AIG CTO Mary Kotch sits down with Anthony Malakian to discuss her ascent up the technology ladder to her current position, and how she manages to find a work–life balance while helping the insurance giant to restore its brand post-2008. Photos by Amy Fletcher
The first sign that something was wrong came 40 minutes into what was supposed to be a 90-minute interview. I had taken the PATH train under the Hudson River to meet Mary Kotch at AIG’s Jersey City offices, where we were discussing her ascent to CTO at the insurance firm, and the dearth of women working in financial technology. A knock came at the door. It was her assistant saying that there was an important call. Firmly, Kotch replied that the call would have to wait.
Ten minutes later, Tony Skipper, AIG’s CIO, came knocking to let Kotch know that there was an all-hands-on-deck outage. Very politely and calmly—but once again, firmly—Kotch informed me that the rest of our interview would have to take place later.
Kotch is clear and direct, not easily flustered, and can make quick-yet-calculated decisions. These qualities, along with her inner confidence, have helped lead her to the C-level of one of the world’s largest insurance companies, with revenue of $65.7 billion in 2012.
Skipper says that one of Kotch’s greatest strengths is her ability to find balance.
“One of the things that Mary brings to the table is that everything’s not a priority,” he says. “You don’t have to return every phone call or every email, immediately. She has the ability to say that if it’s a production issue, we’ve got to get it, but for everything else, we should be able to plan out our day, or plan out nine or 36 months. If you’re a senior leader and you only have a two-week plan, then you don’t have a plan at all.”
“The money and investments from 2008 to 2011 have paid off. We’re moving strategic databases and warehouses to a centralized platform across AIG—that’s amazing.”
On this particular afternoon, a production issue had arisen. The interview could wait.
A Balancing Act
Five weeks later, Kotch is sitting in a conference room on the 18th floor of AIG’s Hudson Street offices. The room has sweeping views of the new World Trade Center. Her eight-year-old daughter, Johanna, is unimpressed by the scenery and is more excited to have her picture taken.
Johanna says she wants an office of her own. It’s not clear if she means that one day she wants her own office, or if she has designs on taking over her mom’s office and redecorating.
For Kotch, who is married with two kids—Johanna, and her nine-year-old brother, Jacob—missing a soccer match or gymnastics meet is not an option. That can be tough, because being CTO is a 24/7 job.
Kotch—whose official title is CTO for Property Casualty IT Americas, and CIO of LAC (Latin America, Caribbean)—says she’s fortunate because she’s built “a village” around herself and her family. Her husband usually tends to the kids during the day and they have extra help around the house. But not everyone can be so fortunate. Then what?
Kotch points to an exercise that was taught to her: A woman should write down all the roles she takes on—mother, wife, daughter, sister, coach, friend, employee, and so on—to figure out where most of her time is spent. If there is too much in the “employee” bucket, then some balancing is needed.
Still, Kotch acknowledges the demands of being a CTO. “You make it work. As crazy as this job is and as hard as it can be, my family comes first,” she says.
Kotch has a village surrounding her at work, too. In order to find a work–life balance, she stresses the need for talent management. On her staff she has two former CTOs, and Skipper has always pushed the work–life principle.
Kotch oversees an organization of over 2,000 full-time employees and contractors in IT, a very small percentage of whom are women. She would like to see that change.
Until Kotch, AIG had never had a female CTO. Part of the firm’s transformation following the 2008 financial crisis—when AIG almost went belly-up, and became the face of the government bailouts—was to prioritize diversity. AIG runs women’s events, which started in the US and have spread internationally. The seminars focus on career planning and provide real-life examples of women who have risen to the tops of their professions.
At a recent “lunch and learn,” Kotch spoke with a woman who had been at AIG for 20 years, bouncing from IT to the business side of the organization. The woman told Kotch that she decided to leave IT because she was worried that she’d never be accepted in a male-dominated field.
“Women in technology—we’re becoming dinosaurs,” Kotch says. “I want to talk about why it’s a good idea for women to come into technology. There’s an image out there that it’s a male-dominated field, but I think people are afraid. Women who have spoken to me—no matter what race—are actually afraid to get back into the field.”
Career planning is vital. After all, experience breeds confidence. When Skipper hired Kotch at AIG, it wasn’t because she’s a woman—it was because of her story and her journey.
“When you’re looking for a CTO, you’re looking for someone with a love of technology, but also someone who can explain technology—the education part of technology,” Skipper says. “Sometimes a CTO is very, very technical but they can’t sell it. They know it, but they can’t explain the business side of the equation.”
Kotch graduated from Penn State University with a degree in management information systems (MIS). She says she was always focused on becoming a CTO or CIO. While her parents may have been a bit upset that she left law to pursue technology, Kotch understood the career path she’d need to pursue in order to get to the C-suite.
Part of the strategy meant becoming a teacher after completing a fellowship at Temple University. She wanted to make sure she kept up with the latest technologies and strategies. Even though out of college she landed a position building networks and servers at KidsPeace, a healthcare network for children, she maintained her teaching commitments in parallel at Penn State’s Allentown campus.
She kept teaching after she moved on to consulting, through which she gained international experience and worked with big environments from SAP and Oracle. She built networks, set up help desks, connected systems and worked on almost every facet of IT across several different industries.
And Kotch kept on teaching—later at Muhlenberg College—when she looked to move away from consulting and jumped at an opportunity to work for Campbell Soup Company. Campbell had a huge outsourcing operation through IBM, and Kotch was charged with managing those relationships.
This was a transformative time for Kotch, as she worked with and learned from Doreen Wright, Campbell’s CIO, who taught Kotch that it was OK to fail. She also learned to accept responsibility for setbacks, remain focused, fix the problem, and stay confident in her abilities and decisions. In short, Wright showed Kotch that a woman could lead IT at a major company.
From there, Kotch moved on to pharmaceutical company Biovail, and later, she finally checked the financial IT box with MetLife, where she was the firm’s chief technology architect.
“Being a CTO, you have to be able to communicate,” she says. “You have to be visible, you have to be out there, you have to influence, and you have to do so much to help transform an organization. Throughout my career, the decisions I made were based on that. It’s the journey that I’ve decided to take.”
Kotch finally stopped teaching after the kids arrived—there are only so many roles that can be occupied at once. Now well-versed in business, sales, outsourcing, and all things IT, Kotch found her way to the role of CTO in May 2012, when AIG was in the midst of a major transformation.
After the Fall
To fail is OK—as long as it doesn’t cost you your life. Had the US government not bailed it out, AIG could have suffered that fate. In late 2008, bad credit default swaps bets on collateralized debt obligations nearly sank the firm. According to the US Treasury Department, the government injected over $180 billion into AIG, which has since been paid back.
Following the bailout, AIG’s brand was in tatters, and for a short time, it changed Property Casualty’s name to Chartis, until those plans were scrapped in 2012. As with every other firm that managed to stay afloat post-2008, data management became a focal point for AIG. It built out a big data platform and began an ambitious datacenter consolidation initiative (see sidebar, next page).
From 2008 through 2011, this initiative saw AIG reduce its database footprint, which had grown to more than 80 facilities. On the finance side, AIG invested heavily in SAP-based projects, while on the claims side, it consolidated its claims systems. Kotch says that from a risk application perspective, the firm needed to sunset many programs.
“The money and investments from 2008 to 2011 have paid off,” she says. “We’re moving strategic databases and warehouses to a centralized platform across AIG—that’s amazing.”
The term “brand” is raised a lot when talking about AIG. This consolidation push is not just for convenience or to save money in the long term, even if those end up being part of the return on investment—it’s really about brand. A major hack or loss of data could cripple the firm—this time permanently.
Property Casualty now oversees security, which it didn’t previously when it was more of a corporate and datacenter function. This led to the formation of a new security team within Property Casualty.
For 2014, security will continue to see significant investment. Kotch’s team will also focus on moving legacy applications to newer hardware and infrastructure solutions, while prioritizing high-risk applications. Client web applications and the coding behind that will be reexamined, Kotch says, and the team will evaluate HTML5 and newer programming languages to streamline the direct-to-broker, direct-to-consumer interfaces.
“Now that I have excellent hardware, we’re focused on catching the applications up,” she says. “So for 2014, we will focus on the applications, getting them virtualized leveraging Citrix, and on remediation of the older programming languages.”
In addition to the idea that it’s OK to fail, Kotch’s coaches and mentors have also taught her to improve her communication skills, a primary reason why she offers her insights at industry conferences. She says women need to communicate better during meetings—they need to be extroverts and bring their ideas and solutions to the table rather than listening to and executing someone else’s vision.
Kotch estimates that 50 percent of her confidence was natural and 50 percent had to be learned. She’s now trying to pass those lessons on to other women in financial IT, as well as to Johanna. After all, Kotch is proof that girls can grow up to become technology leaders with their own offices.
“It’s all about building her confidence; I focus on that all the time,” Kotch says. “It’s OK to fail and it’s OK to cry. It’s teaching her all the things that were taught to me. I want to build her confidence so that she feels stronger about communicating and about building relationships. I can see that in her. She’s not afraid to play a sport, or jump in and make friends at the playground.”
There’s little doubt that Johanna will grow up to become a confident woman. Now that Kotch serves as an example of professional achievement, the question is how successful will she be in helping other women find their own inner confidence?
IT AT AIG
- Biggest technology challenge
After AIG’s datacenter consolidation program, the greatest challenge will be moving legacy applications to newer hardware and infrastructure platforms, and prioritizing the high-risk set of applications.
- Notable technology-related accomplishments
On the risk front, Kotch says her team has done a good job of retiring older technologies and streamlining AIG’s portfolio of applications and systems to better manage risk. This will be an ongoing focus.
- Technologies under evaluation
The IBM Netezza data warehouse for big data-related purposes.
- IT wish list
Kotch says she has yet to see a solution that can do application monitoring really well. For the larger environments like Solaris, Unix, and DB2, she would like to be able to quickly see how an application is behaving in real time and how everything is performing up and down on the system.
GLOBAL DATACENTER BY THE NUMBERS
- 6,632 servers migrated
- 2,169 applications remediated
- 341 migration events
- 102 global sites
- 64 countries
- 88 percent of all in-scope infrastructure virtualized
PROPERTY CASUALTY BY THE NUMBERS
- 2,000 servers migrated
- 500 applications remediated
- 15 countries consolidated into Americas regional datacenter
While at Sibos Toronto, James shares some interviews covering topics on blockchain, fintechs and cybersecurity.Subscribe to Weekly Wrap emails