Q: Could you describe what it is that you do, in the simplest terms?
I’m a principal and director of Milliman BRC: the Benefits Resource Center. We provide technology solutions to Milliman’s Employee Benefits Division. We're an internal “software as a service” or cloud computing provider to Milliman regional offices and clients for which Milliman provides retirement plan recordkeeping services.
We have a sponsor website where Milliman clients review all aspects of their company retirement plan, from participation rates to customized activity reports. Participants use our website to do everything from taking out a loan/withdrawal, picking a model portfolio, or setting rebalancing transactions in their 401(k) to choosing a final benefit calculation and requesting final paperwork for their defined benefit plan. Those capabilities and more are enabled through our custom-built Web applications or through our relationship with SunGard OMNI.
Q: It sounds like a big job.
It's a big job, but the best job I have had in my career. I am a true believer, if you will, in the "Milliman way" of doing things. I enjoy what I do and the people I work with every day.
Q: You mentioned that you create your own custom web applications—is that unique among consulting firms?
It is. When I came to Milliman 10 years ago, one of the things that stood out right away was Milliman's belief in what today is called “cloud computing.” Back then it was taking an internal technology group and monetizing the services we provide to Milliman offices on a per-participant basis. We developed a fee schedule for IT applications and services my group provided to Milliman offices. We have been adding services and reducing costs ever since. Milliman is unusually open to any method that better calculates cost/benefit ratios.
When I first joined Milliman I took on an underfunded platform conversion project with a $50,000 hardware budget. Knowing the success of the software depended on the speed of the hardware, I studied Microsoft’s high-availability model and presented a 40-page proposal projecting success… but with a $1.2 million price tag. When I walked into my boss’s office, I remember saying to myself, "They either will not believe me and this will be my last day or they will believe in my ideas and I will be here for the rest of my career.” The fact I am still here tells you they believed in me; and they still do. That doesn’t mean technology investment is an open checkbook. It just means that if you are willing to work hard and have power in your ideas to back them up, Milliman will continue to give you opportunities to put your ideas into action. Milliman believed in technology enough to go out on a limb—as long as I delivered on my estimate and did not let it turn into a $10 million fiasco; that would have been a bad business decision. The project came in on budget and three days early according to the project plan.
Q: And is that platform is still being used in production today?
It absolutely is, although all that original hardware has since been replaced. That $1.2 million was the first version of RPAS-DB (the Retirement Plan Administration System for Defined Benefits), a recordkeeping platform used in the administration defined benefit plans. RPAS-DB cuts costs and completely changed the defined benefits administration industry. It put business analysts in the role of designing calculation scenarios using parameterized objects instead of developers building one-off calculators for each client.
Q: So your clients don't have to reinvent the wheel every time?
That's right. For example, another firm spent 10 years and $30 million trying to build a similar system, then ditched it to license RPAS-DB for a fraction of the cost. We are now their record keeping shop for all defined benefit plans because we did such a good job of building this application platform to scale.
Q: It sounds like it's such a great idea: It's a product that not only applies to a lot of different scenarios but can be personalized by each client. How did Milliman succeed when so many other companies failed?
Milliman had the two critical success factors needed for any good IT project: 1) the firm vision for the long-term business success of building this and 2) the talented actuaries and IT staff to finish it without busting the budget. Milliman wasn’t worried about the impact to the “traditional model” of charging clients $300 per benefit calculation. Milliman understood it was more important to serve client needs for quick, efficient calculations than it was for them to try to hang on to the old way of doing things.
Q: How did you come to work for Milliman?
My brother, Lance Burma, is a consulting actuary, FSA, and a Milliman equity principal. I knew about Milliman long before I came to work here. I owned a business with my mother at the time managing IT and applications development for healthcare providers.
One day, someone from Milliman’s Dallas office called to ask if I would help Lance out on a “little web project.” I spent three days brainstorming with other Milliman professionals and was so excited when I returned, my mother smiled at me and said, "You're already gone." They offered me a great job and I couldn’t turn it down. It was too exciting.
Q: Your brother is an actuary. Did you ever consider becoming an actuary?
I never thought of being an actuary. I certainly respected the heck out of Lance for his accomplishments but personally, I was always the guy who loved building things. LEGOs turned into model cars which turned into computers, HyperCard stacks, computer applications, websites and now complex transactional application platforms. These systems still feel like playing with LEGOs to me. (laughs)
Q: You must have heard about Milliman from Lance before you consulted there.
I did. The most important thing that I heard was that working at Milliman was like playing blackjack. Every time you step up, Milliman deals you an opportunity. But it's up to you say, “Whoa,” or “I'm not playing the next hand." Milliman is a challenging place to work because it requires you to guard your own work-life balance. That’s always stuck with me.
Q: Does your family get sick of you talking about Milliman at the holiday gatherings?
Lance and I avoid talking shop at family gatherings. We both like Milliman and working hard so our family hears enough about our work already.
Mark Trieb hired Lance and me. He had lunch with our mother once and his first question was, "Are you sure you don't have any more children?" He said, "I will hire anyone else with a genetic link to Lance and Craig—they’re the best.” That was a good compliment.
Q: Why is a company whose roots are in actuarial consulting so well suited to administrating employee benefit plans?
Milliman is built on a solid foundation of actuarial integrity through our peer review process. That level of review and control flows through our business processes and technology solutions. I know we've put the controls in place to get it right. Even though millions of transactions on $20 billion flow through our software/hardware daily, I sleep well at night.
Q: How can better IT help your clients?
The biggest improvement is helping people build a clear picture of their retirement future using their 401(k) balance or defined benefit information. Even people who are close to retirement have very little time to review where they’re headed, financially speaking. We feel responsible for helping people get the information they need.
Right now, of course, participant interest varies from “It's going well so I do not care” to “I don't care how it's going” to “It's so bad I can't bear to look.” Somewhere in the middle there’s, "Hey, I want to improve my retirement future; how do I do it?" That's the small sweet spot of people we target with our participant website tools.
Q: What role do you think technology will have in the future of saving for retirement?
Let’s split it into the two major camps: the traditional pension and the 401(k).
I don't think a lot of folks are starting a pension plan these days. But our business continues to grow because there are a lot of people ready to retire and needing a calculation from their existing pension plan. A lot of companies are saying, "How can we get out from under the cost of those $300 calculations?" Milliman is the answer for those companies. Our business will continue as sponsors become aware of the retiring Baby Boomers and their needs.
In 401(k)s, participants were put in the driver’s seat for their financial future. That's been called into question recently as participant balances and expectations have dropped. Going forward, greater incentives like catch-up contribution and automatic increasing enrollment will continue to play a role in helping provide the incentives for participants to save. Our solutions are key to helping project the impact of people saving just a little bit more with every paycheck. I’ve got six kids to put through college, so I understand the pressure to do that and still save for retirement.
Q: You obviously enjoy working at Milliman. What would you say is the best thing about your job?
I just wanted to work with great people and cool technology. Milliman provides both. Milliman provides the best technology from server virtualization and .Net integration to personal productivity and collaboration technology. Milliman understands if you save an hour a week by buying a $90 keyboard, it’s well worth it.
On the people side, I have become used to the voracious appetite Milliman has to see things done through technology instead of manual processes. I barely get through a day without someone dropping a note about adding a system enhancement to add this feature or that parameter to our RPAS or OMNI SunGard solutions. They know their ideas do in fact turn into tangible improvements in systems.
Q: Do people with a technology background necessarily think of Milliman as a place to make a career?
Not as much as they should. Many think, "Hey, I need to be in a technology company in order to be a technology consultant." Well, I guess that's true if you want to be dropped into different industries with the same technical challenge over and over. With Milliman you specialize in one of four industry segments and develop a deep understanding of the industry and the various technical challenges. That leads to a long and successful career without the spin-up time to learn the industry lingo.
Q: What advice would you give a new employee just starting at Milliman?
A term coined by the author Peter Drucker: “Know your time.” Be aware of how you spend your time, and get the right things done right. Milliman expects you to come in, put your head down and work hard till the day ends—not work half-heartedly and then take a pile of work home. No one cares about the time stamp on your e-mail. Do your work at work and then go home to your friends and family.
I think the most important advice is to build strong personal anchors that pull you away from the office. Milliman will naturally pull you toward more and more hours. Personal anchors, like coaching or community service pulls you toward home. I believe that the most effective long-term Milliman employee is just as passionate about their personal life as their professional career. I've coached 22 Little League baseball teams. Everyone knows I bring the same passion to that as I have every day at Milliman.
Q: How does that relate to the issue of work/life balance at Milliman?
In any organization, it's so easy to say, “The company made me work so hard I burned out.” That is not the case at Milliman. You feel comfortable telling your boss when you've got to cut out at 4 p.m. to make it to a 5 p.m. baseball game. There was never a question I would manage my time and not lose my family in the process.
People get a visit in my office if I hear them say something like, "Oh you’re cutting out early" to a coworker. They may not know the person was in on Saturday or is just leaving to eat supper with their spouse and then they're coming back to the office. The important thing is that the work gets done.
Q: It sounds like there's lot of flexibility in terms of how you work.
Yes, the general term is “managing by results.” In my corner of the world it is finding talented people with a passion and tremendous work ethic; then focusing them in on business problems and technology solutions. That’s my (and Milliman’s) formula for success.