Advice for Recent College Graduates (aka “Freshers”)
Dear recent college graduate,
First, congratulations! You’ve worked hard and should be proud of what you’ve accomplished. By now you’ve started looking around the job market and you are trying to decide what to do with your freshly minted degree. You’ve heard a little about SAP but you’re not quite sure what it is, but you HAVE heard that SAP consultants sleep in beds of cash and coins fall unheeded from their pockets as they walk down the street. You want to be an SAP consultant!
How to proceed?
First, stop and take a deep breath. Shake your head a little and do a reality check. Yes, experienced SAP consultants do make more than the average person on the street, but so do doctors and lawyers and bankers, etc. My first piece of advice for you is not to pick your future career based on today’s salary predictions. By the time you get to your prime salary years, supply and demand could change the picture dramatically.
The Importance of Passion
Whatever you decide to do, you need to be passionate about it. In order to reap big rewards, you are going to have to work long hours and dedicate yourself to the study of your craft. If you’re only in it for the money, those long hours and hard work will be grueling misery. (Even if you do love it, burnout is a very common reason for folks to leave the SAP field.)
If you don’t put in the long hours and dedication, you can still work in the SAP field, but you’re not going to make the big bucks. Just as in the field of medicine, there are many doctors who only work part time these days. Sure, they make enough to get by, but they’re not pulling in the $1 million/year USD that the hard core specialists make. The same is true in the SAP field (except for the $1 million/year USD part, no one makes that in the SAP field). Also, for every doctor, there are probably 10 nurses, nurse practitioners, and/or doctor/nurse aides. You can still have a good middle class career in SAP without necessarily being a doctor. SAP end users have fine careers.
The Importance of Experience
Ok, reality check #2. No one is going to hire you straight out of school to be a highly paid SAP consultant and, no, getting your SAP certification at this stage isn’t going to help. Highly paid SAP consultants are reasonably compensated because they have the experience that the customer needs to be successful. Yes, I know you are a genius, but corporations are all about minimizing risk and going with the most probable path for success.
If your freshly minted degree is a Master’s Degree (MBA, Master of Information Technology, etc), you have a better chance at getting hired by a company who will be willing to train you in SAP. Most of the big consulting firms hire recent MBA graduates or, to a lesser extent, even recent graduates with Bachellor’s degrees *if you graduated from a top school*. If you graduated from a top school, you’re probably already aware of that fact. You’ve probably attended several recruiting events at your school and are pretty familiar with being courted. Good for you. You can stop reading now.
Starting at the Bottom
If you didn’t graduate from a *top* school (with above average scores, I might add), then it’s time for reality check #3. No one is particularly enthused about your entrance into the market place. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but trumpets are not going to go off every time you enter a room. You are now officially qualified to apply for an entry level job, just like everyone else.
More than likely, if you are reading this, you are from this unfortunate rank of folks. So… what to do? Should you get an SAP certification? For most folks, the answer is: probably not. You already have paper credentials, your Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. Adding more paper credentials is not going to impress anyone. Fix yourself a resume, tailor it to whatever job opening interests you and apply. Then do it again. Then do it again. Rinse and repeat until you get a job, preferably at a company that is running SAP.
Your First Job!
This is going to be your first job. It’s probably not going to have *anything* to do with SAP. If you’re a programmer, you’re going to do programming (probably in C or JAVA). If you’re a system administrator, you’re going to administrate systems (either operating system or database administration). If you studied business, you’re going to be making coffee at Starbucks (just kidding), hopefully you’ll be doing whatever entry level folks do in the domain you studied. Financial folks will probably end up creating a million spreadsheets. HR folks will probably end up doing the keypunch to hire and fire folks. Materials Management folks will be working in a warehouse somewhere trying to make sure the inventory counts are right.
None of it will be particularly fun. None of it will be glamorous. If you’re smart, you’ll be working harder at it than anyone else in your department. You’ll try to figure out *why* things work the way they do and how they can be done better. You’ll start to notice flaws in the way things are done and volunteer to fix those flaws… on your own time… for free. (or if you’re lucky, you’ll get assigned to do it during business hours as your job, but don’t count on that at first).
The Importance of Going the Extra Mile
Every day during your first five years, you should be asking for more responsibility, and you should deliver results. If the company runs SAP, eventually you’ll get transferred to work on the SAP system, first as a user, then, if you impress folks with your passion and hard work, you’ll get transferred into support. Typically this takes between three to five years, but fate can lead you there sooner or it might take longer (maybe even leaving one job for another).
THIS is the optimal time to get SAP certified. More than likely your employer will pay for the classes (at least that’s how it tends to happen in the US). If not, then maybe you pay for it and go to classes at night. Either way, with 3 to 5 years of work experience (a.k.a. domain experience) and an SAP certification, you are now eligible to start at the bottom rung of the SAP consulting ladder.
Obviously many folks choose not to go the consultant route. I can post another article on the pros and cons of consulting vs. working for a customer as SAP Support, but assuming you’re dead set on being a Highly Paid SAP Consultant, this is where you’d start applying to consulting companies. More than likely, you won’t get hired, because while you have domain experience and a paper certificate, you don’t have a significant amount of SAP hands-on experience.
The Sweet Spot
Most folks will continue to work at their company in SAP support for another 3 to 5 years before most consulting firms will consider them. Reality Check #3: The sweet spot for most junior SAP consultants is 8 years of domain experience with 3 to 5 years of hands on SAP experience. SAP certification is nice to have, but not required. Doing the math: most folks graduate college with a bachelor’s degree at about 22 or 23 years old. Average age of a junior SAP consultant? You guessed it! 30 years old!!
So…. not to beat a dead horse, but if you are 22 years old and fresh out of college (or 24ish and fresh from an MBA), your competition for entry level SAP Consulting jobs is going to be 30 years old, have 8 years of domain experience with 3 to 5 years of hands-on SAP experience, and probably have SAP certification. If you spend a bucket-load of money getting SAP certified, no matter what the sales guy at the certification place tells you, you are NOT going to beat out the 30 year old person with 8 years of practical experience and 3 to 5 years of hands-on SAP experience. Not… going…. to… happen.
Consulting Career Path
Reality check #4: Junior SAP consultants don’t make the big bucks. In fact, if you check the salary surveys, in most countries OTHER than the US, junior SAP consultants make LESS than their counterparts that work directly for a customer supporting a system. If anyone is interested, I have a hypothesis as to why this is (has to do with supply and demand and risk and some differences between the US market vs. the rest of the world, but that’s for some other time).
Assuming you’ve made it this far, as a Junior consultant you’re going to work yourself to the bone. Fifty hours a week is a light week. Add travel time on top. I hope you’re not trying to maintain a relationship with anyone back home, because it’s probably not going to happen. The divorce rate among traveling consultants is sky high. Consulting is a very cutthroat business and most consulting firms have a “up or out” mentality which means that you succeed or you are fired. Burnout rates are high.
Finally… Senior Status!
Assuming you can stomach 3 to 5 years of being a junior consultant, you will finally be considered a senior consultant. If you are working in the United States, you will finally start making $100,000 or more USD. Whew. Wait… wait.. what? $100k? What happened to sleeping in beds of cash? Where are the coins that drip from my pocket unheeded because I’m so rich I don’t care?
Reality check #5: Yup. Guess what. You’re NOT a surgeon. You’re NOT a hedge fund manager. You’re NOT a CEO. You’re an SAP consultant. The consulting company you work for makes pretty decent money, but you’re not going to get the money they bill the customer. You’re going to get whatever they want to pay you. It’s true that *highly* skilled consultants can make more (I made well over twice that in my best year), but the *average* senior consultant in the United States is going to make about $100k. Senior consultants in other countries generally make less, approximately scaled to fit cost of living differences. (Check Dice/Monster/other-source-of-your-choice salary surveys if you don’t believe me.)
The Good Life
The good news is that if you’ve played this by the numbers, you’re probably about 35 when you hit your peak. And $100k/year can certainly provide you with a comfortable, if not extravagant, living. You’re probably single or divorced, though, and that can suck at 35. Travelling is probably more of a hassle than a thrill at this point, but it’s a living. Also, I think we can say with reasonable certainty that if you don’t care where you work geographically, with the skills you have at this point, you’ll never have to worry about finding a job. If a project goes belly up, then you’ll probably be able to find another one (probably hundreds if not thousands of miles away) pretty quickly. If you want to stay in one place, it’ll be harder, but your job search should be shorter than someone without SAP skills.
If you want to settle down at this point, you can roll the dice and try to find the customer who’s business is good and is stable and who needs you. You’ll probably take a pay cut, but you’ll at least be able to see your kids every night (if they’re still speaking to you).
Will I Make It?
Final reality check: If you started this process just because all you wanted was a good salary and financial security, you never made it this far. You burned out long ago. In all likelihood, you ran into competition that was more passionate (and thus willing to work harder) than you and you didn’t make the cut. Sorry about that. I hope you found something else that stoked your fires. If not, you probably got stuck as a low level clock watcher, just praying for 5 o’clock to roll around. It happens. I’ve run into far more clock watchers over the course of my career than decent consultants. When I’ve asked the clock watchers how they ended up where they are, most reply that it just kind of happened. They got a job, any job, just to get a paycheck. They couldn’t care less about whatever it is they do day to day. They live for the nights and weekends.
It may sound dorky, but I still love what I do. When I work with a customer to develop the optimal backup/recovery strategy, even though I’ve developed dozens of them, I still get a thrill. Whenever I stand in front of a room of folks new to SAP and teach them the basics of the architecture, I *love* it. My face lights up. My voice becomes animated. Afterwards, folks tell me that they get a kick, just seeing how excited I get about SAP architecture. I get immense satisfaction when I can explain the pitfalls ahead clearly enough that the customer agrees to a plan that will avoid them. I feel deep personal regret if I fail to persuade them in time.
Whatever you decide to do, dear college graduate, I hope it is something about which you have passion and I hope that 20 years from now, you would be happy to do what you do even if they didn’t pay you, because you love it that much.
Best regards and best of luck,