SAP Champions: Spotlight Interview with Jim Spath
One of the things I’m enjoying most about the Spotlight Interviews series is that I’m getting to know better members whom I’ve known for years.
I realize that sounds a little convoluted. Allow me to explain.
With the Member of the Month interviews, I was talking to up-and-coming contributors to the community. I didn’t really know them all that well prior to those interviews because most of the time, they were in the early stages of establishing themselves in the community — so nobody knew them all that well at that point. And that was one of the points of Member of the Month: to introduce the community to participants worth watching.
With the Spotlight Interviews, I’m now talking to SAP Champions, and while this program can (and increasingly will) include newer faces, the current members are primarily veterans who have been around for many years, some during all the incarnations of community (even going back to the SDN days). Having joined the SAP Community & Influencers team myself in 2016 (and my history with SAP goes back even further than that), I’ve chatted with — or, at the very least, been familiar with — plenty of the SAP Champions in the past. But, since their seniority made them ineligible for Member of the Month recognition, I never had a chance to conduct the in-depth conversations that constituted those monthly interviews. Instead, our interactions were often limited to exchanging pleasantries — on this site, at events, through email, and/or via social media.
And that brings me to Jim Spath (AKA Jim Not James Spath and Jim Spath, the ABAP Detective). As I noted in my previous Spotlight Interview, I’m a big fan of members who are avid readers, writers, and (especially) SAP Community bloggers, and in his ABAP Detective persona, Jim has more than 375 blog posts to his credit — stretching all the way back to 2007. He’s also the mind behind the SCN Urban Dictionary (which I found entertainingly educational during my early days as an SAP Community employee).
For those accomplishments alone, Jim — as a writer and word lover — would have my admiration, but he and I also seemingly love filmmaking and cinema (or so I hope to confirm during this interview). As Jim notes in his bio, he’s a big fan of the Bengies Drive-In Theatre, and I, for one, welcome the resurgence of this screening experience in the pandemic world. He’s also a driving force behind several video contests within the community — having just launched a new one — and as an amateur filmmaker myself, I applaud anybody who gives others an excuse to pick up a camera and start shooting.
For all those reasons, I decided to reach out to Jim for the next entry in the Spotlight Interview series. Not only to discuss what we share in common, but also to talk about his career, his experience, and all of the things he and I had never chatted about before Spotlight Interviews gave me an excuse to conduct lengthier conversations with some of my favorite members.
Hey there, Jim. I’m so glad we’re finally having this long-overdue talk.
Jerry, same here. I’ve interacted with you from ASUG to Wikipedia and expect our collaboration to continue into the future.
Generally, I like to kick things off by picking interesting tidbits from people’s profile bios and asking for more details. I guess I did that to some degree already in the intro. But I want to break tradition here and go way back. Would you mind telling me a little bit about where you grew up and how you ended up where you are living today?
I was born and raised in Baltimore City, with both parents civil servants…educators specifically. They put all of us through college, and I was lucky enough to get an engineering degree after going to a science-focused engineering curriculum in high school (Go Poly!). The first Earth Day happened then, so I aspired to be an environmental engineer, working first in Chicago and then back in Baltimore. I’ll skip the SAP portion of my career as it’s pretty well self-documented in the community archives, though probably more than a few links have soured.
Did you know at an early age that you wanted to work in software? What and where did you study?
Computer programming existed in my youth but wasn’t broadly adopted until personal computers were produced and after I started a career. My high school was advanced enough — read: privileged — to have a functional IBM computer in the 1960s, and I learned FORTRAN on punch cards. People would come to me for help with their logic. I straddled that early community space where I wasn’t behind the glass walls pushing the buttons but with peers trying to go from idea to working model.
I like to say I never took a computer language class, but I’ve taught a few (at the community college level). I tend to pick things up and hack at them until they work. That could be undisciplined except when I have the spark. It was a balancing act between raw languages and database tools, with my learning SQL as one rung on a progressive ladder.
And how did those studies influence your career? Where did you work over the years, what did you do, and what do you do today?
Early in my government career (dealing with wastewater treatment plant contracts), I encountered digital systems, which in the 1970s were owned and operated by a select few. I had ideas on how to improve anything I came across, and took a class in operations research/systems analysis. In some ways, flow charts still are the focus of logic translation, particularly in business process management.
I became a database administrator as I had the skills, and the needs grew with the microprocessor explosion. At some points, I would have three maybe four consoles open to different DB platforms. Even today, I’m often in MS SQL, MySQL, and increasingly, postGRES in rotation.
When did you first sign up for the community and what prompted you to join?
Ah, the mythical community dragon. I’ll answer for the SAP space momentarily, but before that, some other application software areas I worked on from the ’80s until today: I published a monthly newsletter for the TRS-80 Baltimore Users Group (“TBUG”) initially (for those unfamiliar, that was one of the first mass-produced personal computers, prior to the Apple // and the IBM PC). A review of a C Compiler I wrote (for the CP/M OS) was republished in “Computer Shopper,” a widely distributed periodical. After that, I worked with a colleague on anti-nuclear legislation/activism, using dBase II/II/IV, and got online through a friend who knew someone at the EPA. After the IBM PC became an office standard, I proofread the C Kermit book — an early communication protocol and terminal emulator — and probably a few other technical journals.
Probably one of my more notable achievements was working (as junior) with the open source code for the Lynx text browser. Maybe not so well known now as in the early Internet days but still a viable application for quick web access. Besides migrating from a plethora of “make” files, I also included international language support, which probably came in handy during Unicode projects.
Google me, as they say… [[Jerry’s note: Please allow me to help! https://invisible-island.net/lynx/lynx-develop.html]]
Each of those was a software/application/interest community, and I’ve also worked in social challenges such as youth groups, community associations, environmental justice, and in the Baltimore City arena on police oversight.
In the SAP ecosystem, I crossed over — or stayed in both camps really — from the U.S.-based ASUG, where I volunteered as early as 2000 to learn more about my craft and share my knowledge. First, I was invited to be an SAP Mentor, and then, I started writing and writing. Or vice versa.
And what were your motivations for getting so active?
I’ll put a stake in the ground here — from my surveying background — and say I grew into the global stage because of the Unicode conversion challenge, post Y2K. I had already been involved in database-specific networking. This was simply a different stack. I needed to know about that technical solution because of my job, but also had the art of trying to communicate deep performance management challenges (read: zero or minimal downtime).
As one example of that, I used the open source code “Ploticus” to display charts from performance data I collected or generated. [[Jerry’s note: here’s an example https://blogs.sap.com/2008/01/13/unicode-episode-0007-passage-to-production/.]] Recently, I re-engaged with that app for personal financial use, with the latest incarnation being a Python API I’m connecting to a postGRES backend. It generates SVG graphics file formats with Pythonic reliability.
When I say active — I mean…hundreds of blog posts. What nudged you to start writing and why have you written so much?
Definitely Marilyn Pratt encouraged me to share far and wide. I also collaborated with tremendous people like Blag (Alvaro Tejada Galindo), Hideki Yamamoto, my countless ASUG peeps, and the vendors that encouraged and supported community engagement…some better than others.
At conferences, I challenged myself to be busy every day and post a detailed summary before the next day began. Kept me out of some socializations but that’s okay.
It comes from within.
Any intentions to get more involved in blogging again?
OK, that’s hard to say. Mentally, I’m always composing or creating something. I love word puzzles. And puns. And finding either typos or unintentional multiple meanings. Blue pencil forever!
Alas, the volunteer work I was doing with a senior arts group is on hold, probably forever, where I was writing some good code and fixing small business processes — when they let me. I had some Python:PDF work in the hopper. Keep asking for it, especially the ABAP Detective series.
Any advice for members who are looking to get started with blogging — or just get more involved in the SAP Community in general?
Well, funny you ask, I have a post about that. Great title, too, if I say so myself: Bloggers: “Write Frankly And Fearlessly, But…”
That was 10 years ago and sure the community has changed but the message persists.
I also spent time on the SAP community moderation team, trying to keep the trolls off the bridge, yet encouraging healthier dialogues — always going back to the What Would Marilyn Do rule. That’s a good place to learn what the team responsibilities and limits are, always good when you want to push the envelope or break things, smartly. The moderation team is limited to be able to have consistent oversight, so even if you can’t do that job, you can help by reporting bad posts, trying to resolve differences in answers, and supporting the community teams whenever possible.
I wish I had time to share more about how much Marilyn did for me, and for so many others in the community. Today, you (Jerry) are one of the go-to people for community questions and activities. I’d encourage community members to check in the Coffee Corner, learn who us old-timers are, and check out the SCN Urban Dictionary wiki for the “out-of-band” communications.
In addition to contributing to the site, you participate in live SAP Community events. How did you get involved in those and how do you like them — compared to writing for the site, for example?
Ah, conferences. I remember them fondly. Mostly.
In-person events and online posts seemed cyclic, where the regular use group meetings were interspersed with webcasts — I’ve given a few for ASUG, and hosted others — until this year of course. Now, the reality is webcasts or other virtual events are interleaved with posts on different platforms.
Normally held in July, Baltimore’s Artscape was cancelled for 2020. An advocate of art combined with science, Jim took this shot at last year’s event.
Since you’ve offered so much to the community — on the site and at events — you were one of the very first members to receive an invitation to join the SAP Champions program. What went through your mind when you received that offer and what does being an SAP Champion mean to you?
Sometimes, change is bittersweet. Things are even more pronounced now. When I was asked about moving from being an SAP Mentor, part of that was beyond my control where the Mentors have morphed into a different skin than in the past; part was the chance to try something new with different people and different rules. I always told my volunteers to be honest about whether they could participate. Like with youth groups, there are lots of ideas and energies in the beginning — or in the SAP user group world: around face-to-face meetings — and then other priorities intrude. Or your job changes.
Actually, I think Susan Keohan decided first [to join], which told me the Champions were going to succeed.
I would say something about applications never being good enough for an entire community here. As someone who got to try new things so often, I would rail at the improvement attempts that ended up driving away the critical community mass. Or so it seems to some. ASUG had website upgrades that famously mangled historic post authors. If I say “Rick Chern” to those who went through that transformation, I’ll still get eye-rolls. The SAP Community also went through a number of platform shifts, losing contributors in one way or another. I was a beta tester — more than once — and was able to share ideas but not always get the direction I hoped.
Of course, most recent members and prior users recall the shifts necessitated by the GDPR rules. I think we went back to the SAP Urban Dictionary to add new concepts such as “Formerization” where a member’s identity is masked unless they specifically permit being seen. That tends to leave historic conversations stilted or worse. The argument that old answers won’t be needed in the future is not so acceptable to one who posts.
I probably didn’t answer your question exactly — just sharing some historic community involvement challenges I’ve encountered, from the days of dial-up bulletin boards to today’s machined intelligences. If anything, I suggest community members understand that by volunteering, jumping in and answering questions, or writing how-we-did-it posts can be extremely satisfying when others learn from you, but it can also be challenging when you get blind-sided by well-intentioned criticism. Learn to take the hits and respond positively.
Let’s move on to some fun stuff — especially to me, as a movie buff. Tell me how you became the community guy responsible for bringing video contests to members — and what’s up with your new contest?
OK, I’ll try to be historically accurate, and politically correct here, which are sometimes mutually exclusive. We started doing promotional videos for some community challenge, then the light bulb went off that these could be the target of good-natured ribbing. Like the Razzies movie reviews that celebrate failures of a sort, or like Mystery Science Theater 3000, but we laugh at ourselves, not others. I’ll skip the history of the first several contest years, as they are linked in my posts, only mentioning I was fortunate enough to share with peers in Europe and Asia (specifically at Bangalore SAP TechEds).
The new contest spins off a local film competition where groups must include a specific prop, but the story and everything else can be whatever they want, from drama to horror to animated comedy. I want to meet people, hear them speak, and ask them to share a bit of themselves outside the constraints of business application software questions and answers.
For this month’s contest, ending in August, I’m asking people to share a short clip, with something related to food as the topic. It’s universal, but also, as they say, taste can’t be criticized. You either like peanut butter or you don’t. No reason to disparage anyone who likes it more or less than you do.
Since you like creating these video contests — and you’re a big fan of the Bengies Drive-In Theatre, per your bio — I assume you’re a big fan of filmmaking in general…?
Again, I was fortunate (privileged) to learn composition, developing, printing, and even movie story-telling as early as the eighth grade (13 years old, like). However, movie production work took a backseat to stills, slides, and black and white for decades until technology put a video camera in nearly everyone’s pocket. Being taught primarily using black and white, my role models included Ansel Adams, whose production methods of combining multiple sources to make a coherent whole is eye-opening, literally and figuratively. And because the late 1960s was, well, the Sixties, protests and social justice were part of my upbringing. My dad went to the same seminary school that Martin Luther King, Jr. attended and knew him in passing. The South African apartheid policies became known through photojournalism, as I mentioned to someone recently but not recalling the photographer’s name. [[Update: It’s Ernest Cole.]]
More specific, more luck than anything that I live close enough to the only remaining drive-in in the state to attend frequently, and privileged enough to support and promote their operation via social media. I’ve posted a bunch of “Best Of” annual movie reviews, starting with the Netflix platform and then moving the series to a Google blogger platform. Check those out for my experiences, picks and pans from the by-necessity limited outdoor shows. The oldest one still online was posted in 2010, and includes summaries of my annual reviews starting in 2001.
My child being a college graduate in electronic media and film was partly inspired by me, and mainly an inspiration to me…and others.
In the giant outdoor screen area, there tend to be a lot of “big screen blockbusters.” While those may not be my first pick for a movie choice, that’s what is in front of me.
Beyond watching movies, what do you like to do in your downtime? Any hobbies or favorite vacation spots?
My dad was also an excellent amateur carpenter/cabinetmaker. I inherited his classic drill press, have in addition a table saw, router, and host of wood-working tools and gadgets. Most recently, I built a bird feeder from pine, oak, cedar, and plastic — coincidentally sourcing the clear plastic from historic framed SAP community awards. I’ve also made prior community video awards, in one medium or another.
I like hiking and bicycling. We’ve been doing more of the former, and alternate between rural streets/sidewalks and semi-primitive trails, as much as one can on the well-beaten U.S. Eastern Seaboard. I try to share imagery from hikes, though to be honest I am a piker compared to the jaunts my friend Karin Tillotson gets up to. Whew, that would wear me out.
It’s not multi-tasking as much as being a polymath that goads me into adventures in various dimensions. A few hobby/obsessions I admit to, in this serious platform in the end.
One, image capturing. Two, information sharing. Three, art meets science.
Anything else you’d like to add — maybe some background or information I didn’t ask you about?
One, Panoramio, which before Google consumed it was a location photo upload repository that mapped the world. If you don’t know that portal, you uploaded a photo of a place, with certain restrictions like no obvious faces (selfies), then it was visible after a time in Google Earth. I had uploaded nearly 7,500 pics as far as I can recall when the powers that be shut off the site.
Though you couldn’t use that portal, supposedly the legacy image archive would be available, not through the Panoramio site — it didn’t scale — but still on Google. Then time passed, and as happens a lot on the Internet, those pictures all disappeared. For a period. Then there was some quota fun, then some of the imagery is available. I think.
From the time I started uploading earth pics, geo-coding has been a factor. My first devices, whether cell phone or digital camera, lacked GPS circuitry, forcing me to manually spot every upload on digital maps. Occasionally this would fail, with Panoramio peers being nice or rude, depending on whatever, and I’d relocate the image. Technically, though, those files don’t have tags that would preserve their location outside the Google space.
Later, as I owned both a digital camera with GPS and every cell device now has it, more auto-locating happens. Until Panoramio died, I could even adjust those, as sometimes in the woods the GPS signal would weaken, leaving individual shots in limbo but locatable given the sequencing.
As I typically leave my location circuit off, many cell pictures don’t have a location. For the rest, I’ve left bread crumbs for the future.
One place I grabbed local scenery for sharing is Orlando, Florida, the constant home of ASUG and SAP conferences for year after year. Till now. One image I got into Panoramio from 2011, taken on the balcony of the Quality 9000 Inn. Long story there.
A bunch of shots I took were on hikes around the local Scout camp. Those are still visible to me, and hopefully to you, as I can recall some and share them as appendices. A friend who is a professional mapper said this was a nice gift.
Besides wooded trails, I also curate an urban trail in Baltimore City for the Scouts Historic Trails program. There are four segments, which I’ve mapped and designed brochures around — and walked and uploaded imagery to Panoramio.
In Kerala, India is a treehouse you can rent. We did.
And the Zappa statue in Baltimore — not on Google Earth but Google Photos, privately. Outside the public library in east Baltimore is a bust of hometown boy Frank Zappa. It was a gift from Lithuania. I saw Frank Zappa play, once — and now have a CD of that concert — and met his widow, Gail, when she presented the library with a copy of sheet music from “The Black Page No. 1″…according to Wikipedia, one of the most difficult music pieces to play, probably ever.
Google Guide is the successor to the Panoramio concept, except that it strictly ties pictures to “places” — meaning you can’t just be in the woods, you have to be in someone’s woods. Yuck.
I have mixed feelings about being a guide, or did before the pandemic hit, as it’s no longer just a community where we share images and compositions but a feed into the search engine marketing machine. I’m fine sharing my imagery, wouldn’t think of trying to sell my stuff in any way, but I want the origination to be known and not borrowed, as so often happens.
Last I heard, I had over 4 million views of my Google images, whether Panoramio or other, and over 7,700 images online there. As far as reviews, not as many. OK, I have five published. Another square hole to be filled in.
Let’s see, what else? When Bengies is in full operation, I take photos of the marquee and post them online. Sometimes I get one side only and sometimes do both. They come in handy when I’m doing the year-end review of movies I saw. And are randomly shared globally. I have visited other drive-ins around the U.S., including Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin, and others in Maryland no longer here.
What can I say? Over the years, I’ve worn many hats.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today, Jim — and thanks for launching this new video contest. I think it’s going to be awesome!
I wanted to send waves to all community members, past, present and future. While we may not shake hands or share water along the way, we can all get along and make things better.