Profession: IT engineer. Occupation: chief innovation officer. Responsibility: creating new growth businesses for SAP by pioneering new markets and disruptive technologies. Aged just 35, Juergen Mueller has already achieved a lot. Who is the person behind this meteoric rise?
“Change is nothing to be afraid of, “Juergen says, and he should know. His life began with disruption. Juergen’s parents, a social worker and a nurse, separated in his early childhood and both remarried. What could have been a tough blow for a young child, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “My parents handled this transition really well,” he says today. “I’m very close to them and my five half-siblings. In effect, I grew up with the strength of two families instead of just one.”
Together the two families bought him an Amiga 500 PC for his 12th birthday. “Computer games were cool, but soccer was more interesting at that point of time,” Juergen, who earned his first money as a referee at the age of 14, admits. With the internet boom at the end of the 20th century, things changed. “Everyone wanted a website, but only few people could create one. Together with a friend, I learned how to build websites and we founded a startup while still at school. That’s how I financed my driver’s license.”
Building on this experience, Juergen decided to study business informatics at the University of Göttingen. Towards the end of his studies, he enrolled in a Chinese class and won a scholarship to Tongji University in Shanghai. “Seeing how diligently the Chinese students were pursuing their dreams of improving their lives left a deep impression with me. It made me appreciate the possibilities I had been given,” he says. After six months in China, Juergen returned to Germany to do a PhD.
But finding the right academic discipline turned out to be quite a challenge. “Business informatics didn’t put enough stress on the technical side of things and pure information science seemed out of touch with the real world.” Juergen had resigned himself to a career in consulting or leading a small development team when he came across the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI). “It was the perfect match. They were focused on how to apply technology in a business context. ”
Unfortunately, there was only one open PhD position at the time: system administration. Nevertheless, he says he felt that HPI was the right place for him; if system administration was the only position they had to offer, that’s what he was going to apply for. “But five minutes into the interview it was clear that the position wasn’t the right one for me.” Right afterwards, he went on vacation for two weeks but when he got home, his family told him HPI had called to say there was another open PhD position.
Even though it required him to start two days later, Juergen immediately accepted and borrowed his mother’s car for the journey to Potsdam – a city just outside Berlin. “I didn’t know anybody there,” Juergen remembers, “I didn’t have an apartment yet and little hope of finding one on short notice. Then I met a Chinese exchange student who wanted to vacate her apartment and move in with her boyfriend, but didn’t have a car to transport her things. So I offered her my help: we moved her belongings that very same evening and at 3 am, I had an apartment.”
Juergen spent five years in Potsdam, then moved to Berlin where he still lives. While working on his PhD, teaching, supervising and eventually becoming a representative for Hasso Plattner’s research chair, Juergen came in close contact with SAP.
“In order to teach SAP technology to the students, I had to get hands-on experience participating in software implementation projects. From there, it was a logical step to eventually join the company.”
Or more specifically, the SAP Innovation Center.
Doing What’s Right for SAP
The SAP Innovation Center in Potsdam was established in 2011 by the SAP Board to act as a technological trend scout for the software giant and to identify potential new markets and business models. It evolved eventually into what is now the SAP Innovation Center Network that spans several locations around the globe from Silicon Valley to Israel and Singapore.
In the summer of 2016, Juergen was appointed SAP’s first chief innovation officer. “SAP has always been an innovative company,” says the 35-year-old who reports directly to SAP CEO Bill McDermott and who manages more than a thousand employees in his unit.
“We’ve been focusing on all dimensions of innovation. We permanently improve our current products by means of established technologies within existing markets. That’s what we call continuous innovation. We also extend our existing portfolio based on new technologies or tap into adjacent markets with established technologies. This is what we refer to as adjacent innovation. And we develop completely new technologies and business models that then, hopefully, result in breakthrough products as well as services and will allow us to tap into completely new markets — so-called transformative innovation.”
He acknowledges that customers don’t immediately associate SAP when it comes to innovation and think of SAP as the ERP company: “I want to change that. I want the world to also see what great, impactful innovations SAP has to offer — in addition to our ERP.”
No Ball Is Ever Lost
Taking care of current business and anticipating new trends are two sides of the same coin to Juergen. “I consider it extremely important not to end up in an ‘SAP bubble.’ In my role, I need to be in constant touch with customers and partners.- to understand what their needs are, what’s going on in the market, and how we can start joint innovation projects. Meeting inspiring people that are bursting with ideas strengthens my own perception of trends in business and technology.”
Keeping his technological knowledge up to date is another keystone to his role at SAP. “To talk to others about our own technology, I need to know not only what it will do for the customer, but also what’s happening under the surface. Currently, I’m looking into the technical part of machine learning in depth. I miss programming a little, so I signed up for a Python course with openSAP. I also read about new areas in technology whenever I have a free minute. I stopped watching TV, though,” he smiles. “No time for that.”
Juergen’s family is still one of his most important pillars in life. Sports also play a major role when it comes to unwinding. “Soccer, triathlon, squash — there is something to be learned from each of them. Squash teaches you that no ball is ever lost. Even if it rushes past you, it will bounce off the wall and come back to you and then you hit it again. When you keep that in mind, you keep calm even when things get stressful.”
Is that the secret, then, to be so successful and getting so far at such a young age? At first, Juergen laughs off the question. But after thinking a little more he says: “Whenever I need to decide whether I go the extra mile or not, I remember the story of my grandmother who grew up in tough times in Kassel. She excelled at school and wanted to go to college, but her family couldn’t afford the small fee for secondary school, so she had to quit and take a job.
“By comparison, my own life has been so privileged. I guess that’s part of what drives me: I don’t want to see chances go to waste and I want to help others to make the most of their potential.”
Pictures via SAP