What was it like to work at Maersk during the cyber-attack?

2017 June 27th, Maersk Line North Europe Operations office in Rotterdam. It was a sunny day and many colleagues were in the midst of their summer holiday handover. I was in a typical meeting discussing business as usual topics before departing for my business trip to Bremerhaven. Suddenly I heard an insanely loud voice shouting; “Everyone! Turn off your computers NOW”. What is this? Another failed IT test or emergency theatre? 

“Everyone! Turn off your computers NOW”

An insanely loud voice

After I left the meeting room, my HR colleague were already searching for me, calling me to join the meeting with the most senior leaders. “The situation is serious, we got hit by a cyber-attack. We don’t know yet the full global impact, but all our systems and computers are off.” I was stoic in the beginning. I thought it’s either a joke or a contingency test. I just couldn’t believe what they were saying. Maersk under cyber-attack? It’s the biggest shipping line in the world! 

No more systems online…

After ten minutes I realised this is real and happening right here, right now. “Okay, so what do we do? We cannot use our laptops and corporate phones? How do we connect with our vessels? How can we know what is happening? I mean everything is in the systems…”

Pretty quickly we realised that communication, support and collaboration among different departments will be wildly important at this moment in time. We therefore made a list of our personal phone numbers and emails on a large brown paper. Within a few hours we already managed to create the necessary email groups while our assistant purchased ten iPads and a dozen or so laptops. What a great day for MediaMarkt. Each department had at least one device. 

What about the containers spread out and sailing on at least 800 vessels? We knew that for the next couple of days we would be fine, since everything is pre-planned. But what if we don’t get systems’ back online in a few days? Expect the best, prepare for worst. 

Ships and its cargo don’t wait for systems that are down.

One of our hero colleagues worked till midnight that day, putting all effort into getting back-up data from one of the key systems. It’s not 100% accurate but good enough for now.

So that’s how the first day rounded-up. We all managed to get a pretty solid communication system up and running whilst getting obtaining some much needed data.

The second day was a very interesting one for me personally. One of my closest peer colleagues came and whispered to me.. “Agne, my dad has just passed away. I need to drive to Denmark within the next hours. I would like you to handover the whole communication between our operations department and commercial organisations across Europe.” 

I respected the trust and confidence given to me after staying with Maersk for five months only, but it did scare me. Only at that time I was starting to understand what half of the shipping abbreviations, terms and concepts meant. 

Me testing the engines right before vessel departure from Felixstowe to Rotterdam.

Anyway, my dear colleague who is currently one of my best friends, encouraged me that I will be fine and should remember my marathon journey Impossible shouts “I am possible”. She gave me as many guidelines as she could at that time and started her journey to Denmark. On her way, she called me multiple times which made me realise how people like my blond Danish friend are dedicated to make Maersk succeed. This gave me a good kick to do everything within my power to help overcome this dreaded cyber attack.

Let’s get back to work! I set-up various WhatsApp and email groups for our commercial colleagues as a haven to share information and answer our customers inquiries. Twice per day they received a standard email of the key operations data, which I manually collected from various colleagues. Many of them were sometimes irritated with my lack of knowledge, eg. how to type vessel arrival and departure timings, because apparently in shipping we have a special format. Oh, Agne, you made so many mistakes in that regard.

Those emails made me famous. Wherever I went afterwards and introduced myself to new people, the majority immediately recognised me “Oh, you are the girl that sent out the updates during the cyber-attack.” They were kind enough to not make me feel ashamed on how unprofessional those updates were. It was trembling times, so I reckon they forgive me lack of shipping lingo. 

These guys speak the shipping language fluently.

My phone was still buzzing every five minutes, including Saturday and Sunday, early mornings not excluded. Literally everyone in this organisation was committed to give their maximum all to ensure our operations could run as  smooth as possible, whilst customer impact was reduced to the minimum. Many people from enabling functions, who basically didn’t have any clear tasks at hand with all main systems down, helped our IT colleagues to start reinstalling new hardware. This included voluntary work on weekends and evenings. 

Two weeks passed, slowly and gradually we were recovering. There were still however many things to do. It was mid-July, time for my yearly traditional holiday in Lithuania with my family. After seeing so many colleagues fighting each day for enormous long hours, I decided to skip my vacation and stay in the office. I was not the only one. Many did the same without regret. The team spirit around the office was different. We were united, focused and close to each other. Something I haven’t experienced in my previous work experience. Everyone working for one and the same purpose – recover as soon as possible followed by a well-deserved summer break. 

Shipping operations in full swing to deliver cargo around the globe.

Almost two years have passed since, business is back to normal, running as it always did. We got our systems back, most of the data and of course the hardware. Sometimes we still reminisce  and wander back to those days. I can truly say that this was one of the most unique professional experiences I had in my life thus far. I survived the cyber-attack and learnt enormously much about shipping operations, which has helped to move forward in my corporate career. There was even a moment where an experienced manager came to me and asked about a certain process, thinking that I had the answer. This was fuelled by my actions during the cyber attack. I was proud that day and felt like being baptized into a big shipping family. 

Thanks to all Maerskies who experienced one of the biggest cyber-attacks in history. Despite the very unfortunate event, we managed to tackle it with a giggle. Hope to never experience something similar again though!

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