In the third episode of The Path, we meet Thorsten Franz, consultant, SAP Mentor, SAP HANA Distinguished Engineer and founder of a new SAP consulting firm operatics. A self-described member of the a "Commodore 64 generation," Franz has been at times in his career an aspiring jazz musician, a philosophy student, an SAP consultant, and most recently a new business founder.
Listen in as he describes his path to the SAP ecosystem, including his thoughts on how working as an SAP consultant is like being a jazz musician. (Editor's note: the podcast includes an introduction from Franz's favorite jazz musician Marcus Miller).
Also see these other episodes of The Path on SAPinsider Online:
The Path, Episode 1: Danielle Larocca
The Path, Episode 2: Simon Persin
Dave Hannon: Hello and welcome to The Path, the podcast exploring the career paths of people within the SAP ecosystem and beyond. I’m Dave Hannon, Senior Editor with SAPinsider. Joining me is Thorsten Franz, SAP mentor, author, software architect, consultant, evangelist, and new business founder as we’ll find out a little bit more later in the podcast. Thorsten’s going to be talking a little bit about his path to the SAP ecosystem and where it’s leading him in the future. Welcome Thorsten.
Thorsten Franz: Yes. Thank you for having me.
DH: Thorsten, I want to start in the beginning. You’re originally from Germany.
DH: And you still live there today, right?
TF: I do, yes.
DH: Okay. Great. Were you always a technical person? Did you sort of envision yourself winding up in computers or IT as a student?
TF: That’s an interesting question. I’m part of the Commodore 64 generation. So I fell in love with computers when I was about 10 years old, and I would spend my time in department stores because I didn’t have my own computer in the beginning and stretch the patience of the shop clerks and program stuff on them and teach myself Basic and these things and try to do basic games. And eventually I convinced my parents because it would be so good for school and so on and so forth to give me my own Commodore 64 and I would program more and more. So I was a young starter like many children my generation who wound up in the software industry where I often meet Commodore 64 people with a similar background.
But then I was always torn between the more analytic approach to life and thinking and being and a more artistic and emotional and musical approach so in my life I’ve been going back and forth between that so there was a period in time when my interest in computers was entirely lost and I was interested solely in music, literature, trying to become a musician, thinking about working as a sound engineer, moving on to philosophy, linguistics, cognitive science, and then there was a twist, leading me back into the computer world because in cognitive science and philosophy of mind there are such things as artificial intelligence and neural networks and I didn’t want to be the type of philosopher who makes wild claims about all these things without having a hands-on experience and knowing how they actually work and what you can do with them and what you can’t. So I reactivated my old computer skills and taught myself the skills of programming neural networks, genetic algorithms and so on for philosophical purposes. And that led me back into the computer world. And I guess that’s a recurring pattern because today as a software architect there’s still these two sides to the job where on the one hand you’re very analytical and on the other hand building software is a very creative and sometimes artistic, sometimes artisanal, process where you have to combine these two sides of the coin in order to do a good job and also where it’s good not to be just a green table architect, a flip chart architect, who can only draw boxes on white boards and flip charts but to keep having that hands-on experience. And I like to maintain that.
DH: So what did you study in college? Were you more on the technical side or were you involved in music in college, or a little bit of both?
: I studied linguistics in University in Germany. And then for a little while I studied in the United States where I had a selection, it was also mostly linguistics and some philosophy of mind. And then I ran out of money and I had to go back to Germany in order to get my bank account back into a healthy and sustainable region. And in order to temporarily find a job, I had to assess my skills and find out what I could do that could make me a little money, and this is how I wound up in IT. Temporarily at first, and then a new company was founded in the AOK Trust to make standard software for health insurance companies in Germany and I was pretty much at the time at the point where I was ready to take my hat and leave and say, you know, I’m going back to study and finish my studies in the United States. And then they made me this offer to, you know, we need somebody who’s going to go into SAP development and I said, “I don’t know what that is, but I’d like to find out.” I mean, by then, I’d been working in IT for about one year and I had learned that it was the most fulfilling and delightful profession that you could ever think of because I found that being in IT allows you to redefine yourself, redefine the scope of your job and your activities so freely and so often that it’s very hard to have a boring job in IT, I believe, if you’re not a bore yourself.
DH: So when you were asked to sort of take on that sort of SAP development role, how did you get up to speed? You said you really had no familiarity with SAP technology or anything?
TF: Yeah. It’s a similar issue today. I mean as developers we know something, and we transfer that knowledge to new areas. And, as you know, one programming language, or if you have some development skills, no matter if it’s Pascal or Commodore 64 Basic, or PEARL, or Bach scripts or whatever and you’re going to go into a new area and you can transfer those skills. That’s usually a fairly easy thing to do. So you just learned the new specifics of the target platform you’re going to. And in my interview I had convinced the person who was interviewing me that I felt I would be able to do that and so on. I took a very hands-on approach to that. That was in 1998 and information was pretty hard to find. I think there were one or two ABAP books on the market. Help and online documentation was pretty poor. You could learn things by reading the SAP standard programs. That is one great thing in the SAP world, especially the ABAP world, that it’s source open. That means you do not just run SAP’s program, you can analyze and learn from them. And that’s what I did and how I learned a lot about software engineering.
DH: You’ve actually authored/co-authored several books on SAP and ABAP. How did that come about? Is that something you always wanted to do or did the lack of available information for you early on sort of spur you to pay it forward a little bit?
TF: Good question. The first book that I have written with my dear friend and colleague, Tobias Trapp, is about something that doesn’t happen very often in the SAP world. It’s about writing large-scale greenfield SAP applications. Most SAP customers are content with running SAP’s standard applications like FI and CRM and so on and so forth and adding a few bells and whistles here and there – a little bit of reporting, a user exit, a BAdI, and so on. Some integration. Now, the things that Tobias and I had been doing for quite a few years at that time, almost ten years, was writing huge new greenfield SAP applications the scale of SAP’s own modules. And we felt that we had learned very much in that process that we wanted to share with others. And this was a time when Shai Agassi had taken on the role of crown prince at SAP, and he had a vision. He was the first person in the SAP world to promote the vision of SAP having a technology platform and not just being a vendor of business applications. So, he came up with the term, “NetWeaver,” and he was the first person to worry.
Under his leadership, SAP released NetWeaver as a platform for the very first time and said that the thing that Tobias and I had been doing all along for about ten years was possible and was the new thing in the SAP world. Customers and partners and independent software vendors, using the SAP technology platform to build new applications. So we felt that the time was right to write a book about it, and to distill our experience into that and show people how it can be done because we felt very strongly about the strengths of this technology platform. Only very few people were doing it so we kind of wanted to get the word out.
DH: And I know you’ve sort of been working for the same firm for how many years now?
TF: Fourteen years.
DH: And you’re launching a new venture I understand. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about that. Some of the thinking and why you decided to now launch a new venture.
TF: I’ve been very fortunate to work at AOK Systems and to help shape that company. I have employee number 2. I was actually the first person that the newly assigned CEO hired. In that interview I told you about where he asked me to go into SAP development. And I’ve helped the company develop from 80 people including external partners to now about 500 people and the software development to grow from literally tensions here and there to having a large suite of business applications for the health insurance market. And that was, of course, an experience that has taught me a lot. And has given me the chance to really learn a whole lot. I have also been very fortunate to have very innovation-friendly bosses. And our CIO Udo Patzelt, to whom I report, has led AOK to being a major adopter of SAP HANA, to being a major adopter of the SAP Mobile platform, and to generally be pretty much cutting edge in the SAP space. And all these things have given me ample opportunity to work with the latest SAP technology and learn about it. So this has, of course, put me to a very good position to offer my experience and services to others. And one day it was really like falling in love. One day, I woke up in the morning. I had had a dream about my new life as an entrepreneur. It was really waking up from a dream about the new entrepreneur life and I knew the time is right. I’m going to build this, and I’m going to make this dream a reality. And there was no looking back from that point on.
DH: How about outside of your work. Are you still involved in music? I’m guessing you are based on the name of your new venture?
TF: The new venture is called operatics. And that is supposed to combine operational excellence or operational processes and analytics. But you can also read that as opera-tics, but no, I’m not going to sell opera tickets even though in Las Vegas where we’re all heading for SAP TechEd that would be a good business. I love listening to music, but I’ve given up making music actively but it’s still very much in the way I work and the way I am every day because the kind of music that fascinates me most and that I actively created was improvised Jazz music and the approach how you go about that is there’s a general theme or a mood or something that is fixed but that is only a framework for the piece. And then the musicians get together and they improvise and come up with their own inventions around that theme. And, that is, I like to do that in my day-to-day work. I like when I give speeches I like to improvise them. I think it’s a fun way to go about projects. You have to do some planning, but then that is also very compatible with the improvisation approach because they say improvisation is high-speed composition.
DH: I guess lastly, I just want to ask you as somebody that’s, you know, had a fairly successful career path and starting off into a new direction, do you have any advice for people who are just coming into the SAP space or maybe they’ve been in the SAP space for a while and are looking for something new perhaps like you were?
TF: I would very much recommend everybody to do the things that they love and enjoy doing because whenever I see somebody excel at something, it’s because they didn’t go for the job with the 10 percent higher salary, but they listened to their heart and what it is that gives them satisfaction. And when you do that I believe you can reach excellence and excel at that. So I don’t think there’s going to be excellence if you cannot be in it with your heart. So I would, even if it’s at the time you’re making a career choice, if it’s the worst paid career choice or if it’s the one with the bigger hurdles to enter the market or if it’s the more difficult one, if you feel that you can get genuine satisfaction from it and that you will really love it, you’re likely to do a great job and all those difficulties and lower set reasons are not going to apply to you and that’s not going to matter because even in a difficult field if you’re one of the best people you’re not going to have a problem. That’s the first thing. The second thing is develop your career and your professional life in a sustainable fashion. Do not chase the quick and easy buck. I feel that the most rewarding career choices that I myself have made were the ones where I did not take the sparrow in the hand even if it was a pretty big turkey that I could have put my fingers around I went for the sustainable career choices. Once I was offered double my salary for a position where I would have little chance to learn as opposed to staying in my current job with a lower salary, but with a chance to learn a lot and grow professionally and I’m still very happy and thankful that I stayed on the job where I had the opportunity to learn and to grow and develop myself because of course ultimately that paid off.
DH: Very good advice. Thorsten Franz, SAP mentor, author, software architect, consultant, evangelist, and now new business founder thank you very much for joining us on The Path today.
TF: Dave, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.