One of the most successful entrepreneurs in Europe, SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner, just turned 70. He has played an active role in the organization, including leading a team to develop SAP’s breakthrough HANA technology, and has no plans to slow down.
And yet, he could have as easily become a rocker in Liverpool. In a rare interview with the Financial Times, Plattner says that his German accent was a reason for giving up that dream. “I would have put my boots on, jeans and a leather jacket and long hair and played the guitar,” he says.
His decision to give up singing turned out to be a boon for software in Germany. Plattner, who grew up in Bavaria, became a software engineer and worked with IBM for a while before co-founding SAP. Over the years, he became a multi-billionaire philanthropist, and continued to infuse an entrepreneurial spirit in the company that is now among the largest software organizations in the world, a far cry from when he founded it 42 years ago. One of the biggest inventions he led was HANA, SAP’s in-memory database which he expects will power the next wave of growth.
HANA’s development started seven years ago. He asked himself, he says in the interview, “Do I have any idea how I would build a new enterprise office system?” He got a few ideas and passed them on to his group of PhD researchers. The basic concept, he says, was that a future system should have no redundant data. “Never store data twice…that was the start of HANA.”
Today, SAP is re-writing its core business software applications so that they can run on HANA. This is a huge step: the company is tearing up millions of lines of computer code that made its core applications so successful. Hasso admits it is tough to do that. He quotes Intel’s Andy Grove, who once said “eat your young or somebody else will.” Grove meant that an organization should have the ability to innovate and lead, even if that meant veering off the old course. When asked whether it was harder to set up a new company or to steer an existing company in a new direction, Hasso did not hesitate with his reply that the latter was a bigger challenge.
Hasso led SAP to overcome that challenge. Since the time when he and his small team created HANA, the platform has revolutionized the software space. Sales of Hana grew 61 percent last year to 633 million euros ($864 million), and are a bright spot amid slower growth for traditional software. After creating HANA with his team of 5-6 PhD researchers, Hasso expanded the team to 15. He has personally endowed the Hasso-Plattner Institute, an academic research body, and plans to make it work closely with the new development center in Potsdam. And yet, he insists that he is not just a scientist. “I was always an engineer but don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy it when I get a $10 million contract.”
Hasso admires American technology entrepreneurs, such as the founders of Google and Apple. One of the reasons, as he puts it, is that “Americans are not afraid of the future”, as compared with people in his native Germany or Switzerland who he says can be more conservative. He recalls meeting Steve Jobs, the legendary founder of Apple, when Jobs wanted to sell SAP his new Macintosh computers. Hasso chose not to, which miffed Jobs, but they got back in touch later when Jobs was in his second run as CEO. Hasso says that he learned from Jobs’ single-minded determination, and realized that he was much too conciliatory during his days as SAP CEO. “It is always better if you can convince, but if you know you have to go there and others are not moving, I think you are better off making a decision,” he says.
Asked about his generation’s legacy, particularly on issues like climate change, government debt and healthcare, Hasso said he wished people could avoid dramas before taking the right steps. “We are not really good at solving things without the practical experience. Kids only learn that the stove is hot when they put their finger on and they burn it. This, unfortunately, is the limitation of our precious brain,” he says.
Hasso is also active outside of SAP, as an avid sailor. Last autumn, he won the German Dragon Championship as part of a three-man crew that included an Olympic sailor. Later this year, he plans to race in a 505, a small two-person race. He is ready to lose over 10 kilograms, because the crew’s weight can be a decisive factor. Just like with SAP, he aims to win.