Let me introduce my guest
My today’s guest has been dealing with information systems and technology consulting for over a quarter of a century. It’s not surprising, because he has been in contact with technology since he was a child. He is the author of technical publications, who willingly shares his vast knowledge about SAP, as well as a blogger.
About changes in the SAP industry over the years, differences between SAP S/4HANA and SAP ERP ECC in practice, and unusual situations in the work of an SAP consultant – James Olcott is interviewed by Jarosław JZ Ziółkowski.
Reading time: 9 minutes
1. Wow! You have around twenty-six years’ experience in information systems and technology consulting. Thus, I have to ask you how this industry has changed over the years from your point of view?
There certainly have been many changes over the years. First of all, a career as an SAP consultant used to be impervious to business cycles back around the turn of the century. If one project completed, it didn’t take very long at all to jump onto another one. Business and industry were ramping up on ERP solutions, and there was much work to be done. Most consultants reading this will remember 2009 and 2010 as the big SAP project drought. Since that time, I have noticed that every four years after that, specifically in years 2012, 2016, and now in 2020, the SAP project market slows down. I don’t understand this, the industry needs to maintain and upgrade their SAP systems before support for ECC is sunsetted in 2025. Obviously, my view is not ascendant here. There are other changes as well. As everyone knows, COVID-19 has inflicted substantial damage on the SAP project market.
2. Okay, on another subject. You have written a 6-part series about how SAP software will look far into the future. You called it T5MONA and wrote it here on LinkedIn. I’m curious to know where did you get the ideas for that?
I felt that my Dad was the ultimate futurist, and I got this from him. However, our views changed over time whereby I became the futurist and he became the luddite. I described the opening salvo in the story “IS NOTHING SACRED” where our visions of the future collided over an episode of Star Trek when I was ten years old.
Generally, my T5MONA series was an exercise in extrapolation, mixed with a good measure of Black Mirror. Like most consultants, I delight in pattern recognition. Look at SAP version progression! First, we had R/2. Then R/3. I ignore ECC as it was a simple extension of R/3. Then we had S/4HANA. So what would come next? Well, the next number in the pattern R2, R3, S4, would be T5, right?
The next step was to find some four-letter buzzy sounding phrase that sounds enigmatic – as SAP loves to do. I came up with Mona Lisa after SAP’s obvious crush on all things da Vinci. The rest of my predictions are relatively simple deductions like creating more expansive tables than ever, for example, replacing new S/4HANA table ACDOCA with T5MONA’s DATTACO, and so on. Good clean fun. I am still waiting for Dr Hörst to call me back from Walldorf, by the way.
3. Let’s stop by the LinkedIn case for a while. In the “About” section you wrote the following sentence: “To Train is to Learn” – What exactly do you mean by that?
Whenever I coach, train, or encourage SAP users, I always learn something from the engagement. Typically, the users will highlight something about the underlying business practice that I haven’t previously considered. Thus, while I am training, I am exposed to new ideas and concepts. That adds to my job satisfaction.
4. So why don’t you give us a concrete example?
Sure, I will do so, in a more general context, since I cannot reveal what I learn in restrictive business practices *smile*.
Two years ago, I had a one-month “gig” at a major IT consulting company, one of the largest ones here in the USA and India. I was engaged as an SAP SD trainer to teach a group of their new hires to be SD consultants. They had to be trained in not only how to do the entire OTC process flow like sales orders – deliveries – billing, but also how to configure it. I was asked to train my replacements, in other words. A good consultant takes on such tasks with a smile.
But there was one small problem. The client-side manager explained to me that due to circumstances beyond his control, his company wouldn’t be able to provide me access to their SAP system, including their Training box. Yeah, I mean the one that my trainees had access to but also to Sandbox, or any system at all. In 20 years of experience, this was a first, where I was engaged in an SAP project, and the client could not get me access.
Yes, for the first few days, I could borrow a trainee’s laptop for the overhead projector, but how could I prepare exercises? What about that one trainee who didn’t have his/her computer because I was using it for class demos? This was unsatisfactory and was worthy of harsh feedback from me back to the client. I even used it as a topic in the class, called “dealing with unreasonable requests”. These things happen, and new consultants need to be aware of such issues.
This situation required an out-of-the-box solution. And the way I resolved it was to hire monthly access to an SAP IDES generic server in India for $20/month and then configure it over the weekend, so my sample company, sales area, customer, material, everything matched the examples in our training system. That Monday morning, I plugged in my laptop to the projector and showed the class all my screens and data that mirrored the examples in the class.
I summed up the whole situation then with the following words “And that was how you deal with an impossible situation – if you can.”
5. So this situation explains the main reason behind your MBA degree. But I would like to know a little bit more about the circumstances in which you use this knowledge. Could you please shed some light on this?
One of the key exercises performed while I was at Columbia Business School were the case studies, which consisted of a description of a business at a crossroads, a decision to be made, together with resources available or unavailable for that matter. We would discuss these in groups and then write up our conclusions. These came towards the end of the program. And we were expected to use all the tools and lessons at our disposal. In essence, we were discussing best business practices: identifying what those consisted of and the kind of advantages they granted a going concern.
Ten years later, I was enrolled in my SAP SD certification course. The instructor explained how SAP embedded best business practices into its multiple programs and modules – calling them “business chains” -while writing the code for the entire system. I marveled how the massive tree and branch structure of SAP software expressed those core principles. Thus, from the get-go, my SAP certification and subsequent experience – 25+ project clients to date – have brought my MBA education into living focus with an extraordinary variation. Always something to learn. Accordingly, I bring a business focus to the SAP ecosystem. My competitive advantage is that I speak business and can relate its requirements to software configuration and enhancements. It’s very much at the core of what I do, for example, when I am writing functional specifications in either English or French.
Without this, I cannot enable the necessary confidence on the part of a business to buy-in to their SAP system. Just like a programmer’s training in coding is central to their job function.
You can say it is part and parcel of my SAP evangelism.
6. And that’s how we got to one of my favorite moments of every interview – technical stuff. Referring to your earlier answers – I can’t help but ask the following question: How does SAP S/4HANA differ from SAP ERP ECC in practice?
I will answer this as a dyed-in-the-wool SD/MM functional consultant who has been on SAP since 1998. Version R/3 v4.1h, to be precise. Ok, let’s cut to the chase. As long as you’re using SAPGUI, everything is very familiar, with the exception of Master Data which has been significantly enhanced. Sure, there have been some new transaction codes, and screens, like MIGO to replace MB1B, but overall, the system is still very recognizable. One of my early projects even included an upgrade from R/2 to R/3. Can you say “black AS400 screens?” But even there, R/2 had many of the same underlying transactions that we all know and love. For me, the most significant differences are on the back end in terms of table structures and data fetches. This is due to my particular focus on reporting, BOBJ, and manipulating big data. I appreciate the thrust of SAP’s stratagem against Oracle in this regard.
Now, I’ve been around the block long enough to know that most users don’t look at SAP as I do. Whereas I view SAP as a soft cuddly kitten*smile*, the most reasonable business users tend to see it as the monster that lives in Jabba the Hutt’s basement. They think of the entire platform as unwieldy, demanding, and complicated.
As a manual-thumping SAP evangelist, it’s my job to show such heathens that their perceptions are misguided and grounded in poor comprehension. And that once they understand the logic underpinning the code and programs, they will see the significant advantages to be leveraged from SAP, for their business. Over the years, there has been much movement to customize SAP’s screens and access to those screens. So they are less cluttered for users and thereby more comfortable to use. Web Dynpro was one such tool that I have seen commonly used for this purpose.
This brings me to the most significant change that S/4HANA brings – the one most noticeable to users, which is SAP FIORI. Now, SAP comes with an out-of-the-box tool to create your custom front end, which renders classic SAP screens into apps running on tablets and iPhones. Functional consultants, programmers, evangelists, and other hangers-on like myself are normally quite content to ignore SAP FIORI and just keep using SAP GUI. But we aren’t the primary audience here – it’s the congregation that counts, not the service staff, janitors, and custodians. So us so-called experts better learn FIORI and get jiggy with our new App Launchpad.
One final word, SAP has got to stop naming everything “HANA.” It’s tiresome, confusing, and dilutes the significance of all products sharing the name.
7. For almost five years – besides strictly technical work, you were also a writer. I read some of your articles – they’re great. I wonder where do you get that interest and which of the many stories you described was the most exciting experience.
One answer to your question reminds me of a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine that depicted a patient sitting in an examination gown listening to the doctor issue a prognosis after the medical exam: “I’m afraid that there is a novel inside of you that needs to come out.”
In a sense, I was born into IT. My Dad founded such a business in Manhattan in the 1960s. One of my earliest memories was walking with him to the PSI computing centre as he carried two boxes of computer punch-cards – one for his proprietary program, the other for the data to be processed.
Thus the two above points together direct me to answer your question, “my stories write themselves.” Me, I am just the midwife that handles the deliveries. As to the origin, I am not sure.” Generally, I just wake up, and the story or article is bouncing around in my head saying “Hey, I need to come out”. The act of writing is the facilitation of that requirement. Incidentally, the same process is used in writing functional specifications in my SAP projects.
What’s worthy of mentioning, my blog is a memoir about my Dad. There you can find stories about his IT business. I am currently working on reconstructing the entire blog into an integral manuscript to appear in a forthcoming book and a series on a network like HBO. Readers may also be interested in more technical articles, like ones I write for Eursap’s blog.
8. Thus, considering that you have much experience in creating content, maybe it’s high time for your first SAP Press Book. Have you ever wondered about such a possibility?
You know, it’s funny that you ask me this. I am currently negotiating such a potential project right now. Watch this space!
9. Last but not least, I would like to refer to your very high work-experience in the technological industry. I could say that you grew up in parallel with this industry. That’s why I wanted to ask – what advice would you give to young adepts who would like to follow your pathway?
Find yourself a professionally managed project, where the meetings are stimulating, the work directly relates to your work experience, and your manager challenges and encourages you in equal measure. In pandemic times, all bets are off, and you have to survive. But it’s for a good purpose – to give you the wherewithal so that when the odds change to your favor, you can jump to a good project. I also hope you read my blog!
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