Interview with Irfan Khan: Leave No SAP Customer Behind

As president of Platform and Technologies at SAP, Irfan Khan oversees global sales and market strategy representing nearly half of the company’s license revenue.

His product areas include SAP HANA, database and data management, analytics, SAP Cloud Platform, mobile, and data integration, as well as intelligent technologies like machine learning, blockchain, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Khan joined SAP in 2011 from Sybase, where he was chief technology officer. Since then, he has held numerous leadership roles in sales, technology, and strategy across the product and services portfolio.

Here, Khan discusses the company’s strategy to increase market share across its platform and intelligent technologies portfolio.

Q: How large is the opportunity in the platform and technologies target market space?

A: SAP has a huge opportunity to grow its revenue in the platform space. The combined market opportunity in 2019 is estimated at €50 billion and growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14 percent.

The good news is that since there is no clear market leader in the cloud database and platform space, SAP has an ideal opportunity to showcase its differentiated approach combining both distributed data management with embedded analytics and a hybrid approach to dealing with diverse customer landscapes. This is a top requirement, because 80 percent of data still sits in traditional on-premise data centers.

SAP has a long history of being the core business processing backbone of many organizations. Around the periphery, a substantial amount of data is collected and managed under different environments less optimally. SAP now has the capabilities to integrate and extend this data from the core to the edge, and in the process participate in the rapidly growing platform market.

This is a pivotal moment for us. The full-use business of SAP HANA, which excludes SAP S/4HANA sales, is expanding at double digit rates but still has plenty of room to grow. While we are doing quite well in analytics as a market leader, we also are looking at the potential for disruption by peers that are going head-to-head with us in the cloud analytics arena. We need to make a strategic change in direction that will take our business to the next level.

What’s the plan for implementing the new strategy?

First and foremost, we are committed to leaving no customers behind on their journey to becoming intelligent enterprises. Customers are moving rapidly to the cloud and have the choice between installing best-of-breed solutions or creating a more customized solution leveraging a robust data platform. As you would expect, SAP HANA, our North Star, plays the leading role in this plan.

Our vision for the new platform and technologies organization has three elements. First, we will address customers according to their industry-specific requirements with a differentiated offering that combines data management, analytics, SAP Leonardo, and SAP Cloud Platform. Second, we will align our sales execution and development roadmaps in an integrated and optimized approach, mirroring proposed changes to both portfolio and solution management activities. Third, we will transition as quickly as possible to the native “cloud-as-a-service” market, while maintaining our on-premise presence.

We are aligning sales execution much more closely with the development road maps of the Technology and Innovation Board Area under the leadership of Juergen Mueller. Each member of Juergen’s leadership team is accountable to a go-to-market plan. We will be able to execute with a far greater level of precision, and there will be better alignment with what customers want and are prepared to pay for.

What organizational changes have you made in your teams?

We have consolidated three specific field businesses – database and data management, analytics, and SAP Cloud Platform – into a single organization. We are now much better aligned to customer requirements for end-to-end solutions rather than diverse best-of-breed solutions stitched together. And we are in a better position to win customers outside SAP’s installed base.

At the center of these efforts are the sales and centre of excellence professionals within my area. Here we are focused on training our colleagues to help them expand their market knowledge and breadth of our wide portfolio. To compete and win against our competitors in the market, our salespeople must, above all, show a passion for the customer and an understanding of the platform and technologies domain.

Which industries provide the greatest market opportunity?

Financial services and insurance present a huge market opportunity for SAP because these businesses are governed by a compliance and regulatory approach, which translates into a rich data and analytics set of workloads and use cases. We already have a substantial database footprint in this sector through the Sybase acquisition, but there’s still huge potential supporting companies to manage their growing and diverse data processing needs in highly distributed and heterogeneous environments.

Financial services is just one of the industries we are targeting. We are addressing customers from other key industries, such as retail and utilities, that are currently running our business suite, to help them manage the data they are generating in siloed applications that surround the suite.

What are our customers telling you?

I recently met with representatives from McLaren Group, an SAP technology partner. I asked if it is still possible to dramatically improve the racing performance of Formula 1 cars beyond what it is today considering the limitations of the laws of physics.

The answers I received opened my eyes to the huge opportunities that exist even in mature industries like Formula 1. I learned that fuel consumption has dropped dramatically in the last 10 years, while engine sizes have been reduced with expanding horsepower and aerodynamics being pushed to the limit to increase stability and fuel efficiencies. By creating a digital twin for every component of the car, they are now able to apply machine learning to rigorously test the cars and improve the performance even further. This is not science fiction; it is happening as we speak, and it is happening everywhere.

This example tells me that there are virtually no limits to how can we can support our customers – even established players in mature industries – to improve their businesses and become disruptive players in their industries.

What announcements came out of SAPPHIRE NOW related to SAP HANA?

The underlying message at SAPPHIRE NOW was this: SAP HANA remains this company’s North Star. Even after nearly 10 years in the market, our premier data management platform is still evolving, still a force to be reckoned with in the marketplace, and is here to stay.

We launched SAP HANA Cloud Services, which help ensure a single source of truth for all data – transactional and analytical data, as well as structured and unstructured data – across applications on premise and in the cloud. The data is accessible to people, algorithms, and data-driven applications with online access. The advantages are low cost of ownership, elasticity, consumption-based services, high availability, resilience and artificial intelligence-based automation.

Where do you see your biggest challenges? What keeps you up at night and what gets you fired up in the morning?

As a company that has become used to success, the fear of change is probably our biggest challenge. It’s critical that employees not revert to their comfort zones. The biggest disappointment for me would be not realizing the full potential of the combined market opportunity.

The thing that motivates me the most is the potential I see to deliver unparalleled value through the strong alignment and cooperation we have between field and development, resulting in a go-to-market strategy that is highly differentiated and attractive to our customers.