For this guest column on launching and advancing a successful career in business intelligence (BI), insiderPROFILES spoke with Dr. Bjarne Berg, CIO at Comerit and Vice President SAP BI, NA/EMEA. Dr. Berg talks about his journey from the ground floor of data warehousing and working on the first version of SAP Business Warehouse (SAP BW). An expert in SAP BW and SAP HANA migrations, he highlights his experiences with the changing database and BI technology over the last two decades, shares his thoughts on advances with in-memory technology, and offers advice to professionals who want to become experts in BI and analytics. Dr. Berg is also a contributing author for SAP Experts. His latest article on moving SAP BW systems to SAP HANA using the database migration option tool is viewable at www.SAPexperts.com.
Q: What sparked your interest in BI and SAP software, specifically?
Over 20 years ago, I worked in finance for Bank of America, back when it was Nations Bank. I joined a group called the Strategic Technology Group, and they asked me to work on something called data warehousing. Of course, being a banker, I had no idea what that meant, and I quickly learned that most people in the industry also didn’t know. I wound up basically building data warehouses and learning at the same time. That’s when I realized I needed to go back to school so I went to the University of Florida and received a PhD in information systems. After, I continued building classical data warehouses for banks.
Then I entered the consulting world at Price Waterhouse. The consultancy sent me to Europe to manage a project for Ericsson Telecom on something called SAP Business Warehouse (SAP BW). I knew what SAP ERP was, but I had no idea what SAP BW was. That was back in 1998, and it was the first time I worked with SAP technology. It was a brand-new data warehouse, version 1.0E. And Price Waterhouse said, “We are going to build this. It’s brand new; the software is being developed, and it’s going to be the coolest thing ever.” Together with SAP, we put in SAP BW for Ericsson — first in Sweden, then in the Netherlands, and then in Germany. That was the second SAP BW go-live in the world.
From then on, SAP BW took off. I worked on large-scale SAP BW implementations at Chevron-Texaco, International Paper, Pacific Gas & Electric, and quite a few others, and I have been working on projects like that ever since.
Q: So you weren’t just learning about SAP BW, you were actually helping to design it?
Yes. In the early days, we had quite a few meetings at SAP headquarters in Walldorf to give product input based on the client experiences from Ericsson and other companies. We shared feedback about what clients were seeing with the tools and what they needed. There were a lot of interesting versions in the beginning; in 1999 and 2000, we had version 2.0 and then version 3 in 2003. Over the years, I continued to work on SAP BW projects, through all the versions and all the new technologies.
Q: What took you down the in-memory road? How did you know it would be the future of the database?
It started off with the growth of the database; for big firms, growing into terabytes was becoming commonplace, and there were some big performance issues from the underlying database. As a workaround for these issues, the first thing we did was pre-run reports and cache them in-memory on the application server. Then SAP developed a product called BEx Broadcaster, and it was the same idea, but you run it on the SAP side. That was a huge step forward. Then, SAP launched a product called SAP BW Accelerator, which moved part of the database over to in-memory. I managed a handful of SAP BW Accelerator projects so, when SAP HANA came onto the scene, it was a natural progression for me from SAP BW Accelerator to SAP HANA — I’d been doing live cache and pre-runs and used BEx Broadcaster to store the results in the cache memory of SAP BW, so we had strategies to get performance.
SAP BW Accelerator became popular, but it only moved part of the database. With SAP HANA, we get the whole database, so suddenly SAP HANA projects start taking off and I was speaking about it and testing it. Three years ago, I wrote the first SAP HANA book for SAP, coinciding with the initial release of SAP HANA 1.0. I’ve written five SAP HANA books to date: the first, second, and third editions in English, and a couple of German editions.
Q: Do you think in-memory is a path that people anticipated, or is it unexpected that SAP HANA would take off at the level it has?
The adoption being so predominant within the SAP space was a little surprising because typically SAP had not been in the database technology space, but SAP HANA was not made in a vacuum. Other database vendors in the industry, such as Oracle and IBM, were already working in this area. But SAP was one of the first companies to bring in-memory technology to market, and I think the adoption SAP saw among customers was very surprising in terms of how many companies migrated immediately.
Q: With your day-to-day work consisting of implementations, how do you keep current on new developments?
Comerit has an internal organization called Comerit Labs that maintains four lab environments where 14 employees work on the latest and greatest technology, which includes an SAP HANA prototype and proofs of concept dedicated to providing hands-on training. These labs allow us to kick the tires, so when a client asks us a question about what to do in the next release, we have an environment we can play in. It’s important for companies that are trying to keep up with technology to be able to create their own sandbox environments where they can try out new things. Everything we do does not have to be a proof of concept or prototype; just having a technical sandbox with software installed lets you try out new functionality without starting a giant proof-of-concept project each time.
Q: What recommendations do you have for others who are looking to continue to learn and become experts in BI and analytics?
You need to own your career path in terms of continuing education. You can’t be a master of it all, and you just have to accept that. If you find an area you really care about, it’s invaluable to go to events such as SAPinsider’s Reporting & Analytics conference, where the focus is less on sales and more on new technology and hands-on labs. SAPinsider’s BI conferences are very good because there are a lot of hands-on labs where people can touch technology and see what other users and companies have done.
The next big thing will be prescriptive analytics. Not to tell you what you did in the past or what will happen in the future, but to tell you what you should be doing now.
Q: Do you have advice for young professionals on how to break into the field and gain experience?
If you are exploring colleges, I strongly recommend looking at some of the universities that are part of the SAP University Alliance. There are about 170 universities across the world where students can get hands-on experience and learn while they earn their master’s degree. I also teach at the SAP University Alliance, and it’s an invaluable learning experience for students who can take a few hands-on SAP courses before they even graduate. That helps you stand out in the marketplace and makes you attractive to companies.
For people already in entry-level positions in their careers, I strongly recommend that you enroll in SAP education, get certified, and talk to people who have worked in the industry as consultants or people who have worked in the field in areas that you would like enter. If you interview for a job and don’t get it, ask what would have made you stand out. If they say they’re looking for someone with strong SAP BusinessObjects BI skills, for example, go back and take a class. There are various training classes and conferences that can bring you up to speed quickly, get you up to a certification level, and make you stand out.
Today, I would focus more on the reporting, analytics, visualization, mobility, and dashboarding areas. The skills needed to build data warehouses were cutting edge 20 years ago; however, today, the cutting-edge skills are in data visualization, mobilization, planning, optimizations, and BI.
Q: Is there a piece of advice you’ve been given that stands out as having helped make the biggest difference in your career?
One day, a consultant pulled me aside — while I was trying to become more technology focused — and said, “The biggest value you will have, and the knowledge that will have the longest shelf life, is actually having applied technology. You need to know something about the industry you work in and not just about the technology. If you’re going to work in oil and gas, you need to know something about oil and gas.” For people starting out, the best advice is don’t pigeonhole yourself into a single industry; try to get as much exposure as you can in that industry as well as the technology — don’t get too focused only on technology. When I hire people internally in my company, I look for individuals who can not only push the right button, but also have an idea of which button they should push.
Q: What do you consider to be the future of BI? Where is it headed in the next five to 10 years?
The biggest changes on the horizon are not reporting retroactive, historical analytics that answer questions like: What did I do? Where am I selling the best? Why isn’t this particular product selling? That sort of analytics is becoming commonplace. What you will see is more predictive analytics: If I continue down this path, where will I wind up? That area is starting to get a foothold in the marketplace, and SAP has tools for predictive analytics.
But the next big thing will be prescriptive analytics, which tell you not what happened in the past or what will happen in the future, but what you should be doing now. Prescriptive analytics would enable you to study gaps in products and determine where to launch new products: Where should my stores be in the next 15 years? Which stores should close? Where should I open new stores? Where are the changing demographics and sociographics. Where should I go to market? We are into BI now, but the next generation focus more on the future — not just predictive analytics, but prescriptive analytics.