From time to time work turns up something out of the ordinary, an experience that you look back on as formative. Something that shifts your perspective, teaches you something new. The offer from SAP was pretty straightforward, and no it wasn’t that kind of offer!
Would I like to join SAP and a select group of Partners for a week long Innovation Tour around Palo Alto and the Bay Area of San Francisco? It didn’t take long for me to say “Yes!”.
I had previously had the pleasure of hosting a customer at SAP Palo Alto but it was a whistle-stop visit so I was really looking forward to returning. It quickly became clear though that this was not going to be any ordinary SAP visit. Our hosts had organised a who’s who of Silicon Valley, all willing to talk with us about their approach to fostering and delivering innovation and disruption.
After the textbook Monday evening jetlagged wander around Palo Alto we got started on Tuesday with a visit to the Stanford University campus including the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design otherwise known as the d.school. As a firm believer and advocate for all things Design Thinking this felt a little like a pilgrimage! It was great to walk the corridors and soak up the atmosphere in such a renowned creative environment.
Day 2 saw us meeting up with 2 internet heavyweights; LinkedIn and Google. Both visits confounded my expectations, in a good way. At Linkedin we were lucky enough to spend some time with Eduardo Saito who shared the LinkedIn approach to hiring and retaining top quality people. Eduardo also gave us a behind the curtain view on the challenges of trying to compete with Google and Facebook for online ad spend, his talk saw many of my fellow travellers reaching for their phone privacy settings! A short bus ride later and we were at one of the many Google offices in Mountain View, our host Denis Krupennikov an Engineering Director.
Key takeaways, internal transfers are encouraged and cannot be blocked, this means that the best people migrate to the best projects / products which means they stay longer. The attrition rate is 3% which is apparently excellent for the area. Something unexpected that Google and LinkedIn share in common? They both like bike share schemes.
After a quick and very Californian lunch we were on our way to visit Rico Mallozzi at Sapphire Ventures, originally founded in 1996 as the venture capital arm of SAP and now with nearly $2.5 billion under management. We learnt that the organisation was spun out in 2011 in order to encourage independent thinking in their investments, in other words not just SAP related tech. They are now rated as one of the top 5 Silicon Valley VC companies and have an impressive track record.
The day finished with a visit to the HanaHaus, a co-working space on University Avenue in the heart of Palo Alto. We were made to feel very welcome by Lara Redmer who explained the buildings history as the Varsity movie theatre and the journey that the team went on to repurpose it as the HanaHaus. I was impressed by the conscious way in which all traditional SAP branding is held back in order to create the right kind of space and atmosphere. The tagline is “WALK IN, PLUG IN, START UP, DISRUPT” and it felt like it.
Fascinating, inspiring and unsurprisingly not a Windows laptop in sight!
Day 3 continued the reinforcement of “new SAP” with a visit to the SAP App Haus the Palo Alto home of SAP Design Services. We were lucky enough to be given a guided tour by Jerry John who shared some key experiences in making Design Thinking work with customers.
I was lucky enough to be part of an itelligence team that attended the SAP Leonardo partner bootcamp at the SAP App Haus in Berlin, much of this visit was building on my experience there. Perhaps I will get the chance to visit the App Haus facilities in Korea, Heidelberg & New York to complete the set! I also managed to bump in to an old friend from my Design Thinking Training, although he was looking a little flat.
After the AppHaus we enjoyed a brief (sweltering hot) walk across the SAP campus in the company of Kevin Liu the Head of SAP Co-Innovation Lab Silicon Valley. CoIL (as it is referred to) was a real eye opener for me, we were taken through a number of innovative solutions that had been worked on in partnership with various organisations, many of which were Leonardo style engagements. Definitely something that I will be following up on.
Next up was NVIDIA who describe themselves as the leaders in Visual Computing, and after visiting their office I would find it hard to disagree! I would guess that most people are familiar with NVIDIA as “the graphics card guys” and the high end demo’s we saw were outstanding with CG images rendered indistinguishable from real footage captured with cameras.
But why were we there? What does this have to do with SAP and business innovation? If like me, you have spent any time looking into Machine Learning, you will be familiar with the concept of using the high compute abilities of Graphics Processing Units (GPU’s) for training ML Models. NVIDIA are outright leaders in powering Deep Learning and AI, technology which will underpin many next gen SAP applications and that’s why we were there. One example showed real-time facial recognition in a football stadium identifying a single person in seconds, impressive and perhaps slightly scary at the same time. We were also given a heads up on some exciting co-innovation activities involving HANA and GPU’s so look out for announcements in that area.
After nvidia, our final stop was a brief session with CISCO, honestly I wish it had been longer as it was one of the highlights of the tour. CISCO are a behemoth of the internet age, founded 1984 in San Francisco, California, FY’17 Revenue $48.0 Billion, FY’17 Employee Count 72,900. What you may not know is they have worked incredibly hard to build and sustain an internal culture of innovation, a culture that they have relied on to keep them relevant. John Parello (Principal Engineer, Corporate Strategic Innovation Group at Cisco) described a culture based on a well thought out approach including innovation hubs combined with a yearly innovation challenge that encourages Cisco employees globally to submit ideas with the potential to win big! John was an excellent speaker and I could have easily spent longer in his company.
Day 4 was the last full day of the Tour and was based in San Francisco rather than the Valley as we were going to be visiting AirBnB and SAP.iO. It’s hard to write anything about AirBnB that has not been written before, they are of course the poster child for the disruptive companies that are using tech platforms to turn existing industries upside down, “the worlds largest accommodation provider that doesn’t own a single bed”.
I now know where the name comes from, the first AirBnB was a blow up bed in the founders living room, hence the name! What hit me about the visit, and stayed with me after we left was the way in which the office reflects and amplifies the AirBnB culture. It is without doubt the nicest office space I have ever visited, and I have seen quite a few in my working life. We saw incredible flexible working spaces that reflect the cultural diversity of the employees and the hosts who use the product to rent their properties.
If you have been following SAP in recent years then it can’t have escaped your attention that there has been a real paradigm shift in their strategy, reinforced and often accelerated by acquisitions. Think Cloud First, Real Time, Open Innovation, the list goes on. However not all of this innovation comes from within SAP, some of it comes from start-ups and that’s where SAP.iO fits in. The SAP.iO Fund invests in early-stage start-ups that are focused on the SAP ecosystem, the SAP.iO Foundries help by incubating external start-ups to build and accelerate innovative software that aligns with SAP’s vision of the intelligent enterprise leveraging emerging technologies.
As part of the visit we were “pitched to” by a number of the current incubator start-ups, there were some very cool ideas on show informed by deep industry insight. We create our own IP within itelligence and I am sure that my experience with the start-ups at SAP.iO will inform many of my conversations going forward.
Time and again at different organisations we got the same message, perhaps using different words but the sentiment was identical.
“There are no failures, only opportunities to learn and improve”
“if you are going to fail, then fail fast”
“iterate, iterate, iterate”
“if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got”
In fact as our LinkedIn host Eduardo said, “everything we ship is an experiment”.
Innovation isn’t something you do, innovation is an approach, an outlook, a perspective, a shift in culture.
I will continue doing my bit to support this change within itelligence.
Big thanks to everyone at SAP who helped to make this trip the success it was; Bobby, Fred, Rich, Veronique, Guido, Nick, EJ, Faith and everyone else. Also an equally big thanks to my peers from the Partner ecosystem for the great networking and open idea sharing.
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