Xiaoqun Clever’s Way

illustration: istockphoto.com

Clever, who is also head of Design & New Applications (D&NA) and Corporate Officer of SAP AG, says, “The D&NA team has always pushed new technologies and white-space applications,” she says. “Now, at SAP Labs China, we will proceed similarly, bringing our organization closer to customers, to their challenges and realities.”

China is renowned for fast growth and adoption of new technologies. Under Clever’s leadership, the D&NA team has already created breakthrough applications that have pioneered innovation in China and driven the adoption of new solutions, most notably SAP HANA. SAP Business One, the company’s world-class suite of ERP software applications for small and mid-size businesses was developed in and localized for China. It is now distributed to 123 countries. Clever says “We are building bridges to bring innovation to the Chinese market and the world.”

Clever touts SAP’s global experience as crucial for customers in China intent on going global. She states, “Local homegrown software companies don’t have the global best practices SAP offers. With our partners, we are best positioned to help businesses bring innovation to Chinese so they can deliver more value to their customers.”

Read on: Engineering Roots

When Clever arrived in Germany in 1989, she had to learn German to pursue her computer science studies at the University of Karlsruhe. Undaunted by the challenge, she pursued her passion for a discipline whose impact she was convinced had just arrived. “I’ve always been fascinated by computer programming languages and what they can do,” she says. “I wasn’t going to let a few linguistic and bureaucratic hurdles keep me from finding out.”

Since she joined SAP in 1997, Clever has had many mentors in Germany, the U.S., and China. She credits current SAP Board members, and especially SAP co-founder and chairman of the Supervisory Board, Hasso Plattner, for their support and inspiration. Talking about Plattner, Clever says, “He has an impressive ability to absorb new information and laser focus on important issues during technology deep dives of eight or nine hours. He brings in the customer’s point of view and has a sharp understanding of what needs to be done.”

Innovation = Beautiful Products

Before taking on her new role based in Shanghai, Clever was directly involved in SAP’s China Growth Plan, serving on the plan’s Governance and Portfolio Management Boards. As President, Xiaoqun now leads the Portfolio Management Board, and is additionally tasked with steering Labs China to deliver on the innovations this two billion dollar plan demands.

The key to satisfying this demand is no foreign concept to Clever: Innovation. “Innovation is the lifeblood of what our success at SAP has been,” she emphasizes. The essence of innovation, she argues, and the mandate she reinforces for her teams at SAP Labs China – SAP’s third largest R&D location – is “building beautiful products.”

Sensitive to how the word innovation is overused these days, Clever insists that true innovation is part of everyone’s daily work. She says, “The output has to be beautiful products every day that use the latest technologies and appeal to people.”

Read on: Designed For Customers, With Customers

Stating that the voice of the customer is everything, Clever explains that her teams co-innovate with customers from the very beginning on all solution designs. She proudly points out that a large percentage of customer examples in the executive keynotes at SAPPHIRE NOW in Orlando this year came from her teams in China, India, the United States, and Germany.

Designed For Customers, With Customers

Simplification is a core customer demand, but Clever says SAP’s role is to serve as the trusted advisor, thinking of what the customer hasn’t. “All of our developers learn that less is sometimes more. Simplicity is not achieved by simplifying problems,” she explains. “It happens when you study complex problems, digest the issues, and then arrive at the simplest solution. Sometimes the customer’s perceived path is complicated. We teach our developers to reinvent new paths to solve the problem that might be behind the customer’s description.”

Companies in China are not looking for core, cloud, analytics, database, or mobility solutions per se, Clever argues. “Companies in China are looking for ways to better manage their business, to go global, and to improve their business models, and they are asking SAP for support” she says. “The solutions in our five market categories are not the ends; they are the means for our customers to master these challenges.”

However, China’s tendency to soak up new technologies is tempered by its need for scale, Clever explains. “Anything built in China or for China needs to scale quickly. Scale is much more important in China than in most other countries,” she points out. “With our established products, SAP is in a strong position to scale. However, we need to complement our new products with an ingrained determination to scale them. This will be the challenge we tackle head-on at SAP Labs China.”

Read on: Attracting Top Talent

In late March, Clever signed a memorandum of understanding with the government in Nanjing in which SAP promises to set up a second global SAP innovation center there later this year. The agreement came out of Plattner’s first visit to China in November of 2011 when he pledged to establish a cutting-edge innovation center. Nanjing schools graduate over 72,000 IT students each year, and the city aims to surpass Beijing as the leading hub for technology innovation and development in China.

Attracting Top Talent

Attracting this top talent for SAP and its partners and customers is a high priority for Clever. Her frequent high-profile engagements with customers and institutions of higher learning advance SAP as a thought leader in China, but they also appeal to young, prospective IT professionals.

“Why should a graduate choose SAP over other companies?” she asks. “Because SAP promotes the out-of-the box type thinking that this fresh talent has become accustomed to at their universities. We are a company that develops products that customers want – not some outfit that develops for the sake of developing. For new waves of talent, this is just as important as their compensation package,” she argues. “At SAP, employees can and are encouraged to be bold – and yes, here in China, they indeed have a chance to change the world.”

Her advice to young people is to be passionate about the technology and what they do. “Stay true to your engineering roots with an obsession for perfection, precision, and the beauty of the product—intuitive and user-friendly. Don’t compromise on quality or get distracted by anything but the facts,” Clever counsels.

Clever says her goal is to help unleash the talent of her team’s 2,000 plus young, motivated, and committed employees. “I tell my managers that we serve our teams, empowering our people with support and alignment to maximize their potential. This makes all of us are proud to be members of SAP Labs China.”

Read on: Clever Up Close

Clever’s new role involves a significant amount of travel. Nanjing, Beijing, and Shanghai are regular stops as she meets with senior-level customers, partners, and government officials. This busy executive, who is mother to two active boys, ages nine and eleven, also finds time for sports. She recently ran in a marathon, and last year participated with her team in Frankfurt in a run to benefit breast cancer.

Clever Up Close

When asked about her greatest accomplishment, Clever talks about earning her MBA while being a parent to two small children and working. She says, “I’m proud to have been able to wear three hats with success.”

These days she uses FaceTime to talk with her children while she’s traveling. “My children make me laugh,” she chuckles. “I’m on the road a lot, and seeing their faces is a joy.”

An avid reader, Clever’s iPad contains numerous titles that span leadership, philosophy and innovation: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously by Osho, The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen, and True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership  by Bill George, Peter Sims and David Gergen.