Jon Reed Interviews Thomas Jung: Podcast Transcription

On the Future of SAP Development: Podcast Transcription
Jon Reed with Thomas Jung, NetWeaver Product Manager for SAP Labs
Hosted by Jon Franke, News Editor, SearchSAP.com
Podcast Interview Date: February 7, 2008
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Jon Franke: Hi, I'm Jon Franke for SearchSAP.com. Today, we're joined by Jon Reed, SearchSAP.com's career expert and president of JonERP.com. We'll be talking with Thomas Jung. As many of you know, Thomas is the NetWeaver Product Manager at SAP and has also been a major voice on the SAP Developer Network, SDN.

Today, Thomas will be talking about what's going on with SDN and also the business process expert community, BPX, and we'll discuss the age-old question: "Is ABAP dead?" Thanks for joining us, Jon and Thomas, and with that, we'll turn it over to Jon Reed.

Jon Reed: Welcome to this podcast interview with our special guest, Thomas Jung, NetWeaver Product Manager for SAP Labs. Today, we're going to focus in on the skills developers need to stay relevant in the NetWeaver eSOA era. We're going to talk with Thomas about why the death of ABAP is a misconception, the impact of offshoring, and the trends in SAP development that SAP professionals should be aware of.

This podcast is hosted by SearchSAP.com and was made possible by a joint collaboration between SearchSAP.com; my site, JonERP.com; and B2B Workforce, an SAP premier partner.

Thomas, let's kick things off by having you tell us a little more about your current role as a NetWeaver Product Manager and what your team is currently involved with.

Thomas Jung: NetWeaver Product Management within SAP is an arm of the development organization - that's why we're part of SAP Labs - and we're really focused on taking over the product lifecycle or the majority of the product lifecycle after a product leaves development. So we're responsible for the rollout activities, and quite often, that means knowledge transfer, both inside of SAP and amongst our partners and to our customers. That gets us involved heavily with SDN and with major events, both SAP-sponsored and partner-sponsored. We also get involved in disruptive prototyping within SAP, so you see a lot of our output is sessions at TechEd and content on SDN.

We also get involved in the ramp-up process for rolling out new products and sometimes do the first "teach" to education. But then our involvement continues on with whatever the latest product is coming out; we hand off long-term ownership to other parts of the organization. My particular focus is on development tools. My background is in ABAP development. I cover development tools from all across our capabilities and, in particular, focus on NetWeaver Voice and UI development tools as well.

Reed: And Thomas, I'm glad you brought up SDN because you've become a major voice on the SAP Developer Network. Can you tell us why SAP's online communities have become such a factor and what they have to offer SAP professionals who have not gotten involved yet?

Jung: It really became a factor because it's pretty natural for people with common interests and common challenges to come together and help solve those. And that's one of the core things that SDN does: It's the place to meet up with other SAP professionals, whether you've got a problem that you're looking to solve or you want to exchange ideas with someone or gather knowledge straight from SAP, it's really our main delivery mechanism now for knowledge dissemination. So, that plays a pretty important role, and for anybody who's not engaged in SDN, in some way they're missing out on a piece of the puzzle when it comes to working in the SAP arena.

Reed: I should mention for anyone who hasn't signed up, that registration is free and you can sign up for both SDN and BPX communities at the same time as well. Thomas, your TechEd sessions on ABAP development updating your skills to NetWeaver 7.0 were extremely popular, and that's not always something we can say about a technical deep dive, to be met with so much enthusiasm. What were the key themes in this talk and why do you think this seminar topic resonates so strongly now in the SAP community?

Jung: Well, the real focus of the session was to take people, whether they've gone through an upgrade or not, but really focus on the way they do development because what I have found was that even people who are working on newer releases, who are working on a 7.0 system, were probably still coding ABAP much the way they did back in the 4.6 days. We wanted to focus not so much on the pieces and parts of the technology, not just the technical delta, but how to design programs differently, how to then go through the coding process differently. 

We focused on the ideas of encapsulation and Service-Oriented Architecture. And by Service-Oriented Architecture, I don't just mean creating Enterprise Services, but taking those same concepts of good interfaces, good touch points between different parts of your logic and applying them to all types of applications that you're writing, whether it's the visualization, the UI portion, using good model view controller - it's those same concepts over and over again. We talk about encapsulation, object-oriented programming, the value that it brings to become more flexible in the way that you develop, be able to make changes faster, to rearrange parts and pieces of an application, but also be able to test, in smaller units, so that when you do make a change, it has less impact or potential impact on the business.

I think that resonates with people because, one, everybody's always interested in getting more value out of the skills they have: You've already invested. Many of the people taking the session, they've already invested ABAP skills, they're doing that on a daily basis, so why wouldn't you want to get more out of it, why wouldn't you want to learn about newer capabilities? 

Also, I think people go through the upgrade process and often the technical team doesn't get a chance to go to formal education. They're left to learn on the job, and during the upgrade process, you are usually quite focused on the upgrade itself - getting the business through the technical portion of the upgrade, doing enough to adjust modifications and things like that - and you don't take the time out to really study what's new there for developers.

A session like this gives you the opportunity to take the time out, focus on what you're missing in your own personal skill set and how you can get more out of the way you develop because of new things in an upgraded release.

Reed: So, Thomas, what do you think is the single biggest adjustment that an ABAP programmer in a 4X SAP R/3 environment needs to make after moving into NetWeaver Development?

Jung: The first thing that comes to mind is that the biggest adjustment is designing and building in an object-oriented way. But, then I really hesitate because there is no reason why people on the 4.6 level shouldn't already be doing that. I find that people don't, for whatever reason, because really the core ABAP object-oriented concepts were all there in 4.6c, but people don't take advantage of it, often because they don't realize the value that it brings to the initial investment up front in learning the new paradigm, but that does payoff in the long run.

If you've already mastered or at least feel comfortable with OO, then truly the biggest adjustment that you should make, because you hopefully have already made the leap to OO, is this idea of Service-Oriented Architecture. Like I said earlier, it's not just applying it to services as touch points between different systems, but taking those concepts of encapsulation, of reuse, of smaller units of work that have their own unit test built into them, and applying that to everything that you build. Whether it's a one off accounting financial report or a big custom application, these concepts will make you a better programmer and will benefit whoever you're developing for.

Reed: I was just reviewing your presentation online in SDN and in the TechEd archives, and I got a kick out of how you asked people if they liked object-oriented programming or not and you said, "If you don't like it, you may need to just kind of suck it up and learn it because so many of the new tools are based on that." So, hopefully people are listening to that today.

Jung: Yeah, and I hope people realize that it may be a little painful to go through the process because change is always uncomfortable, but the benefits are certainly there. We're not saying that because we want OO to be a bullet point somewhere but that there are tangible benefits to making that move.

Reed: Absolutely. Let's shift to some controversial topics. You and I have previously collaborated on a blog entry for SearchSAP.com, which focused on the question of whether ABAP is dead, and you've explained in that entry and in other forums that not only is ABAP alive and well as an SAP development platform, but that important NetWeaver tools are actually written at least partially in ABAP. I keep hearing from SAP developers who are worried that ABAP is going away. Once and for all, can we lay those fears to rest today?

Jung: If you look at ABAP and Java, each have their inherent strengths and weaknesses, and there's no value in turning Java into ABAP or vice versa. If you look at where SAP is primarily using each language internally, the Business Suite continues to have its business logic written in ABAP. ABAP is an excellent language for multi-user session environments; it doesn't just go to the language, it goes to the way the virtual machine works, the dialogue word process model, all the inner guts of an ABAP-based system are well tuned to those types of massive user systems. Obviously, the ABAP language is well suited to writing business logic. We also have a huge investment in that, and so do our customers; there's just not tangible value in rewriting it in Java for the sake of rewriting it in Java.

On the other hand, Middleware is often better served by Java, being based upon open standards, being able to leverage community development, to open source development and Edge applications, composites where you're combining multiple systems, maybe SAP and non-SAP systems together - these are obviously areas where Java is strongest.

The paradigm that we're really following internally is looking at the skill sets of the teams doing the development, looking at an existing business logic we're building on top of and into - the new Edge application, a new composite -and we use those criteria to decide which language to base them in.

But at the same time, we don't force customers to follow what we're doing. The idea of Enterprise SOA, of taking your core business logic and exposing it in open standards-based ways, means that even though business logic might be implemented in ABAP, it's exposed via an open standard and can be consumed by any other language that complies with that open standard. So all of a sudden, if customer X comes along or partner X, and they're more comfortable with Java, they already have experience in it, there's no reason why they can't continue to develop in that language and consume our Enterprise Services and the process goes either way. It isn't limited to ABAP and Java once you look at it from an Enterprise Server standpoint; it's really open to many, many other options.

Reed: That makes a lot of sense. Thomas, no aspect of the SAP job market has been more impacted by the global labor pool and offshoring than ABAP development. I wanted to ask you how you personally view offshoring - do you think it will ever totally replace on-site programming, or do you see it more as a viable option for certain kinds of development projects?

Jung: Offshoring, used in the proper medium, can be very beneficial to a company. Obviously, my personal opinion is that it isn't well suited to all aspects of programming. There are obviously advantages to having a programmer who's more in tune with your business, who's part of your company, who's going to be the one who gets a support call in the middle of the night and has personal knowledge of the business and connections within the business. I also think that doing research activities and doing architectural design for a company - making those architectural decisions and putting the proper technologies in place - are things better left to someone who has an intimate knowledge of the business, who's often part of the business themselves, and not somebody from another company.

Reed: And what would you say to an SAP programmer who was sending a somewhat frantic email to someone like you, me or Jon Franke and wanted to make their skills more outsourcing-proof?  What kinds of skills are ideal to acquire on the development side to ensure your value to on-site teams?

Jung: Part of making sure you're seen as a valuable part of an organization is getting out there and being visible. I think the days when IT lived in their little shell off to the side inside a corporation have to end because if you build a wall around yourself and you're a little island unto yourself, then you're pretty easy to outsource because they just pick that up and send it off to somebody else's island. But if you're involved in the business and you're helping the business make good decisions and you understand how the business works, then you're obviously much harder to replace.

If you're an SAP programmer, one of the best ways to be outsource-proof is to keep up on your knowledge. Engaging in sessions like how to upgrade your development skills and making sure that you're the one teaching other people how to upgrade their development skills makes you invaluable. You can't wait for your company to send you off to a training session to update yourself - you have to show that you are a self-motivator, that you can go out on SDN and other websites and gather information and be able to help the company make good technology decisions. But bring more to the table than just the programs that you're building.

Reed: So, get out of the cube and get involved - does that make sense?

Jung: Exactly.

Reed: Let's shift gears now and talk about how project teams can better equip their in-house developers for the NetWeaver era. In particular, companies are interested in the capabilities of the Composition Environment (CE) that now sits with NetWeaver 7.1. Can you tell us some of the highlights of this Java-based environment?

Jung: Well, first of all, it's the latest release of Java EE, so it's Java EE 5.0, so we're right there on the cutting edge of what's supported by the standards. The other important aspect of that is that it is standards based, so you find yourself being able to inter-opt with other Java-based applications easier. We've also built a lot into CE that's obviously focused on creating composites. So the modeling tools and the programming capabilities of the Java environment, of Visual Composer, of the newest version of Guided Procedures that is integrated into CE - these are all very much focused on how you can combine services from different sources.

So we have integration with ESR to help you find services more easily. Then that integration flows right into Visual Composer, so now, not only can I access BAPIs from backend SAP systems and drag and drop them onto my design area, but I have those same kind of capabilities right into the ESR. So, obviously, we're seeing a broader scope of everything that's going on in the organization, from a technical standpoint, if you need to be able to combine these things from multiple sources.

I think the other important capability is if you look at the tool sets. If you look at Web Dynpro for Java, if you look at Visual Composer, Guided Procedures - these are our latest versions, so they have the latest capabilities built into them, and with CE being this lean environment for building composites, it's obviously something where we can deliver innovations quicker than we can to the core standalone release of NetWeaver. So you'll see us integrating new capabilities much faster.

The other area that we're focused on there is identifying some non-traditional application areas. If you look at the first release of NetWeaver CE, we introduced NetWeaver Voice: That's the capability to create phone-based, touch-tone and voice input-based applications, so we're looking at other types of composites that we can build into this framework. Yet, like in the case of NetWeaver Voice, we leveraged Visual Composer, so if you already know how to use Visual Composer, then you really use those tooling skill sets you have to build a new type of composite.

Reed: Yeah, we should probably mention there is a trial version of CE available on SDN for those who want to check it out on their own time as well.

Thomas, if you were the CIO of an SAP project, what kinds of next generation skills would you like to see on your project and what kinds of tools or training in CE or other new tools would you want to see on a well-rounded development team?

Jung: That's kind of funny, I never thought of myself as the CIO type: I've always come from a hands-on developer background. But, kind of putting my mindset in the shoes of a CIO, one of the biggest things that I would look for is a project team that's really self-motivating and self-teaching. The kind of team that's going to not only produce good output, but is willing to get out there, learn on their own what's out there, and be able to come back to me with good technical options. I think what's more important than a team that knows XYZ technology is the ability to adjust, adapt, and bring everything to the table as new things come along, because the innovation is moving so fast.

Specifically, the types of tools and training: staying connected, using SDN, using other websites, keeping up with what's going on and, like you mentioned, the downloads on SDN for CE's, for NetWeaver, Java and ABAP core. They're all available on SDN, so I really would expect my team - even if the business is still on an older release, even if we haven't bought into whatever the next release SAP is offering - I would want my team to have downloaded whatever evaluation software is available on SDN as soon as it's available and already be playing with it.

That's one of the key components: You can't wait until the business is ready to do the upgrade to start learning about what the next release contains from a technical standpoint.

Reed: That's a great message that we're certainly trying to get across to folks who email me for career advice through SearchSAP.com So many of these tools are now available online, so you don't have to wait if your product is not quite there yet - it's time to take the step.

Franke: Going a little bit further with the CIO example, what business or soft skills are important for developers, and how can they get them?

Jung: Having a basic understanding of your business, being involved, being visible, knowing what you sell and how your company sells it - or provides a service, whatever they're doing - is pretty basic but pretty important. When a business person comes to you with requirements, a differentiating factor is being able to help them with those requirements, not just saying, "Ok, I'm just going to code whatever they tell me." It's knowing enough about the business to be able to say, "Well, I think I know what you're getting at here, but there's actually a better way to do this," and being able to be that bridge to combine the business and the technology, and being able to provide feedback.

I think one of the best ways to do that is to get out and be involved. Make sure that you're going to meetings that are telling you about the state of your business. At a previous employer where we were a typical SAP customer, we would do things where the guys from IT would go work in one of the departments for a day or two, maybe go work in the purchasing department or work in the warehouse and see how the guys work. You're not going to learn everything about doing that job, but it's going to make you better at writing software for that part of the business and helping them with their requirements if you've been out there doing it for a day or two.

Reed: Now as far as buzz around tools is concerned, I don't think we see any area that has more buzz when we go to TechEd or SAPPHIRE than SAP's wide range of modeling tools that are coming out for all kinds of process management or code-generation functions. I know it's impossible to give us a comprehensive view of the modeling tools that are currently in use, but can you just share with us a little bit about why these tools are catching on and what some of the tools in use are?

Jung: If you look at the current version of NetWeaver CE, there are modeling tools all throughout there: the ones that give the main focus as modeling tools, Visual Composer, Guided Procedures, and there are new tools coming down the road. But there's also the idea of taking the parts of traditional programming that are kind of repetitive and dropping in some modeling capabilities.

If you look at Web Dynpro Java, a context mapping, service consumption, the relationship between navigation between windows - those are all defined in modeling tools, yet you can still drop behind what's generated by those modeling tools and go into coding.

So I think we see two aspects of modeling tools: the first aspect and what a lot of people notice right away is, "Hey, I don't necessarily need to be a programmer, I've got these tools that can take me so far, that can let me build a certain type of application and I can be a business process expert or, even if I'm a programmer, I can quickly prototype something." And that's where a tool like Visual Composer is particularly strong.

Then we see other aspects where we can use modeling tools as productivity enhancements for full-blown developers, and we're building those kinds of capabilities into the core development platform: NetWeaver Development Studio and the ABAP Workbench. So we take the things that would be difficult to describe in code or would be repetitive, and we replace those parts of the programming model with modeling tools but still give you the full power of the underlying programming language.

Reed: Before we wrap up, I'd like to talk about how these trends fit into SAP's eSOA strategy. At TechEd, I had a chance to ask SAP CTO Vishal Sikka, about which programming language SAP was favoring going forward, and he basically said that we need to reframe the question. His point was that with the new eSOA NetWeaver development platform, the idea is to make it irrelevant which programming language we choose to use. Essentially, the eSOA layer is designed to work with any open standard. Do you agree with that?  If so, how should SAP developers round out their skills to ensure that they understand not only the underlying language of choice, but the eSOA layer?

Jung: I do agree with that, but there's a point I'll get to in a second on that as well. But first of all, that is important; that came back earlier in our discussion about languages and about tooling. Obviously, if we follow an eSOA paradigm, if we truly open and enable everything that we build, and we build in these smaller units of work that can be tested individually, that opens things up and SAP delivers something - business logic, maybe it's written in ABAP, but like we said earlier, it doesn't matter any more. I can consume that in .NET, I can consume that in Java, I consume that in another ABAP environment, so it does open things up.

At the same time, although it doesn't matter what programming language we choose, I would say that SAP provides the best tools in the marketplace for building Enterprise Services. And when it comes to security and scalability, it can matter who you get your tools from to build Enterprise Services: Although we're all based on open standards, not everybody's performance and security running within that is the same.

So I would put a plug in there that we feel that we still provide the best tools, but at the same time, they're inter-operable and how you consume what's been built as an enterprise service is an open option as well. But I would put out there again: SAP feels that we are building some of the best consumption tools as well.

But certainly to the question of ABAP or Java, it becomes a bit of a moot point and I recommend to people that they use the one that they are most comfortable with. That means where they already have skill set investment, where they already have transport and versioning mechanisms set up, and where they see their company being the most efficient because, at the end of the day, it's about providing value to the business. The business end-user doesn't care whether you used ABAP or Java to implement your service, and even when it comes to user interfaces, much of the user interface technology looks the same to the end-user, so whether using ABAP or Java, they care about how quickly you delivered it to them, at what cost and how flexible it is moving to the future. Those are the real questions that IT departments should be concerned with.

Reed: Excellent. Well, we've covered a lot of ground today. Jon Franke, do you have any questions you'd like to pose to Thomas that we didn't cover?

Franke: We talked a lot about developers, Thomas, and how they can use SDN. How about people more on the business side, what's there for them?

Jung: Well, there's a whole BPX section, and they're trying to gather their own set of forums and blog posts that are more centric to BPX, that talk about things from a more business aspect and that are broken down into industry verticals. There, people can talk not just about the, areas that have been popular on SDN for a while - you know, a lot of us talk about the nuts and bolts of programming. But there are areas where people can come together and meet that are more interested in how a particular business vertical works.

Reed: And Thomas, for those that want to catch the ABAP Development Updating Your Skills to NetWeaver 7.0, it is available as part of a TechEd package on SDN. Are you planning on offering it at an upcoming conference as well?

Jung: Yes, actually. If there's anyone listening in Australia, at the Mastering SAP Technologies conference this June, we give it as a workshop on the last day of the conference. And then I'm sure as this year's TechEd rolls around, we'll probably be giving an updated version of it for this year's TechEd. I can't say for certain since we haven't started doing the planning, but I imagine it will be back in some way, shape or form.

And, actually, if you're in the Chicago area, we'll be giving it in the upcoming ASUG Chapter meeting. (I don't have the exact date off the top of my head - it's in March, I know - but you can always check the ASUG event calendar and see when the Chicago chapter meeting is.) We're going to give it as a hands-on workshop during that chapter meeting. As other events pop up, I think we'll see, because it was pretty popular, other places where we can plug it in.

Reed: Great. Thomas, do you have any final comments or words of wisdom for SAP developers?

Jung: I think we covered quite a bit here today. The main point that I want people to walk away with is that, regardless of what your skill set is, don't panic. You hear us talk a lot about new technologies, new tools - a lot of these are an expansion of the market, new capabilities. It doesn't mean that the capability you have today is going away necessarily, and the advice that I usually give other developers is to sort of follow your passion. If you've got a particular technology that you're good in, that you enjoy doing, be the best at it that you can be and that's also an excellent way to outsource-proof yourself.

If you really enjoy what you're doing - the programming language, the type of programming that you're doing - you're almost instantly going to be better at it if you find true enjoyment in it, so that's a key factor.

Reed: Excellent. Well, I think those are words to live by, inside and outside of SAP. Thomas, best of luck on your work with SAP Labs and we'll look for you on the SAP Developer Network for more discussions on the evolution of SAP development.

Jung: All right. Thank you for having me.

Reed: Great. On that note, I'd like to thank our listeners for tuning in today for this podcast interview on the future of SAP development. This podcast was a joint venture between SearchSAP.com and my site, JonERP.com, bringing you career answers for SAP professionals. And with that, I'd like to turn it back to our host, Jon Franke of SearchSAP.com.

Franke: Well, thanks for joining us, everyone, and that about does it for this edition of SearchSAP.com's podcast series with Jon Reed and Thomas Jung. Until next time, I'm Jon Franke. Thanks for joining us.

Editor's Note: This interview is not a verbatim conversation from the podcast. It was edited for clarity and readability; however, no content from the original conversation was removed.

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