Eursap’s Ask-the-SAP-Expert: Jon Simmonds
Eursap’s Ask-the-SAP-Expert: Jon Simmonds
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 Jon Simmonds, one of the most prolific SAP architects on professional social media, like linkedin.com. Not only that, Jon is a Director of IT at a major health sciences company. A real heavy hitter here on Ask-the-Expert, Jon is well known in the industry and regularly blogs on deep, substantive SAP topics. As well as penning two highly successful SAP Press books, he is also a regular contributor to our bank of expert blogs here at Eursap.
Welcome Jon. We see that you are on holiday in Norway. Biking the fjords, are you? Seen any puffins?
Ha ha, no puffins yet James! It was meant to be a snowy pre-Christmas break last year, but covid lockdowns fixed that and so we had to push it back to this year.
Lots more touristy things going on rather than mountain hiking!
So, please introduce yourself. Imagine that you are at an SAP conference and you step into an elevator. You find yourself alone with Hasso Plattner. How do you briefly introduce yourself?
Well, that would be some intro! My current boss (Kim Cato, here’s looking at you) maintains that a brief elevator pitch for yourself is vital. So here is my concise and brief intro:
Hi Hasso, how you doing? Now we’re stuck in this elevator together and you asked me for an intro, here we go… I’ve been working on ERP systems since 1999, in various industries – media and life sciences. I first heard the word “SAP” in relation to my work in 2002 and have been involved in SAP ever since, from a junior SD consultant right through to an IT Director for Architecture now. You might say SAP was my first true love, professionally speaking.
Was SAP your first software specialty when you started your career in IT?
No, it wasn’t. At the time, back in 1999, I was a functional analyst for a publishing firm. Our ERP system was publishing specific software known as Vista (nothing to do with the much maligned Windows Vista which came a few years later). I essentially controlled the materials management and sales functions in a green-screen, dumb terminal environment. Looking back now, things were pretty straightforward then, if a little backward. Imagine every report being run and printed out on A3 paper with tear-off sides!
Did you start with R/2 or R/3? Which version, exactly?
My first exposure to SAP came with the beginnings of an SAP implementation project in 2002. I was seconded onto the project as a Data Implementation Manager, with the remit of extracting and transforming all customer, materials, pricing and sales BOM data and then handing over to the data loading team. We went live towards the end of 2003 on an R/3 4.7 SAP system, which was outdated within two years when SAP released ECC6.
I have some very fond memories of that time though – working alongside a young and vibrant team (as I was also in those days!), designing cutting edge solutions to solve real business problems. One of my favourite mini projects, in 2006, was known as the “Ticketing project”, which essentially created a paperless office. All inbound mail was scanned into SAP, creating notifications, and routed to various departments. Every handoff was done via SAP workflows resulting in an overnight death of all paper in the office. There was full traceability of every piece of work from end to end – very satisfying.
And which system are you working with now? Did you use the SAP specific solution for health sciences? On premise or cloud?
I work for a huge global corporation right now, so our ERP footprint is extensive. We have many, many SAP systems, often connected together via IDOCs and APIs. These are mainly ECC6 systems, but we also have five S/4HANA systems, which are regularly upgraded and we frequently roll out new functionality. They are all on-premise systems, some hosted in the cloud on hyperscalers and some in a local data centre. However, we are exploring RISE With SAP right now as our S/4HANA footprint is growing quickly and we want to take advantage of any productivity hacks and cost savings which might be available.
Each system has grown from its first use, and they were all vanilla SAP deployments rather than any specific industry solution. However, we are moving rapidly away from the traditional on-premise way of developing the ABAP code in these systems, with a view to keeping the core clean and following SAP best practice with SAP BTP development and integration. Much of the development work we look at today for our S/4HANA systems is related to Fiori.
If cloud, how do you deal with the need for customisations?
Good question. There are a few myths out there with regard to the cloud offerings from SAP. Let’s remember that there are two versions of “cloud” – the private cloud and the public cloud.
The public cloud is a true software-as-a-service model, where development is severely restricted and the entire show is run by SAP.
The private cloud is much more of a platform-as-a-service model, functionally more aligned to the traditional on-premise model which we know and love, hosted on a hyperscaler of your choice. You can develop to your heart’s content. The platform, hosting, infrastructure, disaster recovery and essential basis functions are entirely managed by SAP.
Both offerings are available through Rise With SAP. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that the recommendation from SAP now is to keep your core S/4HANA application as clean as possible, regardless of whether you are using public cloud, private cloud or on-premise versions. In this scenario, you should be developing everything outside of the core in SAP Business Technology Platform (BTP).
Looking back over the various positions you’ve held in the SAP industry, which one would you say was the most challenging?
They have all been challenging in their own ways! Every SAP consultant knows that there will be times when their feet hardly touch the floor, especially nearing go lives. When I look back over the dozens of deployments and roll-outs I have been involved with over the years, I think the most challenging has probably been a pan-European roll-out back in 2015-2017. Fourteen countries, seven different legacy ERP systems and overlapping project schedules. It was really full-on for three years, but I learned loads, travelled extensively and met lots of colleagues in different countries so it was certainly not all bad.
How have you found the life of an SAP consultant, especially in the recent few years since the pandemic began? Do you have a strong opinion about working remotely or working in the office for yourself and the people that you manage?
It’s been a difficult road for lots of people since the first lockdowns kicked in. However, I have been really impressed with how quickly organisations have managed to restructure their working methods to fit in with the new world. As far as how it has affected SAP implementations, it is certainly challenging. So much of large ERP deployments rely so heavily upon relationships between users, consultants, and subject matter experts. This has been put under severe strain in recent years, as travel bans bite into the ability to foster these relationships.
I read a Gartner report recently which stated that in 2023, around two thirds of implementations will be done remotely. Having just overseen an implementation on the other side of the world, which was executed primarily remotely, I understand the challenges this represents. It’s not impossible to do, just much, much harder. The focus moves even more to change management, as if that wasn’t already important enough in SAP implementations.
As far as remote working goes, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all approach. Certainly, when I think about newly qualified SAP consultants, I really can’t imagine how their careers progress if they are just given a laptop and told to go home and start working. Forget certifications (actually don’t forget them, they’re great), there is no substitute for hands-on experience and water cooler chats to build up real-life knowledge. So, as much as I am in favour of working from home, and I work from home myself, I worry about the long-term implications for younger consultants just starting out
My own team contains folks who work from home permanently, as well as those who work in a hybrid model, between office work and home working. I think the answer to this conundrum is probably a hybrid model, with good coordination between who is in the office at the same time.
Are there any tips you might offer to SAP consultants out there who are thinking about freelancing?
Yes – it’s all about differentiation. What makes you different from the rest of the crowd? It’s a good time to go freelancing in many ways as the job market is so buoyant, but remember that reputation is everything in freelancing. With that in mind, I would recommend homing in on some of the new technologies out there as a differentiator between you and the rest of the crowd.
SAP S/4HANA is obviously the most blatant example of this. You’d be amazed at the number of SAP consultants out there who have never seen or used S/4HANA. If you can demonstrate that you are certified in S/4HANA and even better, have experience with implementation, then you will rise to the top of the crop.
Additional technology experience is a bonus, and I’m thinking SAP BTP, BW4/HANA, Fiori, SAC, CDS Views and other alphabetical tongue twisters.
Do you see any upturn in the market recently? Any hope you can offer the SAP jobseekers out there?
100% yes! I know from experience of trying to recruit SAP consultants that there are plenty of jobs out there at the moment. There will be ups and downs in this trend, for example at year-end, but I think the future is bright.
SAP already accept that there is a huge shortfall in skilled staff for S/4HANA – this represents a great opportunity if you can upskill yourself in that technology.
What was your first SAP or IT article?
Well, I’ve been adding tips and tricks onto LinkedIn for many years, before teaming up with Eursap to boost the audience. My first article? That’s a tricky one. Thinking back, I wrote a blog entitled “The Unexpected Challenges of an S/4HANA implementation” – link here. It was back in 2018 and was in response to my first S/4HANA deployment. A bruising experience!
At roughly the same time, I wrote my first eBook – “A No-Nonsense Introduction to Differences Between ECC6 and SAP S/4HANA”. It was around 90 pages and I really enjoyed writing it. It sold quite poorly and is pretty out of date now but set me on the right path!
Since then, I have written more than 50 articles for Eursap, Michael Management, Computer Weekly, and ERP Today. It’s all led to two SAP Press books in conjunction with my good friends – you, James Olcott, and Dario Franco.
Have you tried writing in other domains? I have the feeling that you could write like Lance Armstrong and rap poetically about the bike.
Ha ha, yes, well I do love cycling, although not so much the performance enhancing drugs! Cycling is one of my loves in my private life and if I became a millionaire tomorrow, I’d like to think that my wife and I would be found cruising the high roads of the Alps for the rest of our lives.
I’d also love to try my hand at writing in other domains. Strangely, I always wanted to be an author as a child and a young man. I really never thought I would end up being an author of a technology book, but life springs these surprises on you!
Can you tell us a little bit about how your writing blogs developed into writing an SAP Press book?
I think I probably have you to thank for that, James! I was merrily minding my own business, writing the occasional blog and already had written my eBook, when I received a call out of the blue from a certain Mr. Olcott. You had a proposal for me – to collaborate on an SAP Press book around a business user guide to sales and distribution in SAP.
It turned out to be a match made in heaven: my weaker areas were your strengths and vice versa. So we divided and conquered, and the “Business User Guide to Sales and Distribution in SAP S/4HANA” was the outcome. Get it at all reputable book stores!
How do you deal with multicultural work environments to ensure efficient understanding among disparate teams in England, the continent, the Americas, and Asia? The English is weird in the US, isn’t it?
I have to say that the cosmopolitan nature of SAP work is one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. On a daily basis, I speak to people in the UK, India, USA, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Japan, China, South Africa and other countries. I’m very lucky in that I deal with a whole bunch of extremely talented individuals in all these locations. This means that communication is never really a problem – as long as the backbone of the organisation you work for is based on respect, diversity and inclusion, then global teams are a bonus rather than a hindrance.
The only thing which can be difficult sometimes is navigating multiple time zones. When you need to get participation from California, UK, India and Japan all on the same call, then somebody must have the graveyard shift.
What this tends to mean is that flexibility is paramount to maintaining a good work-life balance. If I work late into the evening, I try to carve out some time in the day to balance it out.
As for the English – I’m so used to American English now, that I don’t even notice it. Often, I replace my s’s with z’s (organization rather than organisation), although I have not fallen so far yet as to use the word “zee” instead of “zed”! It was interesting writing the SAP Press book though, because it was published by SAP Press in the US and therefore I had to drop all those pesky u’s in words like “favour” and train myself to use z’s instead of s’s.
You like SAP, is that right? I bet you even have your own personal SAP system that you can log into, just to plunge away on matters of personal interest.
As a matter of fact, I do. For ease, I will refer to you in the third person here James. When James and I began the process of writing the book, we needed our own SAP system which we could play around in to our heart’s content. James began the process by finding a vendor and negotiating a good rate on an SAP S/4HANA system which allowed as many config changes as we liked. I need at this point to take my hat off to James, who configured much of the base customisation in the system, with my tweaking and making small amendments to allow certain functionality to flow. That was a couple of years ago now and I still use, and pay for, the system today. It’s a really useful sandbox for me to test out my tips I write for Eursap, as well as take screenshots from without worrying about intellectual property.
What is your favourite, and least favourite, innovation in SAP over the years?
Now that is a good question. Favourite would probably be the IDOC cockpit WLF_IDOC, which I think was introduced in ECC6 enhancement pack 6. I like it so much, I wrote a blog about it – link here. I have a soft spot for IDOCs. I know the technology is relatively old now, but the mechanical nature of it really appeals to me. It’s logical and interesting.
On a more macro level, the best innovation in SAP for many years in my opinion is Fiori. It has had its teething problems in the early years, especially regarding performance, but it has come out of the other side stronger, leaner and more flexible than ever. It’s no understatement to say that it completely redefines the user experience in SAP, with a role-based approach to pushing out relevant work to users rather than them having to go ahead and find it. The analytical apps are especially interesting, with an “insight to action” approach to presenting embedded analytics to users in a way in which they can drill down to take action to resolve issues.
Least favourite… SAP has frustrated me over the years in many ways, as I’m sure it has many other SAP consultants. Again, I’ll go with a specific piece of functionality then address more macro level “innovations”.
My first frustration is around business partners. All SAP consultants understood the use of customers, vendors, contacts etc. The functionality was clear, if a little dated. So, let me state first that I fully understand why the business partner functionality was mandated in S/4HANA. However, I see it as clumsy, unwieldy and error-prone. The end result can be good as long as there is a red-hot SD consultant in the background who fully understands the business partner model. The customisation of the functionality is scattered throughout the IMG and difficult to find in many cases, and if one entry is missing, then it can be difficult to troubleshoot where the error is, which is stopping the entire end to end flow. So, while I get the rationale behind it, I wish SAP had taken more time to make the set-up and maintenance clearer and more understandable. It just feels a bit botched.
On a more macro level, I get frustrated with the path SAP has followed in recent years concerning their overall offering. I consider myself fairly well educated in all things related to SAP, but I struggle still with how all the SAP offerings tie together: S/4HANA, BTP, SuccessFactors, Ariba, C4C, Hybris, Solution Manager, BW4/HANA, SAC, Business Objects, GRC, EWM, MDG, BRIM, Fieldglass, Concur, Qualtrics, ILM etc. There is little consistency in what appears to the untrained eye as a collection of loosely integrated apps. This is where SAP falls behind the rest of the ERP market, who have a much more consolidated and less confusing approach to their offerings. I suspect SAP have been victims of their own success in many ways, as most of the product offerings in their portfolio are there as a result of acquisitions.
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?
SAP has gone through a decade of very rapid changes – from the introduction of the HANA database, right through S/4HANA, the move to the Cloud, and RISE. At the moment, it is still sufficient for an SAP consultant to be an ECC6 specialist. However, and this is a big fat HOWEVER, this will not last. If you want to keep on consulting over the next ten years, then get ready to upskill yourself.
At the very least, you will need to understand the basics of the different S/4HANA offerings: public cloud, private cloud and on-premise. You will need to know the recommendations around a clean digital core and how that can be established using BTP, and you will need to understand Fiori.
So, with this in mind, my advice is to get yourself out of your comfort zones of transaction codes and GUI screens and take the first dip into the warm waters of S/4HANA and Fiori. As with many things, it will seem bewildering at first and there is a whole host of new terminology to get familiar with, but it’s not rocket science.
And then from there, keep carving out a little time for yourself (I would recommend at least an hour per week) to read up on new functionality and offerings from SAP. Do this, and you will be ahead of the game.
James Olcott talked to Jon Simmonds