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What are the Best Practices for SAP Consulting Success?

Over the years, I have published some big interviews on SAP consulting that have disappeared from the Internet. One of the benefits of being a reader is being able to get access to these exclusive interviews again. One of my favorites, my 2002-2004 interview and correspondence with NetWeaver Portals expert Pat McCarthy, has now been reposted. In addition to a great view of the emerging Enterprise Portals market, there is some timeless advice on keeping on top of your skill set in this interview. In this blog entry, we’ll review some of the most important consulting advice from this piece.

1. The SAP Skill Set is Changing, and Functional SAP Roles Will Require More Technical Savvy.

  Pat was one of the first people I ever talked to who asserted that the functional SAP person was going to need to become more technically savvy. We have seen some of this transpire. SAP CRM consultants have told me that they need to have a good technical understanding of SAP, and certainly SAP BI consultants on the functional side rely on their knowledge of BI database structures and development basics.

Let’s look at what Pat had to say about functional Portals consultants and the functional skill set in general:

"For people in those current functional skills/disciplines, just knowing what you know now will not be enough to keep up with the new SAP. These traditionally functional disciplines are going to have to acquire ‘Internet skills,’ some Java and XML, as well as some basic programming expertise. Fairly soon, I see the architecture of CI App servers and dialog servers being supplanted by Web Application Servers. I know that this sounds like ‘Much ado about nothing’ until you get into doing it. Then you find it’s a whole new ballgame.

It is also decision time for us Portals consultants: are you going to be - as SAP has labeled us - technical or functional? Pretty good Java is needed for these "functional" Portals roles. From my perspective, just about every discipline in SAP is going to have to be Java savvy and Internet-knowledgeable. If that is not in your plans, I’d say do yourself a favor and get out of SAP."

Strong words from Pat, and I can’t say I disagree. We have arrived at a strange crossroads in the functional world of SAP. On the one hand, it’s more important than ever for functional consultants to understand the technical underpinnings of the NetWeaver product line. On the other hand, part of the point behind SAP’s eSOA push is to make it easier than ever for business users to "compose" applications without having to know any code.

So as we look back at Pat’s remarks on the technical knowledge a functional person in SAP needs, we can say that they came true to a point, but that the eSOA landscape changes the rules. Now it’s probably less important to be able to program in Java than it is to understand process modeling and the principles of designing re-usable services. But there’s no question that the functional skill set is evolving, and part of that evolution is getting a handle on how NetWeaver changes the development environment that supports functional business requirements.

2. Staying Marketable in SAP Means a Commitment to Self-Education.

Pat has always managed to stay one step ahead of most consultants by staying on top of his own self-education. The secret is not so magical after all - just a willingness to break out the SAP material on off hours. Here’s how Pat explained his cutting edge technique:

"I noticed that one of your regulars who wrote into is a bit like me - always pursuing the latest knowledge until my eyes glaze over for the night. Night time is the time I spend in my hotel room doing my own "test developing" and self-education to stay ahead of the curve. By bringing new insights into work each morning, I usually leave the client with a bit more than originally promised. This approach helps me stay ahead of the game, and it builds a solid network of people that are referenceable and even a few that have called back to see if I would lead the team as they go forward.

3. Investment in SAP Training is a Good Option When the Technology is Changing Quickly.

In all the years I’ve spent advising folks on their SAP careers, one question remains a constant: the value of SAP training. People want to know if the investment in SAP training can help them. I’ve written before that I think training as a way of breaking into SAP is overrated, but training as a way for experienced consultants to enhance their SAP careers is underrated.

But even then, it depends on how you spend your training dollars. Many consultants spend their training funds getting certified in an area of SAP they have already mastered. That’s not the approach I advise. A much better use of training is to invest in the SAP area you want to move into, and to use SAP training to build a conceptual bridge between the area you work in now and the area you want to move into. At the time Pat last updated us, he was trying to move from Enterprise Portals 5 to Enterprise Portals 6. Due to the "knowledge gap" between the two releases, he decided to invest in training to bridge that gap:

"There is a ‘night and day’ difference between EP5 and EP6. Truly that much. I’m not one for SAP certifications being of much importance, but I did pop $3250.00 for the TZTEP6 course from SAP academy, and it was worth every penny. If you get a chance and you have EP5 experience (they won’t take you if you don’t - I had to provide references) this one is worth the $$$$."

Obviously, the course numbers and technology involved have shifted: now it’s all about NetWeaver Portals, but Portals remains an important part of the SAP skill set for many consultants. There are really two kinds of Portals skill sets these days - folks that specialize in Portals and those who incorporate Portals into a broader technical or techno-functional skill set.

4. "Whatever it Takes" is the Motto of the Successful SAP Consultant, Including Hard Core Travel.

Right now, the SAP consulting market is as hot as it’s been for years, so it’s easy to get spoiled about finding great projects nearer to home. But you never know how quickly things can shift - even a minor economic downturn can change the consulting dynamic in the SAP market. The other aspect of SAP is that the market is hot for certain skills, but not nearly as much for others. So how do you keep yourself marketable? By doing "whatever it takes," and for Pat McCarthy, that means, be read to travel:

"That brings up a key point," wrote Pat. "GO WHERE THE WORK IS… Don’t wait for it to come to a neighborhood close to you, nothing new is coming that fast. I did have three choices this time around, two in the US and two with a Tier One consulting company. I did take the Tier One consulting company, but took their overseas one because I wanted a bit of a change of scenery."

5. The Client-Server World is Giving Way to The "Web Services Architecture."

One of Pat’s most accurate predictions in his last round of Portals interviews was his anticipation of the evolution of SAP into a web services based architecture, and the move from SAP out of the domain of IT and into the boardroom (as well as across the company onto more and more users’ desktops). As he put it back then:

"Somewhere around this point, the "client/server" architecture in its truest sense will give way to an "Integrated Web Services" architecture. This has to happen to get SAP out of the CIO’s department and into the entire company. One doesn’t have to be a prophet to see this already happening. Look for this to happen everywhere, sooner much more likely than later."

Certainly this is true today of SAP, and those consultants who are helping companies leverage SAP’s Enterprise SOA framework are moving ahead of the pack. True, there are many companies still running on 4.6C, but those consultants who linger on 4.6C, even when they are getting good rates, are going to face some rude awakenings later on. One of the main focal points of the web site is helping SAP professionals anticipate the transition to an eSOA architecture, so we’ll return to these themes many times.

When Pat McCarthy first wrote his initial email to me, it was a lot harder to stay on top of where SAP was headed. These days, there are so many ways to keep your SAP skills sharp even when your project is not moving ahead as fast as you would like. SAP’s online communities (SDN and BPX) are just one more great way for SAP consultants to get access to the skills they need to be able to actually apply SOA to their project and not just repeat the catch phrase at conferences in the hopes of impressing someone.

We hope to hear more from Pat soon on where he thinks the SAP market is headed next and what skills he has added. In the meantime, we can look back on some of his classic lessons for staying ahead in the SAP consulting game and realize that even as the market evolves, these lessons are timeless.

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