This year's SAP TechEd Las Vegas was probably the best I have attended in many a year. A rejuvenated SAP had plenty to show - too much for me to cover in three days - and a confidence I have not seen in several years.
No-one I know associates SAP with the testosterone driven ball breaking marketing and spin preferred by some Silicon Valley vendors. It has its own brand of arrogance that is sometimes distasteful and always irritating. We talk about 'eating your own dog food.' They say 'drinking our own champagne.' I prefer 'swilling our own hefe.' You get my point.
This year I detected an emerging humility that speaks to the need for listening and ingesting many voices. That includes customers, partners, analysts and its growing ecosystem of broadly based yet specialist SAP Mentors. Setting the right tone is not something that emerges from below but is conveyed by leaders. Dr Vishal Sikka, SAP CTO is that leader for this development community. During our interactions, Dr Sikka was willing to accept that certain challenges will be difficult to overcome and that he doesn't have all the answers. Can you imagine other CEO's making that admission?
Some years back, Henning Kagermann, as SAP CEO was always prepared to accept when you made an accurate or incisive point. Prior to his tenure, Hasso Plattner exhibited the same characteristic. Even today, Dr Plattner will engage in meaningful discussion that recognizes well thought out opinion or insight from wherever it comes.
The last few years saw an interregnum that drove SAP into a defensive position that few of those who 'know' the company could believe or condone. That is changing. In a telephone conversation with colleagues I said that Dr Sikka brings back that honesty which underpins SAP culture. It is an essential component for developing relationships that allow analysts a good chance of presenting a fair and accurate assessment of where a vendor is positioned. On that score, the company does well and should be congratulated. But there is always a flip side. Here is my unscientific scoring:
As John Appleby points out on video, SAP's mobile strategy looks good on paper but has to be hashed out. It all comes back to three things:
- Does SAP have the culture to adapt?
- Can this 'oil tanker' of a business turn quickly enough to rapid changes in the market?
- And will customers have enough confidence to adopt?
Microsoft is showing us how hard it can be to infuse institutional change. The recent stepping down of Ray Ozzie as Microsoft Chief Architect speaks loudly to the problem of institutional anti-bodies destroying even the best of intentions. SAP has a history of being something of a slouch but kinda getting there in the end. That will not be good enough in the fast paced mobile world. FIghting on multiple fronts is never easy but the will is there in many places among the organization's leaders.
In memory: 7/10
Two years ago, Dr Plattner started prepping us for in-memory database. It wasn't a new technology topic then though it was something of which many SAP customers only had a passing knwoedge. Today I'd argue we've heard enough of the buzz phrase. Show us the money. SAP articulated its HANA strategy with a glimpse into what that means both as a physical 'box' and go to market. It also opened the cost kimono a fraction. Oracle is the obvious target but IBM needs to take note as well. Oracle responds with a low key presence at TechEd saying that Exadata supports SAP environments. Let's see how that plays out along with customer reports.
Cloud and Business ByDesign: 6/10
Cloud computing takes many shapes and forms and here, SAP was relatively low key but starting to lend prominence to Business ByDesign. As one of my favorite topics I was pleased to hear some coherence in SAP's go to market strategy but it still has a ways to go. The company acknowledges the 'catch up' issue that as far as I am concerned means SAP has had two wasted years. It is now making all the right noises plus some of the right moves. That's a relief.
As part of my digging into this topic I attended a hands on developer session designed to demonstrate BYD's customisation capabilities. Michael Koch provides the SAP developer perspective from his attendance at the TechEd Berlin event. My take is that SAP developers with a knowledge of ABAP will find the environment both familiar yet constraining. It will force them to rethink around BYD extensions since they won't be able to touch the ABAP code and so customise to death.
Those new to SAP BYD but with knowledge of C# will find the SDK 2.5 interface clunky. I certainly did, grumbling about multiple mouse clicks to change form names, though it was reasonably easy to understand modest process and forms building. I'm promised that SDK 2.6 will be a lot better and that SDK 3.0 will make 2.5 look prehistoric. To give you a flavor of what developers think, those of us who touched the system think 2.5 is more like 0.9.
Elsewhere, SAP's John Wookey, who is supposed to be leading the enterprise on-demand strategy was nowhere to be seen. But...there was a juicy taste of SAP Business Suite development being deployed in the Amazon Cloud. there is much more to come on this story including a closer look at the economics.
SAP uses 'innovation' to express pretty much anything that it is thinking about and quite a lot that's in early development. They need to come up with a different term as this one is well past its sell by date. Even so, its demonstration of consumer healthcare solutions was exciting if unoriginal. This topic alone could generate hundreds of millions in revenue. But again - does SAP have enough to make it a big winner? If it can get more of this type of project out of imagineering and into development rather than the tiny fraction we are used to seeing then they have a fair shot.
Other analysts give SAP good marks for its sustainability efforts. I am less enamored. There has been way too much attention to accounting, which delights the consultants, but does nothing to move the sustainability needle. On the other hand, I was pleased to hear Jeremiah Stone, who has a big hand in surfacing sustainability projects prepared to kick back and talk to the supply chain topic. This is where the big sustainability wins come. It is a multi-year endeavor that stretches well into the future yet is fraught with operational difficulties at every step. Right now, SAP is concentrating on waste management, fuel efficiency and water conservation. These are no brainers yet SAP acknowledge that short term achievable difference may come in small and incremental steps.
Certification and training: 6.5/10
Along with colleagues Jon Reed, Michael Koch, Martin Gillet and Leonardo deAraujo (The Certification 5), I was able to announce the results of a SAP certification study. The study has garnered just shy of 500 responses that include more than 150 qualitative answers. We also mentioned SAP's intention to create a certification influence council due to be formed in the January 2011 timeframe.
This is a topic that we believe holds promise for changing the implementation game. We believe that correctly executed, SAP SIs will more confidently and appropriately assemble implementation teams that have as one component certifications that has industry meaning. There is a long way to go on this topic and I don't expect to see significant results for another year at the earliest.
The good news is that in our networking and subsequent SAP Live sessions, we saw universal agreement to the principles that the Certification 5 have been promoting over the last nine months. That includes partners, SAP Education and university representatives.
As a side note, we heard from Oliver Bussman, SAP CIO talking to how he is changing the organisation, reskilling and certifying for an expanded SAP.
Disclosure: while all C5 members have some connection with the company as contractors, training experts, educationists, SAP Mentors or SIs, none of us have been compensated for our work on the C5 project which is an independent effort designed to raise awareness of certification topics.
Communications development: 8/10
This year saw a very different approach to the topic of influencer relationships at the TechEd event. There were comparatively few traditional press and analyst attendees. Instead, SAP chose to concentrate on giving attention to SAP Mentors and bloggers. This is a smart move and something the rest of the industry has yet to understand let alone embrace.
My sense is that the Gartners, IDCs and Forresters of the analyst world are declining in relative influence. They are still important but mostly at the 'hygiene' level with some exceptions along the way. The real influence gravity center is shifting towards independents and SAP Mentors who can freely mix in a non-competitive and often collaborative manner. It is a time of flux and no-one I know how this will hash out.
I find that SAP Mentors are my most valuable source of reference on any SAP topic. They span all parts of the development and implementation environment. They are not shy to let me know when things are not up to snuff. At the same time, these people are genuinely passionate about the company's technology in ways that are at times irrational. However, none of them are idealists. Mentors have a combination of characteristics which makes them extraordinarily valuable to SAP as both a sounding board resource and check-in for direction.
Mentors are complemented by independent analysts who have a broader understanding of market and technical dynamics. It will be interesting to see how SAP develops these relationships and how the program changes outcomes.
Individuals don't scale well and I am no exception. I had to sacrifice some sessions on NetWeaver and strategic development direction. There just wasn't enough time. I know there are questions around the fact that SAP has been see-sawing between ABAP and Java (as examples) the last few years and some colleagues have been unsettled by what they see. Towards the end of the conference I briefly caught up with colleagues and the consensus is that confidence has been partially restored by the explanations on offer. Past investments will not be abandoned anytime soon. But this is a lingering item that needs revisiting.
The most important aspect of TechEd was the fact that while customers and partners have plenty of questions, no-one I met was outright hostile to the direction SAP is taking. If anything, people seemed relieved that things are settling down after a prolonged period of uncertainty and moving forward albeit at a pace some wish was faster.
The next main milestone is TechEd Bangalore. I expect SAP will make major announcements around platform technologies. I doubt I will be there in person but it is one to book in your calendar.