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Michael Doane RIP - man for all SAP seasons

Den Howlett & Jon Reed Profile picture for user denjon June 30, 2020
We learned of Michael's sudden passing late last week. It was a shock. His memory though will live long in the minds of those who 'grew up' in the glory days of SAP R/3.

Michael Doane and friends
(Michael Doane pictured second from left)

Den's take:

I may be proven wrong but I suspect I was one of the last people in the enterprise software world to talk with Michael for any length of time. That conversation was recorded about a month ago but poring over the audio I decided not to publish it for public consumption.

At the time, I learned that Michael was suffering from cancer and that he expected to go into hospital around now for what he thought was a routine operation - if there ever is such a thing when it comes to cancer. Events overtook him. At the time of our call, he was tired and uncomfortable albeit with a twinkle in his eye that suggested mischief was just around the corner. 

It had been some years since I last had a conversation with Michael but I always found him to have that rare gift of combining storytelling with a compelling message. Others will have their memories but in our engagements, I always found him to be both generous with his time and quick to praise. The first time we met - as seems common - was at a dinner during one of the many SAPPHIREs held in Orlando. I'd never met him before, but I knew of his work and reputation as analyst and practitioner in the SAP space. He knew about me too. We shared a good few giggles around some of the project failures, but equally we talked about ways in which we thought customers can be successful with SAP deployments. 

In our most recent conversation, I wanted to understand how Michael felt about the many changes occurring at SAP. We didn't really get into it in any detail although I got the distinct sense that he felt the company is drifting. That left him grumpy. He asked my view of the leadership which I duly shared and he did something that I have since learned was common in his mentorship with others. He said:

We've seen many changes over the years and each time we ask the same sorts of question. Keep asking those questions. Keep pushing them to provide precise answers. If you really want to see customers get the best out of the money they've spent then it's the right thing to do. 

It's a simple thing to say but one few have the stomach to commit towards and certainly not for the number of years over which Michael dedicated his efforts as critic, raconteur, consultant, mentor, and much, much more. 

Michael was also one of that rare breed who could take opposing positions (or no position) in almost the same breath and sound equally convincing. That allowed him the opportunity to listen and parse all sides of an argument with a view to teasing out the essence of the topic under discussion. At a time when so many seem polarized in their thinking, I value that ability and was looking forward to an 'on the other hand' conversation we tentatively slated for early September. 

On the upside, his passing gave me the impetus to finally shell out for copies of both his Green and Blue books. I'd read bits and pieces in the past but never the whole enchilada. Yes, they are artifacts of a pre-cloud age but the lessons he proposes, especially in the Green Book are as relevant today as they were in 2012 when the book was published. 

Michael was never one to shy away from meaningful collaboration and The Green Book is a good example of that. Josh Greenbaum contributed with a chapter on the Art of the Upgrade, the lessons from which hold true today. Our own Jon Reed was a collaborator too. 

One passage in the book is worth reiterating at a time when so many SAP customers struggle with building an S/4HANA conversion case and where SAP is seeking to own four major end-to-end business processes:

Be obsessed with business processes. Everything else...flows from that frame of mind. Business process improvements yield measurable business benefit. SAP assets support continuous business improvement. 

One area where I'm sure Michael would agree he was perhaps off base is that he wasn't convinced of the cloud as the place for SAP customers to be. He was partially right because when you look at S/4HANA deployments, precious few are going directly to the cloud - or - more correctly - SaaS. But that's a discussion for another day and among others. 

In the meantime, I will raise a glass of Loire Valley wine to his memory and the place where he spent his last days. 

Jon's take:

Michael was one of my oldest and best friends in this industry. We also argued a lot - the best kind of arguments really. Michael won the most important argument between us. Way back in the 1990s, he made the case that I - and we - should put our soul into our enterprise work, and quit treating projects like day jobs. That advice pushed me into a far more rewarding career than the one I was headed towards. It eventually lured me into the co-founding of diginomica, and here with you today.

Michael's son Guillaume wrote a lovely obituary, a must-read that sheds light on Doane's pre-enterprise literary career, his legendary X-Files connection, and his lyrical, underrated novels.

But Michael would be profoundly disappointed if we dwelled on tributes. Michael wants us to carry on his work. Michael was fundamentally disappointed in our collective inability to extract more value from IT projects. He felt our projects were largely a betrayal to those users we purported to serve. He was frustrated that despite a formidable body of evidence, including his own sophisticated maturity models, that so many SAP projects still come up short.

And he was brutally hard on SAP - and any other vendor - that trotted out shiny new toys like AI to supposedly fix that which ails us, and which he correctly brought back to people and process. When I say brutal, I'm not kidding. Years ago, Michael became deeply disillusioned with how SAP treated its smaller partners, particularly in the SME market. He wrote a blistering post that remains my favorite SAP post title of all time: "From Heidelberg to Hell."

I smiled at Den's reference to Michael's skeptical stance on cloud. That was one of our biggest arguments, one we never resolved. I wanted to give Michael more of a window into all my talks with "pure SaaS" customers, into what I felt were much happier users. Michael's rebuttal, which Den references in this piece, is a firm one, alluding to the scope of SAP on-premise functionality, the lack of functionally-equivalent SaaS options, data security, and so forth. That's not a debate to resolve here. Perhaps on that one, Michael is right in the present, and I'm more correct in the future. Time will tell.

But while Michael was resistant to cloud technology, there was a massive twist. He absolutely anticipated the driving force behind SaaS today: customer success. Of all Michael's writings, The SAP Green Book, originally published in 2012, holds up the best. "Thrive after go-live" was the unofficial subtitle, and it was Michael's mantra.

He wasn't just preaching. He had a specific methodology for customers, and a clear plan on how to get to that value. But you must start with a reality check; Michael's message might have been too much tough love for many. But enough companies and user groups listened, and Michael stayed plenty busy. Now we must carry that on.

Michael would never stand by a troubled project or flawed software release and say nothing. He would advocate for the customer. He would push to extract deeper lessons, building those lessons into models until they make sense. And he would expect no less from us.

I think of another with a passion for better IT projects: Josh Greenbaum. I get the sense Josh had a similarly argumentative relationship with Michael. Telling then, that this was Greenbaum's response to my tweet:

That's how it was with Michael: you laughed with him, broke bread with him, got super ticked off at him - and now miss him like a brother. Here's hoping Den, myself, Josh and others can live up to the bar he set for all of us. 


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