Episode 12

Building an adaptable tech stack from scratch with Equitable

Alyssa Arellano at Equitable was employee #22 in the employee benefits division in 2015. Now they are serving over 700,000 customers. Listen in to hear Equitable’s 3 indispensable initiatives to drive innovation across the employee benefits division.

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Time Stamps

  • 03:00 Alyssa’s growth journey alongside Equitable’s employee benefits division
  • 07:30 Equitable’s strategy for leveraging technology in customer interactions
  • 12:00 How to combine old and new technology for maximum success
  • 16:00 What happens when you invest in digitizing and transforming
  • 19:00 Who is getting customer experience right
  • 20:30 3 indispensable initiatives for digital transformation


What do you do when you don’t have legacy systems and the history of a longstanding company to build your digital transformation? You use it as an opportunity to be agile, adaptable, and open to the future, according to Alyssa Arellano, Head of Technology Strategy at Equitable’s employee benefits division.

Equitable’s employee benefits division started in 2015, and now in 2022, they cover nearly 700,000 people. Alyssa shares her 6 verticals for looking at customer interactions and how those dictate Equitable’s technology and digital transformation strategy. Listen in to hear how a newer company is thinking about technology differently to best serve their customers.

Key Takeaways:

    • 6 verticals of customer experience to help you look at it from a different perspective to instigate innovation

    • How to mix and match old and new technology for a top-notch digital transformation strategy

    • Alyssa’s 3 indispensable initiatives: if you aren’t paying attention to these, you won’t grow & innovate

We have put a lot of energy into API connectivity outbound. And not just API for the sake of having one, but truly doubling down on those experiences that maximize the customer follow through and where they want to do their work.

Alyssa Arellano

Head of Technology Strategy, Employee Benefits Business, Equitable

Our Guest

Alyssa Arellano

LinkedIn Website

Alyssa Arellano is the Head of Technology Strategy for Equitable’s Employee Benefits Business. She is also a member of the Employee Benefits Senior Leadership Team and has been with the Employee Benefits team since Equitable entered the market in 2015. With experience in both IT and EB operations, she has helped to maintain Equitable’s position as a technology-first insurance carrier operating as a startup within a Fortune 500 company.

Alyssa is responsible for Equitable’s Employee Benefits Platform strategy, which includes the technology that supports the entire operational end-to-end journey, as well as external connectivity with third parties. She was a 2019 LIMRA Rising Star of Technology Under 40 and has continued to push thinking through innovative internal process automation and external connectivity enhancements. Alyssa received her B.S. in Mathematics from Loyola University Maryland. She lives in Virginia Beach with her husband and her two kids. 


Anthony O'Donnell: I'm Anthony O'Donnell and this is Life Accelerated a podcast for insurers striving to achieve digital transformation. Joining us on this episode is Alyssa Arellano. Head of technology strategy at Equitable. She joined the employee benefits division in 2015, right after it was founded. Now in 2022, the division serves over 700,000 customers.

Due to its startup operating model, equitable employee benefits have the special advantages of a startup, which is something that we hadn't explored thus far in Life Accelerated.

Alyssa Arellano: We don't have legacy systems. We don't have 75 different sources of truth. We have one source of truth, one system.

Anthony O'Donnell: When I heard that, especially considering that Equitable on the enterprise level is over 160 years old, but it's true. Alyssa and her team at equitable employee benefits have the opportunity and challenge to build their technology stack from scratch. Her insights on how they prioritized and executed a net new strategy are enlightening.

Alyssa Arellano: There is this notion that I wanna know what I'm doing for the next three to five years, but that doesn't always lend itself best to adapting to the times and being agile and nimble with maybe the way that you approach technology, strategy, innovation and delivery.

Anthony O'Donnell: Here's my conversation with Alyssa. One of the main themes of Life Accelerated is generally expressed as digital transformation, but Equitables employee benefits business is essentially a startup. So it's more like digital construction rather than transformation or reconstruction. Tell us a little about how the business came about your place in it and what its origins mean for technology decisions in the organization.

Alyssa Arellano: Definitely. And first Anthony, I'd love to say thank you so much for this opportunity.

I am excited to talk to you about employee benefits at Equitable here today. And it has been a really incredible experience. So when you look at equitable, it's a fortune 500 company that decided to take a leap of faith into a startup in 2015 into the employee benefits area. And so. When you think about all of the things that carriers wish they could do.

If they started over and started in a new market, we were afforded that opportunity. So 2014, some of the leadership was hired and then 2015, we sold our first case and it has been the most incredible seven year journey from how do we take all of that friction that exists? In today's employee benefits experience and really make the most out of it if we were starting from scratch.

So that whiteboard has been the best part of the last seven years. And I was very happy to have been there since the 2015 date. Every time I say it changes a little bit. I think I was employee number 22. I should have confirmed it by now, but have been a part of the journey for a very long time.

Anthony O'Donnell: You're going to make a lot of our listeners jealous with your startup opportunity and your lack of legacy systems. So tell us a little bit about your own background, how you came to equitable and what your responsibilities are today.

Alyssa Arellano: Sure. Yeah. So I've really been raised here at equitable from a professional journey perspective.

I was a participant in some of their internship programs, some of their graduate programs and. Like I said joined the employee benefits division when it started in 2014, really hoping to grow with the organization as that division grew as well, and have really honed in my experience here over the last seven years, I have just had such an incredible ride, trying to figure out I come from a technology background.

I am trained in mathematics. So problem solving was always something I loved. The technology came naturally to me and then where we've really created. Special sauce if you will, is in this technology strategy organization. So we partner with it. We don't sit in it, but we are that bridge and that liaison between the traditional business and the it organization.

And it's been a little create your own, choose your own adventure, which suits, not everyone, but me very, very well. So it's been awesome being.

Anthony O'Donnell: So, how does Equitable’s employee benefits, business approach, technology strategy? How does that influence major technology investment decisions and how does it fit in with the rest of the enterprise?

Alyssa Arellano: It's a great question. So when you look at employee benefits first, and I'll talk about the support of equitable enterprise, there is this notion that I wanna know what I'm doing for the next three to five years, but that doesn't always lend itself best to adapting to the times and being agile and nimble with maybe the way that you approach technology, strategy, innovation, and deliver.

So at employee benefits, what we've done, and again, really taking all of the learnings of how do we capitalize on, we don't have legacy systems. We don't have 75 different sources of truth. We have one source of truth, one system that has all of that. How do we really make the most out of it and what we've approached the market as say, not to plan out exactly what you're gonna look like in three years, because you have no hope of landing, anything but short of that when you look at, and I know it's maybe a bit of a stretch of a comparison, but when you look at Amazon, when they were selling books, they did not imagine to become what they are today.

We are taking a similar approach. There was some buy-in needed from leadership to. I'm okay with the future, being a little unclear, a little undefined so that we can best adapt to the feedback that our clients, our customers, our participants and our internal users are giving us. So I have to give a pretty large shout out to Stephanie shield, who is the leader of the employee benefits division at equitable.

She jumped in with two feet. She's like, I've been at carriers. I've seen this book read. I know what the ending is, and I don't want to be that. How do we reimagine? Redefine. As we adapt and learn what people want really change on a dime. So the best example of that's really nine months ago, we sat in a room and said, how do we best capitalize on our technology to make a differentiated experience for our customers?

And we did that. I think if you took a survey or a pulse across the industry of asking how many leaders would feel comfortable with that sort of agility. I think in theory, we like to assume we have that, but I don't know that everyone does. So I'm very lucky to find myself in an organization that believes in that philosophy.

Anthony O'Donnell: That's a nice segue to my next question, which is how does equitable think about digital? What does digital mean to equitable and how are you looking at customer experience specifically, but also systems more broadly?

Alyssa Arellano: If you look specifically at employee benefits, depending on the market that you play in that question can be a tough one for carriers, because there are certainly segments of that experience.

We don't control. I want you to think about your own benefits. You may not be logging onto a carrier site to enroll. You're usually using a third party data aggregator. You're using someone else and H R I S and HCM platform, maybe. So we think about digital twofold. One, what are the interactions that we control?

And then two, what are the interactions that someone else controls that we could best capitalize by integrating with that better than anyone else? So we chalked up our experience to six verticals. Three. I would say we very much want to own, and three, we know the market dictates are owned elsewhere. So we integrate and have put a lot of energy into API connectivity, outbound, and not just API for the sake of having one, but truly doubling down on those experiences that maximize the customer follow through and where they want to do there.

Anthony O'Donnell: Could you elaborate a little bit more on those verticals?

Alyssa Arellano: Sure. Yeah. So we, and again, we love the whiteboard here at EB and equitable employee benefits at equitable. And the whiteboard really says we know what the traditional segments of a customer journey have been described as, but if we were to start over, which is definitely our Mo here, how would you define the six interactions?

We've put it into six. But vertical one is very much like prospecting. How do I get my product on that shelf? That request for proposal transaction experience and the second would be the true sausage being made. How do I get that RFP back in the most accurate, efficient, timely, and competitive way. And we've really bucketed those two to be really leveraged and backed by.

The third vertical is onboarding. It's your first date. We wanna make sure you love us and you stay with us. So vertical three is turned into digital onboarding and spring boarding, leveraging that single source of truth for a best in class onboarding experience. And then four, five, and six are post sale.

You've got your financials, your billing, your commissions, your statements, your amendments, your customer service would be your fifth. And then why we're all in business is because of claims. So the sixth vertical being.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, that's a great illustration of the things that you have to be concerned with.

Having to speculate about how you think about technology and technology investments in order to address those as you call them verticals in this regard, what's your view of how insurance companies in general should approach investing in technology, both infrastructure and applications, and in particular, what they need to invest in and with obviously a slant to the employee benefits in.

Alyssa Arellano: So I'm a self-proclaimed nerd. And I will say, I will translate this and I love to do this. And again, my team will laugh when they hear this, cuz they'll go. She is a nerd and she does love to do this.

Anthony O'Donnell: as a nerd, you'll be in good company.

Alyssa Arellano: It's the Maslow's hierarchy of technology. Right.

So you've got Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Saying, you know, you've got your baseline needs and every single element of the pyramid as you grow, becomes more dependent on that base layer. And so when you talk about technology strategy and investment, sometimes it can be overwhelming to someone who may not know what AWS is or Azure cloud or any of these facilitative technology pieces are.

So I love to compare it to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. And so you've got your base layer, which is your tech stack. If you don't have a good tech stack, it's your tech stack in order, cuz that is layer. Number one, you have to have that in order to really enhance your journey. Anything you're doing on top of that is rapper.

If you don't have good connectivity, you don't have maybe not one, you know, no legacy systems. I think we were very lucky, but it's not to say legacy systems can't interact. How do you digitize, consolidate put them in a single solution. So you can access that data in a more digital way, but get your tech stack in order.

Certainly, number one, and then two, three, and four in quick succession are, you could have the best tech stack in the world, but if you don't have the right mindset and you still have legacy thinking. You're just putting good technology on top of bad process. So, you have to be willing to say, I know this is how we've done it for a very long time.

Is there a better way to do it? Does the technology allow us to operate a little bit differently? Is the consumer base ready to operate a little bit differently? I think consumer appetite is going to be very much in the want of a more digital self-service and technical solution. So, two is really leave that legacy thinking behind.

Anthony O'Donnell: If I may, what you're saying is don't pave the cow path.

Alyssa Arellano: Don't pave the cow path. I'm so grateful that that term was brought to me by you. Now. I feel very in the no, yes. Do not pave that cow path.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, it's funny. And I think it's refreshing and also a little scary that you're a younger technologist.

You're a younger business person and you're working in an environment where you're not dealing with legacy systems where you're able to construct this stack from scratch. And so it doesn't occur to you. You're not dealing with the cowpath, but you are conscious that as technology progresses as the exigencies of the market change, you don't wanna do that?

Alyssa Arellano: No, absolutely not. And I will probably use it forever now, cuz again, as a self reclaimed nerd, I now know what it means. I'm in on it, but. No, it's so true. And it goes back to the mentality. It goes back to the organization that you live within. So again, Stephanie Shields jumped in with two feet. It counterpart Dave de Paula has also jumped in with two feet.

We have this incredible technology opportunity. Not everyone would have the discipline and the mentality to capitalize on it. They would just be trying to pave the cow path and they're not. And just to circle back to, to enterprise equitable. They invested in this business, they believe in this business. So though our technology strategy maybe looks and feels very different than the other areas of equitable.

I think they know that this is the future, right? And so they were very much a part of that journey with us and very supportive.

Anthony O'Donnell: I think it's a really interesting experiment for an incumbent company. I was gonna say a legacy company, but I mean that in the best way, no.

Alyssa Arellano: And listen, it doesn't have to be this.

It's not always bad. People think of batch API and batch. Batch has this terrible name tied to it. Now everything has to be real time and there is incredible, incredible efficiencies to be found with API transactions. But batch is not a bad word. It's not a cuss word. It's still okay to use batch. In certain instances, it goes back to that investment.

You could get overwhelmed with the number of things that you could. Oh my gosh. If I could just do this or if I could just do this, it gets overwhelming. You have to find maybe it's a huge efficiency for you internally. That's okay to work on every once in a while too. So we sometimes get ourselves caught up and it has to be customer centric and it does, it has to be API and it should, but we shouldn't also punish ourselves.

If there still are some legacy systems, if there is still some batch interfaces, it's okay. We'll get there. And that's the whole purpose behind, I believe this podcast is to talk about how we move forward from those things. I'm just in the lucky opportunity and position. Not to have to deal with some of those legacy systems, just for our EB division within equitable.

Anthony O'Donnell: So given equitable employee benefits, business is not burdened by legacy systems. How does that affect your ability to differentiate yourselves in the market?

Alyssa Arellano: We have chosen to double down and invest in those experiences that maximize simplicity for our customers. So we've really looked at how do we take this one single source of.

This no legacy system cloud based API enabled system and say, how do we maximize this? We sat in a room in October and we whiteboarded this journey and we said, okay, I don't want a fillable PDF onboarding. I don't want some human having to type in things that could be rules based could be. Driven so that those humans can put themselves to more meaningful tasks, like risk decisions.

So we sat and whiteboarded this onboarding journey. And what we came up with was this sort of incremental, but beautiful digital onboarding solution. And if you look at this is not fillable PDF, this is not a wait four days and we'll send you a link to something. This is very much send me an RFP today, an onboard.

And really it could be today, but usually that's dependent on someone answering some questions and I will just wanna give them some time. But the thinking is you send an RFP backed by AI, scrub that information. I don't wanna re-ask you things you've already given me. That's annoying in your own experiences today.

Right? So I wanna take all this information. I wanna give you an accurate proposal and if we move forward that proposal, then let's just keep moving forward. I don't have to take this and type it into another system or prep some paperwork. I don't want that vision built within equitables employee benefits, digital onboarding journey.

So we are marching every single month towards the ability to be able to do this complex transaction, which is secure the benefits for your employees at your company, and make sure that they're installed on time. You can file claims the minute you're ready and really make it an intuitive, digital driven experience.

I think of TurboTax. Turbo tech simplified an extremely difficult transaction. And now you can do it yourself in 45 minutes online. And I want to push that. And again, it's not, let's talk for four weeks and then give you a link. Like this is very much self-service. If you want it, talk to a person, if you want it onboarding,

Anthony O'Donnell: could you address this though?

This digital onboarding initiative from the standpoint of how not having legacy systems enables you to do it? And if there are any nuts and bolts you could share about how it was put.

Alyssa Arellano: I'll try not to make everyone jealous, cuz I swear half of it is the tech stack. This is the benefit of investing in digitizing and transforming.

So again, we sat in a room in October, started an RFP in December. In two months we had a working prototype of AI, scrubbing of RFPs in April. We launched that into production. So in April of 22, based on an October of 21 conversation, we had an AI prototype taking RFP documentation and I'm talking. On a cocktail napkin, like unstructured data and reading it, it for the purposes of quoting.

Then in June, we started our first model of a digital onboarding solution iterated on it through July, released it in July, did three weeks of test and learn with internal users. Last week had our second agile deployment. Now we have our first strategic partners in there and using. And every single month, what we will do is we will reserve one entire week for people to give us feedback, take that, go do a two week sprint and deploy that feedback.

So this was start to finish. I don't believe in the word finish, but start to deploy 10 months. It's just an incredible speed. And the team is incredible and we're not as big as you'd think. Right? So again, all of these testaments that you have, this was what we hope to continue to do with the rest of the verticals in an evergreen.

So. What would you say

Anthony O'Donnell: is the role of agility and the methodology that enables agility and the conversation between the business and its requirements in executing? How did that play a role in the success of this project and the rather short duration of the

Alyssa Arellano: Project? You've got agile in the methodology.

But you also have agile in the mentality. There is structure and purpose behind the way that you deliver agile. You have your standups, your retros, you have the ceremonies you deploy in certain timeframes. You work with users. So there's the agile methodology. And I'm probably not the expert you want talking to that.

But what I will say differentiated us for this deployment was the agility in our mentality. So sometimes I'm sure it's purposeful, but we also have to be comfortable with what you did. May not be what you end up with. The reason people love waterfall and they get comfortable with waterfall. And it's not to say waterfall's always bad.

There are certainly models where waterfall works wonderfully, but the reason people love waterfall is cuz you know what you're gonna get. You're planned ahead. I'm comfortable with it. I have time to test and think about it. This is not that this is use this in production. Let me know how it goes and come back.

And not only our it teams, my team, the technology strategy team, but our users. So like the people actually onboarding and helping do this are like, oh my gosh, this is not working correctly. Can you help us fix this? We're like, yes, it'll be there in two weeks and they're bought into it and we would not be successful if they weren't bought into allowing this uncertainty in production.

It's not something every organization could be comfortable with. We're trying to be different.

Anthony O'Donnell: So Alyssa outside the insurance industry, who do you think is getting customer experience and technology?

Alyssa Arellano: We talked about a couple of them today, but I thought maybe to bring a curve ball, I think you'd get the Amazons.

You'd get some of the common names, but I thought one that maybe people wouldn't be so familiar with is McDonald's, you know, when you think about doing a home run around customer experience, I dunno that McDonald's is the first company that would come to mind. But a colleague had shared with me an incredible photo and it was somebody who had ordered a meal from a hospital.

And it said, we realize that you ordered this meal from the hospital. We hope everyone's okay. The meal's. And it just like goes to show that even McDonald's is taking millions of dollars and investing it in analytics instead of a cheaper hamburger, it's a choice that we're seeing people making and anyone is capable of making it.

So I thought that was a very interesting one. Maybe not one people had heard about or thought about. So everyone is making that choice.

Anthony O'Donnell: It's a really interesting example also because it relies upon sophisticated analytic technology, but it also requires the human insight to say, you know what? It would be a really good idea to do this for a person.

Alyssa Arellano: Yes. And you've had some pretty incredible speakers on this podcast before me who have talked about that. And I thought it was a good hammer home, too. It, everything is connected. Right? You can't listen to any one of these segments in a silo. There is absolutely a story here, but yes, anyone can make those choices to invest.

Anthony O'Donnell: Here's my final question. What do you regard as your three indispensable initiatives? So

Alyssa Arellano: this is a good quarterback to the last one, right? But a piggyback to the last one is analytics. It can never be underestimated the power of analytics and data and making those predictive decisions, but it's never the room on fire.

So, if you don't choose to prioritize them, it won't ever be the hot topic of the day. It won't be the room on fire. It won't be the biggest production support issue. So making sure that we continue to put focus on and invest in even the rooms that are not on fire to continue to keep us as a technology first and driven carrier is super important to us in the employee benefits division at equitable.

The second I would say is really automation and it's automation. Not again, it's the term we all use, but the areas of automation that I'm most focused on, that we in employee benefits are most focused on. If it's rules based. If it's straightforward, if it's a manual spreadsheet that we could program in, that's where we're automating.

There are larger automation efforts you could take on, but we want our people, our team, we are a startup. We are still a seven year young startup in a fortune 500 company. We want our people who are some of the best to be focusing on difficult decisions, risk decisions, client transactions, communication decisions, not.

The rules based manual spreadsheet, logic that we could be automating. So automation from the perspective of taking that less difficult rules based work and putting it into human difficult risk and kind facing. And then third again is just, I wanna make sure. And it's maybe less, a little bit of a deliverable.

It's more a mentality. I don't ever wanna lose what we do, which is that whiteboard that in October we reimagined and we did it. And I think if you get stuck in, I wanna be this in five years. The pandemic is an easy one to draw as an example, but everyone's roadmap in 2020, got thrown out. Not ours. We are doing this real time.

We are agile. We're our nimble, I don't wanna lose that. So that's just something more on the philosophical end. That is imperative for me to make sure we keep here in the employee benefits division. I guess you could

Anthony O'Donnell: call the whiteboard a piece of technology. It's a very simple piece of technology that allows you to express your ideas.

And that reminds us that as we go further in the development of technology and technology for the insurance enterprise at bottom, we have to have agile thinking. We have to have creativity and we have to have the means of communicating that creativity.

Alyssa Arellano: Absolutely. It is one of those things. There's nothing better.

You could call it your whiteboard. Thank you for that. Your white piece of paper. You're back to the drawing board. It's all the same conceptual mentality. Completely agree. You nailed it.

Anthony O'Donnell: Your unstructured dinner napkin.

Alyssa Arellano: My cocktail napkin. Yeah. We always joke, like give us your census by carrier pigeon.

That doesn't make a lot of sense, but I love the agility and the flexibility of it. So cocktail, napkin, or carrier pigeon your choice.

Anthony O'Donnell: Thank you, Alyssa. This has been a lot of fun.

Alyssa Arellano: Thank you very much, Anthony. I also had a lot of fun.

Anthony O'Donnell: I had great fun speaking with Alyssa because of her intelligent analysis and her fresh creativity.

It was bracing to hear her thoughtful takes on the customer journey and her elaboration of equitables key initiatives to foster innovation by not having years and years of experience in the industry. Equitable’s employee benefits team has both the room and the disposition to experiment and to find out what works in today's dynamic.

The team is setting an example of how to be innovative in a way that doesn't rely on the company's history or access to unending technology options. They're making it happen by thinking and acting strategically. Thank you for joining us for their Life Accelerated podcast. For more relevant content, to help you achieve digital transformation, visit equisoft.com/lifeaccelerated.


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