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Home Grown CIO: Interview with Thomas Saueressig

May 3, 2016 by Paul Baur 28

SAP’s newly appointed chief information officer, Thomas Saueressig, talks about his bold plans to drive the digital transformation of SAP.

With the appointment of Thomas Saueressig to chief information officer (CIO), SAP is sending a bold signal that it means business with its own transformation to a digital enterprise and the rejuvenation of its workforce. Saueressig has been charged with implementing SAP’s digital transformation from within — the same metamorphosis that many SAP customers are challenged with.

At 31, Saueressig is perhaps the youngest CIO in the entire Fortune 500. A self-proclaimed millennial, he was born only a year after Apple launched the Macintosh, flash memory was invented, and the term cyberspace was coined. Saueressig came to SAP as student, began as consultant, transitioned to board assistant and then moved on to SAP’s IT organization where he rapidly moved up the ladder. There he led multiple organizations, following his goal to deliver great user experiences. I recently talked to the new CIO about his plans.

SAP News: Why did you want to be SAP’s next chief information officer?

Saueressig: Maybe you know the feeling when certain factors in your life come together all at once, a door opens, and you sense the opportunity was almost created for you. I’ve always been a very curious person and I like challenges that go out of my comfort zone, so it was clear that I would go for it.

It’s not about me, though. As much as we at SAP talk about supporting our customers in their digital transformations, the truth is that we are on our own transformation, with all the challenges that involves. It’s not trivial, and it’s now or never for SAP to prove that we can renew ourselves again. Our success will ultimately be our customers’ success.

SAP’s IT organization can and will make a major contribution to that transformation, and I have definite ideas about how to do that. There’s huge potential there, and the opportunity to shape it is exciting.

At 31, you are SAP’s youngest CIO on record. Why do you think SAP has appointed such a young CIO?

Thomas_GelaenderThrough my 12 years at SAP I’ve seen the company make a number of very bold decisions and I think this is simply part of its DNA and recipe for success. One way the company shows boldness is by giving employees responsibility and trust when they show they are ready for it. In other companies this wouldn’t be possible. It’s a great way to spur the modernization and rejuvenation of the company, and it’s also a great signal to the young talents we are trying to attract.

But how will your Gen Y credentials help SAP transform itself?

It’s true that I’m from the first generation that grew up with personal computers. At four I was playing computer games and at six I was programming my first Basic code, before I could write a grammatically correct sentence. This wouldn’t normally be relevant, but growing up in that digital environment – and dealing with all the complexity that came along with it – has formed me.

As a discerning user who’s also experienced the problems and challenges of applying technology, I have expectations regarding usability and how technology should help simplify my life. We have to make the modern workplace attractive for the students and employees which are joining SAP now, because this will also dramatically increase their productivity. All solutions have to be intuitive and all devices have to work perfectly regardless of the operating system or hardware manufacturer.

But wouldn’t you agree that recent progress has been made?

There are of course also highlights in the employee experience. When I look at, for example, the Fiori Launchpad and our mobile apps and the mobile secure cloud, that’s a major accomplishment. Employees can perform practically all internal processes from a mobile device, from travel reports to vacation and invoice approvals to document exchange and collaboration.

We’re fully focusing on providing a world-class employee experience as well as a customer experience based on our digital platform, SAP S/4HANA and SAP hybris. Our customers expect to be able to “try and buy” our Cloud products online with a few clicks. For this, we need to fully automate the end-to-end process from initial discovery to system provisioning, ensuring that no human interaction is required. This digitalization is also putting IT in focus and fosters the obligation for IT organizations to lead the way.

Why is now the right time?

I Thomas_Interview_2_500think we have reached a point with our cloud products were they are mature enough to be applied in redefining SAP. With SAP S/4HANA we can now break with the past and develop fundamentally new business models that digitalize and optimize our processes and support a modern digital workplace. It will require re-engineering of our business processes and a solid change management, but I see no alternative.

It sounds like a project that could result in more than a few gray hairs for a young CIO.

It’s certainly going to be a wild ride, and the pressure is on because SAP has ambitious goals. But we have to take it on. As they say at the d-school in Stanford: “The only way to do it, is to do it”.

You began in 2004 as a student in the company’s dual work-education program. Do you think it’s a disadvantage for you not having worked outside SAP? 

It’s always been important to me to gather experience across a wide spectrum and I think I’ve been able to manage that during my career here. For example, I earned my Executive MBA while working at the company because I‘m a firm believer in continuous learning. The MBA allowed me do develop close contacts to leaders in many other companies. As an SAP consultant and project manager, I completed 40 software implementation projects in customer relationship management. As a programmer at the customer site, I gained a great deal of insight into the implementation and go-live of SAP’s software solutions, and experienced the major challenges of large IT projects. Additionally, I’m also an active networker as I also believe that great things happen by connecting the right people.

CIOs at SAP have to be part geek, part salesman, part visionary and part ambassador. How much customer contact will you have?

Theoretical cases are not convincing in a sales situation. Credibility and authenticity are very important to me, so I can only be of real help in the sales cycle once a showcase is successful running within the company and we can prove its impact with end users. Then it should be easy to win customers. Going a step further, sales colleagues who are satisfied with company internal systems are likely to sell the products they use with even greater conviction.

I’ve got a strong affinity for technology and it will therefore remain a priority for me to maintain my understanding of our solutions and their acceptance by our employees. Only then can I really remain in touch with the concerns of the end user and be a credible leader. On the other hand, I see also a clear mandate to articulate and transport the message externally about how “SAP runs simple” and how we enable the digital transformation, in an open, authentic and forthright way.

IT recently ran an independent client satisfaction survey to which 19% of employees responded. What did it tell you?

First of all, the participation rate shows great interest in our IT services and solutions and I would like to thank all colleagues who participated. Looking at the results, we learned that we are benchmarked in the top 10% of large IT departments, which is extremely motivating for the entire team and a confirmation that we are on the right track. On the other hand, we even have the ambition to be on top of the list and best in class. Employees let us know that they want a better user experience, less complexity, and less frequent switching out of products, which create disruption and waste time. In the future we must do a better job of considering the impact of new internal tools and solutions, because at the end of the day, our success is measured by employee satisfaction.

What are your priorities for 2016?

Stable operations for all our services is the foundation of everything what we do, as the productivity of our employees is key.

We plan to go live with a new SAP S/4HANA by the end of the year, which will make it possible to redefine business processes. We also want to become more user-centric and gather user feedback to help guide improvements. This will be accompanied by an IT Awareness campaign to drive the adoption of our solutions – I´m very much looking forward to this. And we will also implement agile development methods throughout the organization so we can institute more frequent updates and adapt more flexibly to changing requirements. We will also offer more of our applications in the cloud and base new applications on SAP HANA Cloud Platform.

Last year we used SAP HANA Cloud Platform to integrate different ticketing systems for HR, IT and travel. With Unified Ticketing, employees can now search for solutions and submit and manage tickets from any SAP device – and this is just one example of how we can help SAP to Run Simple. We will also exploit maturing technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and voice recognition.

What’s your management style?

I think leaders need to adapt their style to the specific situation, however, you always need to be yourself and remain authentic. This is the only way to build trust. As a leader, I place a lot of value on empowerment and employee development – because in the end I can only be successful when my team is, so it’s all about the team!

Creating the right spirit, culture and mindset in the team is key, for example putting the user at the center of what we do, becoming more agile, and creating a can-do attitude through collaboration. SAP’s transformation to the cloud requires that leaders show employees how they can successfully benefit from doing things in new ways, as well as doing exciting new things.

It’s also key to always reflect critically about your behaviors and to challenge yourself. Therefore, it’s important to have internal and external mentors and coaches.

Your LinkedIn profile says you are an avid skier, sailor, and golfer. How do you relax?

Finding leisure time isn’t easy, and it doesn’t look like this will improve soon. Fortunately I am able to quickly switch between work and private mode and I’m a believer of combining work and life, and technology will help us to make it the most efficient. It’s important to keep an open mind for new ideas and cultures and in staying curious about the unknown, and these are the reasons why travelling is one of my biggest passions. There’s nothing like a few weeks in another environment to renew your energy and motivation.

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