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Book review: SAP Nation - a runaway software economy

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy November 26, 2014
SAP and its customers needs to pay close attention to this well measured analysis of the 'SAP Nation.'

SAP a arunaway economy
SAP Nation - a runaway software economy (Kindle link) is a much needed addition to the public discourse about SAP and its impact on the global software economy.

When author Vinnie Mirchandani first approached me on this topic in the summer of 2014, I was concerned that he would turn his fragile relationship with SAP into a long form rant that would likely stir up competitors but which would not give SAP a way to think about itself in measured terms. If that had happened then we could usefully ignore the book.

As background, Mirchandani has often had this mantra about SAP as the company that might have great software but which has no control over an expensive ecosystem that spans consulting, implementation, integration, data center operations and storage. In blog posts galore, he berates SAP for his perceived failure to grasp the ecosystem nettle. In this book, he argues that SAP sits on a trillion dollar economy that could do a lot better.

Those are the key detailed themes of this book along with a discussion around alternatives like SaaS, AWS and other modern technologies.

Does he do a good job? Yes and no. Yes in placing the issues into context, no because of a not fully thought through economic/technical agenda rooted in his sometimes narrow innovation world view.

I'm pleased to say that despite SAP's choice not to answer some of the big questions as detailed in the book, Mirchandani didn't fall into the trap of painting the company as an ogre. Instead, he leaves all observers with questions that today are sometimes difficult to answer and especially in complex landscapes but for which SAP has to take a share of responsibility.

We're all biased

Of course I am biased. I, along with diginomica colleagues Jon Reed and Phil Wainewright are liberally quoted from public sources. Of course I feel 'justified' in offering an opinion. But in reality, Mirchandani offers a unique perspective based upon the fact he has been in and around the SAP ecosystem - or as he prefers to call it: egosystem - for at least five years longer than myself.

First Mirchandani worked as implementer at PwC, then as Gartner analyst at a time when having 'Gartner' attached to your name tag meant something of substance, and most recently as arm chair critic that at times has felt out of whack with reality but largely because of his self imposed alienation from SAP sources. It wasn't a smart move.

Even so, Mirchandani is a careful observer and remains well connected to people who are on the inside of the ecosystem and from whom he can extract nuggets that matter to buyers. In my view, SAP missed a trick by failing to offer content which Mirchandani promised would be unfiltered. They made the mistake that many others before have made: ignore and it will go away. I can certainly argue with some conviction that Mirchandani's recent relationship with the company was always going to be tough but to miss that opportunity?

Insiders and those who remain close to the company will find little new in the book other than Mirchandani's attempt at figuring out an economic model that describes the totality of the SAP ecosystem. If you believe Mirchandani's numbers then it is humungous. Regardless, it is a brave if fraught attempt to define, codify and explain all the piece parts that make up an SAP implementation. That is enough to warrant the price of hearing what he has to say.

Regardless of how you choose to view the numbers, I give Mirchandani credit for providing a considerable amount of detail about how he calculated the numbers, the compromises he made and the advice he took. Kudos also should go to Frank Scavo, a mutual colleague and diginomica affiliate who helped Mirchandani hone his economic model.

What can we learn from the book?

Mirchandani never questions the functional value that SAP delivers and rightly so. Instead, he concentrates on the way SAP has failed to harness the SI, data center and other hangers on ecosystem to deliver economic value back to customers. I have a lot of sympathy with that perspective although I fully understand how that position arises in historical context.

The well documented problems attached to 'bodying up' implementations with theoretically trained but experience poor consultants is well explored as are the pressures placed upon battle hardened implementers.

The fact that SAP is currently pitching a hosting and SaaS tent might well change that perspective as the company learns what it takes to build an economic service based model.

History matters

Back in the early 90's, SAP was incredibly fortunate to be on the cusp of technology changes at a time when customer demands were for global solutions. Digging back into time, Mirchandani notes that SAP was the first company to deliver real-time solutions that have a global footprint in both functional and regulatory delivered code. That advantage allowed the company to obliterate the then incumbents and enjoy one of the longest running periods of software sales success. It was a license to print money that led to market control we have not seen since.

In the process, SAP created a company that became largely tone deaf to the next shift in technology until it could no longer avoid the shifting sands of technology change.

Mirchandani paints a balanced picture that draws from customer experience, analyst input and random observers but the conclusion remains the same: why does SAP consistently appear to cost more for less? It's a good question for which there is never a simple answer and for which SAP marketing has been woefully inadequate.

Weak points

Understanding SAP has always been a complex task. For myself, I doubt if I have much more than a 40% handle on the full panoply of SAP. It's a Big Beast. The over arching influence of co-founder Hasso Plattner is never fully explored although Mirchandani was careful to say that he wanted to concentrate upon principles rather than personalities. That is credible for an analysis that must span the regimes of many well known  personalities. Neither are the grinding problems that the German SAP works council exposes when it chooses to play havoc with management. For my part I would have given that crew a severe lashing, finding their continued drip poison feeding to the German press incredibly unhelpful and predicated upon a hidden control agenda that I personally find offensive and cowardly.

Mirchandani's force fit analysis of AWS as a gold standard cost alternative to EMC and IBM is well trodden turf. Unfortunately, he missed the opportunity to flesh out how that works in SAP's world of uber compliance. In that sense, he diminishes his own argument.

At a functional level I found Mirchandani's book lopsided in giving far too much time to failure and too little time to success. Despite he spends a whole section running a history of past and well aired failure, I saw little root cause analysis to make me comfortable about understanding SAP's part in those troubled implementations.

Bottom line - we can all draw up lists of project failure and SAP as the Big Dog is always going to get more than its fair share of attention. But how does that balance against the thousands of perfectly good implementations? That is not explored in the context of the SAP economy Mirchandani wishes to expose.

I was looking for concrete recommendations around next steps. They are lacking. In that the book fails - but only by a margin of omission, and I sense, by the fact Mirchandani has chosen to sit outside the direct SAP orbit in the last couple of years.

My take

Having provided lots of opinion it must seem strange to see a section called 'my take.'

  • Despite my critique there is much to learn and bags of detailed war stories.
  • Mirchandani has done a solid job of avoiding personal swipes at a company both he and I have known for more years than anyone should have to but which continues to fascinate.
  • His attempts at coming to an eye popping economic model are commendable and while debatable should be a strong talking point in the context of a services based economy where others threaten.
  • There are weak points around storage etc that could be better addressed.
  • The lack of a path forward might well represent consulting opportunities but they leave the reader at a loose end.
  • SAP management should study this book in a dispassionate manner. There is much to remember and from which to learn.

UPDATE: In comments, Vinnie makes the valid point that I don't reference the 30+ customer examples. My bad. Each highlights different aspects of managing the SAP Economy but I am not convinced that  - with one exception - they are so different to the 000's of SAP customers in the global community. Even so, it is right to draw attention to their varied experience and for that - I have failed.

Personal Disclosure: Author Vinnie Mirchandani and I have a 'bro' relationship that goes back many years. We both love and hate each other in equal measure. We fight and laugh, often in robust manner.

He requested direct quotes for the book. I refused based upon the reality that I learn a great deal by way of conversations that must necessarily remain 'off the record' or under advisory NDA. That in turn requires a degree of consideration that has to be placed into context I control. The book didn't allow that. I did however provide him with context on certain aspects of the book. Having read it, I can see where he has taken those observations into account as he assembled his thoughts. And for that, I thank my friend Vinnie.

Disclosure: At time of writing, SAP is a premier partner and a personal communications client.

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