In our latest ASUG Asks the Authors feature, we sit down with Gairik Acharya, senior architect at the IBM SAP S/4HANA Center of Excellence group in North America, and a senior technical architect and associate partner at IBM with 22+ years of IT experience; Govind Bajaj, an SAP business intelligence solution architect with 15+ years of IT experience; Avijit Dhar, a senior consultant at IBM India with 15+ years of experience leading the design and implementation of large-scale implementations, including in the SAP manufacturing domain; Dr. Anup Ghosh, an SAP chief technology officer at IBM Services Europe and director of enterprise application for the IBM Cloud Solution Center; and Asidhara Lahiri, an enterprise architect at SAP with 22+ years of experience with SAP technologies.
Acharya, Bajaj, Dhar, Ghosh, and Lahiri are the co-authors of “Application Development with SAP Business Technology Platform,” a recent SAP Press book that guides readers through building cloud applications on SAP BTP by presenting step-by-step examples for developing and operating applications, detailed code examples, and a big-picture perspective on the pace of change for SAP BTP’s development environments.
In this first part of our two-part conversation, we discuss the motivation behind this publication, the evolving landscape of application development, and the overarching philosophy behind recent changes and innovations.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: What was the initial impetus for you all to write this book?
Asidhara Lahiri: We wrote another book, “SAP Cloud Platform: Cloud-Native Development,” in 2018. SAP was still coming up with the idea for platform-as-a-service (PaaS). Our team had been involved in various parts of SAP Cloud Platform, whether in architecture, design, and development, so it made sense for us to publish that book then. Between 2018 and 2021, so much development happened on this platform, which then grew into the larger umbrella of SAP Business Technology Platform (BTP). That evolution was quite drastic.
Technically and product-wise, it was lucrative for the development community to leverage BTP; it became an enabler for anyone who wanted to create their own SaaS solutions. RISE with SAP also came into the picture, which gave us a fresh impetus to leverage BTP from a commercial point of view. We thought it was high time that our team pitched in to help with a redesigned version of our book. The SAP ecosystem required it. We had the experience, we had done experimentations, and we had gathered enough knowledge that we decided, “Let’s go.”
Q: What business challenges, pressures, and transformations have emerged since 2018 that informed your approach?
Anup Ghosh: The last three years have been unprecedented. We experienced major events: the pandemic, the catastrophic impact of global warming, lockdowns, disrupted supply chains, health issues, economic hardships, remote work, and so on. These events had a phenomenal impact on businesses around us, the economy, and our social and personal lives.
What we experienced—what all of us lived through, during our day jobs working with clients, and within our personal ecosystems—made enterprises realize that digitization was not good enough. Digital transformation had been discussed in the past, but events of the past three years showed that we must go beyond that. We need to not only automate whatever we can aggressively, but also be aware of the environment, of the context around us, and get ahead of it. We must be flexible, to have the ability to change quickly.
Each one of us faced real-life examples, while supporting clients, when this came to light. All of us had been working with SAP for 20+ years, if not more, and we saw the need for flexibility and resilience, the need to be context-aware, to become intelligent and make that intelligence available at all points of transaction.
This intelligence could not just sit in a report for board members; it had to be sent to the point of transaction, providing supply chain professionals with the ability to predict and pinpoint disruption and to prescribe the best actions to optimize: throughputs and costs. We also had to be sensitive to the need for a sustainable world: no longer a nice-to-have, it became a necessity. Enterprises needed to be actively managing their green lines beyond their top- and bottom-lines.
When you bring all of this together, it shows that enterprises today need different types of capabilities than in the past. Bringing capabilities together is where platforms can play a crucial role, and that’s what we wanted to highlight in “Application Development with SAP BTP.”
It goes beyond integration and development. It’s about bringing together all the capabilities that enterprises need to deal with and thrive within current market situations. BTP is not just a collection of tools or capabilities; it provides a holistic view of what people need to understand, realize, bring forth, and apply to all spheres of their business.
Q: How has this evolving landscape, and the challenges SAP customers face, impacted the way they see customizations?
Gairik Acharya: A few points, which are important: flexibility, resiliency, intelligence, automation, sustainability. The challenges bring opportunities to customers: to innovate faster, reduce total cost of ownership, and achieve what traditional ERP systems may not be able to provide. The concept of “clean core” emerged in 2018. Today, SAP is innovating BTP in a cloud-native way. This concept is more prominent, and customers are seeing added flexibility, intelligence, and automation. Customers want to use BTP for their customization requirements; they want to build outside of and not in the core system.
Q: How has the emergence of intelligent sustainable enterprises changed the nature of application development?
Anup Ghosh: It’s beyond technology. Technology was an enabler, but it’s a mind shift and also a shift in outlook and attitudes around us. I’ll share one anecdote, on the subject of flexibility and needing to turn the ship. We saw this when customers needed to quickly change the rules that they had built in the past. Of course, with our SAP experience, we’d tell them, “Why did you do custom development? We always told you to stay vanilla, and then you wouldn’t have faced this problem!”
It's important that everyone has their own differentiation, which is the main driver for custom development, but it has to be realized in a way that doesn’t impede their flexibility, their ability to change quickly and be resilient. That’s the paradigm shift: it’s not that I would force everyone not to pursue differentiation, but I would challenge them to find out how they can differentiate in a way that supports the need to change. That shift has accelerated during these past few years: moving from traditional Advanced Business Application Programming (ABAP) development into low code/no code, having those differentiations at a process layer versus composing via development, and so on. The fundamental still is in thinking about differentiation in a way that can withstand pressures from the ecosystem, that is maintainable for the future.
Lahiri: In order to drive automation or support flexibility in business in an agile way, the application development also has to be very much iterative. We cannot do everything; we used to have like nine months or yearlong projects to complete and then test development. That doesn’t work anymore. It has to have its own lifecycle, ideally parallel to and almost independent of backends. It’s more about consuming APIs, creating on top of backends and at separate layers. It’s no longer just a report or a user interface. It is UI, transactions, workflows, artificial intelligence, model consumption, and even analytics, all in one application.
Avijit Dhar: In the post-COVID world, we are seeing large enterprises considering go-to-market from a standpoint of reducing difficulty. We see the need for automation across their business processes, to make their operations much more intelligent within a very short time period. Clients are looking for quick and intelligent solutions, and that is where the SAP Business Technology Platform services—knowing about them and how they can be leveraged to build and automate business operations—has become significantly more important.
That is why we are seeing continuous demand from various clients, where people are looking for cloud-based solutions. Two to three years back, when we used to talk about cloud-based solutions, more clients were happy with what they had on-premises. Now, we are seeing demand from customers who want to know how to transform their business using cloud-based operations or cloud-based API. This is a change in mindset. We are seeing a rush across enterprises to make things faster and create quick solutions.
We cannot deny that there is a huge skill gap across the world, in terms of application development. In discussing intelligent solutions, the client is also looking for solutions that can be built in a low-code/no-code approach. SAP BTP brings value in that sense. Workflow management was introduced one or two years back; now, people are taking an interest. People want to see how they can build intelligent workflows by leveraging services and bringing some great solutions into the cloud.
Q: The book’s preface notes that these chapters are intended to help readers learn about changes and new innovations as well as help them “understand their philosophy.” Why is this key to effectively applying innovations?
Ghosh: It is very important to know the tools and how to use them, but we need to see the bigger picture too. Why are the tools there? How did they fit together? Why are they in the shape and form they’re in?
Slowly, we can understand and start to predict the future variant of these capabilities. We’re all worried about the fast pace of change around us. Everything is changing almost daily; much of the nomenclature has changed, and new tools have been developed. Things are moving so fast that we had to make edits in the final versions and after the book was published. With a rapid pace of change, how do I keep up? And from the client side, do I want to wait until it all stabilizes?
Today, there is more documentation around tools and how to use them than ever before. That is not the challenge. This book is not just about the tools but about how they come together and how they have been used in solving real-life problems. Beyond that, it’s about why these tools exist. That is what we wanted to explore and share with a broader audience. In the end, we are all trying to achieve something, and we want to make it easy for everybody to understand what it is.
Q: What are some of the philosophies driving application development?
Ghosh: These philosophies are less transient in nature, less so than the technologies coming up and the tools using those technologies. If we look at the emergence of BTP, a cloud-based platform, we are providing businesses with the capabilities they need to thrive in given situations. As you look into the capabilities required over the years, you will see at a certain level those capabilities stay the same.
Ten years back, businesses wanted to understand their customers as individuals, know their preferences, and predict what they would want to buy ahead of time. Then, they could satisfy those customers and keep them forever. That had been the need. Over the last 10 years, different technologies have come up to achieve that objective: how can I know a customer as an individual and go to the level of their choice, maybe even predict their choice?
Similarly, if we look at the different domains, the need will be the same. Whether you are an employee, partner, customer, or main stakeholder of any enterprise, what you want to do with these domains is driven by core fundamentals. As we see some of these capabilities coming to light, the chances of reaching these goals are increasing.
For individual enterprises, with their traditional way of bringing those capabilities in, it would have been very difficult. Think of it as trying to have all the pieces of software, license them, and have them installed in your data center or wherever. This would have taken ages.
With a lot of these capabilities available, I have to be able to consume them in an easy way. That is where this platform game started, where platforms would provide capabilities to the enterprises as needed, at the pace needed.
Solution providers have been asking for ages: “How do I provide the capabilities to the enterprises to be ahead of their competition?" Platforms are the future way of bringing these capabilities to enterprises easily.
If you look into individual capabilities for integration today, you can do the integration in 10 different ways within SAP, between on-premises systems and cloud, and so on. Right now, as you choose the right integration technology, you would know which one is going to stay here for the next five years versus which is not, because you understand how the enterprises want to consume those capabilities.
If you go to the bottom-most layer, you will see almost nothing has changed. The fundamentals of businesses are still the same. A good business wants to create value for their customers and for the world. And then as you go higher, toward the implementation layer, variations happen.
How does SAP see its role as a provider of software to enterprises? How should that transform? As consultants, as we take this to our customers and help them, we should align with that, so that customers can continue to gain the benefits of these transfers.
Once you understand the philosophy, you can see the next shift coming.