Emergency Repatriation: The Stranded Fly Home in the Cloud

In just 24 hours, SAP built an emergency repatriation platform for Germany’s Foreign Ministry. The unique project, rueckholprogramm.de, was made possible by both SAP Cloud Platform and an amazing commitment from a global virtual team.

At 7:00 p.m. on March 17, Rui Nogueira was working from his home in Walldorf and about to log off for the evening when he received an e-mail from SAP Executive Board Member Juergen Mueller. The moment he read the chief technology officer’s message, he realized he would not be logging off any time soon. Nogueira told his wife he had a long night’s work ahead of him.

The night would last nearly 24 hours. But by the time it ended, Nogueira, chief product expert for SAP Cloud Platform, and a team of around 40 colleagues across three time zones had made a small but vitally important contribution to dealing with the effects of COVID-19.

Widespread Quarantine: Stable Platform Is Vital

With travel restrictions in place, reports rose of Germans camping at airports in Mexico because the hotels are closed, not knowing when there will be another flight back home. Others are forbidden to leave their tiny huts in the Philippines, not even to go to the beach, and have no idea when or how they will be able to get to the next major airport. More are quarantined in a hotel in northern Cyprus. The list is long, and they all want to return to Germany as soon as possible.

With moods swinging between resignation and panic, the stranded were counting on the German government’s repatriation program to come to their aid. They registered via an app on the ELEFAND list, an emergency contact list administered by the German Foreign Ministry for German citizens living and traveling abroad.

But the underlying platform had been designed for use in isolated emergencies and according to Nogueira “was not built to cope with huge numbers of people trying to log on.” A growing number of stranded Germans got no more than a “server unavailable” message, and eventually the platform crashed completely.

Emergency Repatriation Program: Teamwork Is Crucial

Help was needed urgently, without a second to lose. SAP received a call from the German Foreign Ministry late in the afternoon on March 17 and Nogueira was contacted that evening. Having spent seven years involved with SAP Cloud Platform, Nogueira not only knows the technology inside-out, he also knows the people who work in that environment and their skillsets.

The first meeting — held virtually, of course — took place at 7:30 p.m. An hour later, a core team of eight had been assembled. Each of its members, one of whom was in the U.S., began “recruiting” additional SAP specialists for specific tasks.

“What we needed at that moment was a combination of expertise and a willingness to drop everything and ‘make a night of it,’” Nogueira says. It wasn’t hard to get everyone on board. “First off, it’s common practice at SAP for people to help each other; secondly, almost everyone wants to do something to help solve the current problems; and, thirdly, who says no when the CTO asks for help?”

Communication and coordination took place in a Microsoft Teams room, which was kept open for the customer too. This meant that Foreign Ministry personnel could watch the solution gradually taking shape. In multiple meetings scheduled at intervals during the night, the project partners checked the current status against requirements and made adjustments as and where needed.

New App Built on SAP Cloud Platform

The aim was not only to develop the app but above all ensure it was scalable and would run securely on SAP Cloud Platform. Data protection requirements were the toughest challenge. “When describing their situation, people obviously can’t avoid posting personal data on the platform. That data has to be secure,” Nogueira explains.

To make sure any security flaws were detected and resolved at the development stage, before the app went live, the team’s data protection experts were asked to try and “break” the application. They could not, but their penetration testing uncovered one or two weaknesses, which the team were then able to correct early on.

Almost 24 hours after the initial request, the SAP solution for the German Foreign Ministry was complete and accessible worldwide at rueckholprogramm.de, thanks to an impressive team effort that surpassed anything Nogueira had ever experienced in terms of intensity and time pressure.

What did he take away from the project? The first aspect he stresses is community spirit, the way people really do pull together when it matters. The second is that a global network is more vital than ever in situations like these. “We hit a problem we couldn’t solve at about 3:00 a.m.,” he shares. “So we contacted colleagues in India, who came up with a quick and pragmatic solution.”

“The Real Work Is Only Just Beginning”

The project also showed that if properly organized, remote teams function well — even in exceptional situations. In this case, having live contact with the customer was patently also both crucial and instructive, and it helped SAP build precisely what the German Foreign Ministry needed at such short notice. Currently, an SAP team is engaged in making the solution available to other countries as well.

Although everyone involved is delighted with the project and its outcome, SAP CTO Juergen Mueller is quick to put the company’s contribution in perspective. “The real work — the task of actually getting people home — is only just beginning,” he says.


This story originally appeared on the SAP Germany News Center.