An International Career

Q&A with Tatcha Ayana, FSA, CERA, P&C actuary

Photograph: Amanda Mustard

What about being an actuary interests you the most?

I’ve always been a little bit of a nomad and a geek for all things technical. This career is a perfect fit because qualified actuaries are still in demand in many parts of the world.

It’s very humbling to go through a period of feeling useless after moving to a new country and experiencing a new culture. And yet, everywhere I go I find it comforting that our profession is held to a high standard. In a way this helps me gain acceptance from my colleagues. Also, the fact that our community is so well stocked with resources means I can always find an expert or an article on the internet.

I’ve worked in the United States, Germany, Japan and Thailand. I’m still wondering where to go next.

How did it feel to be the first actuary your company ever hired?

I felt a lot of trepidation at first. I had little property and casualty (P&C) business intuition because my background is in life and health. And even if I knew all the theories in the world, I wouldn’t know how to put a model together in a useful way.

So I took some P&C underwriting exams before I came on board to at least understand the lingo of the P&C business. Even more of a challenge: My company had a domestic shareholder so the culture was very local. Having spent all my life with international companies, I had to be very sensitive to the way things were run.

Then I came on board. Below me, I had a team of tech-savvy actuarial students. Above me, I had a supervisor and regional actuaries who were all very seasoned and wonderful coaches. Our first task together was to figure out where the company needed an actuarial touch—and that was building a database for pricing and figuring out how much reserve my company should hold on a best-estimate basis. Although this might sound trivial to my peers in developed markets, many Thai companies still don’t have these things so it was hard to compare notes.

Things got easier a few years later, but I still think there is enormous room for me and my department to evolve.

How is the P&C area in your market evolving?

I have spent most of my time in personal lines, and I believe the Thai market is much simpler than the markets in the United States or Canada. The distribution channel is still mostly traditional; however, FinTech and InsurTech are catching up fast. Insurance penetration is still low given the lack of insurance literacy and low income level. If we want to survive, we need to be able to distribute products more cheaply and find effective ways to educate our customers.

Can you describe how predictive analytics is playing a role in the job you do every day?

At first, I was very textbook. I had my team use predictive analytics for ratemaking, but then we were stuck. So we enlisted the help of our regional data scientists to explore other clever methods outside of classical actuarial science. Over time we have expanded predictive analytics into areas like fraud detection and location-based analytics for customer profiling.

The predictive modelers with whom I’ve worked are super savvy at building tools at a minimum cost. Then there’s the unsexy job of data cleaning, but these guys know how to do it fast. I’m thrilled that my team enjoys it too.

Personally, I enjoy the theoretical side so I would give guidance on what model to use and how to validate it.

How are you helping your company become more data-driven?

This transformation is still a work in progress. The first step is to make numbers available. The second step is changing the way people think.

As for the first part, my company came from the world where IT would routinely produce reports that users did not use. So the MIS team and I spent time revising reports to make data easy to digest. Now we are upgrading tools and dashboards to make analysis more dynamic.

Regarding the way of thinking, it was common for my colleagues to throw out qualitative information, like, “Our company’s premium is too high.” Then I’d ask back, “Where did you obtain this information?” to get my colleagues to be specific. Ensuring that we are more fact-based instead of feeling-based really helps my management to work more easily.

What is the most fun aspect of your job?

For one, I love detective work. I love taking things apart and seeing how stuff works.

For another, being in a small shop with numerous constraints allows creativity to blossom. No budget? Use open source software. No human resource? Let’s quickly modernize our processes to cope with the workload so we can move on to do cooler projects.

How do you foster team spirit and good communication?

Definitely by listening a lot. Especially with respect to my current situation—as we are in the middle of transforming our business, it’s very easy for people to become impatient and critical with each other. I always take the time to establish rapport with my colleagues, and then spend even more time to gather the full backstory before offering my own opinion.

I feel that we have made very good progress to become less “backroom,” but now I think we have to work even harder to understand the language outside our domain.

What has been the most exciting role you have worked in during your career and why?

This one. Dropping everything I know about life insurance to join a small P&C company was nerve-wracking—amidst the intense pressure of getting everything right. This leads to spending many weekends figuring out how theories work, learning how to code in R and getting my hands dirty in cleaning data. Otherwise I would not be able to command respect from my team and colleagues. This is also when I most relish having a good support network. I found myself reaching out to my P&C colleagues from my former companies.

I am a compulsive information gatherer who wants to catch up with my colleagues and the science very fast. I have taken the Society of Actuaries’ (SOA’s) online courses as well as courses on Coursera and EdX.

How do you measure success?

First, to be on the same wavelength as my colleagues is a small victory. Then, to empower my colleagues to do something good for the organization on their own initiative—especially in my culture where it is not common for people to speak up—is a bigger victory. Last, as a manager, if my junior team members know at least 80 percent of what I do, then I consider my job done.

How has your background as an actuary positively affected the work you do in your current position?

I have always enjoyed learning, and I have actuarial exams to thank for that. It’s not that I learned most of the technical content from actuarial exams, but I had my fair share of fails despite having time off to study. I analyzed my studying style to see what went wrong, and then I kept at it until I became qualified. My working life is also very much like that—failures, subsequent postmortems and hard work lead to resilience.

On the business side, my background in consultancy has taught me to look at the big picture before forging ahead to find solutions without understanding all of the facts. Also, my exposure to colleagues in different cultures and disciplines has allowed me to see things from different points of view.

What is your best advice for rising above the competition?

Never get too comfortable. Constantly upgrade skills and get as much diverse experience as possible.

I am a believer that over-specializing will result in me not getting hired to do anything outside my area. It might be good for some specific niches, but risky if my area is replaceable by a cheaper labor force or machines.

I think having a solid second skill really helps one rise above the competition. Recently, I have been working with data scientists, who are so good that I felt compelled to polish up my statistics and take programming more seriously.

I would not overlook nonacademic interests either. I have found that some of my colleagues’ hobbies have helped them to be more resilient, creative and interesting as individuals.

How do you see the role of the actuary changing in the future with regard to P&C, or in general?

P&C will definitely be more technology driven. People  talk about data scientists sitting in the same space as actuaries: Is this a threat to the profession? Perhaps. You may have started seeing jobs replaced by robots. Maybe in the future it would be nice to have our work tech-reviewed by artificial intelligence (AI). Then we could move on to discovering new things and expanding our frontier.

Actuaries have an aptitude for all things technical. We have an aptitude to learn quickly enough to speak intelligently about a topic—be it business, mathematics or technology. Changes in regulation are hard to predict, but what won’t change is how fast our customers want things, so we have to move fast.

Note: Ayana is currently on sabbatical leave, but at the time of writing held the post of vice president of Allianz General Insurance in Bangkok. She can be reached at