A Greenfield Approach to Adopting the Cloud for Infrastructure Transformation

Andy Cooper, Senior Vice President of Infrastructure and Cloud Services at Assurant, explains how a greenfield approach to adopting cloud helped them transform their business radically.

Assurant, Inc. is a global provider of risk management products and services with headquarters in New York City. The company adopted a “digital-first” approach to fast-track its digital transformation. They believe a digital-first enterprise needs a strong infrastructure foundation to leverage new technologies. We interviewed Andy Cooper, to find out how they accelerated the use of cloud technologies to successfully transform their infrastructure and drive improved business outcomes.

Infosys: How do you see the insurance industry moving forward in context to the adoption of digital technologies?
Andy Cooper: Increased leverage of digital technologies is critical to the insurance industry. Our clients and consumers expect that every application and engagement channel is “always-on”. At the same time, they are fast, efficient, and intuitive. The public cloud offers dynamic scaling and elasticity which allows us to deliver these digital capabilities “on-demand”.

Infosys: When you were starting on your journey of becoming digital-first, what did you first focus on?
Andy Cooper: Over the years, Assurant has been on a continuous journey to drive more digital, agile ways of working. The pandemic accelerated these efforts exponentially. Because our customers and clients now expect self-service, automation, and omnichannel experiences, Assurant has adopted a “digital-first” mindset, fast-tracking our digital transformation. Fortunately, early efforts to modernize our IT infrastructure helped enable the speed by which Assurant was able to respond.
Any successful strategy that prioritizes digital capabilities needs to be built on strong infrastructure foundations, which deliver high availability and security capabilities integrated at all layers of the stack. To support digital-first, and keeping pace with multiple new business acquisitions, Assurant is accelerating the use of cloud technologies to integrate and leverage the new capabilities being introduced into our environment.

Infosys: What are the common problems an organization like yours faces when it comes to infrastructure transformation?
Andy Cooper: A successful Infrastructure transformation is not an objective in itself; it is a means to leverage new technology to drive improved business outcomes. The biggest challenge is driving the adoption of the new infrastructure capabilities by the application and operations teams that serve our clients and consumers. This is a multi-stage process that starts with a clear articulation of the outcomes and the benefits, so everybody buys into the change.
One must take time to assess the impact of the changes, focusing on the principles of Conway’s Law and the need to align the organization and team structures to the end state. At Assurant, we did this by running our infrastructure transformation alongside the move to an Agile operating model across the enterprise, both business and IT.
You need to provide the capabilities to invest in upskilling your people in the new tools and automation and make sure that you factor this time into the project incremental planning and future sprints. Do not underestimate the eventual changes in roles and responsibilities in operational support models for cloud-native services.

Infosys: You went with a greenfield approach to building an infrastructure foundation in the public cloud? Could you share what encouraged/convinced you to take that approach?
Andy Cooper: Like many companies, Assurant started to leverage the public cloud more than five years ago. Over this period, cloud capabilities have evolved significantly, and the cloud can no longer be viewed as an extension of the traditional on-premises infrastructure and operating model.
We decided to take this opportunity to reimagine our cloud strategy and deliver the flexibility needed for the business to adopt new cloud capabilities that will drive a competitive advantage for the future. We took the time to invest in new, greenfield cloud foundations that deliver the highest levels of availability and security, at the same time as empowering our development teams with pipelines and automation to take infrastructure provisioning off the critical path to new products and revenue.

Infosys: How did you go about building a dedicated team of cloud engineers at Assurant?
Andy Cooper: We were challenged with building a new cloud engineering organization against the backdrop of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. Cloud engineering talent was already at a premium and difficult to source in the market. Our strategy was to source a core team of talent from our existing networks, blending knowledge from these new hires with existing talent who were well versed with our applications. We developed an ecosystem of partners and vendors who provided much of the labor for the initial greenfield build. The greenfield was deconstructed into a series of products and releases. Our Assurant team became the technical product owners running cross-partner scrum teams. This approach allowed us to mitigate COVID delays by bursting development and engineering capacity using our partners.

Infosys: You believe uncommon thinking delivers uncommon results. What was your uncommon thinking and how did you get inspired? What were the uncommon results (business gains)?
Andy Cooper: In most organizations, the infrastructure teams provide the base network and security infrastructure for the cloud. The application development organizations then go directly, and often independently, to the cloud providers to select the cloud infrastructure services that they need to develop their products. In the short term, this approach can drive improved time to market, but in the long term, it can produce a sprawl of many different cloud technologies with challenges around inconsistent reliability and increased costs.
The approach that Assurant has taken extends the managed cloud infrastructure services beyond the network and security, engineering a standard set of cloud infrastructure capabilities that can be consumed by all applications at the enterprise level. Reliability and cost optimization are engineered at the source so that the applications are consistently using a common inventory of cloud services. New capabilities are developed centrally in line with new application requirements and are then published for consumption by all applications. This approach takes more time upfront to establish but reaps enterprise benefits in the long term.

Infosys: Did you face any resistance or challenges in the greenfield approach you took? What steps did you take to mitigate the risks?
Andy Cooper: The design, build, and integration of the new greenfield stack required significant upfront effort. We were afraid it was going to delay the refactoring of applications. To mitigate this, we decided to deploy minimum viable products (MVPs) of the specific new tools required for refactoring, into the existing legacy cloud environments. This enabled the applications to be refactored using the critical, new capabilities in the existing environments. Subsequently, they were migrated to the new greenfield network, security, and observability stack.

Infosys: Tell us something about your learning journey in leading this transformation?
Andy Cooper: Public cloud providers have built the equivalent of huge, virtual Lego stores; there’s a nearly infinite number of building blocks that can be assembled to deliver business solutions and capabilities. There is a significant reduction in what you directly control compared to traditional on-premises environments. You need to engineer assuming things will fail and focus on automating recovery. Chaos engineering and testing have become table stakes for business-critical cloud deployments.