent.

Deb Waters: think like any other organization, there's always a focus on talent and retention. I think that we've handled things quite well. We have been able to do. An excellent job with retention, but it's more, or equally about attraction and how do you retain and attract employees?

You make their jobs interesting. so the work we're doing and where we are as a company in our journey. so we have a new CEO. He's been here about three years. He's made some significant changes to the organization from a business perspective that are very exciting. It also invigorates the organization.

So when everybody knows we are all rowing in the same direction, that we have a huge opportunity to bring this company back into the heydays that we saw from Transamerica or any of our other arms. that's how you attract attention. And then you make sure the work is interesting, right? We listen to our staff, we make sure that we give them the right tools to make development easier.

And we have a little bit of fun because that's what keeps people, and I think this whole change with Covid has been a very interesting change from a talent perspective. It is opened doors for companies to bring in talent from locations that they might not have historically brought. I mean, I am a hundred percent work from home and travel, which if you had asked me 10 years ago, I would've never said that that's a possibility. Nor would I have said, would I be productive? In that type of role, but we see it's possible

Anthony O’Donnell: Let me interrupt that because, you obviously have an American accent, a rather specific one, which is, near and dear to my heart. Uh, but you work for a company that's based in the Netherlands.

Deb Waters: I do.

Anthony O’Donnell: So where do you work from and how do you interact with your teams in the different geographies?

Deb Waters: I am New York based and I work from my extra bedroom. So I have a very well set up home office, and I travel. So this week I happen to be in the Hague. We do a lot of work on videos, and I think you have to work for it and you have to make it important. Whenever I travel, I sit down with staff.

So when I was here earlier this week, we do what I call a round table and we invite anyone from the team to come on in, sit down, ask me any questions. I am also really, focused on inclusion and diversity. So I happen to have a fabulous event today with what we call Young Aegon, which made me feel wonderful since I got to be part of Young Aegon, and got to sit with all those folks and answer their questions.

So I think you have to be very deliberate. When you're working in this kind of environment, be very communicative. Hey, I'm gonna be in Edinburgh in August. Let's let everyone know. Let's ahead of time, check vacations before I decide to fly over and things like that.

Anthony O’Donnell:: I'm gonna put you on the spot here. as a person who came from outside the industry, how would you make the pitch for talented young professionals to join the insurance industry?

Deb Waters: So I would say that we are evolving and that for you to come in and bring your. Energy and your excitement and your new thought processes to our technology organizations. You will find that we are an open organization, that we want your perspective, that will listen to your perspective. but we will also teach you, so you will have a nice balance of bringing what's new and exciting that you've learned, whether it's in college or right out of college.

and couple it with people who have seasoned experience who can show you, A suite of skills that will help you grow your career in the next 10 years.

Anthony O’Donnell: Well, in the interest of talking about how these. Technology and business challenges are going to play out in the coming years. What would you identify as some of the major external issues that you and your senior insurance industry executive peers are facing? And these could be economic, political, demographic, or about emerging risk or mortality factors.

Deb Waters: you know, this is an interesting world we live in these days. There's so much going on. even look at the wildfires, you know, my husband sent me a picture yesterday from, our home and how bad the sky was because of the wildfires in, Canada. Very, very terrible. I think the challenges we have as an industry, His data privacy, and I think it's more than just the insurance industry.

With so much data available online, that's a big challenge for every company, protecting the company and the customers. I think cyber, and it doesn't matter if you're a technologist or you're CEO, you have to be worrying about cyber. So that's an industry challenge and, uh, guys are always finding new and innovative ways to, do bad things.

So you really have to be on top of that. I think that you have to. Manage speed to market in our industry. Make sure you're able to release products that are relevant to your customer base and evolve as your customer base evolves. So I think that is a challenge for us. And then I think the legacy that we talked about when you're, many of the insurance companies, particularly the US are, Long existing companies that have a legacy of software that they have to figure out how to modernize.

and the markets, the way the markets have been, you know, that's been a challenge for not just the insurance industry, the finance industry, the banks that, went under this year and the US had a big impact. the rise in insurance rate. It also lets you step back and think about what the products you need because, Different products for different times.

So I think we're under a lot of pressure and I think, it's about being flexible and staying in tune with what is going on in all these different aspects so that you as a company can adjust as needed.

Anthony O’Donnell: Well, Deb, a final question for you. Looking back to your agenda, what would you identify as your three indispensable initiatives for digital transformation?

Deb Waters: So we have an amazing and growing network of advisors in the United States, who. We need to make sure can distribute our products. So digitization will continue to be a priority for them. Improving the advisor experience and making sure we're doing it in an agile way and getting their voice. This goes back to the whole end-to-end and the agile way of working.

We also need to continue to focus. On simplifying our end user experience, making it really easy to operate with us so that, you know, people come to us at times of crisis for them and we wanna make it. Easy for them to operate so that we can help them, or they come to us when they have a new baby and there is a life change.

We wanna make them feel really great about the experience they've had with Aegon or Transamerica. and then finally, we need to continue the legacy system modernization that is, Definitely a challenge. And it's not just a challenge from speed to market. it's also a security challenge, right? A lot of the old legacy code, doesn't come with the security that you get when you build it into the cloud, from the beginning in the right way. So that's the other and, focus that we have.

Anthony O’Donnell: Well, Deb, it's been great talking with you. Thank you so much for being a guest on Life Accelerated.

Deb Waters: Thank you, Anthony, for having me.


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