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Modernising the hidden world of logistics with Shippio

Chris Ackermann started his career in logistics, where he pushed to improve conditions for operators. Rebooting his career as a software developer at Shippio, he once again pursues his passion of revolutionising the logistics industry.

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Chris Ackermann

At the start of this journey, I did not know if it would work out this well. Especially with the bootcamps. It’s a lot of money and you quit your job to do this full time for a few months and then hopefully it works out. And it did, luckily for me.

Chris has been working as a front end developer at Shippio for almost two years now. Originally from Germany, he spent a year in Japan as an exchange student and liked it so much he moved back after completing his master’s degree. He found work in the logistics field and soon became “Manager - Operations, Quality and Systems”. Or in his words “manager of everything”.

Chris decided to pivot to software development because, “I was working in logistics in Tokyo for six years, plus one year before that at a different logistics company. All my knowledge was very tied to that job. Thinking about my future, I would’ve liked a skillset that is more transferable. So I went to a bootcamp in Tokyo called Code Chrysalis, and at the end of the bootcamp I applied for this job.”

Well aware most people don’t know about logistics, Chris took the time to explain, “Logistics is a very hidden industry. You probably know big ships running around with containers, and somehow if you order something and it arrives at your door the next day. There’s a lot to this process. Actually now, it’s a bit less of a black box because more people are looking into this industry.” The industry, and Shippio, has attracted more attention and investment following recent events (the pandemic, and the Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal) that brought logistics worldwide to a standstill and raised awareness of just how lean the system runs.

There’s a lot of things in logistics that are very old-fashioned. My favourite joke used to be ‘our sea freight import team can go home if the fax machine shuts down’ — because for all imports we still got everything or most things via fax. It was 2019. And it’s not only in Japan, this still exists in other countries too.

Shippio is not just a logistics company, they are also a technology company. Their focus is not just on shipping orders and expanding operations, but building technology to modernise the whole logistics industry. Chris said, “We have two different websites. One is for our logistics team, to help them facilitate their day-to-day operations. It helps keep records of everything so there’s no steps that are being missed in the process. We also have a second website for our customers where they can see this information. They can see the status of the shipment, and each step of the way they get an update. All the things you’re used to if you order something online.”

While these features seem almost a given to the individual consumer, it’s less common for logistics companies to offer these services to business customers due to the greater complexity of their supply chain. Shippio is looking to change that, and in the future give even greater visibility of what’s happening. Chris explained, “The industry isn’t that advanced in terms of using new technologies, only really big shipping companies are working on creating APIs themselves. We work with a lot of smaller services, so we need to find third party services that track ships, or build something ourselves to find the data, combine it all, and put it in the system. The next step would be to try and open our system to other logistics companies so they could use our system to handle their shipments and their customers.”

Shippio impressed Chris with their quick feedback cycle, how they gather feedback from users and use it to refine what features the client base wants. He said, “At traditional logistics companies, it takes a long time. Because, of course, the main business should be logistics. It shouldn’t be software development in theory, right? Our close connection to customers, together with having our own engineering department, means we can take what the customers want and see results very quickly. We can get direct feedback from them, and then we can try to do something, and then we get feedback directly again.”

We are very boots on the ground with our Japanese customers, big Japanese customers too. They are really interested in working with us because our throughput is so quick and close to what they need.

While Shippio focuses on building features to meet their clients needs, they still leave time to ensure the code they write is top quality. Chris elaborated “Ryan O’Connor, our CTO, joined the company at the end of last year. Before that it was very iterate, iterate, iterate. Ryan has a lot of experience and I feel he’s very good at making sure we have enough time to check our code base and improve our code, as well as making new things.”

The engineering team at Shippio is about 20 people, out of around 60-70 staff in total. Chris said, “The plan is to always have at least 30% of engineers in the company so that we can iterate and implement everything very quickly. We’re divided into four teams, and look at different parts of the product. One of the teams is foundations, with more backend engineers. Then there’s my team, shipment growth, which tries to improve the customer experience. We have one more team that is looking at new horizons, researching new solutions. And then there’s the QA team.”

Chris is proud of the team he works with at Shippio, calling out their friendly culture and support for diversity. He said, “Our team is really awesome. All international and Japanese developers working together — we have engineers from Japan, China, Germany, France, Poland, and Sri Lanka. And we have both men and women in the team. It’s not 50:50, but we would like to change this. Everyone is super friendly. I always say one of the biggest strengths of Shippio is that we recruit people that fit in the team very well.”

While the wider company communicates mostly in Japanese, the engineering team and product team communicate in English. Chris said “Language doesn’t have to be a barrier. If we find the right engineers from outside Japan, we are looking at them and sponsoring visas as well. We have a lot of support to get everything done and communicate all the important topics from the company to the engineering team without any issues.”

Developers are encouraged to work without distractions and in the location that suits them. Chris detailed, “At the moment, we come to the office as the engineering team once a week. And I was the first who asked for this and it was pushed through really quickly — we are allowed one month per year of full remote work. So I worked from Germany for a month. We are also trying to give three focus days, to minimise the amount of meetings we have on these days, so engineers can really focus on their work.”

Shippio offers career pathways like becoming an engineering manager, or just a more senior developer (without the people management) and six-month review cycles. Chris talked about the process, “We’re setting goals for ourselves, for the team and individually. And then every six months there’s an evaluation together with your manager, and the CTO, that says if you reach these goals, if you do these things, you can advance to the next level as an engineer.”

Logistics is really an industry where there’s a lot of room for us engineers to be creative and come up with better solutions.

Working at Shippio has given Chris the chance to realise his goal of improving the wider logistics industry. He said, “I know logistics operators in general work too many hours, are overloaded with work, and have too many responsibilities. It was always my goal to make their lives easier in a way, especially in Japan. I’m very invested in trying to make this industry better, and that is what Shippio is trying to do as a whole. It’s a really good fit for me.”

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