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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

An actuary at the FT?

Should I accept an offer to work for an Internet operation backed by the Financial Times, I wondered? The decision was not a difficult one and I jumped at the opportunity. I made it clear to the FT that I had only a year with them, owing to personal circumstances, but 12 months is a long time in this business.
For a few months earlier, I had consulted on what was then called FTyourmoney.com, advising them on calculation engines. They asked me to build the business around mutual funds, the premise being that the Financial Times would find or develop a tool for rating funds and then use the FT brand to build a business around it.
What did I bring? What did I learn? Would I recommend it to another actuary? I think these questions are of interest to the profession, particularly anybody contemplating a move away from traditional actuarial work.

The upside
What I brought was a strong numerical sense and the ability to translate this into practical reality. My actuarial training and my interest in investments, rather than any particular bent, brought me these skills and I was at least as good at this as many of my colleagues in the organisation. When I found an engine on the website of a company called Advanced Portfolio Technologies (APT), I had little difficulty understanding its strengths and the potential something similar had to more than match the FT’s requirements.
I found it reasonably straightforward to present the FT and the fund ratings approach to potential partners in the UK and continental Europe.
Translating the technical detail of APT’s approach into a product understandable by most individual investors was also not particularly difficult, though I do not think I executed this part of my job as effectively as I had other parts. The profession gives us technical expertise and some training in communication, but perhaps not enough; however, I was working for a financial newspaper, and I had plenty of communication experts around me!
The downside
What I found myself lacking was the streetwise, creative, and entrepreneurial nose that FT.com attracts and rewards. I learned a great deal in my 12 months, but I couldn’t get going right from the beginning, transforming a concept into a fully fledged business. This was appreciated fairly soon by my colleagues, and the right person was brought in to do the building work with me.
From then on, I was a technical assistant and project manager as we worked to build the website and turn it into a profitable venture. Sadly, I missed the launch, but I understand that this is an important part of the FT.com business plan and is spreading rapidly through Europe.
Did my profession let me down? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think we should be trying to convert our training into an actuarial MBA. On the other hand, I felt pretty vulnerable at times, as if this were the first time that I was working in the real world. I would like to see us recognise the difference and distance between actuarial expertise, which is largely technical and professional, and the broad world of business, which often calls for a different set of skills. We should definitely not make the mistake of assuming that actuaries are good at business. This is something the outside world has been telling the actuarial profession for a long time.

The contemplation
Am I still an actuary? I knew this would be the key question arising from my experience. I think the answer is something like ‘Yes, but only just’. I don’t think I would survive a technical actuarial position, but I also realise that my core has been defined by my training. I have most to offer by converting the complexity of the actuarial world into practical solutions.
In order to do this, I need to strive to understand the real world and its needs and then bring the special skills that I have and that the profession has trained into me. But I’m still not sure whether I describe myself as an actuary first.
Would I recommend it, the break away from the traditional world of the actuary? Without understating the difficulty of much actuarial work, this was different. Like any tough experience outside the comfort zone, I would recommend an experience like the one I had at FT.com.
Learning all the time, I found myself growing quickly out of my FIA-naïveté, hopefully into a better business professional. I have never regretted the step outwards.