When you reach an executive position, you need to understand all of the functions of the business. That’s especially true when you grow out of a purely technical role. Your view needs to expand from the project context to the overall business context.
That’s been the experience of Cheada Lao, EVP of Operations at Allied Administrators, a leader in the benefits administration field. The firm’s primary objective is 5-star customer service, which from an operations standpoint touches internal and external software systems, data privacy, and even UX.
Cheada and Ledge discuss when and how to decide the work you should do in-house vs. using external partners, and how to attract and retain excellent staff when you don’t work in the latest and greatest startup.
Ms. Lao is the Executive Vice President of Operations and leads all aspects of Allied operations. Ms. Lao has successfully executed technology initiatives that advanced Allied growth and supported the launch of the Allied Benefit Suite. She has a strong IT and project management background as well as over 14 years of progressive business leadership experience including Third Party Administration. Ms. Lao holds an MBA from Saint Mary’s College of California.
Ledge: Cheada, welcome. It’s really good to have you on.
Cheada: Thank you so much for having me, David.
Ledge: Can you give your two or three minute background history, story, about you and your work that the listeners get to know you a little bit before we jump in.
Cheada: Wow, just put me on the spot. Certainly, we can cover that.
Been in technology for about 15 or so years. Always enjoyed doing everything hands-on; coding to working with the project managers, working with clients and asking them for their scope and requirements.
Now I find myself as an Executive Vice President of Operations with Allied Administrators. They’re the industry leader in delivering benefit plan administration services, and recognized for providing five-star customer service.
So I’m happy to be the EVP of Operations and handling technology as well.
Ledge: What does that look like on the executive side now? Handling technology, it’s a super-broad space there. You have the development background so you’ve done some engineering, how does that all play up the chain to EVP land?
Cheada: Quite different. Quite different because being hands-on and then now having to have the helicopter view, you really have to understand all aspects of the business.
Before, when I first started out my career, I was very focused on just projects alone. But now we have to look at not only the project side of things, but how it impacts overall business, including the security aspect which is very, very huge especially in my field, in my area.
Ledge: Sure. Security and also I imagine P&L responsibility, which is a thing that doesn’t often come down to the software development level. So now you need to think about impacts on customers, impacts on the business itself. How does product roll up to the customer experience.
You talk about customer service. How does the technology arm that?
Cheada: You’ve really nailed it when you said focusing on the customer side of things because that’s really, really important. That’s one of the drivers that keep a business up and running.
Technology side of things really helps that side because have to look at not only the application that are used internally, and making sure that’s secure so that people can perform their job function and be able to provide that five-star level customer service that I was talking to you about, but we also have to look at how to please the customer with the latest innovation.
Mobile has become a very important aspect in all of the roadmaps. Getting our product out there where it’s easy, simple to use and yet stay competitive with the rest of our competitors.
Ledge: Do you do your own software development in-house with your own staff then?
Cheada: We do. We certainly have an in-house development but we also outsource. We know the importance of growth, and maintaining growth and hitting deadlines.
The advantage of having developers in-house is that you have a little bit more control when it comes to the timeline. Also, understanding a certain developer’s personality, how they work, really help guide a project into the right deliverable.
Outsourcing is very important as well. We talk a little bit about freelancing and things like that, and the importance and the value that it provides to customers like me. The reason for that is because, when we’re tied up, when the developers in-house are tied up with projects that are of high priority, it’s really, really hard to pull that resource away from that particular project. They started the project. They know everything inside and out. They built the project. It’s really difficult just to hand off that code to another programmer and expect them to learn and know how they wrote the code, et cetera, et cetera.
When you have another project that’s also very important, that’s where the outsourcing becomes very, very valuable.
Ledge: Now, that’s the thing that comes up a lot with our clients, is trying to decide… I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got a 20-member engineering team and they’re working on two or three different scrum teams, and now I need to decide how and where I can segment out certain work that makes sense to have maybe a freelancer or outsource partner work on.
How do you make, strategically, those determinations? What work is just core and that you want to have in-house versus some of the other work maybe that you can support with a vendor relationship?
Cheada: A lot of it has to do with the security aspect of it. If there’s things that we are held accountable for; making sure that we safeguard our client’s information, and PII is something that’s really important as well, and ePHI and all of that data – whether it’s in the health industry or other industry – really helps drive that decision.
The more that you have data being transferred or shared, the more risk you are introducing. So what drives the decision in my industry and in my company is, how much information do we really need to share? Is it a lot and we need to give access to a developer to handle it? Well, maybe that project has to stay in-house.
Whereas, if we have a website that’s launching and we only need to change certain functionality, and the web developers can handle that without having access to certain critical servers, then definitely that would be the way that we would handle it.
Ledge: How are you handling cloud strategy in your industry, where security is so important? Is it largely on-prem still, or is there a public cloud or a hybrid model?
Cheada: It is a hybrid model. If you had asked me this question about 10, maybe even 5 years ago, I would tell you it’s still really very, very raw. There’s still a lot of distrust in there.
But now, because of the level of emphasis that’s put on security – not just a security standpoint but from redundancy as well because that impacts the business – if you take a look at those things, the industry is starting to slowly move to the cloud. Whether it be AWS or Microsoft Azure, those things are being taken a look at now from a server standpoint.
Ledge: So we’ve got security. We’ve got the potential for cloud adoption or hybrid adoption. What are some of the really big speed bumps, the really difficult areas, that your technology org needs to solve?
Cheada: Before we actually moved straight to the cloud?
Ledge: Right. Before. In general, I just wonder what are you up against? I think sometimes we can get down in the weeds and we could talk about the details of technology, and other times we can go way up in the strategy realm.
But you run Ops, and Ops means that real things happen in real contexts for business. What do those challenges really look like, because that’s the place where the rubber hits the road.
Cheada: Yeah. For our industry it has to do a lot with the security aspect of it. When I walk into a project committee and introduce projects and say, “Okay. We are looking into cloud,” the first question that we get is, are we moving to AWS or Microsoft Azure or do we have a different cloud provider? IBM has their own solution as well. How do we migrate all of that information over there?
Executives always like to hone in on, what type of services do you provide and what type of certifications does that particular cloud provider provide to us?
As soon as they see the paperwork… I’m not just talking about having HIPPA compliancy or having PCI compliant, there’s a lot of specifications out there. That nowadays is trying to figure out what we really need as a business to ensure that that data is truly protected.
There’s so many different things, so many different configurations that you can have up there that you really need to have a solid, thought-through path to make sure that you can evolve as well, because you also don’t want to restrict yourself.
What it comes down to is, we really want to know, what are those gray areas? And if we don’t know what they are and we can’t answer those questions, that’s where we just stop, and that’s where we have that bumper in the way.
Ledge: You must have some kind of heuristics to measure risk then. Is that how you think about it? It can’t be entirely qualitative in that assessment then.
Do you have some kind of tools that you use to figure out your unknown unknowns, because those are going to be your risk areas that are very potentially expensive.
Cheada: Very, very expensive. We’re not using any particular tool right now and that’s probably what we need in order to make decisions to move forward, but there are so many tools out there, how do you pick? How do you choose?
There’s a lot of research that’s involved in that as well.
Then it comes back down to time and resources and, how does that priority fit in with the rest of the priorities that have a higher business or positive business impact, right? Pulling in that positive business revenue.
Ledge: So you’re an executive in a company, in an industry that would not be listed as the bleeding edge of technology. And yet, I believe there’s some really interesting things happening there.
From a recruiting standpoint, what are you putting out there for developers and architects and technology providers to say, hey, this is a really interesting place to work and we’re working on really interesting problems. Is it largely around security? How are you attracting people so they don’t go work for the next flashy tech startup?
Cheada: That is a really, really good question.
What we offer the next leaders – that’s what I like to call them – is that, it is quite a different industry. We run like a startup though. We’re very, very agile, which I really like to point out. But to attract new people, new talent to come into our office, what I say to them is that it’s a very, very stable industry. So, if you’re looking for stability then this would be the right place for you.
We’re always looking at new things. We just spoke about cloud. If you talk to some of my colleagues who are in the same industry, they’ll probably say, “That’s not even on my roadmap.”
We like to go out and do research on how to make our business better. Whether it be in security, whether it be in having a hybrid configuration, looking at infrastructure, looking at the operations side of things. The talent that would come and join us would touch all of those aspects.
Whereas, if you go to a larger company, you wouldn’t have that level of experience of being able to touch upon customer service, touch upon operation, et cetera, and doing product development as well.
With regards to startup, startup is a little bit unstable. How long would you last there, is the question that I would normally ask. If you are someone that loves to jump around and is driven – and it’s okay to work 24/7, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that at all – but in a startup that is the expectation.
Ledge: Thank you for those insights. It’s always cool to talk to people who are working in what you might call the traditional industries but yet doing things that are more innovative and agile.
I think legacy technology and organizations don’t get the nod that they deserve often for being innovative in spaces that are actually making a tremendous impact as opposed to maybe something that would be more on the consumer side or more ephemeral. You’re moving critical information, and you need to do it carefully.
Cheada: Right. Absolutely.
Ledge: Thank you so much for your input and your insights today. Really good to have you on.
Cheada: I appreciate it. Thank you so much.