Photograph: Steve McAlister
Q: What about your job brings you the most satisfaction? What challenges you?
A: There are two different aspects of my job that keep me engaged and feed two different sides of my personality. On the intellectual side, my job is a constant stream of diverse challenges. For example, on a recent day I had technical discussions with doctors, product development people, underwriters, lawyers and IT specialists. And on top of all of that, I also took our summer interns to lunch. This diverse work keeps you thinking and on your toes. The lunch brings me to the second aspect: I love to help people. Because of my broad experiences, I am often a resource for a variety of issues. I get a lot of personal satisfaction from helping someone get unstuck, and in turn this helps me learn more.
Q: You’ve been with Optimum Re for 20 years. How have your job and the work you perform every day evolved?
A: I was hired as a product development actuary. At the time, Optimum Re’s strategy was to develop products in partnership with our small company clients. Over the years, my role has evolved as I acquired experience in nonactuarial domains like claims and underwriting. What has remained constant is that I am still the point person for anything nontraditional that we want to evaluate.
In a smaller company, with time, your job evolves around your competencies. My employer has always been very encouraging in supporting my volunteer work for the Society of Actuaries (SOA), and, over the years, I have become more involved in a variety of research topics, usually related to mortality or underwriting. The education I gained as a byproduct of volunteering has helped me enrich my own skill set.
Q: What are the most important things you’ve learned about people, teamwork, work ethics and related topics during your career?
A: I like to think I have learned—and maybe also forgotten—many things. One fundamental thing is communication. It is the necessary element to get anything done. But being a good communicator is an art that must be improved upon constantly, especially for actuaries who may have a tendency to put too much focus on the technical message.
Q: How has your background as an actuary positively affected your work?
A: I became an actuary by serendipity. I was a math major and secretary of the math department at my alma mater, Whittier College. One of the faculty members suggested I look into actuarial science—which he knew about because a math professor from the department had recently changed careers to become an actuary. I owe my whole career and the direction of the next 30 years of my life to that conversation.
In retrospect, although seemingly a technical profession, actuaries in reality are more like liberal arts graduates: They understand and can put into context a broad range of issues that affect insurance companies. Did I mention I went to a liberal arts school? I think a broadly informed and questioning mind is critical to success in any field, and insurance is no different.
Q: What do we know about mortality and longevity now that we didn’t know 50 years ago?
A: I have seen the evolution of our understanding of how mortality is not homogeneous. It started with the industry pointing out the mortality impact of smoking, and it evolved with our introduction of preferred underwriting classes as an indirect answer to the AIDS epidemic. Parenthetically, nothing is better than an existential crisis to motivate our industry to move rapidly and decisively. This ability to move fast with the proper motivation may bode well for the future of our industry.
This understanding of the differential continues to evolve today with our attempts at reflecting mortality ever more accurately through the use of predictive models. What still baffles us, though, is long-term mortality improvement.
Q: What can be learned by attending the Living to 100 Symposium? How has it evolved over the years?
A: The Living to 100 Symposium is a unique meeting among the SOA’s inventory of meetings. Bob Johansen’s vision for the event was a technical meeting to really understand mortality from a scientific perspective. It has evolved to include sessions focusing on the practical consequences. Bob passed away in 2014, but I think he would approve of the direction the symposium has taken. In addition to the sessions themselves and the lively discussions that ensue, the Living to 100 Symposium has world-class speakers in the field of aging research, as well as ample opportunities to mingle with individuals and presenters who are passionate about mortality and aging successfully. I should disclose that I may be biased, as I am currently the chair of the upcoming 2020 Living to 100 Symposium.
Q: How important is teamwork in your department?
A: My department is very small, but I often manage multidepartment teams. Teamwork is one of the key differentiators between a successful company and one that struggles. It is critical for actuaries to interact and build successful communication networks with the nonactuarial areas of a company. This is getting even more important as we are confronted with another group of peers who have analytical skills similar to our own: the data scientists. Teamwork is not only important for efficiency, but it also is an educational opportunity for all involved.
Q: What experiences have molded your thinking and the way you work?
A: I grew up in North and West Africa, raised in an expat environment. Although sheltered in actuality, this opened my eyes to the diversity of approaches and range of circumstances in life. Another key factor was bringing this perspective to college life in the United States. I was fortunate to meet many quality teachers, staff and fellow students, and the discussions we had crystalized my thinking regarding the role of a minority in the world.
First, let me clarify that for the vast majority of people, we are a minority in one way or another. I can easily think of five ways in which I was a minority then and am a minority now. It may be from an ethnic, racial, religious, education or life circumstances perspective. In any case, I feel it is the role of any minority in any field of life to attempt to enlighten the majority. By enlighten, I don’t mean showing the majority the ignorance of their ways; rather, I mean by sharing another perspective that will allow for more empathy and understanding in their approaches to solving life’s problems.
Q: How do you measure success?
A: My measure for true professional success is respect from my peers in the insurance world. In my personal life, I would, of course, add affection to that.
Q: What does a team with diverse skill sets bring to the success of a project and to a company in general?
A: A diverse team does not just bring a more extensive toolset, but also, by approaching the problem from different directions, it allows the generation of more powerful and practical solutions. In addition, in a team that communicates successfully, everyone will be enriched by the experience.
Q: What do you feel is the most challenging aspect of your work?
A: Managing long- and short-term projects concurrently. Research is a task that requires long-term focus and concentration, yet we live in a world of constant, urgent demands—which may or may not be important.
Q: What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned from your work?
A: There is always an answer. It may not be perfect, but that should not stop us from acting.
Q: What can we expect to learn about mortality and longevity in the future?
A: Mortality is more plastic than we think. We are not moving closer to death at a steady pace. The rate is changing unevenly for different people, but it is even for one person throughout his or her life. We are moving away from a deterministic understanding of our genes and our behavior/environment as the only drivers of our mortality to a fuller appreciation of the subtleties. As we understand better the transcriptome (when and how much genes are activated with age) and the microbiome (the trillions of organisms that live commensally on and within us, especially in the gut), we realize that other factors are significant. It has been shown that spouses of centenarians are long-lived themselves. Why?
We are also finally entering the time where we are studying aging as a multifactorial syndrome. Instead of fighting fires one at a time (cancer, coronary heart disease, hemorrhagic stroke and so on), maybe we can focus on what is throwing the “Molotov cocktails” that are starting the succession of fires that affect us with age.
Q: Did you consider other professions before deciding on becoming an actuary?
A: No. I knew I could not afford to go to graduate school, and I was a math major. Serendipity and a successful internship did the rest. Money may have played a role, as I remember clearly that when the person recruiting me as an intern mentioned the salary, I thought it was for the whole summer. It turned out to be the monthly salary!
Q: What has been the most exciting project you have worked on during your career and why?
A: I have worked on many exciting projects, but two stand out for different reasons. The first was developing Optimum Re’s expertise in critical illness insurance. It is a pretty unique opportunity for a product actuary to develop a product from scratch, from understanding the issues to finding the solutions. It forced me to approach product development from all angles, as critical illness insurance is a product that requires close collaboration with all of the areas involved, from underwriting to claims. It was also a chance for me to directly help our client companies—with all of the advantages of consulting without the billable hours. It remains a favorite product of mine, especially for its ability to help even with a small amount of benefits. I think it is ideally suited for the elusive middle market.
The second is being instrumental in our company being the first reinsurer to offer publicly in 2012 reinsurance to a significant portion of HIV-positive applicants in the United States. I think the challenge here was not just the data, but more important, overcoming the mental block on a disease that had threatened to wipe out life insurance in the United States when I started in the insurance industry. I think Optimum Re offering coverage encouraged others to do it as well, and I think it is a positive move for both the industry and for the people who now can get life insurance.
Life insurance is a key financial safety product. It truly can protect widows and orphans from a life of tremendous financial challenges. And isn’t that what knights do? Sometimes working on products in front of our computers, we forget the real impact this product can have.
Earlier in my career, my next-door neighbors in my apartment building were an elderly couple. They fought constantly, bitterly and loudly, much to my chagrin as I was trying to study. One day the husband passed away. I, naively, thought the wife would be overjoyed. She was devastated. She happened to have a life insurance policy from the company for which I was working, and she asked me for help during the claim process. That’s what showed me the true value of the product we offer.
It is our duty to offer this product to as many as possible in a financially responsible manner. The underwriting and product design functions are key in making that happen, but we always need to challenge what we can do for people, especially if we want our industry to retain its right to underwrite.
Q: What should people know about mortality and longevity that is not widely discussed?
A: The United States is first among nations in many domains. This is not the case for mortality. How can a nation as rich as ours be among the last of the developed world for mortality? It is a complex problem, and I do not think it is getting the attention it deserves. Mortality is the tip of the health care iceberg, and we desperately need to address the issue and not bury our heads in the sand. You can ignore reality, but reality will not ignore you.