The Challenge Seeker
Sarah Osborne, FSA, MAAA, FCA
You’ve been a chief actuary and a leader in your field for a while now. What led you to pursue actuarial science in the first place?
I actually just got a little bit lucky. I went to the University of Central Missouri — back then it was called Central Missouri State University – and it’s the only accredited state school in Missouri that has an actuarial science program. I didn’t even know what actuarial science was, but while I was there, I met someone who introduced me to the program and said “I think you should check this out.” I did, and a lot of the things I read and people I talked to said it was a difficult program, and that challenge appealed to me.
What is it that appealed to you about the profession?
I learned that the job was mainly about problem solving, and rising up to meet challenges in day-to-day work. Through an internship, I was able to see how actuaries impact the business, and that they are valued contributors with great career paths. I really liked that actuaries tackle problems head-on, and wanted to do that in my own career. I enjoy a challenge and appreciate having something to really push me. The best things I’ve ever done in my career have all come from that same place — pushing myself into something that I don’t know everything about and taking a risk.
When the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was introduced, how did it impact your work?
At the time the ACA was introduced I was doing actuarial consulting in employee benefits, so the impact on my work was huge. In the healthcare industry, things are constantly changing, with emerging problems to solve, and new technologies and ways of doing things. So, the introduction and implementation of the ACA was one more new challenge added onto my plate. My colleagues and I joked that we didn’t know what we did before the ACA, because we were constantly focused on health reform modeling, compared to the broader employee benefits work we had been previously doing. For a long time, I lived and breathed helping employers understand what the ACA meant for them and their employees.
More broadly, the ACA has had a significant impact on my field beyond the work I was doing at the time the law was introduced. There are some very striking differences in viewpoints across organizations, and there are a lot of people that have a stake in healthcare and have their own opinions about it. As a result, I think there’s more focus on improving our healthcare system, and we recognize that it’s something we need to keep working on as an industry. An important component of making a positive impact on the industry is what we’re doing today with predictive analytics.
Tell us about your role today.
I’m the chief actuary and analytics officer of a large healthcare company that serves federal employees; before I began, it was outsourcing its actuarial work. The company didn’t have any actuaries when I started and hadn’t yet tapped into the rich resources of data and analytics. So I’ve focused the last couple years on building the fundamentals for a robust analytics function. We have the executive support to construct an Analytics Center of Excellence, and we’re building a complete analytics team of actuaries, data scientists, analysts, data governance experts and developers. Right now we are in the process of implementing a new predictive analytics tool. We’re catching up with the industry — crawling before we walk before we run — and eventually we’ll be ahead.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
It’s really exciting to see the impact that our division has made on the business in such a short time. We’re enabling data-driven decisions for internal stakeholders, from customer service representatives to the executive decision makers in the company. We’re using tools like dashboards and data visualization models to make predictive analytics accessible across the organization. With all the changes, I’m looking forward to seeing how our department and the company continue to grow and improve.
A challenge for many people in the field is that today there is so much data that organizations aren’t sure what to do with it all. Is this something you’ve experienced? What are some of the other challenges you’ve experienced in your role?
The sheer amount of data that’s available is a challenge, but it’s an opportunity as well. Internally at my company, there is a variety of data that we haven’t tapped yet. That said, there is so much out there that you can’t use it all, so it’s critical to have a strategy.
Without expert guidance, it is easy for organizations to get it wrong. With all the new analytics tools and vast amount of data available to us, it’s easy to look for the answer you want in data, but that can lead you to the wrong conclusion. That’s why it’s so important for our team to have partnerships with the other departments so we can help them find and analyze the right data, and ultimately yield results to inform their decisions.
What makes actuaries good for roles like yours or other nontraditional career paths like the one you have chosen?
Actuaries are great problem solvers. They know data and can make objective decisions to support their organizations. Actuaries can be great communicators with stakeholders because they know the business, products and data inside and out. Actuaries also have the additional training around standards of practice and code of conduct, which makes them trusted advisors.
I see more and more actuaries in predictive analytics positions, and I’ve met so many amazing leaders who are actuaries, even though their work isn’t as hands-on with data as it once was. An actuarial background and training brings value you can’t get anywhere else.
What advice do you have for actuaries considering predictive analytics or taking the less traditional path?
Whether it’s predictive analytics or any nontraditional path, if you want to become a leader, you have to push yourself to keep learning. Take the risks, make yourself a little uncomfortable and do what you need to do to take the next step and keep developing.