A technology review during a joint meeting of the Steamship Authority’s Port Council and Board of Governors Tuesday morning suggested that the boat line “must change” and replace its technology system as it becomes more and more outdated.
“We have seen that your technology is at a point where you must change, you must transform. You have a technology debt," said Tom Innis of Gibbous LLC, a consultant hired by the Steamship to review its tech infrastructure. "Over time, basically because of the strength of your team (tech staff), you have been able to get away with an underinvestment in technology, an underinvestment in systems.”
Innis said that since Gibbous LLC – a Belmont-based consultancy that helps organizations with strategy development, operations enhancements, and technology planning – began its IT review for the Steamship earlier this year. The firm had identified the Authority's reservation system as a critical area to investigate and believes that a plan needs to be created to address it.
“Since we started the project we learned the vendor for the reservation system, which is really the core of all your technology, is now exiting the market,” Innis said. “So there is now really a new urgency to really replace that, which really sits at the core of your technology.”
The Steamship's reservation system - especially during the opening day to book reservations in January each year - has become a significant headache for customers and the Steamship Authority, as problems have plagued it amid high traffic.
Innis said the Steamship has reached the end point of being able to build off of its existing system partly because of the technology being old, outdated, and in a computer language that is generally not used anymore.
“You have a reservations system in the center and then organic growth of lots of different systems around it that have been developed internally,” Innis said of the system created in 1997. “Lots of customization, lots of changes to meet different stakeholder needs, and you’ve kind of reached the end point of where that works.”
“People maintain the older systems. It works, but in terms of changing it and keeping up with what users want moving forward is going to be an increasing challenge,” Innis continued. “It is hard to find developers who work in that language.”
Innis pointed to some members of the IT staff nearing retirement and once they are gone, the Steamship would then be at “an inflection point” as what they’ve done for the past two decades would become much less feasible.
Innis said another area where users of the boat line are looking for advancements is in real-time communication and real-time use of systems.
“(Users) are really looking for two things. They are looking for flexibility in their scheduling of trips and they are looking for trip certainty,” Innis said. “They want to know they’ve got a spot on the boat.”
“Your systems are what gives you that flexibility and gives you that communication and gives you that ability for users to have more ability to have more flexibility in their trips. There is going to be increasing demand for what your users are expecting of your technology,” Innis added.
He said that users of the Steamship have ultimately paid the price from a lack of long-term planning on the part of the boat line.
“There is an opportunity to enhance your management of vendors, how you actually contract your vendors, what’s in the contracts for technology like service level agreements. How do you know you’re getting from your vendors what you originally contracted for,” Innis said. “With applications and the team, it has really been an entrepreneurial approach, which has worked very well. But because it has been an entrepreneurial approach and not a tremendous amount of long-term planning in terms of systems, the group that has paid the price of that is really the users.”
Innis said the new Steamship website, which had its launch delayed to February of 2024 during Tuesday’s meeting, should be part of the solution to alleviate some of the concerns customers have expressed through user surveys they conducted both internally and externally.
IT governance is also an area where Innis said the Steamship has an opportunity to evolve and that changing how they approach short and long-term planning for their technology systems, in particular their reservation system, could solve many of their problems.
“The long-term strategic question that you all have, and the Steamship Authority has, is do you build it internally or do you go externally,” Innis said. “To build it internally, there are some holes in your existing team. Right now you have a team that is really built around developers and when we started looking at the team, we saw there were pieces that we would have expected to see as part of the team, but we didn’t.”
To be specific, Innis said dedicated project management expertise, having quality assurance dedicated testers, and having some business analysts. He suggested creating a structure that has a clear way of how management gets together and talks about IT, possibly by adding a CIO as part of their leadership team.
Gibbous LLC looked at several options for how to move the Steamship forward with its reservation system ranging from quick fixes such as running the system as is to changes that would take more effort such as a complete revamp.
In the end, Innis said his firm's recommendation is that the Steamship complete a major planning effort of about six months that gets the Steamship to an RFP and out to the market to see what vendors can offer once the boat line has a firm understanding of what they want and how they want to go about remaking their technology systems.
Steamship Authority General Manager Bob Davis said at the meeting he wanted to continue this discussion in their January meeting – reiterating that Innis’ presentation was just a draft when asked whether any action needed to be taken by Board Chair Rob Ranney (Nantucket).