Justin Cicchini is a second-year student at Concordia University in Montréal, Quebec. He is majoring in Actuarial Mathematics with a planned minor in Computer Science. He plans to graduate in fall of 2020. AdvisorSmith interviewed Justin in September 2018.
Tell us about your experience studying at Concordia.
Concordia is a very interesting university because it is the only English-language university in Montréal that offers an actuarial program. Montréal is one of the hubs of data science and artificial intelligence, and it also has many insurance companies. Going to school in Montréal with an actuarial science major gives you a lot of opportunities. You can go out and find a job more easily than anywhere else in Canada other than the big cities of Toronto and Vancouver.
Montréal has many opportunities in property & casualty as well as life insurance. Concordia offers classes focused on life insurance mathematics, classes covering the reasoning behind insurance products, and classes that teach us how we calculate benefits and reserves for insurance.
My school also gives us a solid theoretical foundation by teaching us about the theory of risk and actuarial credibility. We can take all of the theory that Concordia teaches us and very easily transfer it to our work when we find a job with one of the established insurance companies in Montréal. The experience is very interesting because you’re not just discussing theory for three years. Instead, you learn the theory and can immediately see how it can be applied.
Actuarial Mathematics at Concordia at its heart is a math degree. You have a lot of theoretical math classes and theoretical statistics classes, with professors specializing in those areas. Professors at Concordia are very helpful. Although some professors are not directly involved in the insurance industry, they are always looking to provide insights that we can keep in mind and use later in our careers. Even though I might not know immediately how a mathematical theorem will be used, my education provides a background in mathematical thinking that I can take with me and apply later.
Concordia is in the heart of downtown Montréal. It’s very lively, and there are always places to go, restaurants to try, and events happening all the time. In terms of campus location, Concordia is very central, in one of the best areas of Montréal. We’re a 20-minute walk away from the Bell Center. It’s a very cool area to go to school.
What influenced you to pursue an insurance program?
That’s actually a funny story. In high school, we had a class called “Personal Orientation Projects”. It was focused on how to find a job, how to present yourself in an interview, and how to write a CV. They had us take a huge quiz with a long list of professions at the end of the class. My number one profession on the quiz was working as an actuary. That’s how I first learned what an actuary was.
My number one profession on the quiz was working as an actuary. That’s how I first learned what an actuary was.
From there, I took two years of business and math classes, and I realized this is a really interesting field and that it’s meant for me. Maybe that quiz was right!
Why should other students consider studying insurance?
Working in insurance gives you an opportunity to benefit society. In my opinion, innovating at an insurance company benefits not only the insurance company, but it also betters the stakeholders. You’re providing a better experience and lower premiums for those who buy insurance.
What has been your experience with the insurance program at your school?
As a second-year student, a lot of my classes are focused on life insurance and pensions. Many of the purely actuarial classes are focused on mortality tables and calculating benefits and reserves. At Concordia, actuarial science is a math degree at its core, so there are a lot of theoretical math and probability classes that students are required to take.
These classes are useful not only for life insurance but also for property and casualty insurance. Although the teachers are math teachers rather than insurance teachers, they know that most of us are in an actuarial program, so they tailor the theoretical math so that we can see its application in insurance.
Professors are also very interested in promoting extracurriculars in their areas of interest. There is a lot of insurance activity at Concordia, but there is also research being done on mathematical topics. There are always hackathons and extracurricular activities being held at Concordia, McGill, and by companies in Montréal. They are looking for smart and creative computer science, math, and actuarial majors to help them innovate. Not only is school interesting, but there are also events happening frequently where you can test out your knowledge and skills.
What is your favorite class so far and why?
My favorite class so far is my statistics class, with Dr. Farhad Shokoohi, which is focused on the theory of statistics. I find there are a lot of applications to insurance. It’s probably one of the more applied classes I’ve taken, and I’m always a big fan of application.
What has been most challenging about studying insurance? Is there anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?
The hardest thing about studying insurance is the number of hours you have to put in to master it. Insurance gets complicated very quickly, and you have to be on top of your game. At first, insurance seems simple enough: you have the basic idea that you pay premiums and receive a benefit. However, there are many variations on what you can do with the benefit. What kinds of twists can we put on how you get paid, when you get paid, and how much you get paid?
The most challenging thing is the amount of time you need to master everything. I wish I would have known not to underestimate the amount of time you need.
Have you had any insurance related internships?
I’ve had two internships. My first internship was with BFL Consulting Services Inc., which is an insurance broker that advises companies on group insurance for their employees. I worked as an actuarial analyst for BFL.
I also worked at TD Insurance, part of TD Bank in Canada, as an actuarial student analyst working in the pricing department focused on testing new models and doing pricing innovation. Working at TD Insurance was a very interesting dynamic. We weren’t just doing the regular functions that insurance companies have to do such as making sure we had enough reserves and trying to calculate premium changes.
Instead, it was really about innovation and coming up with creative models and techniques to get an edge. The goal was to make our premiums better and more accurate. We wanted to make sure that we were not overcharging good risks and undercharging bad risks. We were trying to make sure that everything was fair for all of our stakeholders, including policyholders.
My role on the team was to create a machine learning model for the Ontario automobile market to see if the current pricing algorithm that we used to calculate premiums was still accurate. I wanted to see if there were factors that were leading to overcharging or undercharging clients. For example, if we charged based on a driver’s age, I would check the data and create a model to see if we were overcharging older clients or if we were undercharging younger clients. We wanted to know if it was fair for all drivers in each age category.
What are the latest developments or trends in insurance?
Some of the big trends in insurance are artificial intelligence and blockchain. When I entered the program at Concordia, I thought that these were just buzzwords that had no actual application. However, working in the insurance industry completely changed my mindset about them, and I am working towards mastering these ideas so I can change the way we do business using the best analytical and innovative techniques out there.
Some of the big trends in insurance are artificial intelligence and blockchain.
A few of the applications people in the industry are talking about include artificial intelligence for customer service chatbots. AI can also be used to automate the underwriting process so that a quote takes three minutes instead of three days to complete. Classically, we never thought it was possible to process quotes and information so quickly. With the newest trends, we can innovate and improve the process for the policyholders as well as make our jobs easier as actuaries and underwriters.
What are your future aspirations?
My biggest goal is getting my degree. Right now, I’m looking to take advantage of the time I have while I’m in school and the opportunity to take classes. I’m trying to learn new skills, whether they are soft skills like giving speeches and presentations or hard skills like learning how to program in Python and R.
I’m also focused on passing actuarial exams, including the MAS-I, which is an actuarial exam with a strong focus on statistical modeling. I’m studying for exams now while I’m in school so that when I’m working full time, I’ll have fewer exams to study for. I’m focused on the exams and also learning more about programming, data science, and statistical modeling because I think that’s the future of the insurance industry.
Do you have any favorite books that you would recommend for someone interested in insurance?
One book I like is not specifically about insurance, but is very relevant. The book is How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg. This book tells a different story about situations that we encounter in life, and it explains the unintuitive math behind the situations that we might not normally think about.
The answer to “how not to be wrong” is to never assume you know the end result without performing an analysis. You never know what the data is going to show, and you never know what the statistical analysis is going to say. You can make baseline assumptions but you always have to think rationally and always see where the data leads you. It’s a very statistical book, but I think it has a lot of applications in insurance.