Since his debut as an intern at SAP in 2004 while he was enrolled in the Cooperative Education program in Mannheim, Germany, Thomas Saueressig has forged a path of consecutive promotions, including the elevation to become Chief Information Officer (CIO) of SAP in April 2016 and his most recent additional responsibility of managing SAP’s global Cloud Infrastructure. SAPinsider recently interviewed Saueressig about the journey to the top of the executive ranks, his current role as CIO, his experience with SAP implementations and shepherding the migration of SAP’s data to SAP Cloud Platform, and his advice to companies that are migrating data to a cloud-based environment.
Q: Tell us a little bit about who you are. How did you get to where you are today?
A: Including my time as a student intern, I’ve been with SAP for 14 years. When I started in a full-time position, I was working as a consultant with customer relationship management implementations. I’ve also been on the Top Talent Rotation team in Palo Alto and have been Executive Board Assistant for Gerhard Oswald and supported him in the areas of service and support, product, technology, mergers and acquisitions, mobility, and IT. I’d been with the IT function for four-and-a-half years before being appointed CIO. Continuous learning is something that drives me; I’m comfortable when I’m pushing boundaries and learning new things, which is why every two to three years I enjoy exploring new experiences.
It’s very exciting to be heading up an organization that now has about 3,000 people, which includes the entire Cloud Infrastructure as well as the customer experience and customer-facing efforts like SAP.com, SAP Community, and SAP Store. There is a big focus and energy on the customer side and leveraging what we’ve done for employees to likewise help improve the lives of our customers.
Q: Where is the IT organization on its digital transformation journey?
A: I fundamentally believe that IT can have a huge impact on the business and scaling up sustainable growth. To that end, there will be many initiatives centered on automation, artificial intelligence (AI), optimizing processes, and enabling new business models. This is where IT is building the foundation; if you think about our online sales, SAP Store, and our digital business, these are entirely powered by IT because the end-to-end processes do not have any human interaction.
On the one hand, the key components of my responsibilities include improving business processes and, in some cases, forming new business models. On the other hand, the goal is to provide a digital workplace in which people can work at their best and be at their most productive level. And at the heart of these goals is the need to always provide stable operations because we power all of SAP’s business systems. Stable operations are one of the key metrics I have — it’s a key imperative for every IT organization, and we should not forget that.
Q: What are your proudest accomplishments to date as CIO?
A: I am a firm believer that a company’s productivity will only grow by increasing the productivity of its employees, because that’s where the experience resides. That’s why two years ago I started the user-centric IT journey, which from a strategic perspective means that we’re focusing all our activities around the end user. By including the user from the very beginning in Design Thinking sessions, we are developing targeted solutions with the real needs of the end user in mind. In every application we deliver, a user can press a feedback button to provide direct feedback to the application and IT.
SAP is fostering a culture around empathy, listening, and learning; an offshoot of this culture is that every IT colleague is very close to the end users — we listen to them and their feedback. This is an important business engagement process, which is different from a traditional top-to-top level. We see this engagement pay dividends in cloud applications and processes, for example, where end users (such as account executives) work together with their IT colleagues to deliver user-friendly solutions that are easy to understand and make their jobs easier. It’s amazing to see such productivity results when every IT employee is accountable to have specific focus groups to interact with true end users, to understand them and how they work.
SAP just conducted a company-wide employee satisfaction survey, and IT was the best-rated process by far across all regions and across all board areas. I want to be in the situation where IT is viewed by all our employees as a trusted partner to make the business successful. That’s the reason I certainly want to connect my personal success with the key performance indicators of the business side because if they are successful, then I did something right.
SAP is fostering a culture around empathy, listening, and learning; an offshoot of this culture is that every IT colleague is very close to the end users - we listen to them and their feedback.
Q: Cloud migration is often viewed as a digital imperative. Where is IT in this transition for SAP?
A: One of the projects we are working on — in line with the objective to be the best reference customer of our own software — is a cloud master data management solution on SAP Cloud Platform. This project is driven by IT in coordination with a different development team. Collaboration between development and IT is stronger than ever to guarantee a smooth go-live and to ensure that we will be the best and first reference customer.
An official process is now running where we get all our requirements into the development cycle and provide feedback from our customer experience to development. We see success with this process in multiple areas. Even as we run our solutions, we can give feedback on topics like integration. For instance, we define integration between SAP Ariba and SAP S/4HANA from an IT perspective and integrate it with the development team. Now, we have great integration between SAP Ariba and SAP S/4HANA, which is the de facto standard for our customers as well.
A lot of organizations are hesitant to move to the cloud, but quite frankly, it is the most important thing they can do. This is true not just for the technology side to consume innovations automatically — shedding commodity is often a necessity to focus on the core differentiating topics for the company.
Q: What advice would you give to customers or IT leaders embarking on their own cloud journey?
A: The biggest challenge in moving to the cloud is coming to understand that business practices must follow best practices. Realizing that you cannot have a policy in place to change or modify everything often means recalibrating the relationship between the business and IT. The business no longer can just give IT its marching orders to develop a solution. There must also be assurances that the solution is a market best practice from a business process perspective, and existing processes may need to change accordingly. Evidence of this recalibration is seen in a gradual transition to a cloud platform for a faster way to roll out processes and ensure they are working end to end. In our case, this is borne out with 260 applications on SAP Cloud Platform and more than 80 native mobile applications now live at SAP. This means we have essentially mobilized the entire company so that you can work anytime, anywhere, and on any device and get your job done.