The following guest perspective was authored by Joshua Greenbaum, Principal at EAC.

I was living in Paris in the early 1990s when I first ran into Hasso Plattner, SAP’s best-known founder and former CEO, member of the SAP Executive Board, and most recently, chairman of the Supervisory Board. At the time, I was a European technology correspondent-for-hire and, in the spring of 1992, I received an invitation to a press conference about SAP’s newest product, SAP R/3. I had been briefed on R/2 a year earlier in my office in Silicon Valley, and while at the time I’d understood relatively little about R/2, R/3 looked like a big deal.

Three observations struck me coming out of that conference: R/3 could run on Unix, it was based on relational database technology, and it was the largest and most complex piece of client/server software the tech industry had ever seen. To a software reporter in 1992, combining Unix, relational database management systems (RDMS), and client/server was a hat-trick not to be ignored. I ended up contacting one of the analyst firms I had a contractual relationship with and wrote what became the first technical analysis of R/3 for the US market.

That report, and other articles and analyses I wrote in the coming years, brought me in contact with an already 20-year-old company that eventually became one of the largest software companies in the world, a company that can legitimately claim to be the supplier for much of the technical foundation of today’s interconnected global economy. It was also a company with a truly special culture, one that, among other things, spawned a unique organization called Americas’ SAP User Group.

At the center of this technical and cultural singularity was Hasso Plattner. Having cut my teeth as a reporter in the 1980s, interviewing the likes of Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Steve Jobs, I knew a tech colossus when I saw one. Hasso checked all the boxes: brilliant, spontaneous, dedicated, and articulate. There was one other box he checked that my years living in Europe had led me to appreciate: He was a European tech colossus operating on a global scale, and the only European in the modern tech era who could truly make that claim. This made SAP the only major European tech company in a pantheon of storied tech companies that had helped found the modern computer era, a position it continues to hold today.

The announcement that Hasso Plattner was retiring this past May coincided with an invitation to attend two events held in honor of his retirement after 50-plus years at the helm. The first event, held at the SAP Arena in Mannheim, Germany, included a wide range of accolades from an impressive set of guests: SAP CEO Christian Klein spoke, as did Germany’s Bundeskanzler, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, as well as an array of current and former SAP colleagues. The second event, for a much smaller crowd (among them ASUG CEO & Chief Community Champion Geoff Scott), was held a private venue nearby, and included testimonials from Plattner’s two daughters, as well as some circus-style entertainment, excellent food and drink, and a chance for old friends and colleagues to catch up.

Both events focused on Hasso Plattner’s entrepreneurial spirit, his drive, and the exceptional ways in which he understood the intersection of technology and the needs of modern business. The utter insanity of a German tech executive leaving the comfort of job security to found a startup was mentioned more than once. His crowd-pleasing habit of ripping licks on a guitar from the SAP Sapphire keynote stage was also noted – he was surprisingly good, I would add. Several speakers acknowledged that Plattner has also been a generous patron of the arts, and he has donated not just money but personal time to supporting academic institutions across three continents, several of which today bear his name.

It’s all true. To me, though, the internal culture Plattner built at SAP is perhaps the most important legacy of all. Though a singular force of personality, Hasso created a culture that was surprisingly open to hard questions and capable of providing honest answers. Unlike his American counterparts, Hasso would show up at conference soirees and in the halls of convention centers ready to engage in a vigorous back and forth about everything from why ABAP was created to Larry Ellison’s violation of the ethics of ocean sailing; the two competed on the bounding main as aggressively they did in the board room.

It was this culture that quickly spawned and then avidly supported an independent user group dedicated to advocating on behalf of customers and, when necessary, holding SAP accountable to those customers. The fact that SAP is the only enterprise software vendor that has active, independent user groups on four continents is testimony to the degree to which Hasso’s culture still endures, despite many sea changes in the day-to-day management of the company.

The ability to lean into the user community this way has been a two-edged sword: it provides the foundation for a sense of community and belonging that has helped SAP reach the pinnacle of success, and it has meant that SAP is held accountable in ways that its peers are not. When the problems of indirect licensing surfaced back in 2017, SAP found itself in the hot seat, although the issue at hand was endemic to the entire enterprise software industry. And, true to form, SAP was the only vendor to actually grab the bull by the horns and come up with a solution that met the needs of its customers. The fact that ASUG was there to help find an equitable solution was even more reflective of the culture that Hasso helped to build.

It's always tempting to speculate about how Hasso Plattner’s retirement will change SAP. Of course, things will change, for better or worse, but, like its progenitor, SAP’s open culture is ubiquitous and enduring. I, for one, expect it to persist for years to come.

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