Breaking into SAP as a University Graduate
In this section of our Classic SAP Career Q and A, Jon Reed shares some highlights from comments he has given over the years to those breaking into SAP as recent college graduates. If you have further feedback on this topic, please post it as a comment on one of Jon's SAP Career Blog entries.

What if you are a recent graduate? Can you break into SAP?

One thing I always tell recent graduates is: "go where the opportunities are." Don't worry so much about whether those opportunities are in SAP or not. For example, a college graduate with good programming skills might be able to get a position as a junior-level person programmer at one of the larger consultancies. That might lead to work on enterprise-level projects. And whether those companies are running Oracle Apps or SAP doesn't really matter when you're getting your feet wet. The key is to grow your skills early so that you are in position for the most challenging jobs possible.

I often recommend that recent graduates apply to larger firms and companies that have structured training programs. These programs can get you further into business software implementation. But you always want to stay flexible on your role until you get further along.

Is it better to get a Master's Degree before breaking into SAP?

Some graduates think that having a Master's Degree will give them an extra edge in the SAP market, but I don't think that's a good reason to get an advanced degree. I would base career planning more on your ultimate interests. The reason to get a Master's Degree is the intellectual know-how and the long-term career objectives.

 

If you'd like to be pretty high up the corporate food chain someday, such as in CIO level, then a Master's Degree is probably a good idea. As far as when to get that advanced degree. I know you can always finish a master's part-time down the road (and even get your company to pay for it), but I'm a fan of getting schooling out of the way before life gets too hectic.

A more relevant question is: do you need a master's degree to succeed in an SAP consulting career? The answer is a definitive no. A small percentage of SAP consultants have a master's degree, but most of them don't. What successful SAP consultants have in common is not an advanced degree, but years of hands-on project experience focused on a particular niche that relates well to their overall skills and interests. I will say that 99 percent of SAP consultants have completed their undergraduate degree, so getting the four year degree under your belt if definitely a good idea.

If you have a master's degree in business or information technology and you're wondering what part of SAP to focus on, it doesn't matter much. Again, you go where the opportunities take you. Don't get too stuck on SAP. Focus instead on getting exposure to enterprise-level software that tackles key business problems. It could be SAP, it could be Oracle, it could be another area entirely. Take the most challenging jobs you can find. If you choose skills over money and keep pushing and learning about the latest technologies, you'll be surprised how well your career unfolds.

 

What if you are a recent graduate with no technical skills? Is a SAP Basis role a good option to pursue?

I would say no, *unless* your employer wants to give you some skills exposure and put you out in the field. If you have a business analyst background, it's generally better to pursue a functional role. But if the company is going to train you, a switch to the technical side could make sense - if you have a high degree of interest and aptitude for that type of work. As I'm fond of saying, "go where the opportunities are." This applies especially to recent graduates who need to seize the chances they get. Some graduates ask me if it's too late to pursue Basis given that SAP is transitioning to a NetWeaver architecture. It's true that it would be better to get exposure to NetWeaver systems than classic Basis, but either way, you're looking at a lot of the same technology with a different name. SAP is evolving gradually, and as a Basis expert, you should be able to evolve along with it. Basis is one of the "least proprietary" SAP skills because you get some exposure to overall technical systems management, such as DBA and system security.

 

What if you have an MBA and a logistics focus? Which areas of SAP should be targeted?

Someone with an MBA and an interest in logistics has a lot of options in SAP to consider. For example, perhaps the emerging SAP RFID area could be a hot field for someone of this profile to pursue (with some focus on classic RF until the RFID piece heats up). SAP logistics areas are hot right now, and this goes beyond the core SD/MM area to include Warehouse Management (WM), Inventory Management (IM), Plant Maintenance (PM), and other "niche" areas that more and more companies are pulling into their SAP application set. The MBA doesn't necessarily help you to land a logistics job, but it doesn't hurt either. The key is to develop a career concentration in logistics that spans over multiple projects. The best way to look at it: you are a logistics expert that specializes in using SAP to optimize a company's logistics execution systems. If you approach SAP in that manner, it will fit in well with your MBA focus and make you a sought-after consultant. Companies will know that you don't just have SAP configuration skills, but deeper logistics know-how to share.

 

Does a recent graduates have a chance in SAP, or should they consider other options?  

I answer questions from new college graduates from time to time, and my answer is always the same: at your age, don't limit yourself to SAP. One good reason for this: to get SAP experience, you'd have to take a full time job at a company implementing SAP, because you won't get hired by a consulting firm to be an SAP consultant these days. Your job is to go where the opportunities are. At your age, all things being equal, I would like to see you get a business process/applications consulting job of some kind, probably with a large consulting entity. The advantage of consulting is that you will get a chance to get exposure to a range of projects and industries. This will make you more marketable, and will also give you a sense of the options available to you before you decide on a career focus. If you are just determined to break into SAP, I would recommend getting some type of SAP training or certification. It won't come cheap, but the know-how would help you to get a better handle on SAP and show employers your strong level of interest in an SAP career. Another option is simply to buy and read as many SAP books as possible - there are a lot of good ones out there. As you browse through books and web sites, remember that you will need to figure out a focus within SAP to concentrate on. Ideally, this focus should link up closely with your core business interests and skills. There's nothing wrong with targeting a career in SAP, but as a recent graduate, the best option is to choose the best job opportunity you're presented with, SAP or not. Experience is king. Get quality job experience, and you can worry about getting into the SAP side of things later on.   

If you're a recent graduate, is APO, CRM, or BW a better career path? And does ABAP knowledge help?

Every SAP consultant can benefit from a bit of ABAP know-how.  The key question is: what is the right mix of technical skills for a functional SAP consultant. I prefer to see functional consultants with light technical skills, like an 80/20 or 70/30 mix. But that's a long term thing to work out from project to project. You can't always get the perfect role each time. SAP CRM offers a nice mix of functional and technical skills needs, but then, so does BW and APO - though with APO, you have to be a bit more aggressive to get that functional/technical mix as a functional person (the Core Interface, or CIF, is a good area to pursue if you are interested in technical APO work. Although I like CRM as a career path, I generally like all three - APO, BW, and CRM. All three are the kind of strategic, "value-added" products that SAP customers will invest in during the years to come. We should say that the APO market has slowed considerably in recent years, so I'd be wary of pursuing APO unless you have a special aptitude for supply chain planning. BW versus CRM is a tougher choice. BW is more widely used on SAP projects, but the CRM market may be the hottest area of SAP currently. For recent graduates, the bottom line is that you should pursue the skills that you are offered, and stay flexible if necessary in order to do so. If you're having trouble choosing between BW, CRM, and APO, go for the one you find the most intellectually compelling, as the best SAP consultants all have a real passion for their subject matter.

 
What about a recent college graduate with ABAP certification? Is there a future in ABAP programming?

It's good to remember that just because you have a certification in something (in this case ABAP), it doesn't obligate you to pursue a career in SAP programming. You can still step back and examine your options. I would highly recommend doing so. There are still careers to be had in ABAP programming, but it's not an easy field to find success in. One of the most common questions I get is: what is the future of ABAP?  The answer is that ABAP is not going away, but the role of the ABAP programmer is changing. The ABAP programmer of the future is going to be a hybrid of ABAP, Java, and SAP-related Web development tools. So it's good to think about acquiring Java, XML, and a range of Web-based development skills. I don't agree with those who say that "ABAP is on the way out." If you look at how SAP supports ABAP development within its latest NetWeaver releases, it's clear that SAP no longer has any intention of phasing ABAP out either. What HAS changed is that the rates for ABAP programmers have dropped dramatically. Obviously, offshore outsourcing has changed the ABAP market dramatically and also negatively affected ABAP rates by increasing the supply of ABAP consultants globally. But outsourcing is just one factor that has impacted ABAP rates, and cutting edge SAP programmers can still make very good money. I write more on the future of ABAP skills in the ABAP questions section.

 

Is it better for a recent graduate to pursue a functional or technical SAP career?

Whether or not you are working in the SAP field, I would rather have a business process background than a technical background right now. The main reason is simply that technical skills seem to be commodifying at a more rapid rate than "business analyst" type skills. In other words, the "global economy" seems to be having a greater downward influence on the rates for technical people than for functional types (though this will change over time as more functional areas are outsoutced). If I were becoming a software implementation specialist, I would be focusing on putting together a collection of skills that could not be easily outsourced to the lowest bidder. That means developing sophisticated communication skills, knowledge transfer skills, business process expertise, and niche technical skills on cutting edge products. It's a challenging career path, and you'll have to stay one step ahead of the curve the whole time, but it can be done.

 

Can recent college graduates get an SAP position with a consulting firm?

In the good old SAP golden years of the 90s, young graduates with a nice ERP education could get hired with large consulting firms, and placed as junior consultants on large projects. Nowadays, that major avenue of gaining experience is largely closed. The consulting firms are much leaner, and the consultants they put on SAP projects are much more experienced now.  My broken-record advice to college graduates is to be open to the opportunities that present themselves. Don't have your heart so set on SAP that you overlook other chances. For graduates who are considering a technical SAP career, it's good to remember that in the SAP projects of the future, Java and web-based programming tools will be just as important as ABAP. If you happen to land a non-SAP position where you are able to gain Java and J2EE/.NET development experience, that might not be so bad either. I've said it before: sometimes the best way to break into SAP is to anticipate where SAP is headed. Another thing to keep in mind is that SAP is entrenched in Fortune 100 companies for the foreseeable future, so don't get discouraged if you can't break into SAP right away. SAP isn't going anywhere. The best way to get into a crowded field is to be more imaginative than those around you and work twice as hard as everybody else. Maintain an approach of constant self-education, continue to invest in your own training, and you should do well in your career pursuits, inside AND outside of SAP.

 

What advice do you have for a recent college grad who can't get into SAP and is frustrated by the "experience required" mindset of the SAP hiring manager? And what if they can't find an SAP job even if they went through the "SAP University" program at a college affiliated with SAP?

I can understand the frustration. Anyone in the IT or business software field will tell you: the first couple of years after graduating are often the toughest. You need that all-important "first break" in order to escape the "need experience to get a job" cycle. Unfortunately, some graduates have been given the impression that if they complete the SAP university program, they'll have little trouble getting a great job right after graduation.

But the market has changed quite a bit since SAP's university program was first conceived. SAP's college programs were really designed to generate knowledgeable young consultants for firms like Anderson consulting. You probably see where I'm heading with that - Anderson isn't even around anymore. The consulting industry has gone through some grueling years. Only the most experienced SAP consultants - five years of project experience and more - are thriving in the current market climate. And even these folks have to retool on the fly to stay marketable.

So recent grads have their work cut out for them. One option is to apply directly to SAP. SAP has been taking on a lot more of its own consulting services, and of course SAP has a lot of non-consulting positions as well. The way I see it, they're practically obligated to hire the young talent that they encouraged at the university level. I'll bet they agree.

If you are a recent grad that's really having trouble landing the right kind of position, inside or outside of SAP, you might want to consider further schooling - perhaps some type of MBA e-business or MIS program. If you go that route, just make sure to find a graduate program that emphasizes the latest business and technology know-how. If you do land a job - no matter what the field - make sure it is challenging for you and not just a "post-graduate burger flipping" position. You're much better off back in school than simply treading water in non-challenging fields. But if you have a chance to get your feet wet, doing almost anything challenging with the prospects for growth, go for it. You can worry about tying it in with SAP later.

 

What if you want to break into SAP right away? Is it advisable to leave school early to get a head start on SAP?

I would push on through and get your degree first. SAP can wait. Surprisingly, I have seen this situation a lot with SAP (and other IT folks) who left college because they wanted the good rates. But as the years go by, these folks often wish they had a degree. As you get older, it's harder and harder to find the time to get the credits and classes you need to finish up. The problem with not having a degree is that you can coast a decade or more without one, but more often than not, you eventually run into a position that requires an undergrad degree. At that point, it's hard to quickly make up years of schooling. No matter what subject they are in, degrees look better when they're finished.

No, you don't have to have a four-year college degree to succeed in SAP, but I still think it's best to finish school first. You never know how many jobs you will miss out on later without that undergrad degree. Plus you miss out on all the employer-funded MBA programs.

I usually recommend that recent college grads try to get work at consulting firms, where they can pick up business process knowledge and software consulting skills. You might not be able to get into SAP consulting right away, but many consulting firms still hire and train for business analyst opening. Whether those skills involve SAP or other software packages doesn't matter all that much when you're getting started.

 

What about a college graduate who has technical programming and system admin skills that they've picked up in labs or part time jobs? Are careers in ABAP or Basis a better idea?

With a background in programming and systems administration, a graduate could pursue either Basis or ABAP. However, it's good to start thinking less in terms of Basis and ABAP, and more in terms of NetWeaver and J2EE/Java.

The first step to breaking into SAP is getting a clear understanding of how your skills fit into SAP's latest products. The reasoning here is simple: There are less experienced NetWeaver folks than Basis folks because Basis has been around for longer. The best way to get a chance in SAP is to anticipate where the product is going next and cultivate your skills to catch up with SAP at the next intersection.

There are some great ways to learn more about SAP's latest technology online. There are also some good books out there on NetWeaver already. So, the first step is to learn more about the latest releases.

The second step is to match up how your skills fit into the picture and choose a direction to pursue. You do need to choose between system administration and programming/development. A focus on one or the other is important to acquiring the mastery a consultant needs. If you're on the fence between the two, I would choose system administration because it is less vulnerable to outsourcing.

The next step is to get your first job in SAP. You can consider investing in training, but the best thing would be to get a full-time technical job with a company running SAP, preferably one that is about to embark on a 5.0 or 6.0 upgrade. Try to get through a couple of implementation or upgrade cycles, and then you can take a look at testing the open market.

If you have further feedback on this topic, please post it as a comment on one of Jon's SAP Career Blog entries.