What is a platform? For a company as large as SAP, proud purveyor of the SAP HANA Cloud Platform, answering this question would typically elicit a broad range of responses. And while each answer would technically be correct, the response that really matters is one that is not so easy for SAP to articulate to the market. For the most part, SAP isn’t alone in this problem. The enterprise software market — and what this market means when it talks about platforms — has evolved to be almost unrecognizable in the last five years. But with SAP investing heavily in SAP HANA Cloud Platform as well as a myriad of services and apps that depend on this cloud platform, communicating the answer right is essential.
The answer is simple: A platform is first and foremost a place for developers to go to find the technology, services, processes, commercial market, and customers that will make their development efforts as successful as possible. The rest of the attributes – the stuff we call marketecture – is very nice to have and definitely worth the effort to develop. But if a critical mass of developers isn’t waking up every day and focusing their efforts on building the next great app, service, business opportunity, or start-up on a given platform, all efforts toward creating that platform will be for naught.
This adds a serious complication to the idea that great technology is really what it takes to succeed as a platform vendor. Technology is always an important starting point, but it also takes community, and lots of it. And building a community of developers across all the different necessary constituencies – partners, customers, independent developers, and entrepreneurs – is a whole ‘nuther can of worms.
Creating a Cloud Buzz for the SAP Developer Community
SAP has done yeoman’s work in building out SAP HANA Cloud Platform from a technical standpoint, and, to be fair, there’s a decent amount of developer resources on the company’s developer website (http://go.sap.com/developer.html). But despite these efforts, there’s a decided lack of buzz around the cloud platform and SAP’s nascent developer efforts outside the SAP community, and, for SAP, this spells trouble.
Buzz is admittedly an ephemeral concept – how to qualify it and quantify it is always a challenge. But it’s essential to creating a community; developer communities are almost religious in their fervor and devotion, and in the faith they have that the platform they are targeting is an essential part of their careers and livelihoods.
Creating the buzz needed to engage a developer community worthy of a company like SAP isn’t something you can do by opening a text book to find the solution. In fact, when I try to boil down my thinking to a genuine and authentic definition of a great developer community and the buzz around it, the best I can come up with is the old saw, “I know it when I see it” — or when I don’t see it.
I work extensively with startups, early stage companies, and software development houses that are focused on creating the next new thing, and for the most part, SAP HANA Cloud Platform is conspicuous by its absence as a starting point for these efforts. There are certainly a fair amount of companies focused on developing on with the cloud platform, or at least trying to develop specifically for the SAP ecosystems. But most of the ones that I’m familiar with are essentially from within the SAP family, not the market at large.
SAP has truly great technology in SAP HANA Cloud Platform, but it needs a great community buzz to go with the technology.
I spoke recently with a number of different developers – those not in the SAP ecosystem – about their choice of platform, and a lot of them shrugged at the mention of trying to develop for SAP HANA Cloud Platform. One of them had tried, but the lack of support for NoSQL databases (NoSQL being pretty much a default database environment for startups and next-gen apps) was a huge turnoff. The CTO of one startup was told to port his app to the SAP HANA database instead, which would have taken more time and money than the startup was willing to put toward the effort, considering that there was still a certification process to go through after the port to see if the app was even worthy of the cloud platform.
Learning from Other Cloud Platform Trailblazers
SAP certainly knows it has a problem with its developer cred, and in recognition of this fact, the company recently inked a deal with Apple to help create a body of great business apps built for Apple’s iOS environment. Apple developers, unfortunately, are not known for their enterprise software chops, as a quick glance at the Apple App library will demonstrate. How this will help propel SAP HANA Cloud Platform forward as a must-program developer site isn’t obvious.
What could help – under the category of I know it when I see it – is the kind of developer effort/religious revival that one of SAP’s rivals is running for its developer recruitment efforts. Put together under the rubric “Trailhead”, Salesforce.com has built one of the most exciting developer communities I’ve seen in ages. Its developer/devotees, called trailblazers, epitomize buzz. And while Salesforce.com is known to the market as a customer relationship management (CRM) cloud platform, the trailblazers are building a lot of decidedly non-CRM apps.
Why Trailhead is working so well is complex, but at the end of the day, the program appeals to a highly diverse, millennial-leaning mix of citizen developers and hardcore programmers: it’s fun and quirky with woodland animal mascots and lots of fake trees; it’s gamified just right with lots of badges that you can actually pin to your backpack; and it’s meaningful with trailblazers believing they are part of a community that is going somewhere important in the enterprise.
The resulting buzz is something to behold, particularly if you contrast Trailhead’s born-in-Silicon-Valley aesthetic to SAP’s almost Silicon Valley-hostile approach. Of the almost 20 SAP events for developers slated to take place worldwide from October 2016 to the end of the year, there are zero events planned for the West coast of the United States (and only one for the East coast). There’s a lot of conceit in thinking that Silicon Valley is the center of the developer universe – but then again, the number of companies that locate major developer events there speaks to the fact that this conceit may have some real merit.
The Necessity of Building an Engaged Community
A platform supports an IT infrastructure, helps integrate and run apps, provides a set of services for adding value to those apps, and offers a means for companies to add new functionality and still leverage their existing investments. Platforms also help focus a company’s sales and marketing efforts, provide a technological home for new acquisitions, and serve as a backdrop to new initiatives such as digital transformation or the Internet of Things.
But to be successful, platforms need to entice, enthrall, and captivate fickle communities of developers who know in their heart of hearts that great technology isn’t always what it takes. Heck, many developers will tell you they are great programmers almost despite, not because of, the technology they use.
SAP has truly great technology in SAP HANA Cloud Platform, but it needs a great community buzz to go with that technology. So far, the race to build a truly engaged community is one that SAP hasn’t really tried to enter, to the detriment of all its efforts on building out its cloud platform. It’s almost 2017: A technically great platform without an active and broad-based community isn’t enough anymore.