While Hapag-Lloyd’s seafarers were on the oceans moving goods around the world, Helmut Boveland spent 24 years working for the company’s IT department to ensure the trouble-free flow of data before retiring in 2020. In the following interview, he shares how he went from being a goldsmith to an IT expert at Hapag-Lloyd, what he conjures up in his workshop, and how he created a small memorial to his company.
“I started watching my father make his paper aeroplanes when I was 4 years old. Later, when I was older, I thought that I might do a few things differently,” Helmut Boveland says with a grin. His own paper art is displayed in two exhibits on a bookshelf in his cosy living room: one features a cat, and the other a little paper bunny crouching in a very delicate Easter egg. His workshop in the next room holds all kinds of masterpieces, including a cargo ship, an artistic geometric figure, an aeroplane, deer antlers, a poinsettia, and a miniature version of the Wartburg, the castle in central Germany where Martin Luther translated the Bible into German in the 16th century. “I’ve been good at handicrafts for as long as I can remember,” Boveland adds. “I built my first paper aeroplane when I was five.”
As he sees it, his talent also has something to do with his handicap. “My mother had rubella when she was pregnant with me, and I was born hard of hearing,” he explains. “From an early age, I mainly experienced the world through seeing and concentrated observation, which is how I really honed my fine motor skills. But my bad hearing was only discovered while I was in grammar school, when my academic performance went steeply downhill. So I got a hearing aid. But it didn’t really help because there were just too many pupils and background noises. And since the teachers had their backs to me when they were writing on the blackboard, there was no way that I was going to be able to keep up with the others.”
Combining ancient and modern skills
Boveland switched to the school for the hard of hearing in Hamburg, but he fought his way back to the “normal” university-track high school after earning his general certificate of secondary education. It was only at this higher-level school that his favourite subjects – physics and mathematics – were offered as advanced courses of specialisation.
After qualifying to study at university, he completed an apprenticeship to become a goldsmith. And it was during this training period that Boveland was able to put to use not only his manual skills, but also something that would later bring him to Hapag-Lloyd: his fascination with computers. “We had already started learning how to program at school, and I was completely hooked! In fact, I used my first paycheck as an apprentice to buy a Sinclair ZX 81 , which only had a single kilobyte of memory,” Boveland says with a laugh. That was in 1981, when the first personal computers came onto the market in Germany. “I hooked the little black thing with the membrane keyboard up to my TV at home with an antenna cable, and I used a cassette recorder as external storage, as programs were stilled stored on magnetic tape back then,” he continues.
He wrote his first programs for the company he was doing his apprenticeship at. “We had big orders for wedding and engagement rings from across the country,” he explains. “I calculated a number of things, such as the use and consumption of materials, and I printed out tables so that my coworkers didn’t have to calculate how many gemstones they needed for each of the different ring sizes. Later, I also helped out when the company introduced electronic data processing.”
Setting out for new shores, excelling at Hapag-Lloyd
Boveland worked as a goldsmith for 17 years, but then he started having serious problems with his lungs. “After rehab, I decided to go back to school in 1997 and train to become a data entry specialist – and that’s how I got my start at Hapag-Lloyd,” he says. The freshly minted IT expert was hired right after finishing his training. "As a programmer, I joined the department that manages logistics worldwide to this day,” the 63-year-old says. “If someone moves from Hamburg to Brazil and ships the whole household, they want to know what it will cost, how long it will take, and on which route the ship will sail. All these programs were written by hand at Hapag-Lloyd, which is an incredible in-house accomplishment! On top of that, there are a range of special requirements, such as for dangerous goods. For example, table tennis balls are highly flammable, so that have to be declared and stored in a specific way. Programs have also been developed for dangerous goods. Hapag-Lloyd made this software available to the public free of charge, as our shipping company naturally also transports the containers of other carriers. That made the entire container shipping segment safer.”
While the goods are flowing outside, IT works on the inside to ensure safety and updates
When asked how we should imagine what the day-to-day job of a systems analyst is like, Boveland says: “New software is installed on weekends about four times a year, and everyone involved – plus an external service provider – have to spend about two months preparing for each of these instalments. The systems are then shut down on Saturday so that the installation can be launched, and then the systems go back up at night.” And, of course, there are always one or two things that don’t work together, he continues, saying: “And that’s exactly where the systems analysts come in – to search for, pinpoint and eliminate mistakes. You look at the running programs from the reverse side, so to speak, find the line with the wrong code – and then let the developer know about it.”
Boveland’s everyday life in front of the computer was always close to the everyday life of the seafarers. “I would sometimes get a call at nine in the evening from the head of the department, saying ‘You have to come in! We can’t print an invoice in America!’ or ‘We can’t get the customs documents to the ships!’” Boveland recounts, adding: “Whether trivial or serious, anything can happen. And it often happens that a lot of money is at stake.”
Boveland also thinks that the job has become more demanding over the years. “These days, customers also want to be able to track on their smartphone where their fresh fruit is on its journey and whether the temperature in the refrigerated container is just right. Everything has to work flawlessly and in a way that prevents anyone external from tampering with the internal system. If someone were to hack into Hapag-Lloyd’s internal software via a mobile phone, it would be a disaster! Around 200 colleagues in IT are working to ensure that that doesn’t happen.”
From computer to retirement: Time for intricate paper art
On the way into his workshop, Boveland points to a replica of a propeller plane sitting in a display case next to other aircraft. “A ‘Super Constellation ’ made up of 500 parts and weighing only 6.2 grams. I worked on that for 115 hours,” he proudly notes. Seeing this, it’s easy to imagine the patience that he must have brought to his job at Hapag-Lloyd when correcting even the smallest inaccuracies.
His study is filled to the ceiling with boxes and bins on shelves. On the work table are models he has started of miniature geometric shapes that will hold even smaller constructions. “I know these in much larger sizes from when I was a child, as we used to use them as lanterns on St. Martin’s Day,” he says with a laugh, referring to the German tradition of having singing children parade with colourful, lit lanterns usually on the evening of 11 November. Then he points to a dodecahedron – i.e. 12-sized shape – that measures just two centimetres.
Since the pandemic started, he has been looking after his three grandchildren more often than he used to. But they must surely appreciate their tinkering grandfather and find his workshop one of the most wonderful playgrounds. “They’ve just discovered my old Minitrix model train set, and we’re planning to set it up sometime soon,” Boveland notes.
The only thing in the room to remind him of his former employer are a few tiny Hapag-Lloyd containers on the shelf. “And I once built a 3D model of Hapag-Lloyd’s logo, which stood in my office for a long time until I gave it to our secretary as a farewell gift,” Boveland says. He wonders if it’s still in the offices of his former IT colleagues working in the Ericusspitze offices in Hamburg, adding: “Maybe someone should have a look .”