On his office wall, Port of Rotterdam CIO Lourens Visser has a map of the city that clearly, as maps do, underlines the size of the port and points to its history from its origins in the 13th century to today’s newly reclaimed modern harbour which welcomes the world’s largest ships. Often called the Gateway to Europe, the Port of Rotterdam is the continent’s and, until recently, the world’s, largest port.

Over 34,000 sea-going ships visit the Port of Rotterdam every year and 100,000 barges take goods from the port to the rest of Europe, but the port also operates rail and road services and an advanced pipeline network, all of which are dedicated to getting goods from ships to corporations and consumers right across Europe, including the UK.

Harbour dues from ship owners make up half of the organisation’s income, while the other half comes in rental income for the wide variety of business that operate within the port area.

“We are landlords and a very good infrastructure management company,” Visser explains. The city of Rotterdam and the national government of Holland own the Port of Rotterdam and each receives a dividend from the port. This adds levels of both simplicity and complexity to the organisation, moving it away from politics but leading it to operate mindful that people live close to the port and within a highly regulated sector. The port is also involved in the management of the roads around the port as its existence places the greatest pressure on the network.

“We are very profitable, so you need a good relationship also with the clients that use the port and to ensure that the profit is used to invest in making the port better,” says Visser.

Extension strategy

The port has a business plan plotting its course up to 2015, which includes a new port called Maasvlakte 2 which is being reclaimed from the sea and built at present. This 1000-hectare extension will mean Rotterdam can serve the latest generation of mega-ships sailing the world’s seas.

“We really have a long-term vision as an organisation. Our business is planning what kind of businesses we want to have as far ahead as 2030,” says Visser. Annual investment of about €500m includes many infrastructural projects, like building quays, widening and deepening basins and developing land in the area, but also extends to other modes of transport, especially railway and barges.

Visser explains that fierce competition in the port market means Rotterdam can’t drop anchor as shipping companies will change port if they don’t feel they are getting the service they demand.

“We help customers grow,” he says. “We co-operate with other ports too and have a 50-50 joint venture with the Port of Oman as we know how to attract companies to a port and there is a spin-off advantage for Rotterdam.”

The organisation has also recently opened an office in Brazil to work on a new port being developed there. Local competition along the coast of Northern Europe is just as intense with Le Havre, Antwerp, Amsterdam and Hamburg all vying for trade: each port can call on a strong relationship with major global corporations: for Rotterdam it is, among others, Shell, while chemical giants BASF are Antwerp’s biggest client. Interestingly the majority of export goods bound for Italy goes via Rotterdam, ahead of Italian ports such as Naples.

Such ambitions of growth needed to be backed up by a fresh IT plan, explains Visser. “When the port vision plan came out I felt that we had to have an IT strategy to go with it and it was needed. Previously projects were on a first-come, first-served basis. Also the maintenance budget was growing and I wanted innovation,” Visser says of how he used a business plan to begin transforming the shape of IT and then the organisation.

Visser splits IT into primary processes, support processes and governance, and ropes these to the business objectives of shipping management, commercial development and harbour management.

“We developed the IT strategy with the business; previously IT was an island. If we really cooperate we will be really strong, I told the business,” he says.

“We have developed 17 change programmes that we need and identified what business processes will change as part of them.”

Visser’s own faith in the power of technology to keep organisations relevant influenced the bold transformation plans.

“My budget for this year is bigger than last year’s. Make IT more visible and valuable,” he says of how he intends to invest it, while arguing that IT has become too much of an order-taker.

“I want to ask the business why they need certain requirements and what will go wrong if they don’t get those requirements.” In many cases, he adds, technology is the only way an organisation can continue to fulfil parts of its role, be more efficient and replace skills or knowledge. Yet the IT department has not always been able to challenge and deliver on the promise.

“The Harbour Master’s division is facing a problem, with many people retiring the coming years. Part of a solution to tackle this is IT,” says Visser.

The CIO reports to the CFO of the Port of Rotterdam, who he says is supportive and enthusiastic of technology and who, unlike Visser, sits on the board. Visser has refloated the management structure to be more business-aligned, and his direct reports also report to the business departments of the organisation. Each of these direct reports is responsible for the end-to-end design, delivery and operation of the IT requirements of those business departments.

Probably the biggest outcome from Visser’s transformations has been the development of the Harbour Master Management and Information System (HaMIS) which replaces a 19-year-old solution. HaMIS is being developed in?house by Visser’s own team.

“Holland has a lot of bad experiences of IT, especially in the public sector, so we decided to keep it in-house. For small ports there are off-the-shelf applications. We did investigate the top 20 products available, but the task range that we have at the port is so different.

“We cannot describe our requirements so well to an IBM or Capgemini that they will understand, so it will go wrong,” he admits. The first major implementation went live in April 2011 for the inspectors and this year the harbour traffic management system itself will go live.

“The old system was a risk. The pilots and tugs in the port rely on our information for their business. In 2010 there were some big outages,” Visser says. HaMIS will reduce the port’s operating costs and improve efficiency and safety of ship movements. A team of 35 developed HaMIS at a cost of €20m, and in line with Visser’s management vision they were co-located with key users.

The development team adopted Agile development practices and, to ensure that the product quality was high, the Port of Rotterdam struck a relationship with the Software Improvement Group (SIG) to act as independent assessors of the Java code during development. A week’s worth of code was sent to SIG each Friday for analysis, findings were reported back to the Port of Rotterdam on Tuesday and development meetings held on Wednesdays. This Agile and SIG strategy keeps risk and cost down to a minimum throughout the development. Visser explains that SIG helped create user scenarios with the business to check that the code and the Port met the German TUV certification for the project and its documentation.

“In-house was a well taken decision, as was the decision to evaluate,” Visser says in reflection. “It was a learning curve for the business and IT.”

Renewed investment

HaMIS is hosted by Dutch provider KPN on a private cloud. It sits on renewed infrastructure as the new application also enabled Visser to modernise the Port of Rotterdam’s technology backbone. IBM still operates the old application as parts of it are still in use, an example of inevitable legacy at such big corporations.

“We have a lot of legacy in areas like finance and that comes with the culture of the organisation – we have a lot of people here who have grown up with the idea that they are the best and the biggest, so it has been good for the port that people like me have come in,” he says.

One benefit, says Visser, is that the IT division now interacts far more with the rest of the organisation. “We have a cultural mix of being like a government department and a consultancy and we are also like a utility company with a lot of assets,” Visser adds. He joined the port in May 2010 from vendor Logica.

As the development of HaMIS winds down, Visser is looking at the next phase of the system’s lifecycle, which includes HaMIS becoming a technology offering that the Port of Rotterdam can offer to other major port operators. One rival potentially adopting HaMIS is the fellow dutch port of Amsterdam.

Maintenance of the application is being carried out by the development team at present, but Visser may consider the operation and upkeep of HaMIS to go outside of the organisation so that his agile proven development team can take on the next challenges that hove into view for the port. Asset management is a major part of operating a port of the scale of Rotterdam and is likely to be transformed by Visser and his team together with the business.

With technology increasingly relied upon by organisations to tackle critical and competitive issues, a number of CIOs are bringing development back in house. Visser has demonstrated that a critical application and strategy can benefit from the skills and knowledge that exist in your own team. In return for his faith in the IT team they have created a new revenue opportunity for the Port of Rotterdam.

CV: Lourens Visser

May 2010-present: CIO, Port of Rotterdam
2009-2010: IM Director Netherlands, Logica
2007-2009: Line of Business Director Outsourcing Services Netherlands, Logica
2006-2007: Unit Manager, Accenture Technology Solutions
2001-2006: Project Executive Strategic Outsourcing, IBM Netherlands
2000-2001: Business Manager S/390 Netherlands, IBM
1998-2000: Customer Services Manager Strategic Outsourcing, IBM
1986-1998: Naval Officer, Royal Netherlands Navy