Breaking into SAP from a Variety of Fields
In this section of our Classic SAP Career Q and A, Jon Reed shares some key points from comments he has given over the years to those breaking into SAP from a variety of other fields and vendors. If you have further feedback on this topic, please post it as a comment on one of Jon's SAP Career Blog entries.

How would a mainframe programmer (Cobol/CICS) make their way into SAP?

There are some challenges moving from mainframe programming to SAP because you're really talking about several skills transitions. SAP has moved from mainframe (R/2) to client-server (R/3) to web-driven (NetWeaver/mySAP), and as a programmer, you have to make these same transitions. It's not easy to make that happen all at once.

In general, I am more enthusiastic about NetWeaver development with web and Java-based tools than I am about ABAP -- though it never hurts to get some ABAP skills together also. And ABAP is certainly in a stronger position in the SAP platform than it was a few years ago, when SAP implied that ABAP was on the way out completely. Still, for the most part, I think it's better to try to anticipate where SAP is going than to try to catch it from behind.

So how would someone move from mainframe programming to SAP? Well, I would start by learning web-based programming techniques. Even if some of the tools you learn aren't directly connected to SAP, learning web-based programming will definitely help you to understand where SAP is going with its new ESA architecture. 

One good strategy for the legacy programmer to keep in mind: many SAP customers still "port" data from legacy systems, sometimes directly to the Web. What you want to do is find the larger SAP-based companies that are using mainframes as part of a heterogeneous, Web-facing enterprise system. Those companies might find your current mainframe programming skills appealing, and they might be willing to train you in Web-based programming as well as SAP-related programming. I do think that SAP end-users would be good for legacy programmers to target, but in the final analysis, breaking into SAP is less important than getting out of the mainframe programming business. It's fine to continue to draw on those mainframe-related skills, but you don't want them to be the only tool in your toolkit going forward.


What are the chances for a Microsoft developer to get into SAP?

Well, the good news is that SAP technology and Microsoft technology definitely have a relationship. SAP is not exclusively aligned with Microsoft, but SAP clearly values its relationship with Microsoft and remains committed to supporting Microsoft technologies. The Duet partnership is another example of the two companies' realizations that they must work together to keep control of the corporate desktop. If I were a Microsoft developer, I would do more research into the overlap between the .NET development platform and NetWeaver, SAP's latest Web architecture. SAP supports development efforts on the .NET platform, and .NET expertise might play well into your desire to break into SAP. True, the amount of SAP customers doing development in .NET are in the minority, but they are out there. And we can expect more of them as SAP's mid-market presence expands. The more you understand Internet business and how enterprise software vendors like SAP plan on using the web as part of their architecture, the better off you'll be. At the same time, to truly break into SAP, you wouldn't want to be solely a Microsoft person. You need to understand the "open" technologies of the Internet like Java and XML that are integrated into SAP's NetWeaver platform. The latest versions of SAP rely more and more on these "open" technologies, and SAP's own proprietary tools interface with these open standards. In sum, the key is to get to know these broader technical trends, and how SAP is responding to them. Obviously, one way for you to make a positive move would be to get hired by a company that is running SAP and is also a "Microsoft shop," therefore heavily invested in tools you already know and understand. In this way, you can provide more value to your employer but also get more SAP-related exposure.


Managers are obsessed with resumes. Why is that?  Does it ever make sense to alter your resume to land an SAP job?

The idea of changing the experience on your resume is a common one. It's a very bad idea because SAP is a small world, and this kind of thing eventually catches up to you more often than not. I don't believe it is worth the risk.

 All the resume can do is get you in the door -- then you have to ace the interview. And many SAP users are pretty sophisticated technically. There is no worse feeling in a job search than being caught in an interview and not being able to justify the experience on your resume. So, I would urge you to avoid that situation.

As to why managers make so many decisions based on resumes alone, I think that reflects the overall priorities of an SAP hire. And the fact is that companies place a high value on SAP implementation experience and a much lower value on your overall industry background. The bottom line is that SAP hiring managers want people who can hit the ground running, so they are only willing to hire people to do the EXACT same thing they have already done before. It's frustrating, and I happen to think it's short-sighted and unfair, but those are the rules of the game. They aren't going to change soon, so job seekers need to figure how to succeed despite them. Maybe it's a matter of getting hired as an employee on one of these projects in a non-SAP role. I've said it many times, but you're always better off working your way into SAP from the inside of a company that is running on SAP. It may take longer, but it's a lot better approach than putting false experience on a resume.


What if all you have is SAP training? Do you need to create a fake resume to land an SAP job?

In the mid-90s, you could actually get away with making up phony experience on SAP resumes because companies were desperate for talent and weren't very sophisticated in evaluating SAP resumes. It was never a tactic I endorsed, but I saw people get away with it sometimes - though it usually caught up with them in the end.

But today's SAP users are much more familiar with SAP and there's no way you'll be able to fake your way into SAP without getting caught. You are better off just being honest about your skills. Always emphasize the parts of your background that can really help a company, such as e-procurement experience or data warehousing know-how.  The goal is to find ways of getting SAP users excited about your current skills. That means doing some careful matching between your IT or business skills and the SAP employers you are targeting. For example, if you're an Oracle DBA, make sure you apply to Oracle-based SAP shops, and if you have Java skills, make sure to apply to SAP shops that are involved in web-based SAP development. You get the idea. This approach takes a lot of legwork and isn't very glamorous, but it's the most reliable way to break into SAP, and you can do it without fudging anything.


What about someone with an SAP HR user background? How would they break into SAP consulting?

It's tough to break the "need experience to get experience" cycle. When you get skills as an SAP user, it's tempting to think that you can go out there and grab a consulting job. But the results of such a job search can be discouraging. Many go out and get SAP training or certification, hoping this will make the difference. But that's not necessarily the case. 

Whenever you run into trouble making a career change, try this tactic:  break your career goals into more steps. Instead of jumping from where you are now into SAP HR consulting, try to get more configuration experience in the SAP HR arena before becoming a consultant. So would you do that? I would suggest getting a role as an HR super-user on an SAP project site, leading and training other users, and working as a liaison with the implementation team.

From there, you may start to attract the attention of the outside consulting partner and win their respect. You may also gain some configuration tips and tricks. You might also then move to a new company and take on a new perm role, getting close to the implementation side of things with each step. Eventually, you should have enough configuration skills and relationships with consulting firms to make your move. So, whenever you get stuck, just break your job transition into more steps and implement your career transition plan over time. This takes patience, but in the end, I think it's less frustrating than finding yourself rejected during interviews for "not having enough experience."


On a more general level, how does an SAP user become a bonafide consultant? Does certification help?

Certification might help a bit, but it's not going to push you over the top. If you have gobs of cash lying around, by all means, get the certification; but if money is tight, be wary of making that investment. Certification is more of a help to experienced SAP consultants than it is to those with limited SAP experience.

If do have some SAP user experience, you may have a shot at a functional consulting role over time. If you have trouble landing such a role immediately, you may want try a gradual transition instead of a "big leap." It's hard to make the jump from SAP user to full-fledged SAP consultant because there are a lot of very senior SAP folks out there taking up the best roles. On the other hand, I have seen folks in SAP user roles get into functional consulting by doing more of a gradual transition.

Here's an example of such a process: I know a number of consultants who have started from a user role, and then moved to a "super user role," where they became the point of contact with the functional implementation teams. They added training skills to their background, got more and more configuration exposure over time, and eventually got picked up for consulting roles based on the increasing knowledge of the implementation process. Sometimes when people have trouble getting from point A to point B within SAP it's because they are really trying to go from point A to E. It's hard to skip steps into today's competitive job market, so break down your career path, and you should get results.


What if you're an SAP user who can't find that first break? Will certification help? If so, how do you choose the class?

At this point in the book, you know I don't put a lot of stock in certifications. As noted, he key is hands-on experience. The fact is you can't really become a SAP consultant anymore unless you get hands-on implementation experience from a SAP user first. You either need to elbow your way onto the project at your current company or find another company who will give you a shot. Your best chance, by far, is with your current employer -- perhaps on the next upgrade cycle. In terms of SAP certification, choosing a certification that would round out your resume is the best approach. Often, SAP hopefuls go after the trendiest certification, but it's more important to choose an area that lines up well with your core skills. For example, a sales or CRM user might choose an SAP CRM certification, whereas a supply chain user might think about an SAP SRM or SCM certification. Just remember that certification would not mean a whole lot. It would help you feel confident in your SAP skills, but no doors will open unless you can charm a company into putting you on a project where you can gain configuration expertise.


Can you give an example of how SAP training like ABAP can help someone advance their SAP career?

If you get SAP ABAP training, if you're working for a company that is running on SAP, then you have already accomplished two important steps. The next step is to get involved: hopefully you have built up some positive relationships in your company and with your managers based on the work you have already done for them. You will need these relationships to get your first break. Once you have ABAP training, you can now go to your manager and ask them if there is a chance for you to get involved with the SAP project in some way. They should be impressed by your energy and commitment, and how they respond will give you a good "gut check" as to your prospects at that company. That "gut check" does not always go well, but it gives you an invaluable sense of whether this company is going to be a good place for you to develop your software skills. Of course, if they tell you "no," you can still keep trying. Some folks have managed to get involved simply by working late, making friends on the SAP project team, and learning the ropes that way. It all depends on your company culture. If you try a variety of tactics and nothing gets you closer to the project, you may be forced to look at the options outside of your current company if you are determined to get involved. But I wouldn't do that until you have spent a fair amount of time and energy seeing what you can accomplish in your current setting. One thing you want to understand if you're trying to break in from the ABAP side: make sure that your company still does a fair amount of development work in-house. You need to understand your company's outsourcing strategy and make sure that there is at least one internal team that still does development work in-house. What we've seen lately is that most large SAP customers outsource a decent amount of their "basic" programming needs, but tend to keep at least some cutting edge development work in-house, comprised of a team of internal employees with a small percentage of outside consultants. With hard work and a good strategy, you might be able to position yourself on such a team. ABAP training won't get you on the team, but it will send a message that you are willing to do what it takes to get involved.


What if SAP's  training and certification is out of my financial reach? Is it a good option to get SAP training from a cheaper third party alternative? 

When I write about "training and certification," I am usually referring to SAP's official courses and exams. But in recent years, all kinds of private companies have emerged claiming to offer SAP training. Some of these private training courses are quite elaborate, including three months of "hands-on" work on an SAP prototype. Sometimes these firms claim they will place you after the training period is over. Since all of these private programs are different, I can't really assess the effectiveness of one option over another. But what I can say is this: no SAP training program is enough, in and of itself, to land you an SAP job anymore. If the official certification from SAP doesn't guaranteed you a job, then you can be certain that non-official training will be even less effective. On the other hand, I'm always a big believer in self-education, and I do think hiring managers are generally impressed by the ambition folks who finance their own training - as long as these individuals don't "come on strong" and demand an SAP position in exchange for showing that initiative.

 The best chance of getting hands-on SAP experience is through your current employer - assuming they are running on SAP. With your employer, you have probably built up some goodwill that you can use to try to work your way further onto the SAP project. If you can't make any progress internally, it's possible you could find a similar SAP super user role on a different SAP project, and try the same "work from within" tactic with that company. Easier said than done, I know, but before you invest in any type of SAP training, keep in mind that the most important investment you will make is your time, marketing yourself inside and outside of your company, assessing the SAP market overall, and looking for the best place within that market. For example, before you decide to become, say, an MM expert, did you truly research SAP's entire product line and make sure this was the most marketable area that connects to your existing skills? Did you consider options in e-procurement and Supplier Relationship Management? What about CRM? As I have said many times, your chances are better trying to break into an emerging area of SAP than a core R/3 area like MM, where you are up against folks with eight and even ten years of experience at this point. Whether its EBP, SRM, or APO, all of these products have some connection to the functionality in the MM module, and it might be that pursuing a newer area of SAP would "lower the bar" in terms of getting you into the field as opposed to chasing a core area like MM. It's not easy to break into SAP implementation work right now - a multi-tiered strategy backed by extensive market research is the best approach to take. There are plenty of free web sites to help you; I will list several in the Appendix section of this book.


Can you break into BW from the project management side if you don't have SAP experience?

BW is definitely one of the areas in SAP that has a high level of demand and a lot of roles to offer. But if you're looking to move into BW from a project management role, you want to keep in mind that you are actually making two transitions: from project manager to hands-on consultant, and then into SAP. In some ways, the harder part is the move from project management to hands-on work. For example, it's easier for a data warehouse and database expert to break into BW than someone from a project management background. If you're in this position, one thing you might consider is to see if you can break into SAP (or Oracle) from the project management side first, and then work your way into more hands-on roles over time.

The best way to make career transitions is to find a way to "leverage" your current skills and show the employer who will be "cross-training" you that you have something to offer them right away. So, you want to come up with a skills transition plan that allows you to take advantage of your current project management skills.


How  would a .NET developer go about becoming a functional SAP consultant?

I often advise people to break down their career goals into more than one job change. In the case of a .NET developer, you want to shift from a .NET expert to an SAP functional consultant. That is a tough jump to make because it's really three career moves at once: first, from technical non-SAP to SAP, then from technical SAP to functional SAP, then from functional SAP to functional SAP consulting. Any one of these moves is significant. If you have trouble making the full jump in one job change, consider breaking them down into three moves.

If you break it into three steps, your first move would simply be to go from .NET technical to SAP technical. How would you do that? By finding a full-time technical development role with a company that is implementing SAP and using .NET as their development environment. That's not the easiest thing to pull off, because there aren't that many .NET SAP shops, but there are some, and there will be more and more as SAP makes inroads in the mid-market and the .NET platform gains traction. So I'd pursue that first, because that is the SAP role where you would have the most to offer from day one -- an important consideration to employers.

From within that SAP shop, you could then focus on transitioning over time into a more functional role. Once you have some significant functional SAP skills under your belt, you could then look at making the jump to SAP consulting. I realize the path I have outlined is more time-consuming than a quick jump, so for starters, I'd skip the steps I recommended and see if you can hit a home run with your first job switch. But if you can't pull it off right away, then break down the steps and see how that goes.


Is Business Warehouse a good area of SAP to target if you have a database background?

To break into a field as competitive as SAP, you need to carefully "map" your existing skills into a particular area of SAP. I can't say for sure that BW is appropriate for all database folks, but the more you know about database management, data warehousing, and query-based reporting, the more appropriate BW could be for you.

BW is a good area of SAP because it is a good growth area that involves a range of technical and functional skills, including database-related skills. You might want to keep your mind open to other areas of SAP also, since your key approach in the early going is to "go where the opportunities are."


Is it possible for accountants with tax backgrounds to break into SAP, or is SAP too technical?

You don't need to be a technical guru to succeed in SAP. I have personally worked with a number of outstanding SAP financials consultants, many of who don't have heavy technical skills. Some of them are like you, and got their start in tax and accounting backgrounds. So, there are ways to transition from a functional financial background into SAP. Will it be easy? No. But the good news is that it won't cost you much money to buy a couple of excellent books on SAP financials and start getting a better view of what you're getting into. That should help you decide if you want to proceed.

If you have a good tax background, another avenue you may want to explore: many SAP customers use a third-party tax software program called Vertex. I'd recommend researching that program and consider pursuing a career that combines SAP and Vertex installations. The more you can take advantage of your previous experience instead of running away from it, the better your chances to break into the competitive SAP market.


What if you have a warehouse and manufacturing industry background, and use SAP in your daily job? Can you break into SAP consulting from that direction?

The good news is that if you have a good manufacturing background as an SAP user, you already have a lot of relevant experience. The goal of becoming an SAP functional consultant is aided by an in-depth manufacturing/warehouse industry background and SAP user experience. However, it's not always possible to move immediately into SAP consulting from that point.

The next step is to obtain a job on an SAP project where you are part of the implementation team. Your best bet would be to move into that role with your current employer, if indeed your company is running on SAP. Since you've paid your dues there, that's your best shot at SAP implementation work. Always go at SAP from the inside first.

If you're not able to pull that off with your current employer, your goal is to land a "super-user," or advanced SAP user role, with a new employer. You might not be able to get an implementation position, but with your user background, you could get an SAP user job with leadership responsibilities, such as designing/delivering SAP training, or serving as a liaison with SAP functional teams. This kind of experience will move you closer to SAP consulting.

Remember that the most likely path into SAP is a gradual one. Once you get one solid project under your belt in an implementation role, you are that much closer to becoming an SAP consultant. And if you can land another project, you'll be well on your way. Expertise implementing SAP on multiple projects is the key to becoming a successful SAP consultant.


What if you work as a network administrator in a non-SAP environment? How would you move into an SAP Basis role?

This question is the classic one: "How do I get my first SAP break?" It is good to "map" your current skills into SAP, so a networking background would indeed be relevant to SAP Basis roles. The key is to find an SAP environment that is using as many of your technical skills as possible.

The technical architecture and operating systems of SAP projects vary from company to company. So, do some research and find out which SAP users are running on platforms that relate to your skills, and apply for technical roles in those companies. Even if your first position is not going to give you that much SAP exposure, you are better off working into SAP from within.

So, take a job in an SAP environment and get closer and closer to the project. And as for doing that research, that's the hardest part. To a certain degree, web sites with SAP job boards like ERPGenie and SearchSAP can help you -- you can type in SAP and other keywords from your skill set and see which kinds of relevant positions come up.


How would a .NET developer break into the SAP field?

All the major ERP packages, SAP included, are supporting .NET environments. So, that's your obvious entry point into SAP, as a developer who can work in a .NET/SAP setting. If you read the NetWeaver promotional materials, you'll see that SAP makes a pretty big fuss over its .NET compatibility. Now, the reality of performance within .NET settings may or may not live up to the hype. But the fact is that there are very few traditional SAP programmers who are skilled working in .NET environments, so that seems like an entry point for you.

The trick there is to find SAP customers who have a need for additional .NET expertise. This kind of information is hard to find - but you can start with the job boards and try to find situations that combine SAP and .NET. Remember that you may not be able to work heavily on the SAP side right away. But just getting your feet wet in a .NET setting that runs on SAP would pay off, and as you gain seniority within the project, your ability to move into the SAP aspects of the project will increase. Remember that another way to break into ERP is to find companies in industries where you have previous experience. The more you can offer companies in terms of your previous skills and projects, the more likely you are to get on board.


What if you have a background in Web technologies like ASP, ASP.Net, SQL Server, and Visual Basic? Is there room in SAP for this kind of skillset in SAP?

As a general rule, I like this kind of web programming background for SAP. That's because I like the idea of wrapping web skills around an ERP core. ERP work tends to be enterprise-wide and "mission critical," and that means that you should be able to achieve a 10-20K financial premium for your web skills if you can use them within an ERP (or enterprise-level) environment. The good news is that SAP has a range of web-related functions that would allow you to apply your current skills to an SAP environment. The web skills we are talking about above are all Microsoft-related tools. The good news is that SAP has a growing number of clients, mostly mid-size companies, running SAP with Microsoft technology and middleware. Therefore, the best way for someone with Microsoft web tools to cross over into SAP is to find a job using your current skills with one of these Microsoft/SAP users. These are the companies that will see the most value in your skills and will be most willing to give you your first break in SAP. Of course, the hard part is researching these companies and figuring out which ones might be a fit with your skills and industry background.


How would a network administrator with no SAP experience break into BW?

There is no one right way to break into SAP. It's good to remember that the key to getting a foothold into the SAP world is not through training courses, but through hands-on project experience. At this point in the book, you know that I recommend two practical things: head towards the area of SAP that is most relevant to your existing skills, and review the SAP job openings you see online and compare them with your current skills. This way, you can better determine which crucial skills you lack and which areas to target. BW training is never a bad idea because it ties into so many areas of SAP. However, with a background in networking and hardware, you should also look to the core areas of SAP system administration, or Basis. To me, you would bring more value as an SAP network administrator because that's where your current skills line up. My approach to breaking into SAP is not to take the sexiest course you can find, but to carefully map your current skills into SAP and fill in the blanks. BW can play a role for you, but remember that the best SAP BW consultants, on the technical side, either have deep data warehousing backgrounds or deep SAP programming backgrounds. There are also some good SAP BW administrators, but this is often a subset of an overall set of Basis-related skills. Of course, the word Basis is going out of style in the NetWeaver area. The bottom line is that we're still talking about systems admin one way or the other. Web-based tools can make installation and troubleshooting either, but the underlying skills of the Basis administrators are still extremely relevant to SAP projects.


Why do you always advise people to find jobs on SAP sites and work their way into SAP from there?

It's usually more effective to work your way into SAP from the inside than to target SAP positions from the outside. Often, companies are wary of hiring non-SAP folks for SAP positions because they see those kinds of applicants, rightly or wrongly, as money-motivated. This is because SAP has such a reputation for being the highest-paying IT work out there. So when you apply to companies, it's usually better to emphasize the skills you already bring to the table and the impact you can have starting on day one. Then, down the line, after you have made a positive contribution to your new employer, you are in a much better position to start the delicate process of asking them to do a few things for you. One more consideration is whether you want to focus more on the technical or functional side of ERP projects. True, there are some techno-functional roles out there, but for the most part, success in ERP requires either a functional or technical focus. The key here is to be patient and realize you have to trade on your current skills to get where you want to go down the line. This is no longer a "gold rush" market, so success now involves hard work, patience, and a flexible but well-thought career methodology.


What are the chances for a Quality Assurance analyst to break into SAP?

QA is not a bad area in terms of breaking into SAP. SAP is a broad enough product that it includes sophisticated Quality Management functionality. The key to breaking into this competitive SAP market is to figure out the area of SAP that is most relevant to your current skills. Then, focus on learning as much about that area as you can, perhaps through training and/or certification, and (hopefully) get hired by a company in your industry that finds your overall background - not just your SAP training - appealing. Since QA experience maps nicely into SAP's QM module, the first step would be to learn as much as you can about SAP's QM (Quality Management) module. Since the QM module is more of a niche module within SAP's R/3 software suite - used by some SAP customers but by no means all - you might also want to look ahead to a mySAP-related product. One possibility is SAP's Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) product, which would also draw on some of your core QA skills. If you just lunge into SAP, you will be hit by a wall of more experienced competition. Your job is to target the areas in SAP where you bring the most to the table.


What if you have a manufacturing background but no technical experience? Is it possible to move into SAP?

You don't have to be a hardcore programmer or systems administrator to make a real contribution to the SAP field. In fact, due to SAP's extensive client base in both discrete and process manufacturing, there is plenty of room in SAP for people like who have experience implementing manufacturing, logistics, and supply chain management systems. Of course, the challenge is that there are plenty of seasoned SAP consultants with manufacturing backgrounds out there, and in the midst of an economic downturn, it's hard to compete with seasoned consultants.

The best strategy for breaking into SAP right now is to work your way in "through the backdoor" by leveraging your current skills on an SAP project site - as opposed to getting trained in SAP and trying to move directly into a full-fledged SAP position. A gradual, indirect route will often get better results. In many cases, it is possible to "break into" SAP by finding an opportunity to integrate your current manufacturing application with an SAP system. This is the so-called "age of integration," so if you can find a way to help SAP users integrate SAP with specialized manufacturing apps, you might have a foothold in the SAP market. You would then want to expand your expertise into new areas within SAP, such as the APO supply chain solution, where you will face less competition from veteran consultants. Since the APO consulting market has been a bit slow the last couple of years, another option would be Supplier Relationship Management (SRM), which draws on some of the same skills but is a little more active. The real legwork for you is figuring out how your skills can be relevant to a company running on SAP right now, without any additional training. Since manufacturing skills are so industry-specific, you need to figure out what you have to offer SAP users in your industry and sell them on your abilities.

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