Eursap’s Ask-the-SAP-Expert: James Olcott

Eursap’s Ask-the-SAP-Expert article is a feature designed to give you up-to-date information on the latest SAP news, featuring key thought leaders in the SAP space, as well as regular interviews with the best SAP consultants in the business.

This month, we feature James Olcott, an outstanding SAP sales and distribution consultant, with a high-class pedigree. James has built his reputation working as a consultant for some of the biggest names in the business and has been good enough to share his knowledge with the SAP community via various articles, blogs and a highly successful SAP Press book. He is also a regular contributor to our bank of expert blogs here at Eursap.

Welcome, James, and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Can we start with a short introduction from yourself to our readers, even though many of them will already be familiar with you from previous blogs in this forum?

Originally from New York City, I’ve worked in over 25 SAP projects since 1998. OTC is my wheelhouse, although I’ve dabbled in reporting from a Business Objects perspective. Most of my projects have been in the USA and Canada. Very occasionally I get sent on travel projects so I’ve had the chance to evangelize SAP in places like Johannesburg, Sydney, and Seoul.

And how did you first get into SAP, James?

Way before my SAP career, my first professional job in the 1980s was to work in a business that developed its own proprietary software application to manage the life cycle of a patent. Imagine a software screen divided into two halves – the top half containing header details about the invention, the bottom half focusing on the line item details of the patent applications or registrations in individual countries (or groups of countries like the European Patent Office).

I would create test data for that system, sell it to prospective buyers (like patent department of large Fortune 1000 companies), and provide support.

Can you tell where I am going with this? When that company became a nightmare to work for, I left and became a freelance IT consultant. It was not long afterwards that I discovered SAP in the late 1990s. The dual header/line item formatted screen was instantly familiar to me. The principles, content, and functionality were straight out of business school. The customer base was like the back of my hand. I took to SAP like a fish takes to water; my background had led me perfectly there. All I had to do was follow that message from the universe.

You have a very long history with SAP. What was the first SAP version you worked on?

4.1h. And interestingly, I still use many of the very same transaction codes in today’s ECC and S/4HANA systems.

And which system and industry are you working with now?

After a couple of stints with S/4HANA over the last few years, I’m now back in ECC in the aviation industry with Boeing. One of my other airplane clients even let me fly a simulator, the real one that pilots use for training purposes. I was able to land a passenger jet at LaGuardia airport with no problem!

Looking back over the various positions you’ve held in the SAP industry, which one would you say was the most challenging?

I’ve been in a lot of projects. And I am struck at the vast differences I’ve encountered, from professionally managed ones where the whole team pulls together, to caustic ones where infighting rule the day, usually due to unrealistic timelines from the PMO.

A project should be challenging so you can enjoy the reward of solving the puzzles tossed your way. My work with the great Pfizer pharmaceutical company easily fits your question. I was in charge of configuring three legal entities from the OTC side, soup to nuts. As part of a great team of some twenty other consultants, likewise creating their own entities in other countries. Our meeting discussions were extremely stimulating. I put to use just about all the experience gleaned from my past work. The PM was completely with it and we hummed like the proverbial well-oiled machine.

My current project with Boeing is no slaggard either. It’s a classic great project with a team that compliments its own strengths.

How have you found the life of an SAP consultant, especially in the recent few years since the pandemic began?

The work is entirely the same, except that there are more virtual meetings to replace the act of walking over to someone’s cubicle. Every morning it’s the same, you log in to your SAP screens, Outlook, and you return all serves (tennis reference).

The big difference is that I am doing all of this now from my bedroom (or a pet toy’s throw from the bed). 100% of the time. This is a really, really big change. Especially if you are a people person like me. So you have to deal with the potential isolation and manage your mental hygiene accordingly. With diligence. I wear my favourite clothes every day, never mind that no one else sees them. Don’t wear the same thing day in and day out. Midday, I change into my workout clothes for some Pilates. Take a walk outside to clear your mind.

In the winter, I work near the ski slopes; in the summer, next to the ocean. These activities give me the balance to survive the weirdness of 100% remote work, at least until we get back to being in offices again. Trust me, for thousands of years, human beings have congregated in urban areas to exchange commerce and culture. We will be back in offices again once this pandemic is a memory.

Are there any tips you might offer to SAP consultants out there who are thinking about freelancing?

Yes. As I mentioned above, there are a lot of bad – and good – projects (or work environments) out there. Are you in a bad one? Don’t tolerate them! Engage your networks – Eursap and are excellent examples – and go outplace yourself. Your happiness and job satisfaction will thank you.

By engage, I mean contribute meaningfully. Add to the conversation by thought, word, deed, or even with a joke.

I realize I’ve answered this question generically and not so much in terms of full-time vs. freelancing. The full-time or freelancing argument has always bored me. It’s just legalese and mumbo-jumbo to me. It’s the essence of the work that counts, not the legal structure of the employment.

Do you see any upturn in the market recently? Any hope you can offer the SAP job seekers out there?

Software is a crazy business with a manic quality to it, just like in the TV show “Silicon Valley.” It definitely has its cycles.

In my opinion, once Omicron (or God forbid the next variant) is in the rear view mirror, the SAP market should pick up, particularly as ECC approaches sunsetting support from SAP (in order to nudge companies to upgrade to S4HANA). It’s a big overhang; companies are resisting it, though, for cost reasons. Eventually, they will have to upgrade.

Let’s talk about your writing for a moment. Did you start your writing career before becoming an SAP consultant? How did that come about? Did your existing writing exploits help you out when you came to write about SAP?

I always had the writing in me, I suppose. But for me, no, I started my SAP career first. Not long after, in my very first project, I did write several SAP manuals for my employer. So you could say I became a writer without realizing it.

It struck me that, after ten years of SAP gigs in 2008, I had my very first argument to make in writing on an SAP topic. Hence, I wrote my very first article for hire for SAPTips Journal called “The Value of Using Training Development and Delivery Tools,” where I made the point that the bigger your project, the higher the leveraged value of using apps like OnDemand, UPerform, and today’s SAP Enable Now.

Then something interesting happened. I always knew that I wanted to write a blog or a memoir. One day while skiing in February 2015, I was struck with the concept that I should do both! I rushed myself off the mountain, and in the excitement of several hours, launched my blog memoir online about my Dad who started an IT business in Manhattan in the 1960s (while getting divorced 5 times!). It’s a personal story, in that I had a ringside view of IT from the early days where programs and data were stored in hundreds of punch cards, stored neatly in cardboard boxes. In the process, I discovered the reason why I am in IT!

And to answer your last question, yes, that pretty much opened the door to many more SAP articles published either on my LinkedIn page or for Eursap’s SAP blog. My blog definitely unjammed me, from the writer’s point of view.

Can you tell us a little bit about how your writing blogs developed into writing an SAP Press book?

After a succession of SAP articles from 2016 onwards, it was only natural that I developed somewhat of a reputation as a writer. Eventually I was contacted by Rheinwerk publishing to write an SAP Manual of some sort. I put them off for several years as I was concerned about the huge time commitment while working on several intense projects.

Then came Covid, and my project at the time shut down. Suddenly, I had time! Lots of it! My Editor and I quickly agreed on a subject – Sales and Distribution in S4HANA: Business User Guide – and I had effectively created my own project to keep busy during the pandemic. It also helped that I found just the right co-author to assist. That guy was terrific!

You had to use your own personal SAP system for processes and scenarios for that book. How did you get hold of that, and was it pre-configured for use or did you need to do that yourself?

Correct. When Rheinwerk informed me that they could not provide me with access to an SAP server for use in writing the book, I was like, ok, I’ve seen this movie before. It would be necessary to find my own SAP box. A few years previously, I was on an SAP training project where the client was unable to give me access to their own environment. Imagine that? I couldn’t believe it. Well, I have since learned that there are some very WEIRD security arrangements at many companies that effectively prevent their employees from working. But that’s a topic for another article.

In any event, I solved that impasse by renting a generic SAP system and then configuring it to look exactly like the client’s training environment on my personal laptop. No access? No problem! (There are many of these SAP servers out there and I recommend that every top level consultant rent their own box for personal purposes).

Later on, when at Pfizer, I had a work related reason to do the same thing all over again — configure an entire system from top to bottom. Three of them, in fact! And no, the SAP environment was not pre-configured; I had to do it all myself.

That sounds tough! What challenges did you find whilst configuring the system? Did you need any help with some of the other functions?

I know it sounds stupid, but it’s like anything else – it’s easy once you know how! The configuration leads you by the hand in many areas. You start at the top in tcode SPRO – company code, sales areas, define and assign. Rinse and repeat.

The only hang-ups I encountered had to do with some of the cross-functional touch points like General Ledger and FI. I could clear many of the errors myself by searching on Google if needed, but I did require help with a few stubborn ones. The toughest part was definitely making the Post Goods Issue work with all the kludgy account assignments and postings.

SAP has released something called Model Company, which is a pre-configured entity. To spare you the task of doing it from the ground up. I have never used it and can’t comment on whether it really saves any time or not. Obviously, Model Company would need some adjustment to make it fit right to the customer’s business. The million dollar question would be do all the adjustments eat up more time that doing it de novo?

You must have come across some interesting innovations over the last few years, since the advent of SAP S/4HANA. Which are your favourites?

One of the first articles I wrote about S4HANA was back in 2017 where I discussed some backend enhancements to data handling. I’m typically customer facing and not really a data scientist. So it was a good stretch for me intellectually to dig into the innovative ways S4HANA handles data for the benefit of people like me who love doing deep dives into tables. By “innovative ways,” I mean some structural changes in data fetches that reduce output times and eliminate “spinners” on your desktop. While at AmerisourceBergen, I would routinely do a table dive, go out for lunch and still see a spinner on my screen when I came back.

Some heavy data types on LinkedIn complained that my article was too simplified. I took that as a compliment. I was trying to explain some fairly technical concepts in an easy-to-understand fashion for business users, not data scientists.

You know, aside from other changes in S4HANA like Fiori, Master Data, and data table consolidation of (like the new ACDOCA), I am really struck how similar and consistent the flagship SAP application has been over the years. And of course, I love extrapolating the future based on current trends. That’s why I invented T5MONA as the successor to S4HANA and wrote about it in an offbeat article that combines futurism, SAP, humour, and a fair amount of satire. There are people who claimed that such an article recipe was impossible!

And finally, the question we always like to ask our experts: what advice would you have for fresher SAP consultants just starting out in the industry, or established SAP consultants facing new challenges?

The best advice is to get an SAP job in any capacity. Then, as you learn new things, you can branch out and outplace yourself.

For those seeking SAP gigs in countries OTHER than where they are citizens – a common question – I can offer the following pointers:
1. Work for a large international company in your home country. If you excel, they could always transfer you somewhere and they will take care of the work permit problem.
2. You can develop relationships with recruiters in the countries you desire to work in. You will have to understand that recruiters don’t work for you, however. They work for the employers.
3. Visit the country you want to work in and cultivate contacts. Again, don’t be discouraged if most positions will require pre-existing work-permits.
4. Get information about potential immigration to the country of interest. Sometimes, countries will provide special visas for self-employed contractors.
5. Of course, you can always marry someone in the country of interest. But this is getting a little too personal.

Good luck out there!

James Olcott talked to Jon Simmonds (Senior IT Architect)