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Breaking into SAP consulting: tips for functional and technical SAP consultants

Interested in breaking into SAP consulting work? This extensive special report taps the expertise of SAP career gurus Jon Reed and Bill Scheer.

So you've heard that SAP consulting can be a challenging and fulfilling career. The money's good. The work is interesting....

The technology has a fairly solid future. Ready to jump ship and rush to find the nearest SAP opening? Join the club. At the moment SAP consulting is a challenging market for new consultants, but as with anything, a determined person can break into the market. The key is to find the right balance of timing, knowledge, and strategy.

Also, don't miss the companion article: Tips and tricks for SAP consulting success

The right time
"The first step is to understand that you don't just jump into independent SAP consulting," says Jon Reed, vice president of SAPtips ( You have to make sure you're at a point in your career that consulting is a realistic option. While a few exceptions exist, having the right qualifications is far from a guarantee that you can find work.

"The aspiring SAP consultant is up against veterans, and few areas are so new that someone more experienced than you isn't on the case," says Reed. And SAP handles more of its consulting business than it used to, so independent consultants with senior level experience tend to score the open positions. In the past, certification was enough to get started, but Reed says that is no longer true. "Breaking into consulting now requires a lot of strategy and determination," he says.

According to Reed, the best time to try to break into consulting is when you already have a number of years of experience working with SAP technology. Reed advises breaking your plan into steps. "Don't expect 'today this, tomorrow SAP consulting,'" he says. Expect to spend a few years as a full-time employee to get exposure to SAP and develop a track record.

But just how much time do you need to put in before making the leap to consulting? That depends heavily on the type of work. "The less specific to the consulting target the consultant's past experience is, the more time is going to be needed." Bill Scheer, a research analyst with Kennedy Information, Inc., points out that a person working in automotive onboard diagnostics for a leading company might be able to translate that experience into consulting fairly quickly. Because longevity in the industry breeds networking and contacts, expect an average of ten years in the industry as being a good benchmark for being able to break into consulting, Scheer says. "Some can break in sooner, but lots do it later."

Reed agrees, pointing out that few universal truths exist regarding when and how individuals can break into consulting. "Whether or not you can break in in one step depends mostly on the overlap between your current skills and SAP," he says. Certain Web-based programmers may be able to break in right away because SAP is emphasizing programming in its new release. But people working on the business side may have difficulty finding such an overlap. "Just because you have a finance background doesn't mean you can suddenly become an SAP consultant in that area," Reed says. "You need a transitional opportunity with a company in order to get that exposure. Companies are much more willing to expose people to new skills development when they are permanent employees than when they are consultants."

Is consulting for you?

Is consulting even right for you in the first place? Reed offers the following checklist to help determine:

  • Do you like having control over what kind of project to work on and when?
  • In pursuing a higher income potential, are you willing to take on a bit more risk?
  • In independent consulting, finding the next project is often up to you. Are you comfortable with the sales and marketing component?
  • Are you comfortable with the financial management part of being your own boss?

The right knowledge
According to Scheer, the most important piece of expertise for would-be consultants is vertical expertise and industry knowledge. "There's significant play for consultants who have deep industry knowledge and expertise with clients in the same industry," he says. Consulting firms want to have the engagement team stacked with the best thought leaders and those who know the industry best, and this is important for independent consultants to keep in mind as well. The client needs to feel that the consultant or firm understands the client's needs and can deliver them, he says.

Narrowing in on the right area of focus can be a challenge for some consultants. "The relevant skills you need depend on which area of SAP you are trying to break into," Reed says. "What I encourage people to do is to study SAP's product in order to map your current skills into the product." Many new consultants don't recognize the marketability of their existing skills. For example, Reed points out that some people with a terrific background in finance chase CRM instead of doing their homework to determine how their skills best synch up with SAP. He advises choosing both a core and a cutting edge area of SAP to focus on. "An HR consultant, for example, might target core areas in payroll but look for cutting edge things like internationally based management, self service or succession planning or workforce management."

Scheer agrees that specializing is key. "Anyone considering going into consulting on SAP modules really needs to have a very tight focus," he says. Focus almost needs to be by industry sub-segment, he recommends. "It's almost not good enough to be an automotive specialist. You need to be sub-assembly transmission builder or electronics subcontracting specialist. That's the type of expertise that clients are expecting." Companies look for people who really live and breathe the industry to understand both sides of meeting the business needs.

If you wonder whether certification would make it easier to break into consulting, Reed says not to expect miracles. "There are good reasons to consider training and certification, but it doesn't have the immediate gratification aspect that it should," he points out. Taking training does allow you to begin the process of learning the application and making connections, but experience and paying your dues are key. "I think the people with the most luck are not those who go and get certified but those who take it upon themselves to do that good old fashioned networking."

The right strategy
Many people who aspire toward SAP consulting make a key error from the start. "They understand that SAP rates are really good, so they just want to jump ship to that higher rate application but really haven't looked hard at where the application is going." Reed advises staying up to date on SAP's direction through webcasts, product overviews, and following the industry as a whole. Having your finger on the SAP industry's pulse is key in your attempts to plan your strategy. "Don't try to break into where SAP is now. Imagine yourself meeting SAP further along the path as it's moving ahead." If you try to intersect further along, you'll be competing with more, and more experienced, consultants.

Wondering if a staffing agency might be a shortcut into the consulting world? "That would really depend on the consultant's goals," Scheer says. In terms of getting started, most consultants find the most direct route is to go back to the people they knew in the industry while working as a full-time employee. Then, it's word of mouth. "An outside agent is not going to have the first hand knowledge of where the consultant is trying to play," he says. "Consultants are really their own best representatives, so I really bet they are best off going to beat the bushes themselves."

The impact from offshore outsourcing
The rise in offshore outsourcing has led to an interesting challenge for prospective consultants. The most promising area, says Scheer, is consulting in business processes and functions. Consultants will find less opportunity on the programming side. "The technical side can be and is being offshored," he states.

That's not to say technical consulting can't be done, says Reed, but know that programmers face a special set of strategic considerations. One key tactic is to understand SAP's new technology architecture and the new development tools that come along with it. By gaining skills in new development and platforms, SAP technical consultants face a better chance of success than if they focus on skills like ABAP programming, which is commonly outsourced.

"The cubicle coder is an endangered species," says Reed. "No longer can programmers show up, duck into a cubicle, and crank out code. They have to be on the cutting edge or just genius level talent, and there's not a lot in between." Those consultants finding success tend to find it in SAP projects with knowledge transfer. Companies are more sophisticated about in-house staff and look for someone that really understands how to work with functional teams and to identify issues with customizations.

"Soft skills may make you a little more marketable," Reed advises. Be prepared to do team leadership and training. To succeed as a technical consultant, expect to need broader skill sets than just technical programming. But Reed cautions against abandoning technical for functional consulting prematurely if programming is your true passion. "There are exceptions to every trend," he says "Although there's not a lot of room for average programmers in consulting, if you're super talented and super committed, I'm not sure you should bail out too soon. The areas that you are most passionate about are the ones about which you're going to put in the extra hours reading the latest book or manual on the plane."

Looking to the future
What can you expect regarding pay as a consultant? Reed says he can only speak in generalities and they don't necessarily apply across the board, but he estimates most salary-based SAP employees can expect compensation around $60-80,000 per year, and the consulting side might be more like $60-100,000, although finding jobs can be tricky. On the contracting side the rates tend to be around $60-90 per hour. Obviously those numbers are general and depend on skill and experience, he points out.

As far as prospects for future consultants, Reed points out that because most SAP customers are still running on R/3 4.6C, many are in the process of upgrading right now. 2009 is the last year that version is supposed to be on standard maintenance. Expect to see companies looking to upgrade to 5.0 or mySAP ERP with the NetWeaver release. "The pending upgrade activity bodes well for those who can find jobs with SAP customers who are planning upgrades." When companies are more in maintenance mode, less opportunity exists for interesting skill exposure, but the coming upgrades carry the potential for more action and activity for those who want to break in.

The choice is individual. If you prefer to focus exclusively on your passion for implementing SAP and stay focused on core technical skills, you may be best off working in an employee scenario or full-time for a consulting firm, Reed says. But if you prefer the freedom and additional responsibility of finding projects, attending conferences, and making decisions on where to go next, consulting may be the right choice for you.

Don't miss the companion article: Tips and tricks for SAP consulting success

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