The Art of the SAP Interview
The Art of the SAP Interview:
Revisiting an SAP Career Classic

Jon Reed's new introduction, 2008: In the mid-‘90s, one of the first pieces I wrote about SAP was a much-read article called "The Art of SAP Interviewing." Eventually Michael Doane and I incorporated this into our SAP Consultant Handbook. In this article you're about to read, I have brought together some of the best aspects of the original book version and the original web version.

I plan on updating this piece further, but in its current state, it should be of some real value. One thing to keep in mind is that we wrote this article primarily with full-time SAP positions in mind. Many of the same principles can be applied to interviewing for temporary “contract” positions, but in the case of contracts, you don’t have to worry as much about making the case for your long-term career path with a company. 

In the days preceding an interview, tie up all loose logistical ends. Call and reconfirm interview times. Make sure you have an up-to- date schedule of all the people you will see. Seek to remember job titles and responsibilities. If the woman who is to interview you has a name like Akhnakatovna Bjeserminq, strive to pronounce it correctly. Nothing is more awkward than finding yourself in a surprise meeting with the president of the company when you were not prepared for her/him. Verify flight arrangements if necessary, plan your travel time up until the point you will walk in the company's door, making sure that there will be no tight points where a slight delay in your flight or drive could set your interview off with a late arrival.
 

Once the logistics are set, gather and review the information you have obtained on the company. Hopefully by now, through your phone interviews, you have gained some knowledge about this company's particular SAP project and what your role there might be. If you do not have enough background, get onto the Internet and dig for more. Keep notes. Remember that the HR people in most firms have to repeat the base info about their companies on a regular basis.  “Our firm was founded in 1712 by pygmy Puritans from the Isle of Wight. Today we employ 14,400 people in 16 countries and have been listed on NASDAQ since the year Aunt Cheechee took over as CEO.”  It is refreshing for HR people when prospective candidates already know all this. 

Italicized advice: the more you know about your prospective employer, the better impression you will make.  

You will almost always need to bring a list of references, usually three. It is better to mix these references, such as one supervisor, one co-worker, and one personal reference. Reference expectations vary from company to company, so check on this ahead of time. Find out if the company expects you to fill out the application ahead of time, and verify all of the materials that they want you to bring. The company may also request verification of income. If they do, make sure you also indicate any bonuses or hidden benefits that affect your salary.

Make sure you take the time to pick up or dry clean the right clothes. Picking up those little interview aids like breath mints doesn't hurt either. Have a few fresh copies of your resume ready to bring to the interview that day. 

On the day/night before your interview, it is best to set aside an hour or more to make a written plan for the next day. There is no substitute for this quiet time with pen/laptop computer in hand. It is best to do this late afternoon, early evening, in case you have any last minute questions as a result of this final preparation. Have an evening number handy, in case you have any questions the night before or some emergency has come up.

Make a list of the various experiences and capabilities you have which will be an asset to them if you are hired. Review your possible responses to difficult interview questions. Some of the more difficult questions include:
 
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Why do you want to leave your current position?
  • How do your spouse and children feel about this career move? (especially important if this job involves relocation or extensive travel)
  • What do you know about our company?
  • What are your short term and long term goals? 

Obviously, you have given a lot of thought to each of these questions and so you feel prepared to discuss them in an interview. Thought is not sufficient preparation. Interview yourself aloud, and answer these questions, aloud. How do you sound? Was it a six-uhs-per-sentence response? If so, work it out until you have reduced it to a one or fewer uh-per-sentence answer.
 

Now that you are ready to focus, clarify your main objective, which is to obtain an offer from this company by making as good an impression as possible. Whether or not you end up wanting to work with this firm, you still want to obtain a promising offer. Perhaps the other job you have lined up will fall through, or this company may come up with a compensation package you cannot refuse. So keep your goal in focus: go for that offer. Write up or review what you know about their particular SAP needs. 

The Day of the Interview 

The in-person interview invokes your basic abilities to communicate and present yourself. At this point, you have probably had a technical phone interview and the company is prepared to hire you, assuming all goes well. Since you have already prepared and probably have a handle on dressing yourself properly, we'll go through these in-person tips quickly, just hitting the most important ones, in chronological order: 
  • Take your time in the morning, so that you don't forget all of the things you will need that day, such as references, resumes, directions to the company site, etc. 
  • Leave for the interview EARLY. Allow plenty of time for any delays. (One of the authors, unspecified here, always gets lost at least once on the way to a new office. He learned long ago to leave really early for important interviews.) 
  • If time permits, get to a restroom when you arrive. Check your face and clothing to be sure that you have not had your appearance altered in commute and that you do not have that deer caught in the headlights glaze in your eyes. 

You are prepared. Groomed, schooled, rehearsed, breath-minted, and hyped. If you are kept waiting beyond the scheduled interview time, have something to read with you. There is nothing more annoying to a receptionist than some poor soul sitting there in a pool of sweat, biting the last fingernail because Mr. Coolidge is making him wait. Keeping a candidate on ice is even a tactic of some firms, while the receptionist is making notes on the candidate’s agitated behavior. 
 

We were just kidding about that last part. The receptionists seldom take notes.
 

In the Cockpit:  The Personal/Professional Interview


The Tip-Off
 

The time has come and your interrogator arrives. It is time for the handshake and need we remind you not to use either your commando death grip or your dishrag flop? OK, we will not even mention the importance of eye contact. Hey, even Pauly Shore understands the importance of eye contact.  

And now is the time to have mastered the respiratory-vocal combination. People have a tendency to talk too fast during interviews. Take your time, speak clearly, do not forget to breathe. 

Sit where you are told to sit. Do not play the geometry game and insist on standing. If coffee is offered and you want coffee, say so, and add (before being asked) how you take it. Do not insist on a caffe latte or a mocha unless you are interviewing with Starbucks.  Black, with cream or sugar, or both.  

After the small talk and the serving of coffee in a styrofoam cup, the main event begins. Either the interviewer will begin with a tour of the firm in question or with questions about you and your background. Take it in whichever order it comes. If the subject is the firm, concentrate on that subject first. Your time to shine will come. 

Most of the difficult questions, such as "What do you know about our company,” or "Why should we hire you," are easily addressed with proper preparation. If you get the five year plan question, always be a bit vague. NEVER say you want to be a manager. You may inspire some job insecurity in the manager who is interviewing you. Typically, the hardest questions to answer are those that invite a negative answer, such as strength and weaknesses, or "How do you like working with your current supervisor?" 

The general rule is to turn these questions into positives without completely glossing them over. For example, one safe weakness would be your tendency to get wrapped up in a project and work too hard, not leaving time for family and rest. To an employer, this could very well be seen in a positive light, and yet it still shows an honest self-awareness. Obviously, you may face questions about salary, so prepare yourself for this but do not leap into discussions of pay. 

The best time to talk about money is AFTER the company wants you. Make them want you before getting into such subjects.

Since a premature discussion of salary puts the chances of your getting an offer in jeopardy, and since your goal is to get an offer out of this company, you want to redirect these questions. Even if your primary concern is money, if this is raised during the interview do your best to reframe the discussion by making it clear that your primary goal is a good professional opportunity. Be prepared to say that a fair increase will be fine with you, but that you make your job decisions based on an overall view of the company and the opportunity, and not salary. This is music to a hiring official's ears.

Once again, the BEST time to handle a salary negotiation is after the company has made it clear that they want you, and you are confident that they know what your skills will be worth to them.
 

Your focus during the bulk of the interview will be to keep emphasizing and expanding on what your business, consulting, and SAP skills could bring to this company. Personalize your approach to match this company's needs, and be as specific as possible about the delivery times of your previous implementations, problems and glitches you have resolved, etc. 

At some point in the interview, beginning or middle or end, be sure to ask key questions about the firm. At base is, why would you want to work there? What does the firm have to offer you? If you are interviewing for an implementation position as part of an implementing firm and have concerns about this company's long-term commitment to SAP, ask. If a consulting firm is courting you, it would be wise to ask about current engagements, target markets, marketing efforts, and the like. If you are talking to someone in a smaller consulting firm, be sure to ask whether or not you would be expected to accept consulting assignments (as opposed to being part of that firm’s implementing team).  

Let’s face it. In nine out of ten such interviews, both parties are doing their best to show a friendly and positive face. Both of you want to like each other, to find a common fit. Otherwise, the interview is simply lost time. Do not fall into the slumber that such an atmosphere can induce. You are being investigated and you should also be investigating the firm in question. 

The best way to impress is by researching each company you interview with. Try to get a feel for their particular SAP needs and make it clear just how you will be able to fill them. Keep in mind that your SAP job involves both technical and communication skills, and both will be evaluated during your interview. Especially if you are interviewing to be a consultant, your communication skills and ability to solve the human workflow problems that SAP implementations create are important.  

For those of you who are H-1's looking for U.S. positions, remember to communicate clearly and with the best English you've got. As previously stated, people talk too fast during interviews. Most SAP positions involve client relations; your abilities to communicate clearly are vital to your chances. 

It would be over the top to have a laundry list of questions just for the interview, but in asking such questions, you fulfill two purposes with one tactic: 
  • You learn about the company that is seeking to hire you.
  • You demonstrate that you are not to be had for money alone.  
The opportunity to ask questions is too often overlooked. The best questions to ask are ones that implicitly show your knowledge of SAP and this company's particular challenges, such as: "Who is responsible for training and supervising the ABAP programming team," etc. 

Once you have exhausted your questions and the interviewer is finishing interrogating you, the crossroads appear. Often, the interviewer will propose a break, during which thought is given to the offer that might be tendered. With or without a time break, you have to know what is coming next.How to Talk Money and Get What You Want


The best time to talk about money is AFTER the company wants you. And they can't "fall" for you if you screen yourself out with a "what's in it for me?" premature discussion of salary. 

The second biggest mistake SAP professionals make during interview sessions is resting on their professional laurels. While it is true that the SAP hiring market is largely controlled by the job-seekers, not the companies, most companies are wary of stories/tall tales they have heard about hit-and-run SAP contractors and want to know that you are genuinely interested in working for them.  

The biggest mistake is cutting to the mercenary chase and talking dollars and cents prematurely.  

Once you are ready to launch this part of the deal, be sure to have a checklist of negotiating points on hand. You may not get the base salary you were hoping for, but through careful negotiation you might well come ahead.  Base salary is only a part of what you should be seeking. Do not choose one job over another because of a measly $10,000 difference in base salary. Over a three, four, or five-year stretch, the benefits packages, vacations, and training alone can dwarf the difference in base pay.   
 

Negotiating Points (beyond base salary) 

Benefits
               
   Health/Dental               
   Life Insurance               
   Retirement/Investment Plan 

Bonuses
               
   Travel               
   Performance               
   Fixed 

Travel and Expenses
               
   As Incurred               
   Per Diem
 

Vacation
 

Relocation (if and when) 

Training Provided (Guaranteed or Promised) 

Material Provided (laptop, software, etc.) 

Career Path 

Trial Period

Job Assignments (what leverage do you have to accept or reject a proposed assignment?)
  

The SAP hiring market creates some unique and sensitive tension during the interview process. In some cases, the SAP applicant is going to enter at a higher salary level than the people who are interviewing him/her, a very tricky dynamic. You should be aware of the possibility that the hiring officials you are dealing with (especially if you are going through a human resources department) have probably worked years to achieve a benefits package/salary inferior to the type you already enjoy and want to equal or improve. 

The key here is not to settle for less, but to be sensitive to the needs and concerns of the company until they are sold on your services. The best time to negotiate fine points in the benefits package, salary, or the 401K plan is AFTER you have had a good in-person interview, or at the very least after your technical skills and value to the company are both firmly established. 

It is also important to not make a big show during the interview of all the other companies with which you have interviewed and the many offers you have received. Such an attitude leads quite naturally to a suspicion about you, as in, “Well, Mr. Satin, you have an impressive track record with successful projects in Buenos Aires, Monaco, and Puerto Vallarta. You also have huge offers from IBM, Price Waterhouse, and the Royal Saudi Family. Tell me, Mr. Satin, why would you give all that up to join little old us here in Milwaukee?” 

As an SAP professional, you may be worth a lot, you may even be in control. Once this is established, there is no need to dig it in.  

The classic rule is that the first person to name the price loses. In practice, this can be tricky. The company may be very determined to obtain your salary expectations before naming a figure. 

SAP hiring officials may raise the question of salary early on, perhaps even in your first phone interview, to make sure that they can afford the serious resume they see in front of them. If you are an SAP candidate, you may welcome this discussion of money - at least you will know for certain whether or not this company can meet your salary expectations - before you take a day off from work for the interview. 

There are many ways of tactfully handling the question of money if it is raised. Usually, it is best to come up with your own comments that echo the following sentiment: "At this point in my job search, I'm looking for the opportunity to expand/build-on my SAP skills in the [insert your expertise] area. Although I would like to receive a fair offer just like everyone else, my main goal is to find the right professional fit. So far, your company has a lot to offer in the [insert your expertise] area. I'm sure that we'll be able to settle on a pay scale that's fair for both of us, but right now I'd like to tell you about the skills I can bring to your organization." 

If your interviewer presses you on the specifics of the money you are looking for, and clearly wants you to name a price, one possible approach is to mention the rate or salary you are making now, and say that you want a fair increase from that. Never  mention the offer amounts you've been given by other firms. There are many reasons for this: 

a)
    
This interview is not about other situations, and no two situations can ever be reduced strictly to financial factors. 

b)     The question of retention of new consultants is more and more in the forefront; too many SAP consultants have job-hopped in past years. If you try to leverage for more money, you are shouting out that money is your primary element of decision and the pursuit may end right there. No one wants to hire you with the notion that you could have had a pile more money elsewhere. 

c)      Unless you are merely in a mercenary posture, you should be looking to create the foundation for a major part of your career. If you inevitably stay with the firm for only two or three years, you will be better served if you have carved out a situation in which you can succeed and grow than if you merely grab the brass ring. 

d)     Money in SAP is a given. Unless the initial offer is truly short of your expectations, you may express this. It could be that the employer has the wrong idea of your worth. It may be that you have the wrong idea of your true worth. You may have to simply sever the negotiations.  

If you are transitioning to low travel, you may even want to emphasize your willingness to look at less pay for the quality of life a low-travel position can provide. Even a contractor, who is understood to be looking for an hourly rate, can benefit from this approach. Like many other contractors, you might have chosen that route primarily for the money, but in your interviews, focus on the skills you have to offer and the challenges you can meet for your new company. If you can honestly say that salary is not the only key issue, you will be sending a welcome signal to the client.  

During your interview, simple things like stressing your enthusiasm for the firm will set the right tone, and create the best atmosphere for a later talk about salary. Ideally, this talk will take place after, or at least at the very end, of your in-person interview. Once a company wants you, you can be the negotiator you have wanted to be all along. In some cases, you might even turn down an offer that was less than you expected, only to see the company turn around a few days later and offer you $10,000 more than they said they were willing to pay. As a rare, special SAP professional, you may well be calling the shots in this job market, but you would do better to conduct yourself as if the opposite is the case. 

Although the technical standards applied to SAP hires are becoming stricter (it is more difficult to obtain an SAP position unless you have at least six months of experience) the vast majority of unsuccessful applications are due not to lack of technical skill but to slip-ups during the interview process. 

Closure 

Many of the following tips will seem very basic, but are not meant to be condescending. Most of the tactics that will give you an edge over other applicants during your face-to-face interview are surprisingly simple. 

At the end of the interview, ask for the job. This is very important. Shake the hiring official's hand, and state clearly your interest in the company and the position. This may feel a bit gung-ho for you, but it will make a major and lasting impression. Even if you have some misgivings about the firm, give some indication of your continuing interest. 

Pick up business cards as you go if you do not already have them, so that you have addresses and names and job titles of the key people who interviewed you. 

Within 48 hours or less, write a thank you note. Thank them for the opportunity, and once again re-emphasize your interest in the company. Remember this:  less than an hour after your interview, you are already history. Business just keeps coming, as much for the interviewer as for you.  By sending along this note, you are igniting the interviewer’s memory of you in a positive way. This is not a Hallmark card, this is the trigger to a solid offer. Include something specific and memorable in your note. It is your coda, your asterisk, your last tossed flower.  

Go home, relax, and debrief. If you are using an agency, this is a good time to call and report the highlights of the interview. Your agency can help you work out the fine points of the offer from a more neutral vantage point. In addition, they can be instrumental in ironing out any misunderstandings that occurred during the interview, and will probably know before you do how your interviewer felt about the event. 

With these pointers in mind, you should find yourself achieving the best possible result of any SAP interviewing situation – walking away with an offer either in hand, or on the way. Once you obtain the offer, then you can decide if that offer is the best possible situation for you, or negotiate your position further.  

Some of these pointers may seem simple, but they have been used to great effect. We hope these tips help you in your SAP job search. You can apply most of these tips to contract interviews as well, though in contract situations, you don’t have to talk as much about your future with the company, relocation, and other topics that come up in “permanent” SAP jobs searches.