Earlier this year, Muhammad Alam was appointed to the executive board of SAP SE to lead the SAP Product Engineering board area, succeeding Thomas Saueressig in the role amid a key transition that will find Saueressig heading a new Customer Services & Delivery board area focused on cloud growth and adoption.

After spending two years as the president and chief product officer for SAP Intelligent Spend and Business Network, Alam brings a wide range of experience to his new role; previously, he spent 17 years at Microsoft. 

Alam joins the SAP executive board in a time of significant change for SAP. As the software giant continues to emphasize the importance of cloud migration to its on-premises customers, SAP recently renewed its focus on artificial intelligence (AI) for the world of business. But as SAP seeks to expand and innovate in cloud and AI spaces, it remains deeply focused on migrating its customer base from SAP ERP Central Component (ECC) to SAP S/4HANA Cloud.

ASUG sat down with Alam to discuss his new role at SAP. During the first part of our conversation, we touched on his background, priorities, and the product engineering needs requested by SAP customers.

This interview has been edited and condensed. It will be published in two installments.

ASUG: As you step into this role responsible for product engineering, what are your priorities over the next several months?

Muhammad Alam: I’m focusing on three things. First, I’m digging deeper into the SAP portfolio. I've been here a couple of years, and I know the portfolio broadly, especially the SAP Intelligent Spend and Business Network. However, I’m learning more about other SAP offerings including cloud enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply chain, and customer experience (CX). There's just so much depth in SAP applications. I’m focused on understanding where the company is (from an offering standpoint), where we have usage, and what our product lines can do.

Alongside that process, I’m also getting to know the people who are building these products, and the innovation value we can deliver for our customers. I’m ensuring we understand what ideas they have, their top-of-mind concerns, and any thoughts that they have.

Similarly, I’m working to understand customers and our partners. How are they interacting with our products? What is their feedback for us?

Focusing on these three things will help me understand if we need to evolve our product strategy. Where do we need to refine it? Where do we need to double down? What are the pain points for our customers and people? Where are we facing challenges in our product strategy, and how can we continue to iterate and refine that strategy?

ASUG: As you enter this new role, can you reflect on how your previous experiences at both Microsoft and SAP equipped you to navigate some of the challenges that either you're already facing, or that you will likely face in the future?

Alam: It feels like I've been preparing for this role throughout my career. Before joining Microsoft, I started with Ernst & Young, consulting with some of the largest organizations in the world implementing ERP. At that point, I was working on Oracle projects, but then I moved into supply chain business process re-engineering for large-scale enterprises. Then I joined Microsoft.

At Microsoft, there are two things that I think are very relevant for the role that I currently possess. First, Microsoft itself went through a transformation, going from what was largely an on-premises company, to being a cloud company driving innovation. Seeing Satya Nadella, Microsoft's Chief Executive Officer, lead the way through that transformation was a priceless learning experience.

SAP is going through its own transformation. Christian Klein, SAP Chief Executive Officer, and Thomas Saueressig, Head of Customer Services & Delivery and Member of the Executive Board of SAP SE, are amazing leaders, and they are similarly providing excellent leadership during this transformation period.

My experience at Microsoft also prepared me for the scope of this role. I was just telling our team that I’ve been an “ERP Guy” my entire career—except for the last two years. Ironically, I joined SAP and focused on SAP Intelligence Spend and Business Network. At Microsoft, my scope was broad as well. I oversaw Microsoft Dynamics 365, which had all its ERP and customer relationship (CRM) applications. We were doing fascinating work on the data side along with augmented reality and HoloLens. It feels good to return to a much broader scope and ERP. I believe our ERP is unique in terms of the depth and breadth of the business processes. It covers every business process that is mission-critical for our customers.

ASUG: You are succeeding Thomas Saueressig in this board area focused on product engineering. As he's moved into his new role, what are the areas of focus for the SAP Product Engineering team? What have you learned from one another as you step into his previous role?

Alam: Thomas, honestly, was one of the reasons why I joined SAP. Something that impresses me about Thomas is the fact that he's just a very inclusive, people-focused leader. As I’ve come into the role, that approach is part of the shared strategy we came up with together as a leadership team with a lot of direction and guidance from Thomas. I feel, in many ways, that the strategy conversations we've been having for over two years made this transition much smoother and more seamless. Thomas has also been great in helping me learn the ropes as a new SAP board member. Obviously, he now has a big job setting up a new board area focused on customer services and delivery.

The culture that we've been trying to push in product engineering—and what I'm going to double down on and push even harder—is a relentless focus on usage and satisfaction. Usage in and of itself isn't enough. You need the end users to be happy with what they're using. Oftentimes, the organization decides which business application to use, and the end users don't really get a say. We don't want our end users to just use a solution because somebody else made a decision. We actually want them to be happy and will make investments to drive that satisfaction. I fundamentally believe that any product's main currencies are usage and satisfaction. Thomas and I are aligned to drive that focus. He's a partner who completes a two-sided coin: delivering products that lead to great usage and satisfaction and ensuring consistent and valuable customer feedback.

ASUG: As you think about the ways SAP customers engage with your solutions, how are you working to understand the holistic engineering needs for the entire SAP suite of solutions?

Alam: It goes back to the plans for the next few months, which are to learn as much about the depth of the product portfolio and interact with as many people as possible. Frequently, great ideas come from the team. They see all the challenges, successes, and frustrations—both internally and from our customers. I am certainly talking to a lot of customers as well.

We cover so much breadth of the business processes within our portfolio, which I believe is unique in the market. But that breadth has, in some places, come through acquisitions. That means the platforms that support those capabilities are platforms that we've acquired, not natively built. And now, increasingly, things are moving to the SAP Business Technology Platform (BTP), which provides a unifying platform and capabilities across all our applications.

What we are continuing to do more and more for our customers is figure out how to bring a suite of applications together that possess unparalleled depth and breadth, and that work seamlessly together. That's the feedback we hear from our customers. How do we integrate better? How do we create the right experiences for our end users, especially in the cloud world? We’re also looking at how we unlock data and analytics for our customers so they can have a holistic, 360-degree view. SAP customers use many of our solutions together. Our aspiration is for customers to leverage our products in tandem at higher rates. So, we’re looking at how we bring SAP products together in a way that the experience for customers is as seamless as possible.

ASUG: As the adoption of SAP Cloud ERP becomes more widespread, what are the implications for SAP product engineering?

Alam: I think it's profound. We want that number to be higher, and the number continues to climb. SAP has a massive amount of investment in research and development, working on capabilities in collaboration with early customers that unlock tremendous value. We’re developing scenarios and capabilities that we believe our customers need today based on conversations that we're having with them to shape our roadmaps. With the majority of our customers in the cloud, they can benefit from innovation at a rapid rate. The ideal case for us would be that every single engineering hour we spend benefits all customers, or at least the majority.

And that makes sense in the software-as-a-service and SAP S/4HANA worlds as our customers want more clean core. We're now working aggressively with our customers to accomplish that goal. It allows us to create value for customers—and allows them to consume innovation value—at a pace that just was not possible in the past. We take that very seriously because if that is happening—as it currently is—we want to make sure that every single hour is focused on just the right things for our customers. That requires a change in how we work, operate, ship, and collaborate with customers before we ship anything. I think the implications are profound.

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