Lessons learnt from one who has not rested on his laurels

While taking a break during the Lunar New Year last week, I stumbled upon a fascinating story on my Google Currents reader about how Walldorf, Germany-based SAP is trying to re-invent itself in a bid to take on the new paradigms facing today's fast-paced computing world.
Written by Edwin Yapp, Contributor

While taking a break during the Lunar New Year last week, I stumbled upon a fascinating story on my Google Currents reader about how Walldorf, Germany-based SAP is trying to re-invent itself in a bid to take on the new paradigms facing today's fast-paced computing world.

The Wall Street Journal chronicled how Hasso Plattner, co-founder of SAP, who 20 years ago designed software that helped placed the company as a world leader in business and enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications space, is beginning to reinvent the German software giant in the new millennium.

The Journal noted that the 68-year-old SAP chairman is trying to take advantage of cheaper memory chips in servers to speed up complex business calculations and allow companies to do in seconds what currently can take hours or days. The aim is to allow executives to quickly access and analyze business data even on hand-held devices.

There were many facets of that story that struck me but the two that stood out for me were: the continuous ingenuity and creativity of the co-founder, and his business acumen and persuasive powers.

At close to 70 years of age, Plattner could easily be enjoying his golden years doing anything he fancied; after all, the Journal noted that he had just a little under 10 percent of SAP stock, or roughly 6 billion euros (US$7.9 billion) in value as of December 2010. But, remarkably though, he is still a driving force in SAP's future technology roadmap.

An engineer by training, Plattner noted how he began looking into the future of the company's survival as early as 2006, when he predicted the future of the computing would inevitably depend on vast processing of data at the database level. As a result, he began the next phase of his research into what he thought was going to be the trend going forward--in-memory databases.

In a nutshell, in-memory databases allow data to be stored in the main memory of processing systems rather than on hard disks. The rationale is that if the data is closer to the computing functions, the speed at which systems can process the data is also increased exponentially, leading to quicker results from computation.

Though relatively a new concept, Plattner pressed on with his vision and as recent as last year, began showing the fruit of his research. His rivals, in particular, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, derided Plattner, openly mocking his ambitious in-memory plans.

"Get me the name of their pharmacist," Ellison reportedly said in January 2010. "I mean, I know a lot about in-memory databases. In fact, we have the leading in-memory database, TimesTen. This is nonsense. There is no in-memory technology anywhere near ready to take the place of a relational database. It's a complete fantasy on their part."

I got a first-hand look at how this development played out at last year's Oracle Open World (OOW), where it became very obvious that Ellison was pushing the in-memory agenda in his own company's products--the Exalytics Business Intelligence Machine--claiming that Oracle had some of the fastest products to run in-memory technology. Potshots were also made about SAP's HANA technology--short for Hasso New Architecture--about its performance or lack thereof vis a vis Oracle's in-memory technology.

While it's customary for such sarcasm to take place at major tech conference (Ellison's main target at OOW 2012 wasn't SAP, though, but reserved for Salesforce.com's Marc Benioff), what's interesting is that the Oracle CEO is beginning to pay more attention to in-memory offerings by touting its benefits more now than ever before, something he didn't do when Plattner introduced HANA in 2010.

Was Ellison late to the in-memory game? Some say so; certainly Plattner thinks so.

Whatever the case, this sector will definitely serve as the new battleground between the two bitter rivals, especially against the backdrop of increasing big data play globally.

I, for one, would be eagerly waiting to see how these two--and not forgetting Big Blue--would slug it out in the enterprise world this year.

On to Plattner's persuasive powers...

Engineers and geeks normally are not regarded as the most business-savvy people around, but what is clear is that Plattner isn't just an engineer but someone who understands business and what business executives want out of his company's products. After all, SAP for years has led the way in the business application sector and is still an acknowledged leader in this area.

From stories of how he convinced large enterprises like Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin, a large university hospital, to drop Oracle software and switch to HANA, to how he talked Erez Yarkoni, CIO of T-Mobile USA, last April to pitch the new wares, it's clear that Plattner has skills more than just any geek who can not only program software but is also able to articulate the business vision to his customers.

The lesson learnt from Plattner's life is simple: in today's fast-paced, globalized world, a leader can't merely be good at one aspect but will need to be multidisciplinary in nature. Tomorrow's leaders need to learn early in their lives how to not only arm themselves with technical skills, but also the business acumen to go along with their skill development.

This is something our own Malaysian would-be entrepreneurs and future CEOs should learn and aspire to imitate if they want to be recognized as innovative technology players of the future.

For if they don't, or should they rest on their laurels, they will face extinction and becoming totally irrelevant.

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