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There are a few paths you can follow in growing your SAP career. In your middle career, you’ll either 1) Go Deep, 2) Go Wide, or 3) Go Management. For later in your career, you’ll either 1) Stay Technical, 2) Go Independent, or 3) Go (even more) Management. This post is just my opinion. Hopefully we’ll get some lively discussion on this topic.

Mid Career

1) Go Deep

If you choose this path, you will pick a subspecialty within basis and become the world expert on that topic. For example, in Basis you could choose any of the following “Deep” areas” (not a comprehensive list)

  • Monitoring/Performance Tuning
  • Transports/ChaRM
  • ABAP stack troubleshooting
  • JAVA stack troubleshooting
  • High Availability/Disaster Recovery
  • Infrastructure/landscape Design
  • Upgrades
  • Globalization
  • Archiving
  • Very Large Databases
  • HANA
  • Component based specialization (CRM, BI, ECC, SRM, Portal, etc)

The point of going Deep is to be the go-to person in your one topic area. Eventually most if not all of your work will involve your Deep specialization.

2) Go Wide

If you choose this path, you will endevour to become a “Jack of All Trades”. For example, in Basis you could choose something similar to the specializations listed (not a comprehensive list)

  • Generic Basis but on a wide variety of components (know enough about any component for routine matters or to get by until a specialist can be located for really intransigent problems)
  • Ramp-Up products (always on the bleeding edge)
  • Techno-Functional (allows you to fill two slots on a project or different slots on different projects, BI and Portal consultants are famous for this)
  • Broad Technical (Basis + ABAP/Java Programmer, now you’re *really* dangerous!)

The point of going Wide is to be able to be useful on just about any project, in just about any situation. You will probably not be able to handle the toughest problems, but your versatility will make up for that. You will have tremendous variety in your work assignments. In fact, no two may be alike!

3) Go Management

If you choose this path, you will work your way up the project food chain from Team Member to Team Lead (Basis Lead) to Technical Lead to Project Manager. You’ll need to stay familiar with all technical aspects of a project and be able to estimate how long they should take to complete. You’ll also need strong interpersonal and management skills. This route still requires strong technical understanding but requires more non-technical soft skills than the other approaches.

Late Career

For later in your career, you’ll generally have one of a few paths to follow as well. You can go from any middle career path to any late career path, but some middle career paths lead more directly into some late career paths than others. For your late career SAP Paths, you can 1) Stay technical, 2) Go Independent, or 3) Go (Even More) Management.

1) Stay Technical

Most large consultancy firms and customers will make allowances for folks to stay technical for their whole career. This is particularly true for Deep specialists, but somewhat true for Wide specialists. While salaries can reach fairly lofty heights, some long term Technical folks eventually complain about career stagnation. At some point the raises and promotions stop because you’ve maxed out the range. Without taking on management duties, titles like Vice President or CIO are far out of reach. For many, though, this path can be rewarding long term, especially if long term specialization is coupled with general industry recognition of expertise.Characteristics of this path (rough generalizations, not all true in all cases)

  • Work for someone else
    • Don’t have to worry about administrivia
    • Can focus on technical tasks
    • Don’t always get to set direction
  • Fewer soft skills required
  • Stable and safe (although Independents argue that this is just an illusion)
  • Steady, 8 to 5, life possible
  • Remuneration rises quickly, but tops out quickly as well

2) Go Independent

Many mid-to-late SAP career folks decide to strike out on their own as independent consultants. Wide specialists are particularly apt to go this route, but both Deep and Management specialists opt for this path as well. Independent consultants take charge of their own destiny. Independents find their own work, manage their own training, handle the billing/advertisement of their skills, etc. Independent consultants value their freedom. Characteristics of this path (again rough generalizations, not all true in all cases)

  • Freedom
    • Choose your own clients
    • Choose your work
    • Choose your own training/development path
    • Handle your own administration (billing, time recording,etc)
    • Flexibility in down time/vacation
  • Gadgets
  • Uncertainty
  • Requires strong money management/discipline
  • Requires you to stay close to the technology skills that got you to this point
  • Remuneration is limited by whatever bill rate you negotiate and the number of hours you are willing to work. (Adding more than just a few people to your practice moves you from Independent to Management.)

(Please read the excellent blogs of Firefighter and Daniel Graverson from whom I have blatently stolen many of these characteristics. 🙂

3) Go (Even more) Management

When folks think about their late career, many envision CIO, CEO, VP, or Director titles for themselves and for most folks, the envisioned path travels through ManagementLand.  (Independents will argue that they are CEO/CIO/etc or could grow their own companies by hiring on additional folks, but most don’t because that starts to veer away from the Freedom that drew them to Independent Consulting in the first place.) If you work for a large consulting firm, the only way up the chain, in general, is via the Project Management route. When you start off, you’re generally not in charge of anyone. After  a few years you pick up personnel management responsibilities (often 4 new hires) as you migrate into more Project Management type roles (say Team Lead for example). In order to continue at the Firm, you will pick up both more personnel responsibilities (maybe you’re over 4 folks who themselves are over 4 folks) as well as project responsibilities (say Technical Lead, for example).  You’ll also  start to be included in more of the presales part of the business. Eventually, you’ll make partner and your job duties will be entirely managerial and/or Sales. If you work for an SAP customer, then typically you’ll follow a fairly similar path but without the Sales responsibilities and more dealing with Sales people responsibility. Rather than Partner, you job title will become Director, or Vice President, or … for the select few CIO/CEO/CFO/other C-level).Characteristics of this path (again rough generalizations, not all true in all cases)

  • Less technical, more soft skills (managerial/sales) over time
  • Administrative duties
  • Increased responsibility and control of company funds over time (you get to spend huge whopping amounts of Other People’s Money)
  • Risk of topping out in the dreaded “Middle Management” (no room to advance but too many tech skills lost to go any other way)
  • Musical chairs aspect to advancement (you can’t rise until the chair above you is vacated and then you have to compete with many others for the one slot)(Can be ameliorated at consulting firms if the Firm’s business is grown and can spawn new consulting practices.)
  • Highest potential remuneration… for the chosen few. (Have you checked average C-level salaries lately? It’ll give you a nose bleed. Sheesh.)

As you might expect, there are a thousand variations on these paths, but this post summarizes my observations and the collective wisdom of many of the business books I’ve read over the years. Mistakes are mine, of course, and I’ll happily revise this to incorporate comments as we go along.

Other Blogs relating to this topic

Employment in the Agile Business

Valuable Lessons to Make the Most of your SAP Career

How much do you invest in You?

Best regards,

  –Tom

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13 Comments

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      1. Jarret Pazahanick

        Thanks Thomas and as far as mobility unfortunately the licensing model hasnt caught up to the real world but hearing through the grapevine that some big things can be expected on that front at Sapphire.

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  1. Kevin Grove

    Tom

    Nice post. Your analysis is spot on. The main thing that the “younger folks” should realize is that there are different tracks available and all equally viable for a long and rewarding career within the SAP practice. Certainly in these days of multiple job changes and lateral moves, a direct climb up the corporate ladder is not such a sure thing.

    I will echo Jarret’s praise (and thanks) for joining the blogging community here on SCN.

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    1. Thomas Dulaney Post author

      Kevin,

      With such good blogging examples to follow, I finally dipped my toe into the blogosphere. I can only hope to keep up the high standards you, Jarret, and others have set on SCN. Thank you for the encouragement! –td

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  2. Tuncay Karaca

    Thomas,

    I like your path classification.

    Life is always about decisions, good and bad decisions. This is true for our professional life too. We listen sometimes our heart (go this way, do whatever you want, freedom is good, like more money); sometimes we listen our minds (not it’s risky, stay there for a while, less money but safe..)

    Some point decisions cannot be postponed, then make your decision, but not easy! Who plans own career? or Do we go whatever path takes us?

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  3. Stephen Johannes

    Tom,

    Excellent blog and thanks for sharing and hoping on board on SCN.  I think these decisions are even more important when you start out as pure developer and have to make a decision due to either demand or market on how to branch out.  I personally like the “go-wide” approach because I think the SAP market lacks good “generalists” and has too many specialist, even at a “module” level.

    Take care,

    Stephen

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  4. mauro b.

    Hi Thomas,

    I was interested to know your opinion on how  executive education (executive mba or executive msc from 1st 2nd tier universities) might favourite mid career paths, specifically the “go management” path. I m considering to pick up a UK executive mba to give me more international credibility and more career opportunities. Do you think that such degrees worth in the SAP world?

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    1. Thomas Dulaney Post author

      Hi Mauro,

      I believe executive mba/msc programs can provide a good value in many cases. Many companies have minimum education standards for middle and upper management, but that’s the least important reason.

      For mid career folks, you’ve had a good chance to experience real world business environments. You now know where your personal weaknesses are and in what areas/fields your interests and passions have led you. Many folks may not have known as an undergraduate where life would lead (or in my case, thought life would progress down a completely different path). Executive programs will enable you to shore up weakness and build on strengths/passions.

      There are several other potential benefits:

      • Executive MBA programs with strong SAP integration will expose you simultaneously to the business concepts and allow you to see/work with SAP systems to practice/learn those concepts
      • Projects undertaken during the program may provide direct benefit to your current job/assignment. You’ll be able to pull from your classmates and professor’s experience as well.
      • Networking with your fellow classmates may provide future opportunities for career advancement and can provide additional support network when you need someone to discuss business opportunities/challenges.
      • The program may introduce you to even more areas of interest and will definitely provide you with more tools/ways to think about problems.
      • Programs may provide access to career centers which may result in direct recruiting opportunities.

      I’m sure other folks may come up with other benefits. You’ll have to balance the benefits against the cost of the program and the time required to finish the program. You do want to try to make sure that the program suites your interests and career goals as all programs are not created equal. Interview graduates and get their take on whether or not they felt the program was beneficial.

      I hope this helps!

      Best regards,

        –Tom

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  5. Rashid Omar

    Hi

    Valuable expert and having heart to guide others.

    I am having 12 or more years of experience in Powerbuilder. I was in governmentt organization in other country where foreigner can only work as programmer in computer center. So I am still programmer. I want to shift my carer to SAP but due to my age i dont want to go in programming. which SAP  module will be suitable for me? Please suggest me. I will be thankful

    Thanks

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    1. Thomas Dulaney Post author

      Hi Rashid,

      I’ve written a fair amount on the topic of learning SAP when you don’t have an SAP job already (which can be found here). You might want to review some of those blogs for some insight.

      In your case, it’s hard to say how to best proceed. I never recommend a complete break with your past to start into a new field. This puts you at a huge disadvantage as even relative newbies have more relevant experience than you if you make a severe break from your past.

      My typical advice is to use your current strengths to move gradually from the job you currently have to the job that you want. For example, you could research/get training on SAP’s mobile platform (previously Sybase’s mobile platform). Since the genesis of the mobile platform was Sybase, there may be similarities between Powerbuilder and the programming environment that the mobile environment uses. You could make the case, then, in interviews that your long experience in Powerbuilder gives you a tremendous advantage over SAP programmers coming new into the Sybase field. (If it turns out that the development environment for the mobile environment does not share much in common with Powerbuilder, you could still make the case that strong experience in one programming language transfers to another and at least be on equal footing with all the programmers coming into the Sybase mobility platform fresh as well.

      The demand for mobility developers is strong and only expected to continue to strengthen, so that might be a good approach.

      In this case, though, you’ve ruled out programming entirely which leaves you primarily with the option of a clear break. It would be the same as if you told me you wanted to be a professional chef or a heart surgeon. You are saying you want to start exactly from scratch.

      I think it would be difficult for you to break into any of the functional areas unless your Powerbuilder experience was so heavily slanted towards some specific functional area that you could claim some sort of expertise in that area. You didn’t mention anything like that so I’m going to assume that’s out.

      One option for you would be to examine Business Intelligence or Process Integration. Both kind of border on programming and you might be able to make the case that your programming experience is related. Business Intelligence is data warehousing, so you would be dealing with data modeling. Process Integration is SAP’s messaging bus which involves mapping data fields from one format to another and writing the appropriate XML schemas. Since as a programmer you have a fairly intimate experience with data, I imagine that this kind of work would be close enough related to your previous work that you could more easily make the transition than to a straight functional area.

      I hope this helps. Please don’t hesitate to ask followup questions, but maybe we should take this discussion to a separate thread.

      Best regards,

        –Tom

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  6. NBN SAP

    Thanks Thomas, Really a thought provoking blog !! I started my career in SAP ABAP just after my B.Tech. I worked in development,support,upgrade project for 2year at WIPRO,Bangalore,India. At present I am pursuing my MBA with HR as specialization in distance mode and also got trained in SAP HCM module. How about proceeding my career as Techno functional with Core ABAP and HCM functional ???? Regards, Niladri Bihari Nayak

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