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By Fred Isbell, senior director and head of thought leadership, SAP Service and Support Marketing

I admit it: I lead a bit of a “charmed life.” I have three great kids and a busy, active life. I work for SAP, recently named one of the happiest places to work. I love my job, reaffirming my personal mission to live by Mark Twain’s adage “love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Practicing what I preach, I tend to engage in part-time projects not typically related to my day job. I call them "midnight projects". One of those interests includes my role as the ambassador between SAP and the Duke Fuqua School of Business where I graduated 30 years ago. Working with SAP University Alliances and our early talent recruitment team, we work with Fuqua and other schools to attract the next generation of our workforce – millennials.

What makes my day job and these after-hours projects so enjoyable? Shockingly, these two halves of my lives are quickly aligning with each other. Believe it or not, digital transformation is playing a factor in both of these endeavors as an event at the Duke Fuqua School of Business proved.

Digital transformation and the modern marketer

SAP recently sponsored the Fuqua Marketing Conference in collaboration with the student leadership of Duke’s MBA Marketing Club. During this event, students were given an opportunity to explore marketing job functions and various industries.

SAP was the only business-to-business (B2B) company in attendance. We were also joined by a number of SAP customers from the consumer products industry including Johnson & Johnson, Pepperidge Farms (part of Campbell Soup), Frito-Lay (part of PepsiCo), and Hershey. In the midst of this great company, the synergy of all of us together was perfect, especially when I detailed how SAP is positively impacting companies of all industries. When I stated that 92% of the worlds’ transactions flow through an SAP system or SAP business network, the audience was surprised. I even joked that if we still used our old advertising campaign we could claim “The world runs SAP!”

My session “Navigating Digital Transformation – Meeting the Challenges of the Modern Marketer” was split into two parts. The first half was a discussion of modern marketing – an approach we have been actively living at SAP and in our industry for some time. Modern marketing recognizes that previous skills and tools will not necessarily cut it in an era of unprecedented change and digital transformation. I not only revealed the challenges of a modern marketing function, but also covered the unprecedented pressure associated with complete alignment with the sales organization. Changing skills requirements, constant reinvention of the buyer’s journey, and the need to be part artist and part scientist – these are just a few of the challenges that every modern marketer is facing.

Part two was an evolution of something I have discussed over the past few years – navigating the third platform and innovations. Based on the principles of the IDC Third Platform, I explained how technologies including cloud, mobile, social, and Big Data are coming together to form the Internet of Things (IoT). Then, I showed how all of this innovation is finding its way into marketing technology.

The evolution of digital transformation: My view from the front row

One thing I have learned over the years is to gain a certain amount of personal affinity with every audience. With Fuqua students, I tend to draw from my education, career path, and IT journey and navigation for inspiration. Not only do I highlight the key concepts of the third platform and innovation technologies, but I also provide a unique first-hand perspective of being on the sidelines of unprecedented change over the past 30 years.

Here’s a quick snapshot of what I have seen first-hand:

1. In the beginning, there was the first platform

When asked about my computing experience in college, I typically provide this answer: When I needed something I could not get from my TI calculator, I relied on the Yale Computing Center – a monolithic mainframe and green screen terminal resource housed in a huge building on campus. Although it intrigued me, I was also terribly intimidated by how to access it. I would later encounter this same mainframe technology during my first post-MBA job when I was tasked to transform it with the help of early second platform innovations and personal computers (PCs).

2. The rise of the PC

Between my Yale and Duke Studies, I saw the future: an Apple II. I was asked to pull together paper spreadsheets of employee data for a summer job. Instead of using paper and calculations, I put them into an electronic  spreadsheet. Now millennials around the world may give me a resounding “duh,” but that was quite revolutionary at the time. I had the great fortune to meet Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in the mid 1990's and told him this - he smiled like a proud papa!

I showed up on the first day of my MBA program with a Compaq portable computer – something you can now find at the HP/Compaq museum in Houston, TX. It had the computing power of a musical greeting card from CVS in a sewing machine size that weighed in excess of 28 pounds. The ability to run Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect Word Processing all in one PC you can carry with you was transformational. Best of all, the Duke/Fuqua computing center tied IBM PC’s into a 370 IBM mainframe – bringing the conception of client-server computing and more in a preview of the future.

3. The dawn of the second platform – client server and the Internet

In my case, one of the benefits of working for a technology company is the pace of change of what you get to use use. I went from a second-generation PC, to a laptop, to an early version of a personal data assistant (PDA), and then to ever-increasing computing power. The laptop I carry wherever I go now has the computing horsepower equal to or greater than the early mainframes I once worked on.

Having always been an “early adopter” and “innovator/pioneer,” my first exposure to the Internet in 1994 just poured kerosene onto the explosive change that followed. It’s funny to think that the 1GB driveI held in my hand at Fuqua to show students that we were once able to hold in one palm the complete content of the Internet. The Internet I was first exposed to in 1994 has created the "network effect", bringing business value and cost savings in a way none of us imagined.

4. The third platform and the need to Run Simple

During my presentation, I asked the Fuqua students, “What was simpler? A much-younger me next to an IBM 3270 green screen terminal, or my 2015 tech stack?” Needless to say, the tech stack wins hands-down for functionality but is not as "simple" as the one device that preceded it so very long ago.

As complexity increases, the need to gain simplification has never been greater. Two years ago, I had two iPhones, two iPads, and PCs that did not live in the cloud. Now, my tech stack has become less complex, and I have fully embraced the third platform. More important, we are all walking on this path towards greater simplification – especially SAP. For more than 40 years, we have navigated innovative technologies that have pioneered change and brought astounding progress to the world. I could not be any prouder to have had a front-row seat for this over the past 30 years!

We are back for another visit in a couple of weeks at the Duke Fuqua High-Tech Symposium and will further explore the technology themes at that student-run event. Stay tuned for more insights and experiences. I cannot wait!

Fred M. Isbell is the senior director and head of thought leadership for SAP Services and Support Marketing.

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