We talk to Simon Carpenter, Chief Technology Advisor, SAP Africa about his journey into IT, the highs and lows of the industry and how he deals with stress.
Describe your current job role and the parts that are somewhat challenging?
As the SAP Africa Chief Technology Advisor – and a 24-year SAP veteran – I’m incredibly proud to be part of SAP’s mission to ‘help the world run better and improve people’s lives’.
After three and a half decades in the IT industry I can say for certain that there’s never been a more exciting time to be working in this field. We have never seen so much progress in as many different areas as we are seeing in this digital revolution.
One of the challenges this brings is simply trying to stay abreast of developments and to make sense of them. In this regard I’m grateful to be at SAP not just because we are a leader in areas like AI, IoT and Blockchain but also because we leverage our own solutions to foster collaboration, content management and continuous learning. If you are curious and love intellectual stimulation, there is no better place to be.
Working across 52 African countries isn’t easy and it has its fair share of challenges – pre-eminent among those being visas and flight schedules. Travelling Africa has brought home to me just how much friction there is, impeding progress, when it comes to intra-African commerce and industry.
However, the rewards outweigh the hassles and I love working with my colleagues across Africa, meeting and supporting our partners and resellers as we work with business owners, managers, public sector agencies, innovators and start-ups helping them to exploit the right technologies to accomplish their vision and thus make Africa a better place for everyone.
When you look back at your career what has been the most memorable achievement?
Over the last 36 years of my career I have seen quite a few. One that is close to me is when I joined SAP Africa in 1994 just as R/3 was beginning its ascendancy as the world’s ERP system of choice.
Back then we had two products, 32 staff, about 100 people in our SI ecosystem and seven customers in South Africa. It was wonderful to be part of a relatively small company and able to directly see the outcomes of one’s efforts, to know I had made a direct contribution to bringing a new company into the SAP family.
Today we have a digital business framework that encompasses over 2,000 products including leading SaaS and PaaS solutions, 3,500 customers across Africa, about 650 local staff and over 3,000 Africans making their livelihoods in the SAP ecosystem. It’s been a wild ride and a huge privilege to be part of an amazing growth company.
It’s also really humbling to see how many admirable and well-run companies entrust their ability to innovate, grow and profit to SAP solutions. But the aspect I’ve valued most of all, is the opportunity to work with smart people inside SAP, in our customers and across our ecosystem.
What made you think of a career in technology?
Like many, I got into IT accidentally. When I first arrived in South Africa from Zimbabwe in 1982 I was intent on becoming a management trainee with one of the large consumer products companies. But I met a local entrepreneur who had recently launched a start-up, Vanguard Computers, that was focused on replacing paper tachographs in commercial trucks.
Back then we were data logging with SA-developed sensors and on-board computers – effectively doing IoT long before the Internet was born.
I then moved to another start-up where I helped to design a Pick-based distribution system back in the day when Pick and Unix were still battling for operating system supremacy.
That was a lot of fun, as start-ups can be, as well as hard work. Those experiences set me up to join the mainstream corporate world and I joined Unidata at a time when distributed/departmental computing on Unix was all the rage. Anyone remember DEC, Sperry BPICS et all? Those were the heydays of hardware and I was a bit of an anomaly, becoming one of Unidata’s first software sales people.
What style of management philosophy do you employ at your current position?
Despite the screeds that have been written about management and leadership and the millions spent on MBAs since the Second World War, I think we can see from recent corporate failures that we are no closer to a definitive answer on management philosophy.
For me it’s about having an attitude of service (not to be confused with servility) staying true to your values and trying to have some fun along the way. It helps that I really subscribe to SAP’s purpose of striving to ‘help the world run better and improve people’s lives’ and that this something that really resonates in Africa.
An important part of what I do is sharing that purpose and company philosophy with our customers and partners. Every time our customers turn their aspirations and ideals into reality using SAP solutions we move a step closer achieving our purpose. In doing this we know we don’t have a monopoly on innovative ideas and that some of our customer’s challenges are unique. With the complexity of some of the challenges in our world, one thing you can expect to see over the coming years is much more collaboration and co-creation, so an important part of my philosophy is realising that it’s okay to not know everything and to be prepared to listen to and learn with our customers and partners.
What is your style as a team leader?
Don’t ask people to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. Focus on outcomes not activities. Listen, really listen. Never assume that you are the smartest or most important person in the room. Be humble, stay curious. Trust your people. And always remember that leadership is an act of service.
What do you think will be the hot technology talking point of 2018?
Security, privacy and ethics are perennial concerns that must remain at the top of the list. Then, there are so many others, and developments are moving so fast on so many fronts that disruption is the new normal.
Exponential progress in science and technology is unstoppable, inescapable and, in many ways, unplannable – we must be prepared for multiple scenarios and to move forward through rapid experimentation.
That said, I think that more and more workloads will move to the cloud faster than we anticipate as companies realise the agility they can achieve and the technology innovations they can access by so doing.
I think we can also say with a degree of certainty that industry boundaries will continue to blur and service industries will be most impacted by this (banking, insurance, retail, telcos, healthcare) over the next five years or so.
Hand-in-glove with these developments, platform companies will emerge around which business networks will coalesce. Early global examples are Apple, Amazon, eBay, SAP Ariba, SAP Asset Intelligence Network, Uber and Alibaba.
Enabled by IOT, the servitisation of physical products will continue to drive changes in business models and customer expectations in both B2C and B2B. This will impact the asset intensive industries as people and companies will pay for the experience or the service rather than buying the ‘thing’.
And, as we create and gather ever larger sets, Artificial Intelligence (AI) in its various forms will permeate everything.
Worldwide, there’s a lot of anxiety about AI’s impact on job losses; the far bigger challenge in Africa is too many people don’t have jobs in the first place but this is down to a failure of leadership rather than technological displacement.
One aspect of AI that excites me in the African context is natural language processing. Today too many people are excluded from economic activities and access to information and education because of functional illiteracy.
When they can interact with systems in their own language just by talking that’s going to open tremendous new possibilities for inclusion and uplifting societies. At SAP our focus with the SAP CoPilot digital assistant and our recent Recast.ai acquisition is bringing those conversational user interfaces to the enterprise in a similar fashion to Siri, Alexa and others in the personal/consumer market.
How do you cope with stress and demands of your career?
I’m lucky enough to have a job I really enjoy and that has plenty of variety and great colleagues so, despite the inevitable demands and deadlines of large corporate, I don’t feel particularly stressed.
For me, creativity is hugely important and we must ensure that stress and the demands of our careers do not override the joy and creativity in what we do. All human progress has been driven by someone creating innovative ideas, technologies and ways of doing things.
What we have learned at SAP is that creativity is not something reserved for just some people or the R&D and marketing departments. Every single one of us can be creative; typically, we just need the right stimulus and a process to make it real.
That’s why SAP has invested so heavily in design thinking (DT) over the last decade to the point where we are now a recognised authority on ‘design thinking and doing’ and are winning coveted Red Dot Design Awards for our solutions.
The proven impact that design thinking can have is one of the reasons why our founder, Hasso Plattner, endorsed the establishment of the HPI Institute at Cape Town University.
There are a couple things I’ve learned from participating in design thinking workshops with our customers.
You absolutely, non-negotiably, must have a diverse team in the room to create generative options.
Take what you do very seriously but don’t take yourself seriously. Work should be fun. When people play they get creative. No question about it and if you want to learn how to do this observe a child.
You need a conducive space to do it in so that people ‘change gears’ when they come into the space.
You need to cultivate resilience and not take failure personally (I think this goes along with not taking yourself too seriously) but rather see it as a learning opportunity and useful data point. And, of course, you have to be open-minded and bale to pivot when necessary.