Vishal Sikka joined SAP in 2002 to run projects focussed around innovation. Since then, he grew to be a CTO, Board Member, and friend of many on this network. The SAP Supervisory Board met today – they often meet on a Sunday due to very tough schedules, and they are required by German law to immediately release news from the meeting.
And so it is that Vishal’s decision to leave SAP for personal reasons was announced, whilst Bernd Leukert and Rob Enslin were appointed to the SAP Executive Board. I’ve been following the Twitter feed all day, and there has been an emotional outpouring – shock, sadness and grief. I wanted to pen some words telling the story of Vishal, and what his work meant to us as a community. SCN is clearly the appropriate place for this to be written.
To many of us, Vishal is a visionary. As SAP co-CEO Bill McDermott described in his blog on this site, Accelerating a Culture of Innovation “the innovator of our generation”. Let’s have a think about what that really meant over the past 12 years.
I don’t know about you, but I was consumed into the SAP ecosystem around the time of Vishal’s appointment to SAP. Shai Agassi was running innovation, and SAP was struggling to become relevant in the Web 1.0 world, with green screens everywhere. Since then… SAP has moved leaps and bounds:
Vishal brought to SAP, development centers around the world. I remember the pain of NetWeaver 7.0, which was for the first time developed with teams around the world. But, this has brought a culture of healthy competition between development teams. I remember in a conversation with Hasso Plattner, how SAP sometimes challenges development teams against each other to get better outcomes for the customer.
Four large-scale acquisitions
SAP has acquired four large companies under Vishal’s tenure. First, SAP warmed up by acquiring French company Business Objects for $6.8bn in 2007. Next up, US-based Sybase for $5.8bn in 2010. SAP moved into acquiring cloud companies, first the $3.4bn SuccessFactors in 2011, and next the $4.4bn Ariba in 2012.
All of these companies now form a single development structure and, to some extent, a way of working, and I regular work with people who have worked for all of these companies, and those who come from SAP stock.
There were smaller acquisitions including TomorrowNow, Coghead, Syclo, KXEN, Hybris and the pending FieldGlass acquisition. All of these are significant undertakings!
Renovation of the User Experience
Since 2002, the SAP Business Suite has undergone some incredible transformation. With Enhancement Packs, we can more easily update systems. With Fiori we have a fresh means to access commonly used processes, and with Personas we have some improved screens. The school of design thinking has been introduced to SAP via Sam Yen and developers are taught to think about human computer interaction.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of teams including those under Michael Reh, who have recently created some amazing technology in the analytics space. I can’t talk about much of it yet, but watch this space!
A figurehead and leader to the development community
I went to two of SAP’s internal developer conferences this year, d-code. In the first, Palo Alto, Vishal spoke, and he walked on stage. “Hey. What have they done to you? Did they bore you all with PowerPoint?” – with that, he put down his clicker and talked – interspersed with live demos. Developers love him, and he loves developers.
In the second, I was honored to do the keynote at the Israel d-code. There was a clear sense that Vishal was the spiritual leader of that office, which is interesting considering that this office also plays homage to Shai Agassi.
This has been quietly consumed, or perhaps lost, in last few years, but Vishal invented the concept of timeless software – software which is not disruptive to the user as it evolves. SAP HANA is an instantiation of the timeless software concept, and all Revisions of SAP HANA are, in principle, backwards compatible and non-disruptive.
I’ve got a way into writing this without mentioning HANA, but it had to come along sooner or later. When Vishal first joined SAP, Hasso had asked him to find ways to reinvent the company. The first, was to create a next-generation database, and this became SAP HANA. I work with SAP HANA every day and it amazes me how SAP managed to create a database, within around 5 years.
More amazing is how SAP has managed to reinvent what the database means, by building HANA as a cloud, or on-premise application platform with the most enormous feature set. In HANA, you can complete what it requires 20-30 products from a competitor, in incredibly complex configurations.
To add to that, in recent releases, HANA has a stability that belies its years. We often deploy enterprise-ready, mission-critical apps on HANA. Apps that would be tough to build on any platform.
Renovation of core apps on HANA
This is a story that’s still being told, but SAP is in the process of rewriting all its core apps to be optimized for HANA. This is a huge undertaking – and has several phases.
First, was the compatibility with SAP’s existing Business Suite on HANA, and that is now complete. Processes will be further optimized to run on HANA.
Second, is the migration of all the acquired assets to run HANA in the Cloud. SAP has already announced Ariba on HANA, and SuccessFactors is in progress. There are several additional aspects including the PaaS HANA Cloud Platform, and IaaS HANA Enterprise Cloud.
Third, is the renovation of SAP’s apps, and this has already started with SAP Smart Financials. This is a significant program of work that simplifies the SAP portfolio to be designed for HANA, rather than just optimized for HANA.
River troubles me, because River is Vishal’s 10th Symphony. When Hasso asked for ways to reinvent the company, Vishal proposed to reinvent the ultimate broken batch process, software development. River is the second, or third such attempt at this, and it is a language by which one can describe what is required, whilst separating intention and optimization, whilst achieving both.
I do hope that River will continue under Jacob Klein‘s leadership.
SAP’s move into the cloud is ongoing, but thereare now many data centers around the world building solutions based on Succssfactors, Ariba, and SAP’s HANA Enterprise Cloud. There are millions of users and a significant run-rate of around $1bn. The story will tell itself over the next few years, but the foundations have been laid.
The thing that I love most about Vishal is his humanity. You need to go no further than his blog to get a sense of this. I have to make a strange admission here – sometimes, I will watch a keynote, or a recorded video or audio from Vishal, because I find it very relaxing and impactful. It always allows me to see the bigger picture.
Vishal blends anthropology and philosophy with technology, as do all the great innovators. Technology is only a mechanism, after all, by which to help people. It’s always about people.
Moving into the present
If you have things that I’ve missed from Vishal’s achievements, then please drop a comment and I’ll update this article. But, I also wanted to move into the present, because Le Roi est Mort… Vive Le Roi. Bernd Leukert takes over the reigns from him and whilst I don’t know Bernd well, he has a great reputation, especially for Apps. I’m hoping to spend more time with Bernd in the coming months and years.
For those of you who are afraid, or worried – Vishal’s legacy lives on. All the hard work that has been done has not been lost, and the vision is here, and the vision is enough to last SAP for a good long time. What SAP really needs now is execution on all the great ideas that are out there. If you work for SAP, and you want to make Vishal proud, then I encourage you to think of some of the things below:
Execute, execute, execute
The strategy is clear. Making customers more successful with HANA, in the cloud. I deal every day with many wonderful people within SAP, but when SAP is at its worst, it can get bogged down with bureaucracy and fail to get things done. Make sure you’re not one of those people, and be someone who brings positive change every day.
The software world has changed dramatically over the last few years, and Salesforce is already the #10 enterprise software vendor by revenue. Workday will cross the $1bn run rate soon, and those, and other vendors, are eating SAP’s breakfast. It is no longer possible to live life according to the business models of the 1980s and customers won’t accept it. They want value from their 22% maintenance and they expect innovation in the support dollar.
Remember that life goes on
It is clear that from the reaction on Twitter, the SAP community is in shock from his departure – I was too. Some while later though I’ve come to realize that all things must come to an end. For me, it felt like Vishal had unfinished business at SAP and the universe wasn’t ready to let him go, but that’s not always how it goes.
There are many amazing people
I’ve been privileged to work with many of Vishal’s team and there are an incredible amount of great people. I’m not going to call them out here because I’ll miss some critical people, but there is no shortage of talent and leadership. You will all need to step up a little to fill the void, but that’s life.
It has given opportunities to leaders like Rob Enslin and Bernd Leukert to have a seat on the Executive Board, plus spots for Helen Arnold (CIO) and Stefan Ries (Head of HR) on the Managing Board. Bjoern Goerke moves back into a product-focussed role. All of these are great things for the company.
I do hope that this essay provides some thoughts for those of you who are thinking about Vishal’s departure. But more than anything, I want to point out that Vishal’s legacy is all of you. The amazing people that have made the renewed company that is SAP in 2014, and you are all still there. Take a moment to mourn his departure and then get on and create amazing software.
And remember… it’s turtles all the way down 🙂