In this episode of The Path, we get to know Vijay Vijayasankar, a relatively new SAP employee who has a long history in the SAP ecosystem. Surprisingly, a career in enterprise IT was not on his radar until somewhat later than you might think.
Transcript of interview:
Dave Hannon: Hello and welcome to the Path, a podcast series exploring the career paths of people in the SAP ecosystem. I’m Dave Hannon with SAPinsider. Joining me today is Vijay Vijayasankar, Global Vice President of Big Data at SAP. We’re going to be talking with Vijay about his particular career path into the SAP ecosystem which I think most folks are going to find very interesting.
Welcome Vijay, thank you for joining us.
Vijay: Thanks Dave. I’m glad to be here.
Dave: Vijay, I want to start at the beginning, so to speak. Tell me a little bit about your background. Where are you from originally, where did you grow up?
Vijay: So I’m from India, which you probably would have guessed from my really long name. I grew up in a state called Kerala which is in on the southernmost tip of India which juts into the ocean. The Western side of it is where I’m from. The capital city called Thiruvananthapuram. Nice clean place with beaches and so on. The closest thing in the U.S. would be something like Florida.
Dave: It sounds nice. So, what kind of exposure did you have to technology early on? Were there indications that you were going to have a career in technology when you were a kid growing up?
Vijay: Oh no, absolutely not. What I wanted to do as a kid was to become a ringmaster in a circus.
Vijay: Yeah. That was my number one dream. And then it changed over a period of time, I wanted to become a police officer, assorted other things. But eighth grade or so my uncle who was leaving for the U.S. to pursue his master’s gave me a small 64-gig computer and I learned Basic on that and then I went to a class and learned C programming. That’s when an interest in computers came by. But until I almost did my MBA, I had no interest in having a technology career path at all.
Dave: Wow, that’s very interesting. I know you spent quite a while in college in India getting degrees in mathematics, engineering and eventually an MBA in finance and information systems. Tell me a little bit about that part of your path. Was that by design? Did you have an idea that you eventually wanted to wind up with a career in the IT field? Or did you just keep pursuing coursework that you were interested in?
Vijay: I really wish I could have said something like ‘this was all very well planned from day one’ but it totally was not. Math – I love math but I liked math way more than I hated biology. I couldn’t figure out a career in biology and that is what directed me towards math. So I did undergrad work in math that got me to a mechanical engineering course. Mechanical engineering – of all engineering branches I chose it simply because my dad was a mechanical engineer.
Right after college I had a brief stint as a mechanical engineer apprentice in a tire manufacturing company. And in about three months I figured out that I would not survive on the shop floor for very long. So I went and did my MBA in finance. Halfway through that I figured out that I did not want to be an investment banker. I would rather be in IT, given the explosion in IT that was happening at that time in the 1990s. I quickly switched to an information systems major. In fact, the college didn’t have an information system major at that time, so I actually lobbied for it and we got it approved and we were the first batch of students to have this specialization.
I came out of it and took my first job as a programmer instead of an investment banker, which is what I originally planned to be.
Dave: So when you say the explosion in IT led you to look at information systems while you were doing your MBA, what exposure did you have? Was there anything in particular in the IT world that grabbed your interest? Everyone seems to have something particular they can point to and say “that’s when it really clicked for me.”
Vijay: Y2K was fast approaching. There was a lot of interest in solving the Y2K problem even in college. So that is finally what got me at least knowledgeable about the industry. I started reading up on it and I was fascinated by TCS, Tata Consulting Services. You know, Mr. F.C. Kohli, who was the chairman of the company, he had the combination of using software and skilled people in a factory model to get things done. This was the pre-outsourcing boom. I didn’t realize how outsourcing would change the Indian economy totally, but at that time it was very fascinating it was mostly theory getting an MBA in business school.
It was fascinating because it combined my engineering skills and my business skills and my love for programming. So that’s pretty much the one point where I decided for sure that this is where I wanted to start my career.
Dave: So tell me about the beginning of your career. What was your first job out of school and what did you think of it?
Vijay: The first job out of school was that shift that I did as the shop floor engineer at the tire company, where the job focuses essentially around machines. You know, climbing up big ladders to check on the boiler pressures and stuff like that. It was kind of boring for me and that’s definitely not what I wanted to do coming out of an engineering program. I thought I’d be designing machines and so on. It didn’t quite dawn on me during college that you have to pay your dues and work your way up the chain before you are allowed to design something. And it’s actually quite a good thing that I was not allowed to design things.
The first real job was the one at TCS in their SAP practice. And I was one of the first few employees doing that. Then did a very short project in India and then came over to the US – they sent me to the US. That’s how this whole SAP career took off.
Dave: So you got exposed to SAP technology very early in your career?
Vijay: Yeah, in the late 1990s.
Dave: I know you spent a long time in consulting—about eight years with IBM. What did you like about consulting work specifically? What skills or strengths do you think it helped you develop?
Vijay: One of the things that attracts me to consulting and this continues even today, I get bored very easily doing the same thing over and over. This is good and bad. Mostly it has been good for my career and it’s kept me on my toes throughout my career, and it continues to keep me on my toes. Why I like it is because you have a new problem to solve pretty much every day of your life. There’s no two customers that are alike. The trick of being a good consultant is in understanding two things: one, not every problem needs a technology solution; and two, when that technology solution is needed, you don’t break the software you bend it, but you shouldn’t break it. The balance between the two is fascinating.
Sometimes it’s cheaper to manually get things done or change the business process to get things done. It’s not just cheaper it’s more efficient than try to manipulate it with programming. In other times, you absolutely are better off doing it with programming in which case you can rely on your technical instincts to have a large team of programmers you can tap into. That balance is fantastic. You get to see a lot of customers which exposes you to a lot of changes. I have worked in projects that have crossed many different countries in Asia and Europe and North America, and so on. It exposes you to a lot of businesses and you constantly grow. You never know all the answers. And one of the things that you realize is that you don’t need to know all the answers you just need to be confident that you can find answers once you understand the question.
Dave: So along that path of consulting work, did you focus on SAP projects the entire time or did you branch off into other areas as well?
Vijay: Thanks to a very very good mentor, and I do sincerely hope everyone in this industry finds a few mentors. Mentoring is what helped me a lot in my own career and I would give more credit to mentors in getting me to where I am today. The mentor that I had – his name was Ken England – he was a partner in IBM and he told me I needed to do something outside of SAP. “All your life you’ve been doing SAP” he said. So he put me in charge of a custom development project using Microsoft technologies for a couple of years with a really big client. So it was a multi-million, tens of millions of dollars am it just totally opened my eyes. I now insist that almost everyone that I meet I tell them “go get exposure to alternative technologies” because you get an even better appreciation and knowledge of packaged software. A lot of things we have to custom build it’s available and otherwise you would have to build it. If my mentor had not mentioned it I would have never tried a non-SAP project in my life.
Mentoring is what helped me a lot in my own career and I would give more credit to mentors in getting me to where I am today.
Dave: That’s great advice. You worked with SAP for quite a long time and eventually you joined SAP. What made you decide it was a good time to formally join the company?
Vijay: It was not a very well planned move. I knew SAP the company for a while, I knew its executives and engineers and so on. I had worked very closely with SAP Labs while I was in IBM. It was like an extended family all the time. When I was working at IBM I never considered SAP to be a competitor, it was more like family. And I knew Vishal, my current boss Vishal Sikka, I knew him for a little bit. And we’d been talking about how to get HANA to the next level.
There came a time in 2012 when Vishal and I had this discussion and there was this offer from that if IBM is amenable then he’s okay having me. And it was at a good point in my career too that I was finishing up stuff at IBM and I could leave without jeopardizing anything. I talked to my manager and he was supremely supportive, John Leffler who ran the global SAP practice at IBM. John was very forward-thinking, he didn’t hold me back, he gave me all the good advice on how to survive in a new company and we still remain good friends. So I left on fantastic terms at IBM and still keep in touch with them and we collaborate on a lot of plans.
Dave: Okay, great. Can you tell me about your current role at SAP and what you like most about it?
Vijay: Yes, I do a few different things. One is to increase the adoption of HANA which is the part I enjoy the most. My major interest is in finding out what are the things and obstacles in front of adoption. One of the things we found out was it’s tough to get proof of concepts done in a reasonable time and cost. So went and got a BW on HANA trial last year and in about 100 days that trial was used by 1200 plus people and 128,000 hours. We figured out that the more we removed obstacles the better the adoption. It’s very clear to SAP that we cannot go all the way by itself. We need the ecosystem we have around us and for that we need to remove obstacles for the ecosystem. So this is my primary job.
Now that BW on HANA is well taken care of, we will start offering free trials on the various components of Suite on HANA like ERP, CRM and so on. Once we do that maybe some other obstacle will come up. Like one of the other things that we figured out last year was our consulting partners needed more knowledge on the implementation of HANA. So my team and I traveled to many different countries. To India, Australia, countries in Europe, here in North America, and we trained a lot of folks on that. I trained a lot of folks, my team trained a lot of folks. And that all had a big impact in having some competence on the consulting side of the house I understand the ecosystem’s importance very well. And this is my real goal in SAP. I want to make sure whatever we do customers and partners can use it immediately.
Dave: Great, great. In addition to your professional background we like to learn a little bit about you personally, about what interests you. I’m guessing based on your Twitter profile you’re a dog lover. And after telling me about your dream to be a circus ringmaster, I guess that makes a little bit of sense. What kind of dogs do you have?
Vijay: At the moment I have three dogs here in Arizona where I live. I have two Golden Retrievers and a lab. They are actually all milling around me as I am talking. I am at home today and at one point I probably had more than 20 dogs across three countries. I compete in dog shows and I have started training dogs. So this is my big pastime. In fact if I could pay bills with it I would have been a dog trainer instead of an IT professional.
Dave: Wow, that’s interesting. So how far back does that interest go?
Vijay: From about second grade or so. I don’t come from a family of dog lovers, so I don’t quite know how this interest in dogs came in, but it did at one point. As long as I can remember I have always had a dog.
Dave: That’s great. Lastly, I wanted to ask what advice you might have for someone starting out in the SAP ecosystem? There are a lot of different paths people can take from partners to working directly to SAP even to working for customers. What advice would you have for somebody in terms of finding the role that suits them best?
I would definitely say get some variety; don’t get stuck in one place for very long. Try many different things. In the functional consulting world, it’s very easy to move from one module to another. It’s not that difficult to move from ABAP to Java to Python. And all of these things are supremely helpful. It’s not that difficult. It’s more of a mental block than a physical obstacle. Have that variety and it will pay off in spades. I know that it did for me and I have no reason to doubt that it will be anything else for others too.
Dave: That’s great advice. Vijay Vijayasankar, global vice president of big data at SAP, thank you very much for joining us today. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Vijay: Thanks for having me.