“I never felt like I made a choice to dedicate my life to IT, it chose me.” – Alex Klimenko, CTO esurance
Alex, you are the CTO of esurance. What led you to this point?
When I was 4 years old my mother took me to her workplace and showed me a computer. It was a very old soviet machine. I was totally fascinated, thinking that this is the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen. Fast forward 9 years, I’m writing my first lines of code on a piece of paper. A year after I finally convinced my mom to buy me a PC. So I actually never felt like I made a choice to dedicate my life to IT, it chose me.
I started earning money with software engineering when I was 16. I was very lucky to have great career opportunities along the way including laying architectural foundations for the B2B integration software for the largest Ukrainian logistics company, doing microservices R&D for the largest consumer internet company in Eastern Europe, and other projects focused mostly on architecture and backend systems.
I joined esurance in 2017. Back then we had 1.5 employees in the software engineering team, huge and slightly unrealistic ambitions and founders with fire in their eyes. I loved that. Now, after a 4 year long journey, we made our way from a digital brokerage system to an insurance distribution platform with a team of 35 people working together from Zurich and Kyiv.
What do you like about being a CTO for esurance?
We change and do it at a very rapid pace. This comes with challenge stress, but also with a sense of achievement when we find solutions that actually work and bring value to our customers and partners.
We are value-driven. esurance is an example of a company that understands its values and actually acts based on them. And it’s amazing to see how much you can achieve with such a mindset.
What was the biggest (technological) challenge for esurance in the past?
Like most startups, we’ve gone through prototypes, MVPs, and scaled application stages. And every stage has its own challenges related to scaling and complexity control. Business changes and pivots during its early stages and your technology should be ready to reflect this change. The biggest shift for us was the move from an e-brokerage solution towards a configurable and scalable insurance distribution platform. In order to go that route, we had to rethink our approach to the application and system architecture, team structure, and the whole development life-cycle.
On the technology side, we moved from a monolithic application to mid-sized isolated application contexts supported by an array of microservices. Domain-Driven Design and Hexagonal Architecture proved themselves to be instrumental tools for a business domain like ours. In order to control the complexity of the business logic even further, we introduced BPMN workflows based on Zeebe from Camunda. We are also gradually shifting from PHP towards the .Net Core and it looks now like one of the best decisions we’ve made so far. Digitization of insurance products is a substantial challenge in itself. You need to strike the right balance between configuration capabilities and custom code. We’ve introduced our own declarative DSL that helps us to write insurance product and tariff specifications and roll them out with a minimum amount of programming.
Scaling the team from 1.5 employees to 35 requires substantial investment into change management. Recruiting and onboarding the right people has always been my #1 priority. Everything you do starts with the right team, it is the foundational elements you can then build on.
What is your technical vision of the esurance distribution platform? What trends do you see?
Insurance products are sold and not bought. For a distribution platform, it is absolutely essential to have access to a micromement when your target persona has a need for an insurance product. It can be a registration of a new company, onboarding of a new employee or adding more assets to your balance. We have to be there when it happens, have tools to understand the customer’s needs and make the process of the insurance product purchase as clean and easy as possible. And in order to do that, we have to be a part of a broader ecosystem. Integrational capabilities of the platform take the central stage. Seamless integration between business software providers and insurance careers creates much more added value than an isolated marketplace. Working within the ecosystems also provides additional possibilities for underwriting and risk assessment where some machine learning tools could become useful.
What are the main goals you’ll be working on with your team in 2022?
In the last couple of years, we’ve built a solid technical foundation. Now we aim at ecosystem solutions and have multiple integrational projects. This creates additional challenges on the non-functional side, interface contracts control and so on.
What makes esurance successful?
The team. I don’t believe there’s something else that can make a leader or a company successful, maybe besides some luck. We are looking for people who are passionate about what they are working on, listen and learn, ask questions, and are not afraid to propose solutions and act on them. And there’s nothing more powerful than attention directed into the right topics.
How would you describe your management style?
In esurance we are building a culture of trust and self-determination. A good leader for us is one who can set the high-level vision and provide the team with tools and guidance to achieve goals and does not stand in the way. It is not always easy, especially when you’ve been with the company from the beginning and it is tempting to get down to the micro-details.
During the COVID-19 pandemie we saw a big shift towards remote work. What has changed in your team?
At first, we were very cautious about going remote. Intuitively it looked like a suboptimal option, but it is not like someone was asking our opinion on it, right? The first thing we did was make all implicit elements of our daily operations explicit. The immediate outcome was an increase in operational efficiency, due to more formalization and structuring. But it only works well for the projects that are already well defined and just require implementation. Every new and innovative endeavor benefits substantially from a close collaboration face-to-face. So now we are in the process of learning the right balance.
Also, maintaining relationships in the team is a challenge now. If every time you see your colleagues you have a strict agenda, time-frame, and expected results, it removes the human part from everyday interactions. And this requires specific measures, strong expertise in HR is even more critical now.
Do you still code?
Of course 🙂 I’ve been coding for the better part of my life now and have no intention to stop. It becomes impossible to handle E2E user stories at this stage though. So I keep it to prototypes and architectural solutions.
What are you passionate about in the technology space?
Well, it is not a very unique opinion, but I do believe that machine learning at this stage becomes the real thing.
Besides the distribution platform of esurance – what else are you passionate about?
I’m a big philosophy nerd. My current topics of interest are the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. I’m a fan of Immanuel Kant, Karl Friston, Jakob Hohwy, Andy Clark, Thomas Metzinger and Mark Solms. It looks like we can soon see a major shift in Artificial Intelligence research driven by the ideas of Friston.
Thank you for your time Alex!