Careers insight: Meet IFoA fellow Thomas Harris

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In any profession, learning from those who have gone before you can help you find out  what you enjoy, understand what you’re good at and decide where you want to take your career.

We spoke to Thomas Harris, Fellow at the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries about his career and what advice he would give to actuaries entering the profession now.

Thomas Harris is Head of Pricing & Analytics for the International Reinsurance division of AXA XL Re.  After eight years as a consultant actuary (at Mercer and then PwC), Thomas joined XL Re in 2004 as reserving actuary before becoming XL Re Europe’s first chief actuary in 2006.  Over the last five years, he has helped to build a global actuarial and modelling team spanning three continents and six countries.

How do you feel your career in actuary has been advanced – e.g., through ambition, opportunity, good fortune? Combination of factors? 

TOM HARRIS: Well, actuarial answers to complex questions are rarely one word, but I guess I would say ‘all of the above’. When I left university in the mid-1990s, a mathematician ready to enter the workplace, I was certainly ambitious. I pushed through the actuarial exams as soon as possible. I wanted to find the actuarial discipline that was right for me as soon as possible. I saw that insurance was the segment of actuarial work where I wanted to be. And I was fortunate enough to get a position in a general insurance consultancy. And then of course luck and opportunity came into play. That time period, the late 1990s, saw the rise of the actuary in the general insurance space. There was lots of demand for the rigour and thoroughness of the actuarial approach, in a market that had in some ways been shot to bits by various upsets, so I was fortunate with that timing. I was also fortunate in joining a consultancy, because you get 30-40 individual actuaries all working together, each at different stages of their careers, all trying to solve problems, and you can bounce ideas off each other. Lastly, mentors have been fairly instrumental in terms of my career development. Senior consultants were integral to me because they took me under their wing, and said ‘stick with us, opportunities will come your way, and you will have an enjoyable career’ – and they were right. 

Looking back to the time your career started, compared to an actuary who’s joining the profession today, what contrasts do you find most evident?

TOM HARRIS: The greatest contrasts between my early career and people coming into the actuarial profession today are to do with technology. Coding is now something really core to what we are doing, to making the data make sense. The speed at which numbers can be crunched, for example, creates more opportunities for actuarial precision, but also the quantity of data that can now be crunched through at high speed is quite amazing. That stuff was simply not around when I started out. As result it’s a much faster-paced environment, many more opportunities, as I say, but also more barriers as actuaries bump into a new generation of challenges. You also bump into other professional disciplines these days. We work with data scientists and statisticians, and those profiles used to be far less evident. By the same token actuaries also work with multidisciplinary experts, such as climate change scientists, which would have been most unusual back in the 1990s. Those, for me,  would be the primary differences between then and now.

Any non-technological changes that strike you?

TOM HARRIS: Yes – finding time to think and discover insights. It’s relatively easy to get an automated answer, but that does not always provide one that is satisfactorily insightful. That stopping and just thinking, to get some insight, when there are things in the way to stop you – because answers are usually needed yesterday, and there is a lot of clamour around you. So to find the bubble in which to ask, ‘What is really the insight?’ – that can be a real challenge now.

Are starter actuaries expected to get hands-on sooner than was the case 30 years ago? Are they likely to be on a shorter learning curve before they’re assigned to a project?

TOM HARRIS: The answer is no and yes. Without a doubt, no, because we operate in a governed way, in a regulated environment, when the client’s interest and the public’s interest are very much in the forefront of our thinking. It is quite hard to learn that, because although the academic element may be spot on, that professional element needs to be learned, tested. There’s an underlying narrative, and it’s not one that a newcomer will pick up automatically. You need to get a few scars on your back, I think, and then you realise ‘To proceed in this way would be a mistake’. On the other hand, when they learn that lesson, build upon it, young actuaries can soon go on earn the trust. If you have earned trust you’re going to get favourable exposure. And as a young actuary, you might well find yourself talking to a client, maybe even more quickly than might seem comfortable. But my expectation would be that you’ll swim, not sink.

Can you define what ‘soft skills’ means in the actuarial context?

TOM HARRIS: It’s the three Cs – communication, communication, communication. And if you can learn from seasoned actuaries who are exceedingly good at communicating, that will open doors – rapidly.  I think about soft skills as akin to building a personal-professional brand. Actuary is very much a people business. We talk to clients, we talk to brokers, underwriters, claims specialists – and some of those might be quite wary of us, initially. They know we’re the actuary, supposed to have a brain the size of a planet, but they don’t really quite understand what it is we do. So, ‘building a personal brand’, what do I mean by that? I mean earning the trust of people, being curious about what other parts of the business are doing. And then following through on that curiosity and bringing other people along with you. So it’s a people business and soft skills are everywhere within it, without a doubt.

We see emergent tech like data science and Artificial Intelligence starting to be described as potential adjuncts to actuarial science. How should starter actuaries best respond to this?

TOM HARRIS: If that question implies, ‘does the young actuary now have to be an expert in everything?’, the answer is no. What a great opportunity, though, to pursue an actuarial career, but also intersect it with an area about which you have a personal interest. For instance, if you’re passionate about climate change, say, look out for an opportunity to talk to the scientists who are building the predictive models, and gain an understanding of how they are doing that, how they are adapting their models for new insights. Or if you’re passionate about automotive tech, maybe, you might get an opportunity to speak to someone at Tesla, and find out about the latest electric car, and what that’s going to do, and then perhaps link that in to some AI that’s going to affect motor insurance premiums and liability claims. So to take your passion and combine it with the professional edge you have as an actuary – that becomes a very potent combination.

What advice regarding career advancement do you wish you had been given at the outset of your actuarial career?

TOM HARRIS: The advice that would have helped me at the start of my career would’ve been: never underestimate the value that comes from seeking out a mentor. When you get to a certain stage of your career you will spot senior actuaries who are interested in your professional potential. Engage with them, because they will be really interesting as they guide you, answering your questions, listening to where you want to be, and helping you to open doors. Sure, it’s a version of networking – but it’s a bit more subtle. It’s really about the value of those who have been there, done that, and can advise you so that you don’t bang your head against a wall. Do not be afraid to copy if it’s from someone you click with and admire.

The IFoA wants to support our Members’ careers. This series was created to help Members gain valuable insights from senior actuaries in order to develop their own careers.