Daniel Sharpe - Actuarial Science and Risk Management Student

Daniel Sharpe - Actuarial Science and Risk Management Student

You fell into the career by accident. What does that mean?

I completed quite a different set of secondary school finishing qualifications: English, Maths, Music, and Chemistry; two arts, two sciences. I knew I wanted to do something with maths and thought “What do they all have in common?” Analysis was at the heart of everything I did. Each of the schools in my area were given the opportunity for one student to attend a Career Insight Day with Mercer in their Belfast office. In my school we drew names from a hat, and I got the slot through complete random chance. I went to their office and loved every moment of it! One of the presentations was from Queens University about their Actuarial Science course and it really interested me, so I applied and here I am today.

What do you see as key characteristics of innovative actuaries?

The first thing is the willingness to embrace change. I feel I am in a strange transition phase coming through the industry.

Over the summer I tried to learn some Python because I saw the profession moving towards being half data analyst and half traditional actuary. There is now a lot of integration software appearing with cloud systems, SQL, and database queries that allow actuaries to manage larger datasets than Excel can handle. The next level is asking how you then include more machine learning as it becomes less expensive. I think it’s machine learning that will come to the fore as I fully enter industry and that's why I’ve tried to teach myself some Python to prepare for that technological future that is fast approaching.

After my initial taste of the actuarial world through Mercer I wanted to find out more. When I put “actuary” into Youtube, a new wave of actuarial content creators such as Dominic Lee and Brea Fried helped shape my initial insights into the profession. Putting yourself out there is a big driver of change, and it’s those who are sharing information about the profession through online mediums that are leading the charge.

What factors do you believe influence the impact actuaries can have within their organizations?

My first year in university separated the fundamental skills of actuarial science to establish a firm foundation of knowledge. It was tough for me to then marry all the ingredients together. I like to try and put everything into one big pot that I can then use to solve problems by applying skills and ideas that may not be traditionally actuarial or associated with the problem at hand.

This technique is something that has worked well for me. I think it’s similar to video games where you have completed the level, but also have the ability to go back and complete the challenge in a different way. I feel it’s this factor that influences the impact actuaries can have where instead of just building something, shelving it, and moving on to the next project; it's thinking “I've learned this new skill, that worked well for this, let’s link these two things together and make the whole experience better.”

It's also the ability to use softer skills to break down technical information in a way that’s not just usable for the actuarial team but also those who aren't from that background. Throughout my time at university, we have been reminded to bring more to the table than mathematical ability. You have to bring an attitude of dissecting, digesting, and then utilizing the results you have calculated rather than just reaching a final answer. 

What are some key ways you see the actuarial profession evolving in the next few years?

As the UK moves further and further away from the EU, regulatory regimes will begin to shift. Since the pandemic everyone keeps saying we are in a new normal. Nothing is normal about where we currently are, and we don't know where our destination is yet. The shift away from the typical business cycle we have become used to and the unlikely systematic shocks like we have recently seen in UK gilt markets will require new regulation to meet the new challenges we now face but to me we regulators are very keen to regulate before we settle into what could resemble a new normal.

The sheer rate of change also has the potential to spread out and become a contagion risk in itself that will require new methods for actuaries to tackle the aftermath.

What advice would you have for someone who's considering an actuarial career today?

The first thing is to just put “actuary” into Google or Youtube and look at what's out there. Actuarial science is a profession that’s coming more into the public eye. It’s about remembering to bring more to the table than an ability to do complex calculations.

I received a booklet from the IFoA saying the direction of actuarial science was through students being ‘More than Maths’. That's why people who are coming with a variety of backgrounds are joining the profession. It's not that we're wanting to fundamentally change what an actuary is, but through people with different outlooks collaborating to help improve everyone’s understanding. 

An actuary is not one mold that you must fit into, it's a more fluid thing where you'll have actuaries who prefer to be technical and can create complex models, but also those on the other end of the spectrum who are interpreting the model’s results for a client. That spectrum is what you must be aware of coming into the industry. It's not one size fits all. Don't feel like you have to come in knowing everything but know that there's also a lot of work to do. 

Knowing yourself and what you bring to the table innately, can also allow you to become a better employee and person, not necessarily what you think looks good on a CV.

How do you think that data scientists and actuarial scientists could collaborate more effectively?

I think from my point of view, data science was always sold to me as more mathematical, and actuarial science had a few more pounds and pence. As I've discovered more about the professions, I've noticed that there is a muddy distinction between the two but maybe for the benefit of both parties there should be. Data scientists and actuaries will continue to work closely together, but I don't agree with the idea that they should become one and the same.

In terms of working with data scientists more effectively, it's respecting the depths of expertise held by both professions. An actuary can build a model, but a data scientist could make it in a totally different way that's maybe more efficient, or accurate. Maybe data scientists have a grasp over why a certain item doesn't work, but maybe don't see the hidden impacts that could occur across the system. Both roles have and will continue to feed into each other to make sure that what they're producing as a team can be the best it can be. 

At the end of the day, drawing lines is very different to building walls. 

What makes innovation impactful?

When it's disruptive. This idea stuck with me from when I attended this year’s ProActuary summit where the concept of being a disruptive actuary was discussed by many industry professionals. I believe being disruptive is not just saying, “Here's an idea. We could use this for something,” it's more “Let's run with this idea and see it to the end. Let's see how we change things. It might be rubbish, and it might not work, but let's give it a go.” That's what makes innovation impactful, the ability to disrupt and improve. Ideas can slowly trickle in to become impactful overtime but being disruptive is turning the taps on to the max to reach the same final state quicker. If things do go wrong, it’s then recognizing it may be time to slow down to fix some plumbing. 

What are some of the more impactful innovations in the actuarial field today?

For me, it's actuarial degrees. I probably wouldn't have found out about the profession until I was in my thirties if it wasn't for my degree. Allowing potential actuaries to start their career progression from an earlier age to me is the most impactful development that is still ongoing. There is a valid concern that this may discourage some people from entering the industry but overall, it creates two pathways into the actuarial world. How do we ensure that those people are being funneled into actuarial science and not being snapped up by management consulting firms or investment banks who are very prominent around university campuses? How do we make sure those actuarial students can put the hunger for what they want to learn into practice in the industry? These are the questions that examining bodies and local institutes across the world will now be considering.

What is the best type of change that actuaries can adopt to become more influential?

Be more vocal. Get out there and promote your ideas and opinions to a public audience. Creating a forum for ideas to circulate is like throwing all your darts against the board and seeing what sticks or if you’re lucky lands in the bull’s eye. For some whose ideas don’t land it could just be in the way you deliver your idea. 

This may allow the profession to reach the public eye through actuaries demonstrating what they do and not being afraid of the questions that come with that.