Interview with SAP’s chief technology officer Dr Vishal Sikka (video)

26 Jul 2012

Dr Vishal Sikka, chief technology officer at SAP

SAP chief technology officer Dr Vishal Sikka outlines new developments at the enterprise giant in terms of its new HANA platform, its App Haus ecosystem for innovation and the company’s focus on working with start-ups. He says software can solve real-world problems in real-time.

Relaxing on a red sofa in the new ‘App Haus’ at SAP’s offices in CityWest Dublin, a kind of skunkworks for the future of software and start-ups, the CTO of the German enterprise software giant Dr Vishal Sikka’s brow knots in concentration when he thinks about where software is heading.

He points out that there hundreds of millions of people, including in his native India, that carry mobile phones and have mobile phone numbers but have yet to hold their very first bank account.

Endeavouring to explain what is possible via a new software platform called HANA that he and his teams have created, he points out: “We have a tremendous opportunity to renew existing products with this new platform but there’s an even better opportunity to go after the great problems of the world. On its own, SAP cannot possibly have the intellectual capacity necessary to solve these problems but it requires a collective effort involving start-ups and innovators.”

Innovation is the name of the game at the App Haus

Innovation is the name of the game at the new App Haus in CityWest. It’s one of only three in the world alongside similar ones in Silicon Valley and Israel and modelled on the Institute of Design at Stanford.

Last week, the R&D hub was officially opened alongside a Start-up Focus Programme to engage with young Irish software firms. The move follows the creation of 250 new jobs as part of a €110m investment in SAP’s Dublin and Galway operations where the company employs 1,200 people.

This writer got to visit the App Haus as it was being created in CityWest in March and the focus is to enable fresh thinking free from corporate norms or constraints. The idea is that innovators will be able to tailor their surroundings to suit their needs and boost collaboration.

As such, desks have wheels and creators can write on walls to brainstorm – effectively rooms can be manipulated to boost the creative process and deliver on time.

In terms of the Start-up Focus Programme, Irish companies will be selected and provided with development and go-to-market support for apps that are developed on SAP’s next-generation in-memory computing platform SAP HANA.

Sikka is a big fan of American computer scientist Alan Kay, taught one of the Google founders at Stanford (he wouldn’t say which one) and finished his PhD from Stanford in three years when it normally takes five to seven years.

As CTO he is effectively second in command at SAP and is responsible for spearheading SAP’s next-generation in-memory computing platform HANA.

“We built HANA from the ground up and it is a new platform for enterprise computing that allows us to rethink how applications are made.”

Citing a major retailer in Japan, he described how the HANA database reduced the rollout of loyalty incentives for customers from three days to just three seconds.

“This enabled them to not only reduce the time down to three seconds but they completely rethought the process so that incentives could be given to customers at the point of purchase based on what they had in their baskets. It’s a complete rethink of how you offer value.

“This technology can be used in energy for real-time smart-metre data or healthcare or in banks to enable liquidity and risk forecasting based on real-time profit and loss calculations. It could even enable new evolution in mobile banking for the hundreds of millions of people who don’t have bank accounts.”

Working with start-ups to fix real-world problems

SAP Ventures has established a $155m HANA Real-Time Fund to spur the development of apps by start-ups.

In tandem with the App Haus structure, Sikka says he is looking forward to working with Irish start-ups.

“As we think about unprecedented new problems, we realised that the spaces we work in have to be rethought. The Design School at Stanford pioneered a methodology called design thinking which helps people to innovate and be more creative.

“At the heart of this is openness of work and open conversations conducive to the free exchange of ideas and that creativity is a function of the environment we are in.

“We think the broader environment of Ireland is conducive to innovation and you need the workplace to reflect that.

“Outside of our innovation teams, the Dublin App Haus is the first one we have launched and it has been working for six months and has already achieved some great results.

“The Dublin team is doing great work in creating planning technologies that were not possible before.

“We are really excited about this and expanding the scope of the Dublin App Haus, not only for R&D but across the entire functions of the company,” Sikka said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years