Ask-the-SAP-Expert: Oliver Graeff

Ask-the-SAP-Expert: Oliver Graeff

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 Oliver Graeff, director of product management at SAP. Oliver has worked for SAP for 28 years and as such has an embedded understanding of how the company works, but also what the roadmap holds in store for us. He has deep knowledge of cutting-edge SAP technologies such as UI5 and Fiori and can be seen at regular SAP conferences such as Connect, Sapphire and TechEd.

Welcome Oliver to our Ask-the-SAP-Expert series and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. For those readers who don’t know you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hello Jon, thanks for inviting me. Great to talk.

I live in a small town close to SAP’s headquarter in Walldorf, Germany. I’m happily married and have a daughter. My wife and I have a passion for hiking. Whenever we get the chance, we go on excursions or take weekend trips. Being away from Walldorf every now and then helps in clearing my mind and refreshing my thought process. I grew up in Bonn, studied a combination of computer science and economics in Kaiserslautern and worked as a student at Siemens-Nixdorf and IBM. The topic at the time with IBM was in the Artificial Intelligence area, so-called expert systems. Of course, this was immensely different to what AI is capable of nowadays.

I joined SAP in application development in SAP R/3 in Financial Consolidation EC-CS, later moved to Internet Marketing in CRM, to CRM WebClient UI framework, SAP Web IDE and SAPUI5 in various roles such as development, project management, product owner and product management. This took me on an exciting ride from business-intensive application towards (UI) technologies and development tools.

You have been a part of the SAP mothership for a long time now. Looking back all those years ago, what first interested you in SAP?

I first learned about SAP when my university in Kaiserslautern organized a trip to SAP as part of a program to learn about regional employers. Back then, I felt more aligned with academia and had hesitations about working in an office environment where many of my colleagues would be significantly older than me. While visiting the SAP offices in Walldorf, I noticed many young employees and a casual working atmosphere. I researched more and learned about SAP being the pioneer/inventor of standard business software. At the time operating systems were standard software, while business software was still created in individual customer projects. I was curious to understand how large commercial software projects could scale and bring real-life value to many customers. This seemed very different to theoretical computer science I was interested in.

It turned out this fascination accompanied me through all my years at SAP: How can customers benefit from standard software, and still be able to customise those standard system for their own business processes? Providing technologies and tools to enable this balance requires lots of work and also some magic. My journey went from customising in SPRO (transaction SE54) to WYSIWYG extensibility options and GenAI support we deal with nowadays.

And you are currently Director of Product Management at SAP. What does a day in the life of Oliver look like?

Although I sometimes work from home, I typically go to the SAP offices in Walldorf most days of the week. I can meet with colleagues in the SAPUI5 teams, network with other areas such as SAP Fiori, engage with teams working on application development tools, and connect with fellow product managers. I have not seen a digital collaboration tool being able to replace a joint cup of coffee.

My typical day is a mixture of collating and understanding news in SAPUI5 and related areas and then turning these into assets I can use for communication with customer and partners. This includes hands-on tutorials, slides decks, road maps, newsletters, and many other formats. Customer meetings, webinars, and bigger conferences such as SAP TechEd or Sapphire require a lot of planning & preparation. When working on such events, it is fascinating (and often exhausting) to see how much needs to happen behind the scenes, for example to announce a new product.

In all of this I try to find some time to educate myself, for example. in topics like how to deliver an engaging presentation or in using GenAI, of course. (Rest assured, no ChatGPT involved in this interview!)

You have extensive knowledge of SAPUI5. Can you see a time when the clean core concept is so deeply enshrined in SAP applications, that, in order to keep enhancements in the UX space rather than the core, UI5 and JavaScript may actually replace ABAP completely or do you see ABAP as a long-term strategic programming solution for SAP?

I know from many customer interactions that extensibility is one of their top priorities. Looking at extensibility, I don’t see ABAP going away at all. We see it as the best choice for developing business applications and it has rich capabilities for extensions. The ABAP environments in SAP BTP and in SAP S/4HANA Cloud bring these capabilities into cloud, ready for future-proof custom implementations by partners and customers. Looking at the UI technology SAPUI5, the SAPUI5 Flexibility capabilities offer ways for end users, key user, and developers to adapt the UI of a standard SAP app without the need for modifications and not even requiring predefined extension points.

By using the same ABAP and the same SAPUI5 in several SAP solutions and their respective technology stacks, we have strong extensibility concepts for both, frontend as well as backend. And all of this in a way which keeps the core clean, makes upgrades possible with less effort and enables extensions in on-prem, in cloud, either small in UI only, bigger when including a backend or even side-by-side with a full stack app on BTP.

I believe that, along with SAP’s competencies for implementing business processes, the ability for customers and partners to extend its functionality stands as one of SAP’s major strengths. This is where the magic is. And where we spend lots of effort on.

Given that Fiori is so far advanced in terms of user experience, to the SAP GUI, do you think that there is still a misunderstanding of Fiori and its capabilities in the industry?

You are right, there are many different understandings of what SAP Fiori is: The design of SAP systems? Applications delivered by SAP? Technologies and tools for developing and running business apps? The user experience of SAP S/4HANA? I think that instead of looking at the different challenges, legacy or new, we need to accept that modern applications are built from different technologies. That is for historic reasons, or, more importantly, to use modern best practices of different architectures. In such an environment we are proud that the SAP Fiori user experience is perceived as a major value of SAP and not just a single, temporary technology.

To answer your question: Yes, there might be misunderstandings, but at the same time it shows that SAP offerings and their user experience are perceived as ONE thing. And I see that as a good sign.

We still see in some S/4HANA implementations, that clients are relying upon the SAP GUI still, instead of Fiori, especially in brownfield upgrades. What do you think is the major reason which holds up some organisations from making use of Fiori capabilities?

While we have tools like SAP Screen Personas to simplify and enhance even SAP GUI screen, the real value of SAP Fiori comes with a redesign of an applications to make it tailored for a business role, responsive and simple. This last one, the ‘simple’ is often the biggest challenge. Coming up with a Fiori application definitely goes beyond just a change of UI technologies.

While developing such an app or simply implementing a standard SAP Fiori app comes with many benefits, it does require effort which often needs to be planned and included in a roadmap. This is effort for technical development, and often even more for re-thinking the business process.

As you work with global clients now, who are building their SAP S/4HANA landscapes, do you see any opportunities – any low hanging fruit – which organisations might benefit from?

Working with the teams creating tools for application development, I see how fast this area is progressing at SAP. This seems also to be true for different kind of tools in the cloud development space. As many areas involve new technologies one would need to get familiar with, these are probably not so much low hanging fruits. But as the benefits are clear and scale across global implementations, I feel these are opportunities not to be missed. Even if some proven legacy code would need to be replaced by a new way of doing things.

We’ve had SAP employees on our Ask-the-SAP-Expert series before and it is always fascinating understanding their roles. Tell us a little bit about what it is like to work for SAP. What is the culture like there and how has it changed over the years?

When I started at SAP, the whole company was built around a single product: SAP R/3. Basically, everyone was working towards a single dev close date, many working late when this date approached. Late in the evening in Walldorf you could see lights switched on in many office windows. Numerous capabilities existed exactly once and were used by many or even all applications in R/3. Everyone contributed a part to this one big new delivery. If you develop a new feature, everyone benefits. If you break it, everyone is affected.

Nowadays we have many products, delivered in a higher frequency, from many locations around the world, using many SAP and non-SAP technologies. I still find it somehow magical how complex offerings like SAP BTP are delivered, meeting all quality standards, and containing complex functionality.

When I joined SAP, many functions and tasks were handled by the actual application development team: running customer trainings, handling incidents, rolling out the knowledge about new features and consulting implementation projects. Ah yes, and the development of the application of course.

Even in this much bigger, global company today, with functions being distributed, we have a culture of incredible mutual support and learning. I recently was part of the launch of SAP Build Code at SAP TechEd. I experienced how SAP’s marketing and solution management teams joined forces with the product units, working towards the big keynote in Bangalore. It was great to see many smart and supportive colleagues collaborate on fitting the pieces together.

You must have seen a lot in your time at SAP. Any anecdotes you want to share with us?

Years ago, I was in a team developing the UI framework for one of SAP’s solutions. I received an internal ticket because the whole assembly of UI elements failed. I fixed this by providing a unique ID for one of the UI controllers. To make sure the new ID is really unique forever, I used the first and last name of my colleague who created the ticket. This code is still in place today, works smoothly and never showed any conflicting IDs.

We connected briefly in the UKISUG Connect conference in 2022 as well as 2023. Can you tell our readers what your role is in these kinds of conferences?

Work on conference usually begins months in advance with defining the session formats and content we want to deliver. Especially for SAP’s flagship events Sapphire and TechEd this is a lot of work, even before the final content is created. At events like the UKISIG Connect conference I typically run several sessions on SAPUI5 and other SAP Fiori technologies and tools. I always try to put them in a bigger context, showing the whole picture.

From many discussions with customers and partners, I understand how easy it is to get overwhelmed with an abundance of product news and occasional changes in product names. And to be honest, I sometimes feel the same, despite being a part of the organisation that generates all these updates.

I feel energised when delivering such presentations in-person, especially when I’m able to connect with the audience. Working on a computer screen in the office for too long, can sometimes cause you to lose sight of the complex scenarios that customers are dealing with. It can lead you to focus only on problems when, in reality, many customers are quite satisfied with what we deliver.

Let’s talk a little about the technology now. There is a huge drive in the industry towards SaaS ERP models. How do you see SAP’s public cloud offering falling into this drive? Many commentators have suggested that it is more suitable for small and medium sized enterprises rather than larger organisations. Would you disagree with that?

Many companies in the current economy feel the need for more efficiency, for leveraging standards and therefore are moving away from having large own IT departments. I suppose this has been a general trend for several years, despite having various reasons and solutions. I see that using standard solutions and using cloud software is a constant trend, even with larger enterprises, especially when looking at the shortage of development resources.

Capabilities for realising a clean core strategy or in other words: capabilities to separate standard SAP solutions from custom extensions in a clever way are a good path towards SaaS ERP solutions: use as much standard as possible, as much custom coding as needed. And have them clearly separated, but functional also with future updates. I think this will pave the way to Cloud ERP, even for large enterprises.

Another drive from SAP is for customers to keep their core clean. A “clean core” has many obvious benefits such as lower TCO and faster upgrade capabilities, but what advice would you have for organisations who have heavily customised ECC6 systems who are looking to move to S/4HANA and are struggling with the clean core concept?

Right, clean core has many benefits as upgrades become easier and innovations can be leveraged also in productive systems. SAP now provides technologies for making clean core a reality. These range from side-by-side extensibility in SAP BTP for in-app / on-stack extensibility, e.g. for key users. As an example, from my area, SAPUI5 flexibility offers extension capabilities for business users, key users as well as for developers, while leaving the standard SAP app untouched.

Another important aspect here is that these capabilities are available also for cloud solutions, making it easier to move from on-prem to cloud, even if the ECC is heavily customised. My advice is to familiarise yourself with these new options and make use of them in your on-prem system. This can gradually help making your customisations cloud ready.

The huge story on everyone’s lips right now is generative AI. With SAP’s announcement of Joule as part of the public cloud, do you see this as the major growth area in SAP for years to come? I’m interested in how you see the ERP of the future looking like.

Right, Generative AI will give immense opportunities to business applications in ERP. Not only that, but also developers will also benefit from generating code for apps. A cool prototype I recently saw was about generating reusable UI components from a photo of a rough design sketch. I assume it is still a journey to build features that are 100% reliable, based on the relevant (and especially internal) business data and where reasoning is understandable and traceable. Once we understand that, we’ll see tremendous new features, even for a productive ERP solution. SAP is investing into those features and using them internally to be more productive.

From a skills perspective (Eursap is at heart a recruitment agency), what do you see as the skills which will be most in demand from SAP consultants in the coming years?

From my experience, there are certain types of vital skills: expertise in a specific domain, like financial consolidation in my case, technical skills such as developing cloud applications, communication skills, management, project leadership, and many others. In my opinion there is a growing demand if two (or more) of those skills come together: understanding the business process when developing an app, coming up with a system architecture and leading others towards that common goal, understanding technical features and being able to communicate them. Bringing together these seemingly separate areas in one person creates lots of value, lets people enjoy their work and lets them grow. I feel this is a constant pattern and will hold for coming years. On top, skills like cloud architecture, AI or even usability are a must-have.

And do you see a shortage in these skills right now? I’m wondering what your thoughts are on how the mix of the global slowdown, together with the rush towards the 2027 ECC6 end of support window has had an impact upon the SAP jobs market.

Right, this is interesting. Looking at companies on their journey from on-prem ECC systems to cloud solutions, I wonder what the best mix is: the best hybrid setup for this journey and the best mix of skills and tools to handle the journey best. Many companies will need to move their custom extensions from on-prem to cloud. On one hand, developers would need a solid understanding of both worlds with the respective technologies. On the other hand, we see a strong trend towards low-code no-code platforms such as SAP Build evolving next to the proven pro-code platforms such as the recently announced SAP Build Code. While I think each approach is needed and useful, I guess that if a developer can master a wide set of tools, this journey can become reality more easily.

GenAI will definitely help with this. To cover the full lifecycle of such a migration, I guess the number of technologies you need to know is growing.

Which trainings would you recommend for organisations making their first steps in SAP Business Technology Platform?

From my interactions with partners and customers I know such first steps are not easy for many. And I myself constantly struggle and feel the need to update my knowledge especially with cloud technologies. This happens every day, with almost every new task. SAP BTP is updated regularly with new innovations, and one needs to make sure to stay up to date.

If you are completely new to an area, you’ll find lots of (free) offerings in SAP Learning

My recommendation is to check for the hands-on tutorials given in the SAP Tutorial Navigator While this looks like being oriented towards developers, I think it has tons of useful tutorials covering many areas in SAP BTP. This will give a solid hands-on experience and one can top this up with educational assets from the SAP Community and even ask questions there.

So, Oliver, what about on the personal front? If you ever get any time away from the job, what hobbies and interests do you have?

During COVID times, I started hiking with my wife and even taking on some multi-day hikes. The exhaustion that comes after a 25 km hike definitely helps in disconnecting from work. I also enjoy travelling to see remote places. Recently, we visited the Faroe Islands and Jersey, located in the English Channel. The pace of life there felt very distant from the hustle of major cities. You have no choice but to relax!

Somehow, my childhood hobby of remote-controlled ships continues to stay with me. I’m fascinated by cargo ships and took a trip on a container ship from Hamburg through the Kiel Canal, the Baltic Sea to Lithuania. This is my ultimate recommendation to mentally get away from work. From anything basically, as even internet is hardly available on such ships.

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

Hmm, I spent lots of time researching, investigating tools to find the best paths towards a goal. Or even discussing what the goal actually is. This often doesn’t lead me anywhere. In the end, I guess the best thing is to start “doing it.” Then do it again. And by that gain experience. There is no way around this.

Upskill yourself, e.g. with hands-on tutorials, start implementing something, ask questions, share your knowledge, write blog posts. Just start doing it.

Oliver Graeff talked to Jon Simmonds.