Lake views from the Milwaukee innovation labs

Tony Gemoll

Sr Enterprise Architect

Topics: featured.

Innovative Approach Adds Value and Cuts Development Time in Half

One of the most important tools we use in the financial services industry is something called an "illustration." The illustration shows how a product – such as a life insurance policy – is expected to perform over time, based on information provided by the client.

Our financial advisors in the field create illustrations regularly, though they haven't always had a great experience using our illustration app. Earlier this year, my teammates Jeff Wolcott, Bilal Allawala, Brian Welter and I set out to see if we could streamline the advisors’ information-gathering process to make illustrations faster to create and easier to update.

Our solution was to build a new framework to generate the forms the illustration app needed to gather information from the client. Using React, Redux and other JavaScript packages, we created a framework called CarbonForge that allowed us to:

  • Create configuration files of all possible data fields that might be required to complete an illustration
  • Present data fields dynamically based on answers to select questions
  • Validate the data fields in real time to give faster feedback to the user
  • Easily migrate existing client data to future versions of the app — as requirements change, new versions are released or new illustration types are created

We built the framework in less than half the time and with less than half the resources that were needed to build our company's previous illustration app – and we believe that's just the beginning of the value this technology will provide.

We can innovate faster. While our primary goals in building the framework were to make it easier for our development team to maintain and update the illustration app code and streamline the experience for the reps in the field, we know this will have an even greater impact on the business. The framework is allowing us to experiment more – to try new things, develop new features and, most importantly, get them into the hands of our financial advisors faster so they can become even more efficient and are better able to serve our clients. Plus, other teams within the organization can reuse this framework to create efficiencies well beyond our area of focus. It's available to them now and we want to open source it, too.

Projects like this will help us attract and retain people who want to innovate. We used to be very prescriptive in how we developed apps. Architecture would say, "This is how you're going to do your work," and then everyone would do it. What is interesting about this effort — and there are now many others like it at Northwestern Mutual — is that our teams are self-reliant. We can look at a problem and come up with a solution on our own. For our company, that mindset change has been huge.

We are free to “fail.” Not only are we able to come up with our own solutions, we are free to fail when pursuing them. As we were building this framework we continually asked: "Is this working? Is everyone still on board?" At any point, we knew that if it was determined we were traveling down the wrong path, the project would need to pivot to a new solution. Our goal was to bring business value; we were not going to force a failing solution.

This project reinforced the idea that awesome things can happen when you pull together the right people and allow them to do what they do best.

Building a Micro Chatbot Platform

We’re hoping to eliminate cumbersome user interfaces within our company and make it faster and easier to get information by unlocking the potential of chat.