In this blog for the BPX community, I’m going to do my best to look at how the SAP skill set is evolving, with an eye towards a key theme of this community: becoming a business process expert.
Of all the topics that I write about in my SAP Career Blog on JonERP.com that generate the most discussion, the two most controversial ones are “the end of ABAP” and “the end of configuration skills.”
Earlier this fall, I wrote a blog entry about both these topics, and I got some excellent responses from Kent Bettisworth of Bettisworth Associates. Kent is a senior SAP consultant who currently specializes in SAP Project Systems, Fixed Assets, and Investment Management. He and I have been debating SAP skills trends since the mid-90s, and Kent always has some interesting things to say.
So, in this BPX blog entry, I’m going to share my original entry and also Kent’s response to that entry. I’m hoping that this piece will then generate some additional follow-on comments, either from Kent or other BPX community members.
Before we begin, I realize that it seems a little sensational to talk about ABAP and configuration jobs going away, and one thing I don’t want to do is fan the flames of those particular fears. But to be fair, I get these kinds of questions from many web site visitors, so this topic is on people’s minds. I hope this discussion with help calm anyone’s immediate fears and gear the thinking towards how to be strategic about anticipating SAP’s product evolution so that we can all stay marketable.
With that said, here’s the piece and Kent’s response:
Is it True That ABAP and SAP Configuration Jobs Are Going Away?
In a nutshell, yes, I believe it is true – though there’s no need to hit the panic button. This should be a gradual evolution. However, it’s one we need to pay attention to. A helpful way of looking at it is this: in the SAP eSOA era, IT and Business are converging – therefore SAP technical and functional skill sets are converging.
The first part of this sentence, that IT and Business are converging, is really the great inarguable point that SAP is wisely betting its future on. The second part is the implications of this for technical and functional SAP consultants. The idea that the skill set of the technical and functional SAP consultant is converging is not my own – it was offered up in a workshop I attended on becoming an SAP Business Process Expert that was hosted by Marco ten Vaanholt, Global Director of the SAP BPX Community, and Puneet Suppal of Capgemini.
But let me summarize a couple very interesting implications out of this presentation. First key point: it would be a mistake to assume that when we say that functional and technical SAP skill sets are converging that technical SAP folks will start configuring tables and functional folks will start cranking out ABAP.
In the view of Puneet Suppal of Capgemini, both the traditional SAP skills sets: (1) ABAP and (2) configuring the IMG, are going to either phase out though automated tools or become utterly commoditized. A similar view was echoed by SAP Chief Technology Officer Vishal Sikka during my TechEd interview with him, and I happen to agree with it also. I’ll go into more detail on Vishal’s views at a later point.
So for now, what are the implications? If the main SAP technical skill sets are eventually going to go away, what’s an SAP consultant to do? This is a tricky question, especially because the next generation jobs aren’t really there yet. Right now, the vast majority of SAP jobs are still in the core functional and technical areas, involving the same IMG/configuration and programming skills that are supposedly going away.
The answer lies in making a gradual skills transition, following one step behind SAP. Savvy consultants will ride the upgrade wave and choose forward-thinking projects that expose them to as much of this new technology as possible. Through the SAP BPX community, there will be plenty of opportunities for self-education as well. It’s not about becoming irrelevant, it’s about taking a pro-active mindset towards evolving your skills. The best SAP consultants have been following this strategy for years anyhow.
One thing I do see changing is the ideal skills mix of the SAP consultant. For many years, I have been telling SAP consultants to strive for an “80/20 skills mix.” By that I mean that the ideal skills combination is either eighty percent functional or eighty percent technical. The remaining twenty percent gives you just enough knowledge of the other side of SAP to be effective on project sites.
Historically, the problem with being a techno-functional consultant with a 50/50 skills mix is that SAP rewards specialization. In my podcast with Rohana Gunawardena of QSandS.com, Rohana talked about how the best SAP consultants focus on either the functional or technical side of SAP rather than trying to “straddle the fence.” But in the future, I think that’s going to change, at least for these so-called “Business Process Experts.”
Some of these BPXers will come from a technical background, and some from a functional, but overall, I think it’s safe to say that in the future, that 50/50 skills mix may actually become the ideal. But we’re not there yet. Therefore, SAP professionals are in an odd spot: the skills needed for success now are not the same as what will be needed down the road.
In the end, however, just as SAP emphasizes an evolution of product improvement that is not disruptive, SAP professionals should be able to evolve their skills in line with SAP in a way that is not professionally disruptive. The key will be to anticipate which skills are actually being used on project sites, as compared to the skills that might take center stage at conferences but aren’t actually being utilized.
One of the great things about this evolution to an SAP Business Process Expert is that you don’t just have to wait on the right project to come along. Many of the tools of this skill set, such as “Web 2.0″ know-how, are available to learn on your own, and the SAP BPX community has a lot to offer in this area also. Of course, exactly what skills are needed to fill in the gaps depends on where you start from within SAP.
For those who are looking for more practical next steps on making the transition to BPE, rest assured, I’ll be returning to this topic frequently in my blog, in my podcasts, and in upcoming articles.
So that was my original blog post. After I wrote the post, Kent Bettisworth chimed in with the following:
“Hi Jon, hmmm…the idea that Business Process Experts is a ‘new concept’ is giving me some difficulty. From my perspective, the exceptional SAP consultants (functional or technical) have always been ‘business process’ focused first, and ‘delivery tool’ second. Configuration and ABAP are simply ‘tools’ for achieving the objective of a particular business process.
And, I think the ideal skill mix is not 50-50, but rather 60-40 or 75-25, with the business process being the 60-75% and the ‘delivery tool’ (either IMG configuration or ABAP or BW or Portal or etc) the remainder. For as long as I can remember, the IT departments in companies have always been asked to be focused on, and to learn the business first. Then, use the tools at hand to deliver business productivity.
I do agree that SAP consultants must stay in touch with the ‘delivery’ tools. So, if IMG configuration becomes automated…you need to know how to advise clients how to take advantage of the automation. This is not new…’IMG configuration’ delivered pre-built programming. HTML, Java, etc do the same thing…delivered ‘canned’ modules that perform functions. If it means learning to build ‘composite applications’ as a delivery tool, then consultants will need to learn this. Many COBOL, Fortran, PL1 IT consultants (I am showing my age) did not pick up on the shift in ‘tool’ technology pioneered by SAP and other web-focused technology companies!
I think the challenge is the same as in the past. The higher paying jobs will go to those who are primarily ‘business process’ focused. And, at the end of the day, you must decide if you are having fun. If not, get a new job!”
Kent then sent an additional comment: “Hi Jon, here’s a timely and relevant quote from an article in today’s Wall Street Journal. Mr. Szydenda is the CIO for General Motors. ‘The challenge for Mr. Szygenda isn’t just to cut IT costs, but to use tech to reduce the time and money it takes to design, build and deliver vehicles. ‘No system ever saved anyone,’ says the CIO. ‘My job is to use IT to transform the business.’
‘That’s an oft-stated goal for IT departments, but one few achieve. Too often, CIOs focus on tech rather than business problems,’ says Jerry Luftman, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. He adds that only now are IT leaders realizing that “the job is a business executive job, not a tech job.’
Saavy SAP consultants know their job is first and foremost business process driven. The tools used are secondary and will change over time.”
– Kent Bettisworth –
I had the following response to Kent’s post: “Kent, great comments as always and I would tend to agree with all of them. Agreed – the idea of a “Busines Process Expert” is surely not a new one. What I am doing in this blog entry is simply reporting on SAP’s own emphasis of the idea of a ‘Business Process Expert,’ in a way it has not been emphasized before within SAP.
I tend to agree with you that the tools always change but the mindset and business process awareness is the key. However, historically many SAP technical folks have been able to get by on their technical savvy without having to embrace the business process mentality. SAP argues that this is going to change, and this seems accurate to me. The only point of contention is how long this evolution will take.
On the functional side, the need for “configuration skills” being a the core of the skill set has not really changed since I entered the market in 1995. The idea that this would change, I feel, is a pretty significant development.
Obviously, existing SAP consultants would be in a good position to evolve their roles along with SAP, but my point, and I think it’s a valid one, is that those consultants who take a pro-active approach towards anticipating these trends are the ones who are going to benefit from it most and be the most marketable.
I doubt you would disagree with that, since you have had that attitude throughout your career and it has served you well. But, not all consultants have that attitude, so a bit of “shock value” about the changes ahead is, in my view, a relevant thing to undertake so that folks understand they have a good future in SAP, but that they will have to work for it.
I also feel that the technical tools on the horizon now are a bit different than those we have seen in the past. At TechEd, SAP did a demo of a new modeling environment, based on Eclipse, and the end result of such a tool is to automatically generate a lot of code that used to be hand-coded.
Yes, change is a constant, and the ABAP role has been changing for a while now. But I still feel these particular changes are pretty significant, even if SAP is using a term, “Business Process Expert,” that is not new in its usage as you rightly point out. I hope the folks reading this blog will take your perspective to heart, it’s a project-tested outlook as I’m sure you can attest.
This is more of an ongoing conversation than anything I can accurately predict, but I look forward to digging into this conversation further.”
– Jon Reed –
After Kent chimed in, we heard from another blog poster named “Sandy”:
“Hello Jon. I find it quite hard to fathom companies being able to use automated congiguration tools for IMG settings as the requirements are so varied it is virtually impossible to program in. I would love to see a solution which will allow easy IMG settings. The concept of the business process expert already exists. But I do agree with the point of view that it should be a healthy mix of technical and functional skills: 70-30 respectively. But for me, functional experience is harder to imbibe, as it requires a harder skill set.”
To which I responded: “Hey Sandy – Good comments and I don’t disagree. Part of what I’m trying to do on this web site is to anticipate where SAP skills trends are going so that SAP professionals can make sense of how these trends impact their area of specialization.
While the notion of business process experts has been around for a while, there are definitely some changes in how SAP is using the language now. The explosive growth of the BPX community is one illustration of that.
I would suggest listening to my podcast with Marco ten Vaanholt, Global BPX Director, and see what you think. I think Marco has a real good sense of how to put these issues in perspective – see Marco’s blog for more on this. If nothing else, I think that process modeling and visual programming tools are going to impact functional and technical skill sets.
The point I am trying to make more than any other is that SAP consultants need to think of themselves, at least on the functional side, as industry experts rather than “configuration specialists.” No, automating the IMG isn’t happening overnight. But I think there is still a message being sent by SAP and by SAP customers about some changes on the horizon in what is expected of a functional consultant. That’s one of the main things I’m trying to bring out here in my blog entries and podcasts.
This is more of a dialog than a one time answer, so thanks for joining in the discussion, and keep coming back for more!
– Jon Reed –
So that’s a wrap for our initial discussion on the so-called “end of configuration and ABAP jobs.” I wanted to share this back-and-forth with the BPX community and see if anyone else had a different perspective on this. No one person can say for certain how this will play out. Predicting SAP trends is fun, but it’s better to have a dialogue than to make bold pronouncements. Hopefully we can have a provocative discussion and make sure that we all make the best career decisions possible.