Should seafarers learn to code?

20 Mar 2018

Should seafarers learn to code?

It’s impossible to deny that operating ships is becoming more and more technical. From integrated bridge systems to multi-fuel propulsion systems, the burden on seafarers to understand increasingly complex on-board systems is increasing.

Due to the isolated nature of ships, it’s important that the crew operating them are able to understand, operate, troubleshoot, and if necessary fix the systems which keep the ship safely running. As ships become more complex and hi-tech, we ask whether the seafarers of the future should be learning to code?

According to Stephen Conley of SES Networks “To ensure that infrastructure investments function safely and at full capacity, it will take seafarers who understand Java or Python and understand four-stroke propulsion or ECDIS. In order to manage this transition, it will require an overhaul of the way that training has traditionally been provided.”

Although I can agree that the way training is provided will need to be overhauled to keep up with changes in how the industry operates, I can’t agree that seafarers will need to learn to code.

Where should seafarers focus their expertise?

Over the last ten years, an officer’s role on board a typical merchant ship has increasingly moved away from that of “doing” to that of “monitoring”. From the automation of repetitive tasks to the removal of humans from dangerous work on board, it’s obvious that software systems and new technology will increasingly change the role of a seafarer on board ships over the coming years.

At CargoMate we believe seafarers should be experts in seamanship and not software. As new technology takes over, the role of a seafarer will undoubtedly get more complex. But by asking them to learn an increasing array of new technical skills we are in danger of overloading the industry’s most precious resource. The fundamental skill of any seafarer is that of seamanship, and we believe that no matter how the technological ecosystem changes, the skills of seamanship should remain central to the profession.

We’ve been here before

In the early days of ECDIS, manufacturers got this sorely wrong. By building systems in complete isolation from the end user, the first ECDIS systems were incredibly difficult to use, unreliable, and often misleading, detracting from the bridge team’s ability to effectively navigate the ship. They took a long time to get to grips with and added to the already packed roster of skills for any potential officer to learn before qualifying. Getting a reliable, useful ECDIS was a long and painful process that took many years.

In the 90’s and early 00’s computers were difficult to use, bulky, and inaccessible to many people. Apple’s launch of the iPhone made a powerful computer available to anyone anywhere. It also represented a step change in user experience design which meant that anyone anywhere could quickly get to grips with its software. My mum was adamant that she would never use a computer or learn to type until she was given her first iPad. She’s now on Facebook every day and can type quicker than most teenagers.

Far from forcing seafarers to learn to code, at CargoMate, we believe the onus is on technology providers to build systems that focus on human centred design, are intuitive and enhance the end users’ experience or abilities.

Intuitive, standardised systems are the future

We are working to digitise and automate the recording of cargo operations to improve the efficiency of ships in port and to improve the working lives of seafarers on board. To do it, we know that we need to make our software as intuitive and easy to use as possible. That’s why we built CargoMate using the same design standards as any mobile app producer would, and have worked incredibly closely with our end users on board ships. We’ve completely redesigned the user interface at least once, and publish updates to the software almost every fortnight.

Providers who build software for ships need to take a leaf out of the tech industry’s book. Design software in collaboration with seafarers, not in isolation. Constantly iterate and improve to make your software as easy to use as possible. Operating a ship is difficult, software and new technology should make it easier. Don’t force your seafarers to learn to code - give your seafarers the tools to become superhuman.

©Intelligent Cargo Systems 2020