With deadlines looming and tight budgets to operate, how to prepare for & drive their SAP S/4HANA conversion is top of mind for IT departments worldwide. With companies under pressure to cope with the "new normal", it's a tough (t)ask to get executive sponsors to sign off on what is typically a complex and resource-intensive endeavor. How to justify a long-term project in a period that relentlessly revealed the importance of digitalization and rapid time-to-market? How to convince executive sponsors that you "got this", that you'll reach the other side – and that the grass will be greener? And once you're on "go", how to keep stakeholders' trust and ensure you can focus on the job and not spend half of your time reporting to senior management?
That's the reality SAP IT leaders face today - facing the internal impression of "just keeping the lights on" and the stigma of being slow & complicated. It is not the ideal situation to start your journey toward moving to SAP S/4HANA and fight over IT budgets internally against various centers of excellence (CoEs) for cloud, ML, big data, etc.
It doesn't have to be like that! It wasn't always like that. Back in the day, SAP made it easy for ABAPers to focus on developing business functionality without having to deal with lower-level complexity. That made SAP the leader in ERP: delivering rich business functionality as standard software that could be tailored to specific customers' needs. And yes, looking back now - we also see the downsides of this approach. Heavily customized backend systems with lots of custom code didn't age well and resulted in the well-known challenges with long & complex upgrade paths - aka technical debt.
That much is understood. The concept of a "clean core" makes total sense: "out-sourcing" custom code allows for shorter innovation cycles and establishes a strict separation of concerns. The thing is: many customers don't have a clean core!
So, how to get the core clean(er)? Scanning through all custom code and deciding what is differentiating and needs to be kept (and modernized!), and what can be removed by "moving back to standard" are essential considerations in the context of any S/4 conversion project!
Depending on the volume of custom code, that's a non-trivial task! Decades spent writing custom code cannot be sorted out overnight.
And let's be frank: telling your CIO you'll spend the next years driving the conversion to S/4 and doing nothing else but that (and re-writing old custom code to leverage the technological advancements that come with SAP HANA) - it's not an easy sell.
So, you need to do more than "just" that. You need to be able to deliver tangible business impact in the short term - in parallel to driving the S/4 conversion. And considering IT budgets, you'll likely have to do most of it with the existing team. The only way to do more with the same resources is to do it with less effort, empowering your IT organization to be more productive - get more done with less effort. That's where rapid app development platforms, aka low-code platforms, come in.
Rapid app development platforms allow you to focus more on value-creating tasks and less on stack building, complex infrastructure setups, and writing boilerplate code. According to leading analyst firms, there are about 500+ No-Code/Low-Code platforms in the market. So, which one is right for you? As so often, the answer is: it depends. It depends on:
the people supposed to use these tools and technologies, and
IT landscape considerations.
Let's start with the use cases and business scenarios (#1). If you need rapid app development to streamline & scale custom development from an SAP IT perspective, then an SAP-centric low-code platform is more likely to yield the desired results. Whether it is building SAP Fiori applications on top of the SAP Business Suite, preparing for your S/4 conversion, or developing "composite applications" [NOTE: the term is en vogue again!] that interface with multiple backends.
In any of these scenarios, you'd need a platform that caters to SAP-specific technologies (ABAP, OData, SAP UI5 and Fiori, SAP HANA, etc.) Yet, when looking at this in isolation, you risk failing to address your IT systems' long-term evolution towards a more agile, loosely coupled network of solutions. SAP's intelligent suite primarily grew by cloud acquisitions in the last decade; plus, nobody runs only SAP. So, your platform of choice best addresses also the other side: cloud-native SaaS, API-based integration and composition, and simple-to-use digital experiences.
Skill mix / Culture fit
This brings us to the people (#2). In a software-driven world, every company is a software company, making developers the new kingmakers. They know how to get the job done; it's just that they are constantly overloaded. The global developer shortage and high demand for skilled software engineers leave a gap - anything that's not priority #1 hardly ever gets done. To break free from that hamster wheel, IT departments need to turn into "APP factories" and reassess their future role within the company, transforming from being the delivery unit to becoming the enabler for digital solutions. Rapid app development and delivery(!) at scale is best achieved by boosting software velocity and developer productivity. Developer productivity gains are best achieved with an opinionated platform that streamlines and safeguards the app development.
SAP veterans are well-familiar with the classic ABAP programming model, developer tooling (workbench, etc.), and the powerful (yet proprietary) life-cycle management. The modern SAP programming models powered by in-memory computing and "code push-down", cloud-native architecture, and multi-experience digital UX appeal to full-stack developers. So, ultimately the right low-code platform should cater to these two distinct developer groups and provide both with a 'native' developer experience - fitted to their needs and preferred way of working. The platform of choice best allows both camps to utilize their expertise and know-how and facilitates both independent work AND collaboration - based on a shared programming model.
IT Landscape & timeline considerations
Last, but not least - IT landscape consideration (3). Looking at SAP Business Suite customers' journey towards S/4 in the cloud, there are multiple ways to get there: S/4 on-prem, RISE with SAP, or the private cloud edition. The road may take longer for customers with significant amounts of custom code, as they have to move from "in-app" custom development to side-by-side extensibility in the long run. And for many, that road to hybrid IT landscapes gravitating to cloud workloads starts on-premise - it will take a few years. A platform that allows companies to gradually move from the "old to the new world" enables them to move at their speed and transform on their terms. The better the landscape & technology fit, the faster the results. If the target IT landscape centers around SAP's digital core with various SaaS solutions orbiting it, then an SAP-centric low-code platform fits right in.
Neptune DXP - sap-centric, rapid app development platform
I’m looking back at 20+ years in this industry and spent more than 17 years at SAP: the first decade as a software architect leading custom development projects that combined SAP and open-source technologies, and the other seven years as an early member of the original SAP Cloud Platform team (nowadays called SAP Business Technology Platform).
I’m a software engineer by trade who moved into a product management, currently working at Neptune Software, an SAP partner that provides an SAP-centric no-code/low-code platform.