The great certification debate

Last year at SAP TechEd, Vinnie Mirchandani, Mike Krigsman and  I spent an entertaining 15 minutes verbally abusing challenging Zia Yusef, who runs SAP's ecosystem of developers, SIs and partners. The thrust of our argument was that SAP's inability to control its ecosystem means that projects often run over time and budget and don't deliver value.

Last year at SAP TechEd, Vinnie Mirchandani, Mike Krigsman and  I spent an entertaining 15 minutes verbally abusing challenging Zia Yusef, who runs SAP's ecosystem of developers, SIs and partners. The thrust of our argument was that SAP's inability to control its ecosystem means that projects often run over time and budget and don't deliver value. I say 15 minutes because at that point, Zia told us to stop bitching and come up with solutions.

Given that Zia's a busy chap and probably doesn't get time to read what we have to say it seemed a fair point. We duly went away and did come up with an outline blueprint. We're still awaiting a response. Then while we were in Berlin for the second round of Tech Ed, Zia addressed the SAP Mentor bloggers who were in attendance. We talked about similar issues and in particular I mentioned the notion of certification. This is a topic that can raise some controversy among SAPpers because as it turns out, you don't need to prove any particular competency to roll up at a SAP implementation. There's nothing that says you need certifying in whatever you are doing. That strikes me as odd. After all, Microsoft has cultivated a structured certification program that it's SIs and VARs are more than happy to parade.

Then out of the blue at its recent partner kick off, Yusef announced that 2009 is the year for quality. Jon Reed  twittered the essence of the story:

Zia Yusuf = strong keynote w/ good specifics. One point: SAP is going to strongly encourage customers to hire CERTIFIED consultants #pkom

Yusuf = emphasis on certified SAP consultants is part of overall SAP theme of year: Emphasis on quality, including quality resources. #pkom

That set off a Twitterstorm, mostly from SAP Mentors who variously think it's a questionable idea or one that needs significant explanation. I disagree. It struck me this would make a good discussion topic over at the SAP Community Network and so set out my position. As of now, we're at about 50 comments and counting, many of which repeat the 'it's a bad idea' mantra but are highly constructive. Martin English for example says:

I guess the most important one is the one I'll deal with first. What is certification for ? If its not a P***ing contest, then it about comparing like with like, so as to ensure someone gets the most apporpriate person to fill an open position. Remember, you don't always want a rockstar, they tend to want to change things a lot !! Seriously, though, can there be an OBJECTIVE hiring criteria ? For example, several of the tweets Dennis refers to, and many of the comments below, mention preferring experience over certification. Yes, experience makes a difference, but do I have 10 years experience, or the same year 10 times ? Regardless of how experienced you are with computing, you still need to know how the application works. Sometimes, though, SAPs own certification and training exposes this argument, as we can all quote some piece of formal SAP documentation that is eitehr ignored, or is just completely contradictory to what we do, in the field.

This is where I believe community works at its best. SAP is fortunate. It provides an open platform for its ecosystme where anyone can raise issues. It doesn't hide behind a corporate firewall although some discussions are necessarily fenced off. It doesn't appply a heavy hand to moderation though the lines are clearly drawn when it comes to the issue of personal attack. This keeps discussions robust, free and at a high standard of intellectual contribution. On with the plot.

Assuming Yusef and his team are paying attention, they should see that trends are emerging in the thinking of those who are in the field and doing the 'make stuff' that typifies an SAP implementation. I'll leave it to others to figure out exactly what this means for the self selecting group of people who have chosen to comment. Even so, my friend Vinnie remains far from convinced. He says that:

Any consultants certification would likely focus on their knowledge of core modules like FI or MM  or on elements of Basis. Highly unlikely, any time soon, vertical or geography specific certification would be available. That's where the risks increasingly lie.

Second, product knowledge is necessary but not sufficient condition for project success. Program management, testing, change management, end user training and other phases in an SAP project call for different skillsets in addition to understanding product capabilities.

Third, most SAP talent is acquired in "bulk buys" not in individual staffing - as in project format from SIs like IBM and Deloitte and in multi-year production support format from firms like TCS and Infosys. Too many of these "bulk buys" run over budget, result in cancellations - are failures by most definitions. SAP needs to become more aggressive about certifying firms - not just individual consultants - and their practices (by industry, geography etc), publishing their track records and showcasing steps they are taking to improve quality and productivity.

Vinnie is right to identify the challenges BUT...this is the start of a conversation that will run and run. Forrester's Ray Wang for instance sent me an email where he said that while he's qualified in FI/CO (broadly speaking this means finance) no-one would likely use him as his last implementation was 2000. What that means and where it goes is step two in my view.

Here's something I didn't say in the SAP group but which I believe is important. In a down trending economy, it isn't just customers who can be more picky about their chosen software partner. Those who implement had best be at the top of their game or they're quickly going to find themselves winnowed out. Quality should always be on any software company's agenda and now is the time to be calling the shots on making this a reality. This represents a great opportunity for any vendor. It won't immediately contribute to the bottom line but will have a strong, long term positive impact. THat's a problem for CEOs trying to shore up bgusiness in a failing economy but something to which they must pay attention. If Yusef is serious about listening to the company's critics and its own people now could not be a better time. That's why I say this isn't an endgame but the start of something that could be really good for everyone.

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