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SAP jobs of the future

SAP career guru Jon Reed analyzed the news and messages from Sapphire and has some advice on how to be a more marketable SAP professional in the future.

In this three part series, site expert Jon Reed analyzes information gleaned from Sapphire to determine the state of some popular SAP skills. In Part 1, he looks at what skills will be in demand in the future. Part 2 will look at the present situation and Part 3 will reveal which skills may have already seen their best days.

Sapphire 2007 was not a conference of big announcements, but for SAP professionals, the implications were plenty big, particularly concerning NetWeaver skills.

After hearing a number of SAP executives play down the "skills gap" problem, it was striking to hear both CEO Henning Kagermann and deputy CEO Leo Apotheker acknowledge that there was, in fact, an insufficient supply of consultants with the experience needed to fulfill SAP's Enterprise SOA vision.

In the NetWeaver era, the question remains: How do SAP consultants stay ahead of the curve without being burned?

There's no simple answer, but the key is to find ways to evolve along with SAP, keeping the future in mind while also cultivating skills that are relevant to the present. SAP might say, for example, that folks with Enterprise SOA skills are badly needed, but how many jobs have we seen that require those skills? Not many, when compared with the number of open jobs in areas such as Financials, Human Resources (HR), Business Intelligence/Business Warehouse (BI/BW), and Customer Relationship Management (CRM).

And what if IT departments find that their existing Java and Web people can fill the SOA gaps? I ran into more than one SAP customer who told me that their existing Web programmers had been able to catch on to SOA projects quickly -- making the "SOA skills shortage" a non-issue. Making the right SAP skills choices is not as easy as resting on the admissions of SAP executives, as sharp as those comments often are.

This column will address these skills dilemmas by breaking them down into "past, present and future." As we go through each category, we should get a better idea of how to balance today's skills with tomorrow's "jobs of the future."

The future

Functional and technical skills will converge. There's no question that the SAP functional consultants of the future will have more technical know-how. And successful technical folks will need to understand the business processes that drive technical requirements.

The era of the cubicle coder is over.

Functional consultants will need to understand the Web-enabled functionality in their focus area (Employee Self-Service being one obvious example in HR). In Enterprise SOA, they'll need to understand how different pre-defined business process components, such as those stored in the Enterprise Services Repository, can be assembled to perform end-to-end business functions. There will also be a need to understand the tools that SAP is rolling out to automate the development process, such as Visual Composer and third-party modeling tools like ARIS from IDS Scheer.

As for technical consultants, IT is more strategically important than ever, but it's also subject to more bottom-line accountability. As I have said before, the era of the cubicle coder is over -- the ability to work with functional teams and support the needs of users through easy reporting solutions and friendly user interfaces are great skills to cultivate if you are on the technical side.

Configuration skills will become less important. SAP is always looking to reduce total cost of ownership, which means reducing consulting costs through automation. A couple of high-level SAP managers told me in the strongest terms that they expect the configuration piece to become less crucial to the functional skill set. Instead, configuration will be increasingly "out of the box" for particular industries.

In addition to the emphasis on industry pre-configuration, the manual configuration that is needed will be subject to the same global marketplace that has changed the nature and cost of development work. With more configuration being outsourced, this skill set will become commoditized.

Up to this point, functional consultants have stayed marketable by mastering configuration on the latest SAP releases. This tactic will become less effective as the overall need for hands-on configuration goes down. So, in the long run, functional consultants need to deliver real business value to clients by acquiring expert-level business process and industry knowledge. While there will always be some configuration work, the ability to guide clients through the entire implementation blueprint, including knowledge transfer and user training, will be more sought after than ever.

A highly placed SAP executive who was a key player in SOA adoption thought that configuration would all but disappear as a skill set and described three future SAP skills layers: business process know-how at the top, configuration of components in the middle, and technical architecture at the bottom. But he said that the components would be increasingly pre-configured and that the service-oriented architecture would allow for any customizations or enhancements, without relying on either configuration or coding.

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Get all the news and commentary from Sapphire 2007

Custom development will be dramatically reduced. One of the big culprits for over-extended ERP budgets is custom development gone awry, and SAP is determined to reduce both the costs and the need for custom development. More and more, companies will use enterprise services to assemble add-on solutions that don't involve altering the core code base, reducing the expense and hassle of future upgrades.

In addition, modeling tools such as Visual Composer, and to some extent new development platforms like the NetWeaver Composition Environment (CE), will empower business users to get a jump-start on their own development needs and depend less on the technical team. SAP developers were already facing stern challenges from global outsourcing, but the automation potential of Web services should further reduce the need for the classic on-site SAP developer.

However, there are definitely some ways to remain marketable as an SAP developer. In addition to enhancing business skills, mastering the latest Web-based tools and techniques will be very important. The SAP programmer of the future is a soft skills/hard skills "hybrid" with a mix of ABAP and Java-based skills, as well as an expert understanding of how to use SAP's Enterprise Services Repository and xApps to build programs with reusable components.

Ignoring "Enterprise SOA" will not be an option. For now, folks whose work doesn't yet touch on Enterprise SOA can collect their checks and be blissfully ignorant. But that is going to change. SAP has already service-enabled its core SAP ERP 2005 release, and by the end of this year the service-enablement of the entire SAP Business Suite should be complete.

Furthermore, this technology is proving its worth. Companies are finding that as long as they are on the current SAP release, they can simply add Web services for new business functions, in a way that is much more affordable than custom programming ever was.

In other words, SOA is not just hype. Since extending processes through the Internet is a factor in almost every area of SAP, all consultants will need to make sure their skills incorporate these new functions.

It's important to remember that much of this innovation is about "extending the enterprise." Companies want to be able to collaborate with suppliers and partners and to open their systems to customers without worrying about integrating the back end. Companies are even starting to use and build "xApps" that sit on the NetWeaver stack and "extend" their enterprise, with Web services and "open standards" being the key to delivering on that extended enterprise. The skills needed will be derived from this overall vision, so if the big picture is clear, it will be easier to anticipate where the skills needs will be.

Jon Reed is an independent SAP analyst who writes on SAP consulting trends. Most recently, he served as the vice president and founding editor of SAPtips. He is the author of the SAP Consultant Handbook. Jon has been publishing SAP career and market analysis for more than a decade. He is the career expert for's Ask The Expert panel.

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