As the CTO of SAP, Vishal Sikka's job is to figure out what SAP's future applications will look, feel and act like for its customers. He does that by experimenting with untested, emerging technologies; innovating with his team and co-innovating with customers and partners; and developing new ways to think about enterprise architecture and governance mechanisms.
To him, the goal of his work is to provide clarity when customers see complexity, application harmony instead of integration challenges, and easy-to-follow roadmaps that offer direction at unfamiliar forks in the road.
That's no small task. Traditional on-premise ERP vendors such as SAP are under attack from smaller software-as-a-service (SaaS) and on-demand vendors. The value of maintenance fees is being questioned like never before. And the buzz around next-gen cloud-computing offerings has also cast gray skies over SAP's established business model.
[[ For more on Business ByDesign, see "SAP's Business ByDesign: A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma." For more SAP innovation, see "Innovation Dreaming Won't Stop Enterprise Software Screaming." ]]
In fact, SAP has been poked and prodded over its much hyped and much delayed Business ByDesign offering—its suite of on-demand applications for the SMB. With the analytic mind of a computer scientist (which he is, holding a doctoral degree in C.S. from Stanford), Sikka takes umbrage at SaaS vendors propagating cloud computing platforms that are not technically accurate.
Based at SAP Labs in Palo Alto, Calif., Sikka is the vendor's first-ever CTO. His position was necessitated by the retirement of luminary Hasso Plattner from day-to-day business operations; he was SAP's de facto CTO for decades. In the Office of the CTO, Sikka has more than a thousand employees working for him.
Sikka recently spoke with CIO.com Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum about SAP's own cloud efforts, his "timeless software" initiative, and what customers really need to know about Business ByDesign.
CIO.com: Given all the change and consolidation in the enterprise software market, it would appear that your job as it specifically relates to SAP's product roadmaps is hugely important now because customers want to know where SAP's portfolio is headed. Do you agree?
Sikka: It is an extremely challenging thing because of the scale that SAP operates at right now. We cover a very broad spectrum—not only across industries and countries but also within the solution portfolio, going all the way from core transactional applications to business-user solutions: BI and analytics, new user experiences, mobility and so on. It covers a vast spectrum.
To preserve the integrity [of the portfolio] and to evolve this in a way that we can constantly absorb innovation is a very a fundamental challenge. That's why we established our technology strategy with something I call timeless software. It is, essentially, a set of tenets we live by to make sure that we are always evolving our products to bring the best innovation—that actually happens increasingly rapidly—but do that without costing our customers or costing ourselves incoherence.
CIO.com: How much of "timeless software" is SAP marketing and how much is ingrained in what you do?
Sikka: Many of our large customers have deployed all of our products, so we have to be able to preserve two things at the same time.