SAP TechEd 2019 Barcelona - first impressions

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy October 8, 2019
At my 13th SAP TechEd I detected some important changes ahead or in progress. They go well beyond the technology.

SAP TechEd announcements barcelona

This is my 13th TechEd and I remember my first one like it was yesterday. We were in Munich, I really didn't want to be there but had been persuaded by then SAP Mentor Craig Cmehil. I was gobsmacked. The folk I met are among some of the nicest, smartest people I know, many of whom I count as friends to this day. For me, it was a revelation as I suddenly realized that these super-smart people were genuinely interested in solving business problems with LOB owners but also they were imagining solutions to as yet unknown problems. There was a tremendous passion for all things SAP.

Since that time, SAP has got through four technical leaders and countless Level 1, 2, and 3 managers. Some things remained constant, especially the passion of those who cycled through the SAP Mentor program. Sadly, very few of that group remain as current Mentors. The program has changed over the years as all such programs have to evolve but this year there were two things that were noticeably different and one that's subtle. 

Two things

First, those Mentors who were so visibly passionate have all but disappeared from the public gaze. They provided a vital source of energy in a world that, to the outside often seems dull and boring. I'm told that in meetings with Juergen Mueller, SAP's current CTO, the Mentors were very passionate about the topics that matter to them but those people are ziplocked from publicly discussing whatever goes on behind those closed doors. In my view, that's a terrible mistake since their visibility often acted as a spur to broad and exciting conversations.  I get the NDA component. I've been in those sessions and understand the commercial necessity for some level of quiet control.

Nevertheless, this year I saw plenty of Mentors helping others in the Developer Garage which, for the first time, was provided with a huge space at the front of a show floor that in the past, would have been 'fronted' (sic) by SAP affiliate vendors. Also, there is a packed agenda under the Community Talks agenda that addresses a very broad range of topics. I will catch a few of those on the second day. If you're still at the event then these are billed as:

Community Talks are 20-mins presentations (+ time for Q&A at the end) by the community for the community, where you can learn at first hand from your peers who talk about project challenges they faced, outcomes and lessons learned, best practices or advice coming from their own experiences when working with SAP products.

The second thing is that Mueller's keynote was, to my ears, an effort at getting SAP developers interested in the company's business messages rather than offering the audience code insights into the latest and greatest. Don't get me wrong. There was plenty on offer in the announcements to pique a modern cloud developer's interests. But since TechEd 2018, SAP has acquired Qualtrics and the entire SAP portfolio narrative has changed. I detected something of that at the Las Vegas version of TechEd a few weeks ago when I heard SAP focus on what Qualtrrics means for developers. In that segment, the firm weighed in heavily on business value. 

I welcome this change but the audience didn't appear overly impressed, despite the fact that on a show of hands, there were plenty of TechEd newbies. Maybe this developer crowd is stuck in the ABAP world which, for non-SAP types, is largely unknown. This apparent lack of enthusiasm is a conundrum that is probably best explained by the lack of emphasis on tools and technology to support the move from SAP ECC to SAP S/4HANA in the keynote. I got that from the amount of time and attention that analysts gave to the technical aspects of the transformation topic in the media/analyst Q&A that followed the keynote.  

Integration everywhere

For myself, while I welcomed Mueller's discussion on integration, it was noticeable that SAP focused on the much-needed data integration element. The bigger prize of process transformation was noticeably absent. To my question on the process topic, Mueller was a tad coy, pointing out the scale of the problem across the 23 industries SAP supports and the fact this is a journey that may well take five to ten years - a timeframe that analysts find hard to stomach but which is a business reality. The previous day, I put that same question to Christian Klein, who has the S/4HANA topic as a quasi product manager, albeit with the COO title. 

In that conversation, I explained to Klein that in order to be truly transformative, SAP has to clearly demonstrate how S/4HANA allows firms to reimagine processes that provide the flexibility to add or change business models in a world where Everything as a Service (XaaS in diginomica speak) provides the foundation for delivering the reality of SAP's core Intelligent Enterprise messaging. And ideally expressed through a single pane of glass that serves as the collaborative glue for business leaders. 

SAP knows this to be a necessity but right now, I get the impression there are so many imperatives that simply prioritizing where development goes must be difficult. Those development decisions are made harder by the fact that no single person owns the SAP stack of applications. Rather, SAP has carved up the portfolio into board-level buckets that reflect core (SAP S/4HANA), acquired cloud native applications (SuccessFactors, Qualtrics, Fieldglass, Hybris, Callidus, Ariba, Concur et al) and legacy infrastructure and database. I|n that context, SAP messaging about end-to-end process integration is an aspiration rather than a reality.

Mueller sits in the middle of that and has to arbitrate and negotiate between competing priorities. Nowhere do I see evidence of a single business process owner who can show me a single way to view business problem solving across the entire stack. An example helps. 

During the keynote, Mueller pointed out how various inputs to the planning process can be surfaced in what to me looked like a decidedly CFO friendly dashboard. What I wanted to see was how a machine learning infused predictive outcome model not only surfaces issues, but can then be refined to optimize for a variety of constraints that represent the issues different LOB managers face when asked to solve for (say) lack of sales momentum. 

In my example, increased marketing spending might help bring the theoretical top line up to plan. But then logistics may not have the resources or capacity to deliver, capital might not be available for deploying into key manufacturing capability, compensation might need adjustment upwards. Any or all of these issues might impact a plan in different ways. How might SAP present that to management in a form that everyone can understand so that the overall plan becomes optimized as expressed in data-driven processes?

Mueller doesn't think there is a software firm anywhere in the world that can do what I'm suggesting. Instead, he points to topics like procure to pay as an example where SAP can provide every p[rocess that sits in and around that topic, including the infusion of experience management as a factor bearing on the outcomes of that process. I get that value proposition but in a sales cycle, that sounds like 'buy more of our stuff' to incrementally move the proverbial needle rather than the opportunity to rethink. Mueller went as far as to suggest that my 'vision' might be a dream too far. My view is that SAP is well equipped to take moonshots. After all, that's where its roots lay - in solving problems others chose not to address or thought impossible. 

To my mind, the true end-to-end process vision is something that would excite developers in a way that no amount of lift and shift ECC to S/4HANA can ever achieve. 

The third thing

The third element of this year's TechEd came about as a result of my conversation with Klein and what I heard in the keynote. It's subtle but vital. SAP's storied engineering culture is one that has bred a distinct 'Not Invented Here' (NIH) syndrome. In practical terms, it means that SAP's knee jerk response to any problem is 'We are SAP, we can build this,' even when it is patently obvious they can't or what they end up building is second rate. 

NIH has been a sore point since forever and despite SAP's claim that its customers expect SAP to solve many and sometimes exotic problems, the economic facts of life are that even with 20,000 plus developers to call upon and a rich, successful and enduring history, the world of today is just too complicated to expect any one company to do it all. I, therefore, posed the question - does this mean that NIH is dying out at SAP?

Mueller's answer was pragmatic - we will always partner where this makes sense and is what the customer wants. Klein's answer was more dramatic. We have to partner but sit at the center of those partnerships so that we can own the customer's outcome. We have, therefore, to focus on core strengths where we know we cabuild-outut. 

There is a gray area where SAP convinces itself that firstly, it is not in their economic interests to partner, even when the partner has a clear advantage in an existing offering. That's where the development bets go awry. 

Is that at odds with my 'single pane of glass' vision? I don't think so. Even so, it will be interesting to see how this plays out, especially given that SAP has now pretty much trimmed back the fat that existed around the development teams and is refreshing itself with fresher, younger thinking. 

There's more to come. Stay tuned. 

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