What is the overall prospect of SAP opportunities for consultants, specifically independents, over the next 5-10 years? And how important is certification vs. experience in the industry and SAP when being considered for projects/jobs?
There's really no way to predict how independent SAP consultants will fare in the next five to ten years. The market is too volatile and the road ahead is clouded by too many global political and economic issues. Having said that, I feel that SAP itself has at least a five year life span from here. If the mySAP platform really takes hold, there's no reason why SAP won't be able to keep its position as the e-business architecture/software of choice for many major corporations and industries.
But just because SAP is going to be around, that doesn't mean it's going to be smooth sailing for independent contractors. "Independents" face competition from all sides: SAP is taking on more of its own consulting business, and companies are increasingly outsourcing their IT departments and sending IT initiatives "offshore." Companies that do manage their own IT projects are having much better luck keeping their perm staff on board, and as a result they've been able to reduce their dependence on specialized consultants in SAP and other areas. On the other hand, the ASP model, which would have been another major category of outsourced SAP work, has not taken off at all.
But the beauty of SAP independent consulting is that deep expertise in mission-critical areas will always demand a premium. The key is to find that crucial area of demand. So to answer your first question, I feel there will continue to be a role for independent consultants in the SAP market of the future. However, I think it will become more and more important to identify and master a unique niche within SAP, and that's easier said that done. The days of "core" ABAP, Basis, and functional independent consultants making a premium rate are over. Of course, we all know that SAP is a moving target right now, and whatever SAP skill you master today might be obsolete tomorrow. But pushing towards expertise in mySAP-related areas is clearly the right move, no matter where you currently work within SAP.
Remember that the key to standing out in a market full of automated tools and outsourced requirements is to have a strong business and technical balance. You want to be the person the company must have onsite in order for the project to run smoothly. As an independent, you can expect to have a team of salaried consultants working alongside you in most cases. You want to be the person that consulting firm's team relies on for key technical insight in your focus area. That means knowing how to be a team player and working well with larger firms, not to mention corporate end-users. The best "hired guns" never seem like they are.
Finally, to answer your question about SAP certification - I don't want to say certification means nothing, because it does mean something. I'd get a lot of emails if I said otherwise. But in SAP, hands-on project work is clearly the key to success. Certifications are nice to have, and I certainly advise getting them whenever possible, but a track record on high profile projects (with solid references) is worth ten times more than any type of certification. If you scroll through a list of typical SAP requirements online, you'll see what I mean. "Certification required" is rarely seen. However, "must have hands-on experience in the latest version of SAP" usually is.
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