Cutting the Gordian Knot

Claus Heinrich
Claus Heinrich

Claus, what does quality mean to SAP?

Heinrich: It’s crucial that we define quality from the perspective of our customers and end users and integrate all of the criteria relevant to them into our approach to quality management. That means that it starts with understanding customers’ needs and then fulfilling their expectations in every area.

Management requires efficient, streamlined processes and end users expect us to support them with simple, user-friendly software solutions. To do so, SAP focuses on established criteria like functionality, downtime security, user-friendliness, efficiency, maintainability, reusability, and portability.
In addition, we have 16 product standards that specifically describe these attributes as they relate to SAP software; we verify that our products meet these standards before they ship. We constantly update our product standards and adjust them to current market requirements. This process is based on customer feedback and of course legal requirements, including those related to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Have these quality criteria evolved in recent years?

Heinrich: In the past, quality control focused mainly on checking for functional errors. Today, it’s about delivering products that fulfill every aspect of our customers’ quality expectations; it’s a whole different ball-game. Other requirements – among them user-friendliness, performance, security, and accessibility – are becoming increasingly important. And, the significance of quality will only continue to grow in the future. With a burgeoning customer base and a partner ecosystem that relies on SAP’s business process platform, it is imperative that we ensure superior quality, fulfill these additional requirements, and meet all prerequisite standards.

Does SAP have centralized departments that assess software quality? Where are they located, how do they work, and how early are they integrated into the development process?

Heinrich: SAP maintains an independent entity responsible for quality governance, centralized quality reporting, and final software validation. Our production unit functions internally as our first customer and signs off all SAP products. Final release approval is given after the finished software is validated, but the validation unit is integrated in parallel with phase-oriented software development.

The employees in our independent solution validation unit support software releases from the planning phase right through to the completion of ramp-up. They cooperate closely with the decentralized quality management teams from our various development departments to ensure that we meet generally binding quality standards. The production unit also handles software validation for the 120 platform combinations we support.

How does SAP reconcile these quality assurance efforts with advancing industrialization?

Heinrich: The process of software development has matured in recent years. This maturation has been characterized by the industrialization of software development, which in turn features division of labor, automated development and testing, standardization, and the resulting reusability of components and development management based on metrics and key figures.

Clearly defined development processes and the implementation of industrial quality management methods like SAP Sigma – which is based on the Six Sigma concept – are helping us attain a level of quality in software that has long been commonplace in other industries. These methods essentially focus on continually improving the development process by constantly measuring critical quality criteria. For example, code inspections in specific crucial areas lead to significant reductions in follow-up errors. This results in improved quality and lower costs.
In the course of this software industrialization process, we’re also observing an increase in modularization. Based on enterprise service-oriented architecture (enterprise SOA) and open standards, companies can quickly implement new business scenarios and easily adjust existing ones to changing circumstances. In a sense, it resembles the approach adopted in the automotive industry: Automobile manufacturers implement a platform strategy and use the same components in different vehicles. Their vehicles look different as a result, but the inner workings – things like brake systems, electronics, and alternators – are all the same. If the individual components are of a certain quality and optimally tuned to the platform, the quality of the overall product will also be up to standard. Similarly, we can thus achieve high-speed innovation while increasing quality.
With enterprise SOA, we’ve cut the Gordian knot in software development by increasing both speed and quality. We’re faster thanks to the platform strategy upon which our standardized components are based, and we’re better due to the measures I’ve already mentioned. However, implementing standardized components – that is, services – presents us with real challenges related to discipline. We can’t simply change a service just like that, just as Volkswagen can’t modify the Golf’s alternator when the same part is used in the Audi A3 or VW Passat.

What does modularization mean for customers? We’ve heard of the “Lego” concept before…

Heinrich: No, it doesn’t have anything to do with this concept. Our customers won’t be getting a box of software components and a diagram of what the end result should look like. They will continue to receive solutions for entire business scenarios. Automobile manufacturers sell finished vehicles, after all – not just construction sets.

SAP emphasizes the importance of its ecosystem. How is it integrated?

Heinrich: Our partners provide innovative developments from their areas of expertise and supplement our service repository based on our quality standards. Just as there are licensed tuning shops in the automotive industry, our customers can also have services tailored to their individual needs. However, all of this happens behind the scenes. Our customers simply receive the systems they need. When we ship a program bearing our name, we’re responsible for it. That’s why we first offer our partners the opportunity to obtain SAP NetWeaver certification. We then also discuss with independent software vendors the extent to which we will provide our internal validation services for partner solutions.

Is the automotive industry a model for the IT industry?

Heinrich: In the way in which it works with standards, platforms, and partner networks, definitely. With enterprise SOA, we’re definitely on the right track to unifying quality, innovation, and customer demands.

Can you sum up what is special about enterprise SOA?

Heinrich: Enterprise SOA truly represents a quantum leap in software engineering. Based on our business process platform (BPP), our customers can design their business processes quickly and flexibly. In doing so, they can also access enterprise services and use graphical tools like SAP NetWeaver Visual Composer to map these processes. They have the option of creating their own composite applications based on the platform, as well. SAP manages and maintains the platform and advances its development, focusing in particular on the quality of its products: If individual services on the platform deliver defective results, the applications based upon them will accordingly also be defective. That’s why quality assurance starts at the beginning of the development process at SAP. We can thus offer a BPP that optimally supports even the most critical of our customers’ business processes.

Claus Heinrich spoke with Stephan De Maria, an IT journalist in Schwetzingen, Germany