Former aspiring astronaut and lifelong Star Wars fan Julia Davis took an unexpected route to leading Aflac’s tech focus.
A little girl grows up with a dream of being an astronaut. But upon graduating college, her eyesight prevents her from getting into NASA, so she joins the US Air Force as a programmer. This leads her to a career focused on information technology, a path that eventually lands her at a company with one of the most recognizable mascots in the insurance industry.
On paper, the career of Julia Davis—chief information officer at Aflac—reads like a great science-fiction story. That’s appropriate, given her lifelong interest in space travel and the genre as a whole. During employee appreciation week this year, she even encouraged her coworkers to embrace a Star Wars theme, as it fell on May 4 (“May the Fourth Be With You,” as it’s known). Davis dressed as Princess Leia (“My hair was actually long enough to do the buns”) and her chief of staff donned a full Chewbacca suit (“He was sweating up a storm”).
If that sounds unconventional for IT—a department stereotypically known for being more introverted and satellite from the rest of a company—that’s because Davis prefers it that way. Her love of challenging traditions extends not just to the social environment at Aflac, but to the work itself. The biggest example of finding new ways to solve problems came last year, when her department shifted from traditional waterfall methodology to an agile approach.
It was an uncommon move for an insurance company, and it allowed them to accelerate the processing of one-day claims. It’s a matter of efficiency, as well as ethics. “I don’t think I’ve worked in a culture that truly values ethics the way Aflac does,” Davis says. “Having worked for other insurance companies, they don’t necessarily want to pay the claim right away. At Aflac, we really want to pay the claim. We recognize the pain that our customers are going through when they call and they need help. The customer always comes first, and we’re going to do whatever we can for our policyholders to take care of them in their time of need.”
In addition to benefiting customers, agile development helps employees as well by enabling them to break free of the insularity found in a traditional IT environment. As Davis explains, the agile approach co-locates all of the various teams in her department together for a process that’s more streamlined. It’s a huge departure from the historically common practice, “where one team focuses on developing requirements who throw it over the wall to the developers who then throw it over the wall to the testers.”
But Davis’s high currency on collaboration didn’t just arrive with agile development—it’s something she’s valued for years, ever since her time in the Air Force right out of college. She credits her military tenure for teaching her the difference between leadership and management.
In the Air Force, she says it wasn’t about giving people orders. “It was really about leading them and learning how to motivate people toward a common goal,” she explains. “I think that’s a fallacy about taking orders and giving orders. There are times when your team is going to need your expertise and detailed guidance, and there are times when you need to figure it out on your own. As a leader, you don’t want to be seen as a micromanager or someone who’s too hands-off. You’ve got to be somewhere between the two.”
It’s a balance that is especially important at a company like Aflac, where the agile development framework works in tandem with Pega 7, their designated software for business process management, as well as other similar enterprise needs. Together, leveraging modern development methods and modern technologies enables Aflac to process one-day claims. These methods allow Aflac’s IT team the ability to work shoulder to shoulder with the business, giving the customer the option to offer instantaneous feedback on what’s working and what’s not.
But when many of Aflac’s employees come to Davis’s department, they aren’t always familiar with agile or modern platforms like Pega. Davis wasn’t familiar with it herself when she came to the company, although her chief architect had the experience.
“It’s an opportunity for us to focus on enterprise-wide tool sets, platforms that we can use to run a lot of our business rules and processes through,” Davis explains. “A lot of [the technology] we once used was from many years ago—a lot of standalone technology, a lot of custom code development. Quick and dirty, get in, and then figure out how to integrate it later. So we’re using [Pega] and other enterprise platforms to modernize our architecture and deploy new business capabilities faster and more securely by emphasizing configuration over custom development wherever possible.” Part of this process means getting rid of some of the unique elements that had been built up over the years, elements that often made things very difficult to maintain and enhance. “Modern platforms like Pega allow us to respond quicker to the marketplace and our regulatory environment,” she notes. “It helps us build a common foundation that we can leverage across our multiple lines of business.”
To put it simply, it’s a new, unique way of solving problems—something Davis has been excelling at throughout her entire life, especially whenever a true curveball has been thrown her way. When NASA didn’t work out, she found another way to be around large aircrafts and explore the sky. When the usual insurance company methods were too slow and cumbersome, her department found a better method for satisfying their customers. And when she wanted to get her employees out of their cubes, she just turned to some Princess Leia buns and a stuffy Wookie suit.