INFORM’s Matthew Wittemeier took the time to sit down with Jennifer Sommer, Associate Partner and Head of IT Consulting at HPC Hamburg Port Consulting, to find out how one gets from a doctorate in mathematics to the maritime industry.
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MW: How did you get started working in maritime?
JS: To give the answer, let me go back a bit further. After studying maths in university, I was offered to dive even deeper into the sciences by doing my PhD in maths. I decided to do it because I was passionate about the topic. That passion is always driving me. In this case, it was analyzing the behavior of stochastic networks with unstable, meaning overloaded, and unreliable nodes. I was eager to bring this topic forward.
This curiosity about a topic was one part of my choice to go into maritime, but frankly speaking, an important aspect of my decision was simply a good gut feeling, which is often the case for me. After all the theoretical work at the university, I was looking for a new challenge in a very tangible field. I wanted something you can easily describe to family and friends because everyone has an image of what the port business looks like, especially when you live in a port city like Hamburg. There is more complexity if you look behind the curtain. I am still passionate about it, and I love that there is always something new that I can learn.
MW: When did you know you wanted to work in maritime? Was it while you were still studying, or were you actively looking for jobs at that point?
JS: I was about to finalize my PhD thesis, and I was looking for something not too abstract, but still an attractive field with a lot of complexity behind the processes. At the very first glance, the maritime industry looked like it might be easy. On the surface, it is a process to transport a container from A to B, for example. But if you look deeper into the IT, the opportunities to optimize and to automate are immense. There’s definitely more than meets the eye.
MW: Definitely. You mentioned that you started eight years ago with HPC as a software developer. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a woman?
JS: Starting as a newbie can be a challenge. I became a member of the software development team at HPC. My roles were quality manager, requirement engineer, and IT project manager. I still remember my first project. We developed and implemented a new software for the Container Terminal Burchardkai in Hamburg, a semi-automated container terminal. This was exciting for me. While the integration into the experienced team was not an issue, working in these responsible roles for such an important project was new for me. I was so absorbed by the tasks that I did not realize I was the only woman involved in this project. This was a new topic, new domain, and new industry. I was able to learn about the terminal’s operational processes and build profound knowledge of the domain and industry.
MW: You mentioned that a year ago you were promoted to associate partner, and you’ve recently accepted a promotion. What was the process like to get where you are?
JS: I would say I simply tried to do my best. What was it like for me? Well, working towards a solution, never afraid to ask questions, these are factors that are very important to me. I like to work where my strengths lie, but I also challenged myself. I was never too tired to learn and try out new ways. I think passion and engagement are important success factors. On the other hand, during the past decade, new technologies have disrupted the maritime industry. The demand for innovative IT consulting increased exponentially. I have been running and leading more than 30 IT projects successfully. I guess it is also promising to have a proven record.
Industry Challenges and Opportunities
MW: Let’s shift the focus more to the industry now. What are the biggest opportunities you see for the industry over the next five years?
JS: I think we don’t have to look so far into the future. Right now, we are experiencing a time of big opportunities. The pandemic challenges all industries around the world. One of the biggest opportunities at hand is clearly digitalization. The need to be more flexible in the way we work and acceptance of working remotely increased tremendously this year.
MW: Do you see that carrying through into the operational side of terminals?
JS: Yes. It offers the chance to bring even new port operating models into place.
JS: For example, remote work. When you don’t have to sit in the terminal, it increases the safety in the terminal. Even controlling terminal operations could be executed from home. Technically, it is possible.
More generally, an opportunity is being more open to digitalization in practice. When talking about data and what data can bring, you can add value because you can make more informed decisions using it. Looking at the big picture, I think the vision of the global digital supply chain becomes more and more achievable thanks to digitalization and how it is accepted right now. I like to see that maritime is an industry in transformation. While collaboration in a competitive environment is a challenge, it has a huge opportunity. Integrating and managing data will be more and more important in creating value for all stakeholders along the supply chain.
MW: In order to realize a global digital supply chain, the first step is for organizations to embrace digital technologies. The second step, one could argue, is willingness for the data you’re talking about to be shared. That’s not currently the easiest thing in a lot of industries, particularly in maritime. How do we address those challenges?
JS: Sharing data is a challenge because you need to trust that there is a neutral entity. You don’t want your competitor to see too much information, but in the end, there will be common pains and gains between you and your competitor with shared data. For example, when it comes to design or to establish a Port Community System as we have done for the Port Authority of Thailand or the Upper Rhine Ports, you need to bring the stakeholders together around the virtual table and really address and identify the information needs to relieve common pains, achieve possible gains, and emphasize the values that can be created out of sharing data by utilizing smart solutions.
MW: From your perspective, are there initiatives within the industry that are starting to achieve that?
JS: There are a lot, whether it is regarding standards or simply having pilot projects meant to make the very first step. I’ve seen a lot around the world. Looking locally here in Hamburg, HVCC, Hamburg Vessel Coordination Center, is a great example. They’ve made a huge step by creating a joint venture between two competitors in order to strengthen the Port of Hamburg.
MW: Obviously, the coordination of all the vessels coming into and out of the port is something that everyone benefits from. That’s a great example. It’s also a very tangible example as well, because often with data, when we’re talking about sharing data, you don’t see the immediate value. Whereas with the Hamburg example, you see the ships coming and going.
Since you’re in charge of IT consulting now at HPC, I want to ask a question about emerging technology, which is, of course, everyone’s favorite buzzword. If you could pick one technology that you’re starting to see emerge in the market today, one of those buzzwords that is going to probably have the most significant impact on the industry, which would you pick?
JS: I would pick artificial intelligence.
MW: The big one! And why?
JS: I’m a mathematician, so artificial intelligence (AI) makes my eyes light up. In particular, machine learning (ML), as a technique of AI, provides the support to recognize and understand patterns in a mass of data that goes beyond the limits of classical regression. ML even promotes a deeper understanding of historical data and allows prediction of, for example, cargo-flow-related operations. ML will help us make more informed decisions and realize other benefits we can’t yet see. Including it in the terminal operations software helps us be more efficient and unlocks this potential of digitalization.
MW: It’s interesting that you picked machine learning because I wouldn’t argue it’s so much a buzzword, with HPC having recently helped deploy a couple of machine learning projects at HHLA. HPC is actively working in this field and exploring ways to implement machine learning into the operations of terminals. Would you say you are at the forefront of that, or is the knowledge gained positioning you to explore alternative options or applications?
JS: There are a lot of start-ups in the market currently trying to apply machine learning, not only to our industry. I think what makes the difference is applied domain knowledge. You have to aggregate the data in a way that ensures machine learning can bring the results you wish to achieve. We are very happy that the first project is being called successful by the client. I believe there are more use cases that make me confident to say this is currently one of the most promising emerging technologies in our industry.
Women in Maritime
MW: Point taken. Let’s change tracks a little more, and we’ll stay in the industry, but switch back to looking at women in the industry. The maritime industry is traditionally quite male-dominated. How do you envision getting more women to be inspired to join the industry?
JS: I strongly believe in the advantages of mixed teams on all levels. Instead of, for example, having teams consisting only of men or women, studies, and also experience, show that diversity is very important for sustainable success. Diversity is not only about gender balance. It’s also about bringing experienced people together with young talent. It is important to attract all genders and the younger generations to maritime in order to get the most benefits. But, indeed, according to the International Transport Workers Federation, women currently make up an estimated 2% of the global maritime workforce. So, there is room for improvement if maritime wants to benefit from the potential women can bring to it.
Maritime is becoming increasingly more welcoming to women although it wasn’t perceived this way and its historical reputation wasn’t either. Maritime is transforming through digitalization, new technologies, and innovation, which brings opportunities for all of us. This opens up the door for people with different skill sets. I see a lot of potential in maritime and the logistics industry, where you can use your creative, analytical, communication, and people development skills to be part of this journey. Let’s make this potential more visible for young talents of all genders!
Frankly speaking, I don’t think this is only a topic for the maritime industry. It is valid for a lot of technically oriented industries. Girls and young women should already be encouraged at school to study STEM subjects if they feel attracted to them. Active support is very important at a young age to overcome stereotypes.
MW: Who do you see as role models for women in maritime? Do you have a role model?
JS: To be honest, I don’t. Nevertheless, I like how women in maritime collaborate in order to gain more visibility and gender diversity. A nice example is WISTA International, the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association, which connects female executives and decision-makers around the world. I like their mission, which is to attract and support women at the management level in maritime.
MW: Closing thoughts. If you had one piece of advice for a woman looking to succeed in maritime, what would it be?
JS: Be confident, be yourself, and don’t give up too easily.
MW: Succinct. I like it. Jennifer, thank you so much for your time.
JS: You’re very welcome and thank you for having me.
Who is Jennifer Sommer?
Jennifer Sommer is an expert in the fields of IT strategy and digitalization and Associate Partner at HPC Hamburg Port Consulting GmbH.
After earning her PhD in mathematics (in the field of stochastics) at the University of Hamburg, she started working in the maritime industry in 2012 when she came on board at HPC as an IT consultant. Her first IT project was the implementation of a new terminal operating system at a semi-automated container terminal. Over the years, she gathered experience in numerous IT consulting projects for ports around the world, from reviewing existing IT systems over designing future port IT concepts, identifying and recommending quick wins, up to actually implementing IT solutions.
In April 2019 she became Associate Partner and is, since September 2020, responsible for HPC’s IT consulting services.
What is Women in Maritime?
The Women in Maritime initiative is a combination of a series of interviews and conference sessions brought to you by INFORM as part of its broader diversity program. The first step in increasing the scope of diversity in any industry is to highlight the diversity that exists and to create opportunities for conversations about diversity. While it is often men we think of when we consider the mental image of most logistics roles, women contribute to the industry in all its facets and at all levels of seniority. The initial aim of Women in Maritime is to show that diversity and to bring the conversation around it to life.