A Long Love Story of Tech and Shipping: My 33 Year Long Career in MSC

MSC IT meeting in Athens in 2001. From left to right: Fabio Catassi (grey shirt), myself (burgundy), Roberto Musumeci (blue) and Rumen Lilov (beige).

In 1986, I walked into MSC’s Geneva headquarters for the first time.

Briefcase in hand, hair down to my shoulders, I grabbed a coffee with my boss and then settled in to work. I had joined as a consultant to develop a software solution for MSC to file rates with the US Federal Maritime Commission.

It was supposed to be a short-term engagement. Now, 33 years later, I’m still there.

And what a journey it’s been.

We’ve gone from tracking containers manually by updating cards on the wall, to real-time container tracking 24 hours a day, wherever you are in the world.

We’ve seen computers evolve from bulky note-taking machines to instant portals for connection and efficiency like we’ve never seen before.

A bulky note-taking machine from the pre-Internet days, connected only to a printer (and a power source, of course). This particular model is the IBM 5150 PC, one of the most popular choices in the 1980s. Photo: IBM Corporate Archives

We’ve gone from physically posting or couriering Bills of Lading across the world to… well, come to think of it, not everything has changed!

But while today’s technology eclipses anything we could’ve imagined back then, many of the challenges we faced back then, we still face today.

We’re still finding new ways to collect, organise and distribute data to improve the way we do business. And we’re still navigating the natural resistance to such changes.

The context may change, but the challenges stay the same.

Setting the standards

In the late 80s, the MSC IT department was small. Really small. In fact, it was just me — a long-haired musician/tech nerd with an early 386 PC (1987) and a monochrome monitor.

Most people didn’t understand what I was doing back then (and at times, I didn’t either).

Here’s proof that I had long hair back then! This photo with Pasquale Formisano and myself is from a company dinner in Geneva in 1991.

My chief goal was to improve information flow to solve problems for my colleagues. From a technical standpoint, we were starting from scratch. There were no systems or processes, no standards, and no way of collecting, organising and distributing information. Information came from a mix of phone calls, faxes, notes, and tracking cards — and that was just within MSC.

In an industry like shipping, it’s not just about how information flows within an organisation, but how it flows throughout the entire supply chain ecosystem.

We needed a way to collect information from our decentralised booking systems and bring it back to users in a way they could understand, and in turn reduce the staggering number of faxes and manifests being sent by post across the world.

So, we set out to design a data exchange standard.

In many long days and nights, we eventually developed a way to collect, collate and standardise information from hybrid systems across the world. It was ground-breaking at the time, and those efforts eventually became the MSC DTX Standard, which is still in use today, nearly 30 years later.

I’ll have to admit, it was an exciting time.

Every day brought new challenges and we were figuring them out as we went. But as stimulating as it was for me, I also realised that most ‘non-geeks’ didn’t share the same excitement for standardisation as I did.

They care less about technology and more about how it impacts them. Technology invariably ushers in change. One of the biggest challenges back then, as it is today, is helping people see change as an opportunity, rather than a threat.

Transparency and change

“That’s crazy! You can’t let people know where the ships are.”

It was 2004 and I had just explained to a colleague that I wanted to put our ship schedules on the website. You could say that he was resistant. But once I pulled up the screen and showed him how easy it was already to identify where a ship was, there was a realisation — transparency is here.

Transparency was still emerging in those days. It was a shift in mindset.

In 2000, Maersk involved MSC and P&O in the INTTRA platform, which was the beginning of basic standards and information exchange with customers. It was the first time that major carriers had worked collaboratively in such a way, and looking back now, it paved the way for DCSA. But at the time, this transparency was a change.

The thing about change is that it can be uncomfortable, and it’s often met with resistance.

It challenges us to rethink how we do what we do. It disrupts old paradigms and ushers in new ones. That can be unsettling.

But in my experience, change represents enormous opportunities.

We only have to look back at some of the changes in our industry and see how they’ve led to improvements.

You cannot write a story about tech history in shipping without mentioning the telex. This is the British Telecom “Cheetah” 87C/32K Telex Machine from 1984.

We resisted the telex, and later embraced it.

We resisted computers, and now can’t imagine business without it.

Now, all these years later in 2020, I believe our biggest breakthroughs are still on the horizon.

Automation, blockchain, IoT, industry-wide standardisation. We’re simplifying how we do business. We’re finding efficiencies in bookings and customer experience, and we’re creating more intelligence from data.

We’re on the verge of the next wave of change, and just as before, I’m thrilled to be part of it.

It’s my hope that looking to the past will help us embrace the changes of the future.

I’ll leave you with this… what are you resisting today that you’ll wish you embraced sooner?

Husband, father, bass player, shoeaholic. CDIO at @MSCCargo and chairman of DCSA. I mostly tweet about the digitalisation of container shipping!