Over a glass of wine on a deck overlooking the James River at the TBM Council’s recent executive summit, Ashley Pettit, SVP at State Farm, confessed that tech leadership is part providence and part courage. Read on to hear her thoughts on market disruption, customer engagement, and why it’s so important to support STEM programs for girls.

 

What are some of the biggest challenges that insurance providers face today?

The world around us is rapidly changing, and our industry is no exception. We’ve seen sizeable shifts in customer expectations. New types of companies are entering the industry, creating an even more competitive environment. Autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing services are already having an impact on the auto industry and the demand for insurance. We need to consider how we’re using technology to serve our customers in more ways.

How is State Farm—and your IT shop in particular—responding to these challenges?

In every corner of the company, our focus has been on responding to these changes. We’re asking how we can add the most value and provide the best services to customers. We’ve remained the market leader because of our ability to do just that—change to meet customer needs. Practically, it means making investments in our operations, technology, and facilities. It’s hard, but it’s exciting, too.

Within our IT shop, the work we’re doing is focused on providing quality service and building even stronger relationships with our customers. That might be unusual for a tech shop—but we’ve made the “human” aspect a big part of our approach. We think it’s key to our success.

One example is our redesigned website and mobile app. We’ve recently earned top ranks from industry benchmarks for these digital solutions—in particular for their real-talk language, easy facilitation of tasks, and simple connections to people who can help (a State Farm agent) whenever customers want that personal touch. 

We’ve also made efficiency gains by combining our three IT areas into one. We now refer to this department as Enterprise Technology. This more efficient structure will help us deliver technology to our customers and the organization faster, and with greater quality. We’re also transforming how we work by improving the strategic alignment of IT and business priorities. We’re migrating to agile delivery methods across both business and IT areas, and improving the transparency of IT investment decisions and the resulting business outcomes.

»Related content: By Sharing IT Cost Data, State Farm Tech Leader Draws Closer to the Business, Wall Street Journal

And we’re looking at ways to innovate—with things like machine learning, RPA, and blockchain, for instance. We’re heavily involved in automated and connected vehicle research. We see a big opportunity in telematics. Using a smartphone, customers can monitor the way they drive and adjust their driving practices to impact their rate. We’re also connecting customers and small businesses through Community Offers. In that program, small businesses can offer discounts to State Farm customers through our app, at no charge.

We’ve heard customers ask for these sorts of things—for a local mindset and an opportunity to “participate” in insurance by improving their driving. Plus, it makes our communities stronger and our road safer, two things that have always been a focus for State Farm. In these ways and many others, we’re choosing to embrace the disruption in our industry. We’re pursuing these things to stay relevant to customers.

You joined the company right out of college. Will you share a little bit about your career track at the organization, and how you rose to SVP of enterprise technology today?

It has definitely been a journey! I started at State Farm as a software developer supporting our Property and Casualty Claims operation. From there, I moved into our technology organization as a network and security analyst, and briefly as a business analyst, because I wanted to understand decision-making and our internal department processes. I also spent time in application development and maintenance, supporting our Property and Casualty line, which is State Farm's core product.

In 2007, I was asked to step outside of IT to work in human resources leading a group doing business process work and interfacing with IT. They were implementing a large HR-specific software upgrade at the time and thought having somebody from IT could help. Stepping outside of IT was an amazing experience. Before then, I thought I knew how to interact with our business partners. But to truly step into that role and then look back, there were so many things I realized we could be doing better.

You became the user.

Yes, I did. It was eye-opening to me to see how little information our business areas really had. I might have said our business partners were very demanding previously, but they weren't—they just didn't know what to ask or what the options were. I knew IT could be so much better at providing options, solutions, pros and cons, and recommendations to them, instead of waiting for them to ask the right question. That was a fun job. 

I returned to IT a few years later and was promoted into executive levels, spending time in large delivery programs and later leading infrastructure. In 2016, I was asked to lead a study of the efficiency and effectiveness of IT, which resulted in much of the journey that we're on now. 

I'm thinking about people who are entering technology and wondering what the hardest decisions were in your journey to CIO. What were the lessons learned that would be useful for them?

The most important lesson in my journey has been to be fearless. In almost all of the jobs or promotional opportunities I've had, I've been terrified in the beginning when first learning about a new assignment. I’ve started to question myself because I don’t think I'm technical enough, or I'm not [insert thing here] enough, or I'm not ready for that. But here’s what I’ve learned: I was and I am. So sometimes it's just about getting out of your own way and trusting your skills and abilities.

click to tweet quote from Ashley Pettit

Tell me about Millennium Girls, the science and technology conference you sponsor. What is it? And why is it important to you?

Millennium Girls is a one-day technology and engineering camp started by Illinois State University almost 20 years ago. The program targets girls who are in fifth through eighth grade, which is the age when a lot of girls start to kind of shy away from science and math in school. That's the age when girls get quiet, they hold back, and they start to not sign up for key electives. It's a shame. I mean, we need more of everyone in tech, right? There’s such a skill shortage. 

State Farm took on the program a few years ago. The first year we did, I was the sponsor and event coordinator. It's been a passion of mine ever since and was really my start in STEM community awareness education. 

More than a decade later now, State Farm still sponsors that camp. We've expanded to Atlanta, Dallas, and Phoenix with similar Girls Who Code, Millennium Girls, and other branded camps in those locations. We partner with universities, and they help us co-create the content, so it's very relevant. The program is old enough that we have college students who are starting to graduate from engineering, math, and computer science programs. It's very inspirational.

At State Farm, we participate in a lot of community groups. Obviously, we want to be able to acquire and retain talent out of colleges and universities, so we're working on programs that encourage people to sign up for and stay in these fields. We want them to feel welcomed and supported.

We're heavily invested in providing our workforce with opportunities and visibility. It was amazing to me in August when I was named Senior Vice President and many employees—women especially—in our organization told me they felt inspired. Those that reached out didn’t all know me personally. But they felt inspired to see a woman in the top tech job. That gives me some personal pride. That makes me feel good.

 

»Read more from Ashley Pettit: Building champions for real change with a new bill of IT