SAP TechEd 2022 - low-code tools take center stage with the launch of SAP Build, but is it the right message?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 16, 2022
SAP TechEd 2022 charged out of the gate - with a message of business user empowerment. How is this relevant? Grab your beverage of choice, and let's dig in.

ASUG's Geoff Scott and SAP's Juergen Mueller at SAP TechEd 2022
(Geoff Scott and Juergen Mueller at SAP TechEd)

SAP TechEd 2022 Las Vegas might be small compared to pre-pandemic years, but the messaging sure isn't: SAP Build is going to change how customers develop with SAP. Got that?

What if I told you this SAP TechEd was going to be about... empowering business users with low-code tools? From the SAP Build launch release:

Now SAP Build puts the unique power of SAP Business Technology Platform in the hands of business users, giving them a suite of easy-to-use tools to solve problems from the ground up.

SAP Build represents what CTO Juergen Mueller calls an "evolution" of three SAP products, into one "unified development environment":

  • The SAP AppGyver low-code development environment - now called the SAP Build Apps development environment
  • SAP Process Automation  - now called the SAP Build Process Automation solution
  • SAP Work Zone - now called the SAP Build Work Zone solution

The new development experience enables sharing of reusable application components, which helps reduce costs and accelerate development.

Yes, SAP adores a product name change as much as any vendor, but put that aside - does that messaging work? How on earth does the event dedicated to SAP tech pros reconcile that? Is this the right audience? Is SAP Build even what they need? 

SAP CTO Juergen Mueller - "We have to unleash the expertise of those who know the business"

Granted, I'm exaggerating a tad for effect. As I write this, we're just one day into the event, so there is more developer news ahead. As part of its monster SAP TechEd news library - yes, it's like a library - SAP has released notable updates for professional developers, the classic TechEd audience. For the non-ABAP cloud developer, there is  What's new in SAP Cloud Application Programming Model. And there is plenty for ABAP BTP developers also. And yes, you can argue that "pro-code" developers benefit from low-code tools as much as anyone, giving them re-usable building blocks, so they can focus on consumer-grade UX, mobile bells and whistles, and putting apps to the enterprise performance test.

And yes, an important chunk of Mueller's day one keynote was the NHL's Venue Metrics BTP app, which sure looked like it received some pro-code love. So what am I going on about? Well, just a few minutes into his keynote, Mueller started the business process talk:

At SAP, we love business processes, we really do... We offer the best end-to-end business processes in the world for enterprises. They are industry-specific because, of course, processes in banking are different from the ones in tech or in healthcare, or in retail, the public sector, or professional services.

Yeah, that's not a typical SAP TechEd opening. Soon Mueller was headlong into the low-code pitch:

Today, I'm thrilled to share new platform features functionalities that will help you and your companies to be successful now, and in the future...  When it comes to application development and also automation, we support two sets of paradigms. One is low-code, no-code solutions. And the other ones are tools for professional developers, who like to write code with ABAP or Java or JavaScript etc. [Me: notice SAP now puts ABAP on the same footing as web coding languages. The modernization of ABAP has won out, over relegating ABAP to legacy].

Why low-code, and why now? For SAP leadership - and I heard this from several board members in the last few weeks - it starts with economic reality. Call it the talent/skills/automation pressure cooker. The scarcity of high caliber developers inhibits customers' digital agendas. In our SAP TechEd preview interview last week, SAP Chief Marketing and Solutions Officer and Executive Board Member Julia White told me:

Whether it's finance or supply chain, whether you're in marketing or journalism, it doesn't matter, your job, your company is now really dependent upon technology like never before. Because of that, the frenzy for professional developers and tech talent has never been stronger... Obviously, the need for transformation, the need for more digitization - we can't just wait behind that gate for professional developers.

Mueller gave SAP TechEd attendees a similar context:

We know that every company is becoming a tech company. So professional development skills, and areas around that, have become an even more precious skill. IDC predicts a global shortfall of 4 million developers by 2025. What can we do? It's bad. No, it's not. We have to unleash the expertise of those who know the business best. And these are the business users themselves.

SAP Build - did the TechEd messaging work?

Can we reconcile this message with the pro-tech audience? Some might object: in the long run, who cares?

But I care, and here's why: for as many decades as I've been doing this (too many), enterprise projects have suffered from an expensive success gap between technical development - and what business users actually need. My colleague Phil Wainewright argues that "co-code" is the way forward. Perhaps - but it's breaking down the (virtual) cubicles between these constituents that matters to me. At Tuesday's media and analyst Q/A, analyst Josh Greenbaum, who was live in Vegas, brought these issues to a head (ASUG CEO Geoff Scott joined Mueller on stage for the Q/A; Scott has a CIO/business user type of background, though he claims to do a bit of coding). Greenbaum asked:

I feel we're at the edge of a paradox here because obviously, you now have the tools that I think can unleash the Geoff Scott's of the world - and others - to develop things. That may not be a good thing; maybe it will - we'll see. But the more important thing is: are we really preaching to the right audience here?  Because your constituency here today, I would argue - and I've seen data from ASUG surveys - they're pretty skilled. They don't necessarily need these tools.

Maybe this is a Julia White question, and she's not here. [White was at the event; she just wasn't at this Q/A] But how do you get this message out beyond this core of SAP, and in particular, really started identifying SAP with this kind of business innovation, for people who've either never heard of SAP, or who don't have SAP technology necessarily inside their company.

Mueller replied:

On the one hand, we are not talking to the right audience, because these kinds of tools are for the users. We don't have, at SAP TechEd, users from the HR department, procurement, supply chain, etc. We don't have that. So therefore, in that case, we would not be talking to the right audience.

Then, Mueller hit on that missing IT-business dialogue

Where we are talking to the right audience is we have people from IT teams, the Chief Digital Officers here, and they continue to be important. It needs to be a collaboration. So we need to invite them first. But as you see, it's very, very important that we get this into the end users as well.

'The IT community needs to give back some of this control'

Mueller pulled a clever trick on Greenbaum. Turns out Greenbaum is part of the "right audience."

Then I would say, right here, right now, we are talking to the right audience, because we hope that you can amplify the message as well. We are having this constant drumbeat that actually, SAP is also evolving. And we are giving these amazing capabilities to end users.

Yes, SAP TechEd is about serving the technical community. But maybe it's time to challenge IT convention as well. That was certainly Scott's view. He took Mueller's comments further:

One of the things that has to happen is - and it starts today - is convincing the IT community that it can give back some of this control, that it doesn't have to be that everything in the SAP stack has to roll through it, that you have to have project lists that are hundreds of items long.

Some of this can be given back to the business users to do on their own. I don't think that happens tomorrow. I think that is a journey in and of itself. But I think we finally have the tools and capabilities where we can make a credible claim to the IT community: can you give some of this back? Please? Can you really do that? You don't have to hold on so tight, because I'll tell you, they're not going to get the headcount that they need to accomplish everything that needs to be done in a rapidly changing environment.

Strong talk - Scott's quote definitely reinforces SAP's point about the talent limitations of IT departments. But can SAP Build fill that gap? Are these tools mature enough for business user consumption? Scott fits the profile - so what does he have to say about it? SAP Chief Communications Officer Oliver Roll, who moderated the press conference, put the question to him. Scott responded: 

We were over in Waldorf a few weeks ago. We brought about eight people with us from North America. It became readily apparent everyone was coming from a different city; we were going up to DSAG's Annual Congress in Leipzig, Germany - and so we very quickly created an app to basically dump everyone's airline schedules in, and then track that using Flight Aware through an API... That ability to create that app was amazing.

Now, the good news is we did it, and we did it in a couple hours. The bad news is that we didn't do it on the SAP platform, because I didn't know how. But now, after today, I'm ready to take that app and move it over. Because I think what I saw today says we should be able to do this - and I'm excited about that. And I think it's critical to not only have that conversation about us as IT professionals, but also to figure out a way to allow that skill, allow that knowledge to be pushed out into the business units and allow them to do it as well. I think if we do that, it's transformative.

My take - on SAP Build licensing, evaluation, and early reactions

For SAP customers and those who serve them, I suggest evaluating SAP Build through these questions:

1. Is SAP's argument for low-code to address business user engagement (and developer shortages) viable? Does it resonate for my company and my industry?

2. Are the individual components mature enough for use today?

3. Which components of SAP Build do I need? Are there other best-of-breed low-code tools I should evaluate? Is SAP Build greater than the sum of its parts?  Is it relevant to all SAP environments, or just S/4HANA? What are the licensing implications?

4. Will SAP Build make my developers' lives easier and more efficient? Will it help bridge the gap between developers and business users? If so, how? Do I need a consultant or services partner to jump start that?

I can't address all that sufficiently here. For question number one, I believe SAP has offered a credible argument for why low-code matters. Aside from rare exceptions, like mobile phones and the Internet itself, I don't subscribe to tech revolutions. Nor is low-code as new as its proponents imply. So, I'm not in on the "low-code revolution" hype I get in my email inbox from PR types.

But I do see the impact of low-code, and I buy the argument - unless I start hearing that business users can create "beautiful apps" with low-code. Fortunately, SAP isn't using that "beautiful low-code apps" language, at least not around me. Now, if you want to argue there is an underrated beauty in business users automating workflows and embedding analytics without a grueling dependence on IT, I'll go there - but no further.

I'm not ready to vouch for the exact state of maturity of the SAP Build solution, but we know that all the components are already seasoned. At this time, I'd advise evaluating each separately, then see what capabilities across components are ready for your project needs. There are other worthy low-code tools out there; one of diginomica's partners extols the virtues of citizen developers. This comes down to individual fit, not for me to decide.

But I will say: the more the three components of SAP Build link together, the more traction SAP will get. The 1,300+ workflows for developers will keep pro-coders minds' open, but I'm more intrigued by the potential to tie in process automation. From the SAP Build release, it sounds like that process integration is well underway:

New integration between the SAP Signavio Process Intelligence solution and SAP Build gives users over 135 automation recommendations based on process analysis, lets users monitor and optimize processes continually, and automatically runs automations in the SAP Build Process Automation solution as needed.

If I were on the show floor, that's where I'd kick tires. As for SAP Build licensing, after our virtual interview, White's team provided some details:

SAP Build has a market oriented per user pricing model. Customers only pay for active users. This way customers only pay based on usage.SAP Build will be available as a subscription. Pricing starts at €1,000 per Month for 25 active users. Additional User licenses start at €18.00 Per Active User Per Month.

For engaging the widest range of business users, I think a consumption licensing option for SAP Build would have potential, but I haven't had a chance to pursue that question yet. I did notice the onstage SAP Build demo involved integration with S/4HANA. What does that mean for customers on older releases? I asked that question at the presser. Mueller responded by "correcting" me:

I'm happy to actually have to correct you a little bit. I hate it, but I have to. So in the demo, you saw an S/4HANA connection with a business partner. Correct. But also the events like the Sharks game and the helicopter tour that we showed in the demo. This was non-SAP data, so this did not come from SAP systems. 

In BTP,  we call that a destination service. So you can basically build a pipe from one point to another point that you want. For example, the ECC system is one, or an S/4 system. So you can connect those.

Laying the tech pipe - that's another key role for the TechEd audience:

This has usually been done by professional IT departments, so they would build the pipes. And then they will say, 'Oh, here is an interface for you, dear business and citizen developer, you can now use this interface. And we'll make sure that it securely connects via this pipe into whatever you need.' So you can use the BTP destinations also for non-SAP. This is what is so great about SAP Build, because it taps into the full power of the SAP Business Technology Platform.

Whether I was incorrect, you can decide, but I welcome Mueller's willingness to push back. It's a myth that so-called "influencers," one of my least favorite terms in all creation, should be catered to. On the other hand, media/analysts don't like to be marketed to either. I believe most of us want honest dialogue, not Powerpoint purgatory; that dialogue is the good stuff we can bring back to readers and/or customers. Speaking of which, I asked Greenbaum for his day one reaction. He texted:

SAP Build represents a solid low-code tool for building apps that leverage SAP data and business processes. But in order to be successful, SAP needs to find a path to the non-SAP business user and prove that its approach is an improvement over the many options these users have access to. The SAP brand is not as well-established with these users as it is with IT, and it's going to be an uphill battle for SAP.

Greenbaum hits a crucial point: SAP Build is not a given; customers do have choices in most of these areas. Where I differ a bit with Greenbaum is: non-SAP adoption. Another analyst also asked about SAP Build on the open market. While it's certainly possible, given that two of the solutions in Build are still sold separately to non-SAP customers, I believe the biggest benchmark for SAP Build is proving relevance to SAP's business users (and developers), including the ASUG members Scott represents. Next year at TechEd, we better hear about the apps Scott's team built with Build and/or BTP. SAP business user adoption will be my personal SAP Build benchmark.

Diginomica readers know, from my event reviews, that my biggest event news story often differs from the vendor's. That's true in this case also. While SAP Build is a big story, there is much to prove. For me, the underrated story is the critical mass of SAP BTP, with 15,000 customers. But it's not just the adoption. In recent weeks, I've talked with the leaders of all of SAP's cloud line of business solutions, from HXM to CX to Business Networks. All of them are extending onto the same platform - BTP. That matters.

But more important, in my view, is how BTP can provide SAP customers with the essential "quick wins" needed to keep momentum for longer SAP ERP modernizations. Customers need short-term results. I covered a potent example of this at Sapphire Now with SAP customer Bristol Myers Squibb ; SAP SE Executive Board Member Thomas Saueressig also talked me with about this last week (story forthcoming). It's an underserved storyline that SAP itself has created an internal quick-win-narrative, via hundreds of BTP apps.

Another aspect of automation still doesn't get enough attention: SAP DevOps, AIOps, and the need to automate ERP systems, not just business workflows. This is another area where customers have a number of options to evaluate, from SAP to ISVs to systems integrators. I think the topic deserves more SAP TechEd airtime; it's been that way for as long as I can remember. But if you want a head start, our diginomica partner Avantra has been fleshing out this topic: see Want to avoid a skills crisis? Get your ERP automation hygiene in place.

Finally, SAP Education's leadership team has put up with a number of scorching briefings with me in recent years. Well, they are starting to shut me up (on some topics at least), via a very impressive push towards free learning, global upskilling, and programs for the under-served. Check this notable release, including the Coursera partnership.

My ability to provide this kind of coverage of a virtual event is still all-too-rare. Frankly, you can't do it by just streaming the keynote; I don't care how well you think you know the vendor.

During the pandemic, SAP TechEd did a better job of serving a virtual international audience than just about any enterprise vendor did for any event. It's a shame more shows didn't follow this model.

Even though I'm not on the ground in Vegas, I was able to chase down plenty of questions - in part thanks to that hybrid press/analyst session. There is a virtual influencer session Wednesday as well. I applaud SAP for engaging remote audiences, rather than obsessing over one on-the-ground location. SAP TechEd is still being re-invented, and it's not there yet, but this hybrid reach is a crucial building block for whatever the event becomes. Update: I am getting some feedback that the hybrid experience of virtual attendees wasn't up to what SAP had delivered during the pandemic, including the disappointing lack of the "drop in" Channel-1 online room. Let me know your experience and we'll continue to cover how this played out.

If you have TechEd questions you want me to dig into, you know how to find me. I have a number of SAP stories already lined up, with more international user group interviews coming, so you can expect some SAPpy weeks ahead on diginomica.

Corrected, November 17 - 8:15 am ET. A quote about IT giving up control in this piece was incorrectly attributed to Mueller when in fact it was Scott that said this. That's an important distinction given the IT - business user dialogue in this piece. This was a transcript error and therefore my error. I apologize and have now adjusted the text accordingly.

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