WIT Q&A: Neha Pandey, Direct Line Group

Neha Pandey, enterprise architect, data and analytics at Direct Line Group and Data Leader of the Year at the 2022 Women in IT Awards UK, spoke to Information Age about the keys to success in her role and promoting DEI in tech

At the Direct Line Group, Neha Pandey has overseen a surge in data innovation, leading the creation of a cloud-based ecosystem which resulted in enterprise-wide cost savings. Pandey has also demonstrated strong advocacy of diversity, equity and inclusion in tech, playing a prominent role in ensuring that talent joining DLG come from as large a variety of backgrounds as possible.

In this Q&A, Pandey discusses how she has got the workforce at DLG on board with her data-led vision, the skills that are most important for a data leader to succeed, and how the tech sector can promote DEI.

How have you gone about communicating your vision to the workforce at Direct Line Group, and ensuring that staff are on board?

Direct Line, as a group, took on the notion that we wanted to be a data-led company that keeps the customer vision at heart. For this to be achieved, many different aspects needed to come together. A key part is the culture; establishing and bringing in a data-led culture is vital.

To communicate the strategy, you need buy-in at all levels, from the board down, to ensure everyone understands the vision. It wasn’t a case of one big town hall meeting, but lots of small steps taken over a period of time. As the strategy itself came together, input was contributed from various stakeholders who understand data, problems with that data, and the vision that should be taken forward. This proved an important starting point; we needed to clearly grasp what being ‘data-led’ truly meant. From here, the strategy resonated with staff, and they could find problems to be solved.

Objectives for the vision are many-fold; there are business objectives, financial objectives and technology objectives to be considered, all of which need their own specific attention. Once everyone understands the vision and objectives, you can then plan out the journey and milestones to reach. This will be underpinned by many different programs, workloads and initiatives across the company. Many kinds of investment are required to achieve business goals, and continuously going back and communicating with executives on progress made, as well as celebrating successes, has been key at DLG.

Could you please expand on the value that a cloud-based ecosystem can drive in the insurance space?

I do remember those times! When DLG started its cloud journey, this began with a cloud-first approach from the outset. This meant that agility and digitisation sits at the heart, which helps get the right customer outcomes out of those transformations, at scale. From here, the operational agility that comes with that adds wings to the infrastructure.

In the insurance market, there is still a strong, cultural dependency on legacy systems. There have been huge investments made over the years on the legacy systems, which can make it difficult to break the cycle. But as organisations move to cloud, more control over costs becomes available, due to only paying for the infrastructure that is needed, and in insurance, this is where true value can be realised.

While traditionally, cloud migration has been a developer-led initiative, this is now no longer carried out from a solely tech-based perspective, but is more focused on business outcomes to be realised. Investment in skills, and a shift in culture is super essential for insurers to achieve this.

What would you say are the most important skills that are needed to succeed as a data leader?

It’s well worth considering what it takes to be a leader generally: as a leader, you need to understand the pain points and cultural aspects of the organisation. It’s important to be able to absorb all of that, and then deliver a vision that meets those needs. Through that vision, you end up bringing in that cultural shift that’s needed to move forward. A lot of this comes down to relentlessness in pushing back against challenges from the organisation. This has been really helpful, to me.

This leads to the need to connect with people through storytelling — explaining why we are doing certain things. When you lead these big transformations, there tends to be a lot of pushback against change. But being able to take people on the journey, and show them the problems you are solving, is a must.

From a data perspective, you need to explain the value that data brings into the organisation. You’ll hear all these big terms like ‘big data’, ‘AI’ and ‘machine learning’, but you need to be able to communicate how you’re going to implement those technologies at scale and solve business problems. This way, you can really lower the barrier between tech and business.

What is key to ensuring that your hiring strategy keeps the need for DEI in mind?

I’m very proud to be working for DLG, because the organisation has really strong hiring principles and strategy that incorporates diversity and inclusion by design. This means that as part of the hiring process itself, the first thing to consider is to lead by example. All leaders ensure that they are always building a workforce coming from multiple backgrounds, which helps attract a sufficiently diverse talent pool whenever we go into the market with new positions.

The hiring processes here are really transparent; principles such as anonymised CVs and a focus on critical skills for the role are embedded in, and we’re always looking to capture data relating to how diverse our candidates are. There is also a huge focus on retention and progression within the company.

In addition, we often publish videos of employees from diverse backgrounds telling their stories on social media, which helps to normalise DEI.

What can organisations in the tech industry do to improve workforce diversity and boost representation?

The industry as a whole needs many more role models from diverse backgrounds, who represent their company’s progression and growth, which can attract talent. But I think we need to start taking measures at fundamental levels; educating young minds at schools and colleges on the options there are in tech. Companies should work with groups of children who are not as privileged as others, and aren’t as exposed to those career options.

If you look at the last five years, career progressions have massively evolved. There are job roles available now that we weren’t aware of back then, so this needs to go back into education, by bringing more careers programmes to schools and universities to raise awareness.

One good thing that’s come out of the pandemic is a rise in flexible work culture. This has resulted in more diverse candidates being hired throughout the tech sector and produced more opportunities for people from underrepresented groups, which should continuously be recognised.

Finally, decisions around hiring need to be more evidence-based; companies need to look at their employment data, looking at how diverse the workforce is at various levels, from the top down. Continuous feedback is a big part of this, whether that’s through open forums, anonymised surveys. This can help you to find out which areas needs improvement, and come up with an actionable strategy to mitigate this.

This interview is being presented in the lead-up to the 2022 Women in IT UK Summit, happening on the 19th May 2022. You can register your interest in attending the event here.

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