Why CIOs should make time for Silicon Valley trips

The real "aha" moments may surprise you, says Arbella CIO
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I recently had the opportunity to go on a tour of Silicon Valley with 20 other CIOs in the insurance industry. It was eye-opening in a number of ways, and I’d highly recommend a visit to CIOs in any industry who want to get out of their day-to-day and discover some new ideas that they can put into action within their own organizations.

The itinerary

During our trip, we scheduled time with a few established Silicon Valley giants, like LinkedIn, Amazon, and Salesforce. It was incredibly valuable to get a firsthand look at the culture of innovation present within their organizations, and get insight into how they each foster their culture. Each of these companies surprised me in how open they were to sharing knowledge with us. Sharing between companies, at least in the insurance industry, is a less common concept. It is highly unlikely that you would share people, ideas, or technology with another insurance carrier. In contrast, in Silicon Valley, a sharing culture is key to innovation.

In addition to the established Silicon Valley companies, we visited a VC incubator called Plug and Play. They’ve brought many companies public, including PayPal and Dropbox. They also have an InsurTech practice where they are helping about 30 insurance startups get funded and enter the market. What was fascinating to see was how these 30 different companies were partnering to become more innovative. And the technologies they are bringing to market are leading edge – new ways to use smartphones for quoting a policy, or filing a claim, or new ways to activate sensor data.  

The final company we visited was Roost, a IoT sensor company. Their first product is a Wi-fi-enabled smart battery for smoke detectors. It was incredible to hear from the CEO, who developed the patent on this extremely visionary way to apply wi-fi sensor technology to a much needed problem. On an annual basis, the property and casualty loss for homeowners costs $43 billion. Of that, $11 billion is due to fire. Most of the time, you don’t know that your house is on fire until the neighbors see the smoke coming out of the roof and the flames shooting out of the windows. If you are notified sooner, you could call the fire department, and hopefully minimize damage to your home. That’s what Roost enables. They also have a water, temperature and humidity sensor to tackle another problem – the $16 billion a year in losses from water damage.

Useful takeaways

Each of these experiences during my Silicon Valley trip added up to invaluable takeaways for me personally and to bring back to my organization. In particular, because I was joined on my trip by CIOs from other insurance companies, the networking alone was worth the trip. The opportunity to spend some time with these other leaders, learn alongside them, and be in an environment of information sharing allowed me to get a good idea of what they are doing and how we stack up, from a technology perspective. It was rewarding to feel that, as a mid-size insurance company, we’re more innovative than we even realized.

Of course, seeing technology applied in new ways and hearing about the ideas behind these Silicon Valley companies was an eye-opening experience. I took notes throughout so that I could share my learnings with my team. But some of the real "aha" moments were not in the presentations, but in side conversations and simple observations of the environment I was in.

As an example, Silicon Valley is incredibly diverse. A recent report from the Institute for Regional Studies found that 74 percent of Silicon Valley-employed computer and mathematical workers ages 25-44 were born outside the United States. Every single person I spoke with talked about diversity and the impact of foreign-born employees on their company’s success and their ability to deliver technology innovation. Certainly, diversity is important in my organization, as about 20 percent of IT employees within Arbella were born outside the U.S. But these conversations underscored the need to keep diversity a top priority and made me even more appreciative of the team we’ve built.

Lessons learned

My advice for other CIOs is just to go. Make time for it. It’s easy and tempting to get caught up in the day-to-day, but if you find the time to go, you won’t regret it. I recommend booking a full week and meetings with as many companies as you can while you’re there.

If you can organize a group of your industry peers or find a network that is already planning a trip, it will increase your odds of landing meetings. It’s a harder sell to get the general manager of Microsoft or LinkedIn to do a presentation for one person or two people, but at the same time, it’s not impossible within the culture of sharing that makes Silicon Valley what it is.

When you do get those meetings, be sure to ask the right questions. Don’t be afraid to dig in on topics around culture and innovation. Ask to see their technology roadmap, and talk to as many people as you can within their organizations. You will likely get more out of these meetings than you ever expected.

And, finally, check the weather. After six inches of rainfall over our three-day trip to “sunny” California, I won’t forget my umbrella next time.

Paul’s responsibilities at Arbella span infrastructure, application development and IT core services. Paul previously spent 10+ years at Liberty Mutual where he was the Senior Director of IT.


I strongly recommend this to Technology event sponsors to take note of this productive trip. This will really help CIO's seeing technology applied in new ways by hearing the ideas behind various Silicon Valley companies. This would be really an eye-opening experience.

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