Just returning from TechEd 2008 in Berlin, I realize how my perception of the annual event has shifted. I’m a long-time veteran: Hamburg 2000 was my first one, and I haven’t missed a single European TechEd since.
For years, I saw them primarily as a better and more cost-efficient alternative to attending SAP training classes in Walldorf. If you have been around in SAP programming for a while, think back of the old days, when it was still hard to find any useful documentation both within the system and on the internet. SDN was still years away!
Temps perdu – Thank God!
It was a valley of tears. Most SAP “consultants” supporting our projects were former business people with little technical knowledge except for the names of a few customizing tables and it seemed that few people outside SAP AG had decent ABAP programming skills.
How did you survive your years in the information desert? My primary strategies for information discovery were debugging SAP code, reading thousands of lines of code, and browsing where-used lists.
It was heaven to be able to talk with the techies, while at other SAP conferences only the business types were present. So I used to collect technical questions that nobody I knew could answer and bring them to TechEd in the (naïve) hope of finding a developer who could among the speakers and at the solution pods.
A two-hour hands-on session at TechEd could be as valuable as a week of training in Walldorf because it would give me an entry point and put me into the position to learn everything else on my own.
In a sense, it was still like watching a TV show: SAP still had a monopoly on good information, they broadcasted it, and everybody else has happy to receive as much as they could. (You could call into the TV show, however!)
In-between: Trends, Products, and Agendas
Later, the conference became a place for picking up trends like the emergence of the application server as a platform and product in its own right, or the increasing amount of Java-based tools and frameworks. Wandering from solution pod to solution pod, I could see how a new breed of SAP techies enabled SAP to create new types of products, using established standards and contributing to their evolution.
At TechEd, you could get an impression of which products were just appearing on the scene, or still in their infancy (e.g. ready for low-volume processing but not for heavy-duty scenarios), which ones had shaken off their teething problems, and which ones were already fading away.
Still, as I perceived it, the trends or hypes were made by SAP, so the Walldorf mothership still did all of the agenda setting. At the conference, you could find out where the wind was blowing, question thinks, and make up your mind based on that information.
Today: People first!
At this year’s TechEd, I saw something absolutely amazing happening. It was the emancipation of the community. For the first time, I was able to see a lot of bottom-up agenda-setting. Experts, geeks, and alpha-geeks from all over the world, be they SAP employees or not, have gained a voice in defining the agenda – both for the congress and for the SAP’s future product and service landscape.
The rise of RIAs and AIR applications within the SAP ecosystem, the immense speed with which Web 2.0 technologies and standards are adopted by the SAP community and integrated into the technology base, and the playfulness which has become a trademark of the SAP techie community, all this is happening because SAP gave us geeks the mike, and we found out that our voice is loud and clear, and today it’s well-heard. (Sometimes it’s stronger than some people at SAP are comfortable with, which means that SDN is really emancipating!)
Thank you, Shai
I attribute this development to Shai Agassi, to whom I will remain forever thankful for introducing a new culture into the SAP community. As far as I could see from the outside, he encouraged and supported the founders of SDN and gave them the resources and management support they needed to succeed. Under his reign at SAP, the mentor initiative was started, which gave the alpha-geeks an even louder voice inside and outside of SAP. Now the focus is on people, the faces associated with the technology, and bringing them together to unleash their creative power.
A Platform for Contributing
This year was the first time I visited SDN day, and connecting with geeks from SDN and from SAP’s finest development teams was the most rewarding experience. The sessions the mentors gave were compact, somethings pressing the essentials of six hours of regular TechEd sessions into one, and you know what: It was just right!
Gregor Wolf invited me to join a discussion with a member of the ABAP language group, where I could make some suggestions for additional features and give feedback about the recent changes in the language and infrastructure.
Also, I was lucky to be chosen as an SDN speaker and give a presentation (about exposing ABAP applications to SOA and other connected scenarios). After the session, a guy from the audience came up to me and said he liked it that I was presenting things without endorsing any official positions. I took that as a great compliment, because I think that’s exactly what SDN is about: Allowing ourselves, the geeks and experts, to voice our opinions, create content, contribute and learn from each other. (And what’s best, it has reached the point where SAP learns from SDN, not only by hiring its most prominent contributors, but also by adopting code and ideas coming from the community.)
We may be slow, but we’re not hopeless
So maybe I’m slow and you realized this long ago, but to me it was a significant shift in perception. From now on, TechEd is, to me, not primarily about classroom-type education, or meeting with product managers, or even with the developers of SAP products.
It’s primarily about exchanging ideas with other professionals, finding out about their outlook on the world, and enriching my worldview with many facets brought in by others. Also, it has become a place where instead of just being on the receiving end, I feel I can contribute.
Do Europeans not get the value of Networking? Mark Finnern asked this questions when he saw that fewer people registered for SDN day in Europe than elsewhere. Having said all the above, I respond: “We may be slow, but we’re not hopeless.” (The question why it takes us Europeans a little longer to get it would make an interesting topic for a blog about the historic prevalence of vertical structures in European societies.)
We’re picking up on the value of networking, because word of mouth is spreading around (I was convinced to give it a try by TechEd 2008: The Power of Networking), because people experience that it works, and because people are responding to it. Give it two more years, and SDN Community Day will be as popular in Europe as it is in the United States.