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Avoiding SAP S/4HANA Skillpocalypse

The road from ECC to S/4HANA is paved with many challenges for the SAP customers. But be it a greenfield or brownfield, Cloud or on-premise (now referred to as AnyPremise), the same concern has been consistently raised over the last years: lack of skilled resources.

In 2019, Americas SAP User Group (ASUG) customer survey listed “Lack of resources” as the second top reason why customers are delaying their S/4HANA projects for 24+ months. In similar 2020 survey, “Lack of resources” was noted as a major barrier to innovation, and “Lack of internal skills” as a Top Tech Challenge. Similar surveys among SAP UK customers reveal that nearly two-thirds (63%) are “concerned about a shortage of SAP skills in the future.”

This is not surprising because migration to S/4HANA is not merely about learning new ABAP commands or additional configuration options. The architectural shift towards in-memory HANA database, web-based interfaces, and Cloud technologies represents a major change that will require new skills from the SAP professionals. In this blog post I will focus on how internal SAP development teams and IT managers can begin addressing this challenge.

Know Where You Want To Get To

SAP regularly publishes and updates road maps for their product development. And SAP customers should have similar road maps for their enterprise software. The internal IT teams must discuss these roadmaps and SAP strategy regularly.

This sounds like a no-brainer but surprisingly many organizations either fail to share the plans with the staff or fail to define the strategy in the first place. Without understanding where the organization is going and how their jobs will transform, it is impossible for the SAP developers to have their own “skill road map”.

When asked for a career or skill development advice, I frequently quote “Alice from Wonderland”:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

It does indeed. For example, working with on-premise vs Cloud-based products may require different expertise and development model knowledge. Knowing where you are going is the first step to getting there.

Resilient Workforce

The aging workforce has been a concern in the SAP ecosystem for quite some time. The expensive training and lack of access to free development systems in the past contributed to the high barrier of entry into ABAP development. SAP is partly to blame for this. By the time their strategy turned around to be more welcoming to the developers, almost the whole generation was already missed.

Even though the workers in their 40s or 50s may be greatly surprised that the employers are already thinking of them in terms of “retiring soon”, the reality is that eventually the SAP developers that remember migration not from but to ECC will start retiring or moving to non-IT jobs.

Without the healthy influx of newcomers, any ecosystem will eventually collapse. The SAP customers need to address both ends of this challenge: provide apprenticeship opportunities for the aspiring SAP professionals while making sure that the mature developers are not abandoned or “pushed out”. The experienced developers are the greatest asset the SAP customers could possibly have. They know not just technology stack but the business model, processes, the “ins and outs” of integration, and have developed a relationship with the business users.

These developers are invaluable in mentoring and supporting the new generation. But no one wants to feel like they are training a cheaper replacement for themselves. Technical career tracks should not stop with a Senior Developer position leading either into management or a dead end.

Just like two bookends can support a row of heavy books, any SAP team will be strongest with support on both sides of the experience spectrum. This diversity leads to resilience and enrichment opportunities for everyone.

Exploring New Territory

The sheer volume of different technologies and terminology to learn in the new world of S/4HANA and Cloud can be overwhelming. And abundance of blogs, webinars, videos, tutorials, and courses spread all over the Internet is already turning from advantage into a challenge. It is the vast new world and one of the most effective ways to explore it is to send out scouts and expeditions.

The larger organizations with multiple developer teams (especially in different geographies) should consider establishing SAP Development Center of Competence or similar structure that would focus on evaluation of new technologies, developer upskilling, and strengthening of organization-wide standards.

The smaller developer teams could work together as a study group, taking turns presenting on different subjects (the best way to learn is to teach!). To ensure that education does not get pushed aside by other work, set the schedule for the learning sessions in advance. And keep in mind, these do not necessarily have to focus solely on the cutting-edge topics. It is more important to establish knowledge sharing as a routine.

We use this approach internally at Mindset and, even though finding the willing presenters and time away from project work has been a recurring challenge, we try to stick to the schedule. And, quite possibly, with the launch of Mindset subsidiary in India, we may be running two sets of the learning sessions for different time zones soon.

Additionally, the consultants and implementation partners are frequently untapped knowledge resource in the SAP projects. As someone who learned primarily from the external SAP consultants at the beginning of my career, I believe that knowledge transfer to the internal team should be part of any partner contract. And I hope that the teaching skills will start appearing on the resumes of SAP professionals together with problem-solving and communication.

Learning Channels

Not only there are many new things to learn in SAP world these days, but there are also numerous learning channels. It is interesting that when launching a new product, a lot of effort goes into getting the early customer feedback. Yet when it comes to the learning platform choices, the developers rarely have any input into the corporate decision-making. And that needs to change.

The SAP customers might be tempted to purchase some SAP Learning Hub licenses and call it a day. I would advise strongly against such “one size fits all” approach. While Learning Hub is the go-to resource for those pursuing SAP certifications, when it comes to development, its content is rather weak and the UX is subpar.

Your SAP teams might be better off with a learning allowance that they are free to spend based on their preferences. While some could benefit from the structured, formal learning environment, others would be better off with a book and some free time.

Speaking of time. Just like paying gym membership dues is not enough to get fit (you also need to exercise, imagine that!), with the most fantastic learning tools it is impossible to learn when the developers are constantly overworked. Expecting the developers to spend their personal time on professional training was never reasonable, in my opinion, and is even more so these days.

Ideally, fixed amount of time should be allocated for learning new skills, otherwise education gets only “scraps” of the work hours. If we never stop to think, to learn something new, then we are bound to repeat the same (quite possibly flawed and outdated) design and code.

ECC Upgrade in Times of S/4HANA

Many ECC customers who have not yet started migration to S/4HANA are wondering whether it would still make sense to upgrade their older ECC systems. While some benefits of an upgrade, such as compliance and new features, are obvious, one benefit is easy to overlook. The upgraded ECC system allows the internal teams practice new skills that will still be valuable in S/4HANA world.

For example, RESTful APIs and OData services can be created using SAP Gateway even in ABAP 7.31 that runs with ECC EHP6.  ECC EHP6 and later systems can use SAP Fiori opening the whole world of possibilities. CDS views, the staple of S/4HANA backend development, can be created starting from ABAP 7.4 (ECC EHP7).

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In the next post, we will discuss what specific technical skills are most important for the customer internal SAP teams and the best ways to acquire them. Stay tuned and reach out to us on social media or via contact form with any comments!


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Jelena Perfiljeva is an Expert SAP Developer at Mindset. She is an experienced SAP generalist with focus in development and system integration. Jelena is an SAP Community influencer and a recipient of many awards, including Member of the Month and Community Hero. She is an international SAP conference speaker and author of the books What on Earth is an SAP IDoc? and ABAP: An Introduction. In her spare time, Jelena enjoys baking and playing Civilization.

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