This week’s Share your Story features Frank Huang, FCAS, MAAA. This is the first of a three part series so be sure to keep your eye out for Part II & III!
In today’s story, we discuss Frank’s relatable (and not always clear) path to his fellowship and actuarial science. The conversation with Frank was candid & lively from the start, and we felt his fervor in discussing his career and reflected on how the industry has evolved.
Q: Can you give us a brief summary of your background and why you wanted to become an actuary?
A: Hi, my name is Frank and I am the Managing Director here at Merlinos & Associates, a Davies company. My pathway to becoming an actuary was probably like most people in that it was not very well set out from the beginning. I grew up in an Asian household where I was kind of taught/brainwashed into thinking that only doctors and lawyers could really contribute to society and have meaningful careers. So, I started my pathway in college as a chemistry pre-med major and very quickly realized this was probably not going to work out because I got C’s in chemistry and biology.
In high school a friend of mine had an actuary visit at their school and told me about the profession. I was like, “oh, that sounds interesting,” and I started looking into it. It was back in the day you still had, I don’t know if they still do, but job almanacs. It’s a book where all these different professions tell you the good things, the bad things about it and the kind of prospects for the future. Being an actuary was consistently in the top three, because it was a great work-life balance, good compensation, and intellectually stimulating. And I was like, well, those all sound really good. And it may not please the mother figure, but I switched majors.
I took the first exam and passed it on the first try. And I said, hey, why not give it a shot? So that’s kind of how I started off.
Q: What was your first actuarial internship?
A: My first internship was with Blue Cross Blue Shield in Florida. This was when I was a rising junior. It was really exciting getting a real paycheck and I think I actually still, even though this was like 25 years ago, have the offer letter somewhere. But it was just interesting working on real life projects that were affecting people. It was also my first introduction to actuarial concepts like loss triangles because it was Blue Cross health benefits. There was an interesting takeaway though when I was talking to people who are in the industry for the first time. Their reaction to being in the profession was really mixed. I talked to people who really loved their job, and thought it was a great fit with their skill sets and what they wanted out of life. But then also met others that really regretted becoming an actuary. So, it was an interesting starting point for my career to try to make sure I was in the former camp and not the latter.
Q: For the people who had that regret, would you say it’s because of how rigorous it was/is?
A: I think a lot of it came down to their exam progress. You know, either not getting credentialed or getting to an associateship and not a fellowship. And honestly, I think that stigma is not there anymore. But back then it was probably more of a distinction and what a fellow could do versus an associate. I think also, there were probably some people that felt like there wasn’t enough attention to their career development by management. They might have felt like they got stuck with at a certain level and they wanted more, but they couldn’t get more. So, all of those things probably in varying proportions were true for the people I knew.
Q: You mentioned that you had a health internship so what made you go over to the CAS?
A: Yeah, I started on the health side and then my second internship in college as a rising senior was with, you think I would say P&C here, but it was actually over in retirement with then Hewitt Associates.
It was a really cool summer, I worked with brilliant people. It was interesting because I was able to experience a glimpse of what a health insurer was like from the prior summer and then for that summer, before my senior year, what retirement consulting could be like. I was leaning towards retirement, but I was still curious about P&C because that was the last area that I hadn’t touched on. There was a good mentor, and still friend of mine, at Hewitt and I asked him, “What are your thoughts? These are my experiences with health insurance with retirement consulting.” And he told me that if he could do it all over again, he would have chosen P&C. And that kind of blew my mind. His rationale was that the job prospects would be better in the next 20 years on the P&C side because retirement plans were already materially changing back then in the early 2000s. But also, the type of work might be more intriguing to me. I kind of felt that working at Hewitt the projects were longer term (the projects were often longer term of many months and years), whereas having shorter-term engagements and a constantly changing mix of clients and work might be more interesting. So, I took that advice to heart and I interviewed at Mercer (now Oliver Wyman) and that’s where I began my career.
Q: What was your personal experience with the exam track?
A: This is a kind of a painful recollection. I mentioned when I was in college, I took the first exam just to kind of feel out to see if this was for me and I passed it on the first try. And at the time I was like that’s great, these exams are pretty straightforward. I thought I would have a decent shot at passing the rest of them on the first try.
Well, that didn’t quite happen. In fact, I never again passed another exam on the first try. I definitely had a sense of false confidence. I quickly realized that studying for exams was so much harder when you didn’t have someone to teach you the material, didn’t have a ton of other classmates to study with, and had a full-time job to also worry about. Yes, the company gives you time to study but you’re now making a good wage, you have disposable income. You have places to travel. You’re now living the dream, right? I definitely focused more on having fun than I did on diligently studying.
So, I very quickly found out that I wasn’t diligent enough. And honestly, I was also overconfident in my intellectual abilities. I thought that, hey, if I could slack off and then cram it in, in the last couple of weeks or months, that it would be enough. I realized I was lacking both in diligence and in the intelligence department.
It was five years after I had graduated college and I wasn’t anywhere close to designation- where the turning point for me was that I met my now wife.
She helped me get serious and prioritize the need to study harder. Still, it still took me another eight years to finally pass my last fellowship exam.
My total travel time was a whopping 13 years. It’s well beyond the limit in the CAS graphic of travel times. So, I definitely took a longer path.
Q: Changing the topic a bit, how have you seen your career change throughout the years given all the technological advancements?
A: Well, I don’t think I could say I saw everything coming. I was astute enough to see the trend in predictive modeling and AI. But honestly, it might have just been I was maybe bored with the traditional reserving work. When I was at Oliver Wyman an opportunity arose early in my career that allowed me to be part of their group and that was the start of and now is their full-fledged predictive analytics practice. They had hired a statistics professor to come in to teach us how to program basic GLM concepts. Then from there, we learned with other colleagues, under the tutelage of this statistics professor how to build and validate models in R. And then we figured out quickly how to present that and integrate it for clients.
That entire experience was kind of like being part of a small startup. But we learned so quickly, and there was so much camaraderie. It allowed me to add another skill set that I could really use for the rest of my career. Whether it was at AIG, ADP, or now at Merlinos & Associates.
Article written by Marilyn Simpson; transcribed & edited by Cynthia Perez.
Keep your eye for Part II & III where we discuss actuarial science within consulting, Merlinos & Associates, advice for young actuaries & Frank’s vision for the future.
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