SAP CMSO Julia White Leads the Charge for ERP in the Cloud

Reading time: 10 mins

Key Takeaways

⇨ After 50 years in business, SAP is expanding beyond its ERP roots.

⇨ Customers can make the most of SAP systems by embracing the chance to continue learning and growing.

⇨ Moving to the cloud isn’t just an item on a checklist, it is a journey.

As SAP celebrates its 50th anniversary, it’s implementing new solutions driven by its newly appointed Chief Marketing and Solutions Officer and member of the Executive Board, Julia White. She joined the company in 2021 after growing Microsoft Azure into a top cloud offering, and now she’s on a mission to take SAP beyond ERP.

Q: With a 50-year-old company, there are both new users and those who have been there for decades. Do those two types of customers see SAP the same way?

Any company that’s 50 years old has a lot of established perceptions — some right, some wrong. My challenge and my opportunity to lead the marketing part of my charter are really helping people know what SAP is today.

I think legacy is an asset, and I think it’s a strength. It’s about bringing what people perceive and know about us. We’re trusted, we’re respected, and people know we do mission-critical work. The SAP brand means a lot. We’ve changed as a company, from our ERP roots to a huge portfolio of business process solutions and technology platforms, but one thing has remained consistent, and that’s our purpose.

Q: What aspects of the business are you passionate about?

Nothing makes me more joyous than when we see customer outcomes. That’s what I love about what SAP does. The real business impact and the real transformation impact are what we unlock. That jazzes me. I think the no-code stuff is outstanding. Technology has always been gated by professional developers and the people who had these degrees, and it was very franchised.

To me, no-code capabilities like our SAP Appgyver unlock it and bring the ability to innovate. It creates experiences and changes your process in the hands of everybody. In a wonderful way, you’re putting it in the hands of the expert of that process rather than them translating it to a technologist and a developer and a back-and-forth telephone game that never works out right. You’re empowered as an individual to do that, and I think that brings more diversity to technology. I think it brings faster outcomes, so I’m very excited about that capability.

I think AI outside of the cloud is the biggest transformation technology on the planet. We’re still very early on what’s happening there, but we have the opportunity for it to be learning, helping and doing things humans just aren’t good at so we can bring humans and AI together.

Q: Do customers need to change how they think to keep up with the pace of technology?

The cloud is not just a technology; it’s a mindset. I saw the earliest days of the hyper-scaler clouds growing, and people used to do the same thing, literally the same thing. They were just going to do it in the cloud. We have to unlearn so we can learn something new and have a new perspective on it. For example, as you switch to the cloud, it’s not a multi-year planning process where you get to your requirements and then you roll. It’s bite-sized, and it’s iterative.

Think about the first time you had to download to your iPhone. It’s bite-sized and small. That’s how cloud technology works too. You get to learn because the risks are lower.

You’re never done learning. You’re not like “Oh, I’m going to learn this year, and then I’ll take some time off and learn in a couple of years again.” Back in the day when there was a server product, you could take some years off between learning what’s new. Now it’s bite-sized, and it’s continual.

The mindset of continuous learning is that you will not learn all of it. You’re going to learn a little more today and even more tomorrow. It is quick but small and iterative. You don’t have to learn everything at once. You can explore how AI works today and then maybe look at how some of the low-code capabilities are tomorrow. I would encourage companies not to get intimidated by that.

In a lot of customer research I’ve done over many years, I have found that as soon as cloud technology was born, the number of people who had imposter syndrome skyrocketed from professional developers to business leaders and everything in between. I always remind my colleagues that we’re in this together, and we’re all sharing this experience of technology, moving faster than it ever has. Trying to keep up is a very intimidating thing.

It’s not about avoiding failure; it’s about how you learn from that and move forward — that agility and iteration. But it’s culturally very different. Create a psychologically safe environment and culture to get the most out of technology. Bringing together the culture, the people, the process and the technology are when the magic happens. That’s when people truly transform things.

Q: What are some of the things you see successful customers doing to help them in their transformation journey?

I think it’s starting with the business need and really getting clear on that. I think the successful companies I’ve seen have brought the business stakeholders and the technology stakeholders together. It’s hard sometimes, right? It’s easier to work this one and then work that one than to actually get people together and understand the trade-offs. No transformation and no technology come without trade-offs and decisions, so when you can do it together, you’re going to get to a much better place. It sounds simple, but it really makes a big difference to have that collaboration.

Don’t think of it as a big, scary transformation. We don’t really know what tomorrow looks like. We just know what today looks like, so let’s step forward. As we head into what I think is going to be really challenging macroeconomic times, it is going to get worse before it gets better. So there’s even more opportunity to think about trying the next thing and not trying to figure out the five-year plan right now. Just plan the next few months and see where you go from there.

Q: What types of challenges do you see customers facing?

Customer challenges are robust and will continue. Obviously, we’ve had digital technology for a long time, and we’ve been talking about digital transformation for about 15 years. We’re now to where it’s a little of transform or death.

Cloud technology has been really important in helping with transformation, moving to a faster innovation cycle and creating new capabilities such as AI that weren’t really possible before cloud scale. All those are great, but they’ve been kind of on the fringe of the core of the business.

People Macgyvered their way through COVID-19, duct-taped it, and shoved some stuff in the cloud, which was necessary and efficient in getting to scale and redundancy. But it didn’t actually change the business processes, and now those are the conversations we’re having.

Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Personally, I’m really proud of the work we’ve done to create these new solutions and marketing organizations. They really are helping translate what’s possible from the technology and innovation that our engineering teams are pumping out, which is great. It’s translating that to interesting customer value and making sure that what we’re bringing out makes sense, aligns with customer priorities, is on market need, and is competitive and differentiated.

That was a big part of the organization when I joined. It was a journey of building a whole new division from scratch. That’s been a wonderful opportunity to bring in prominent leaders from inside and outside the company, incredibly diverse leaders, and build a whole new organization. In a year’s time, I feel like we’ve made more than a year’s worth of gains in that area.

 Q: You have worked for Microsoft, among other major companies. What made you choose SAP?

I had admired SAP from the outside for many years. It’s a company that has had a massive impact on the globe and not just any one place. To, I worked on all parts of technology, from the OS to the productivity side and the cloud, but the business process layer, that’s where real value is created and real value is unlocked.

It’s hard, and it’s also the most complicated part of the technology stack, so I liked having a chance to come and be part of a company doing that, the one leading the world doing that. I felt like it was a privilege. I love transformation. I look through my career and my many years at Microsoft, and I chose big transformations — taking Office to Office 365, creating Azure from nothing.

SAP now is in its own transformation, on its own journey to pulling together a portfolio and transforming to the cloud. To me, what a perfect opportunity to come and be part of an incredibly worthy transformation.

Another thing is that I truly love my executive board colleagues. What wonderful people who are high-competence, low ego and passionate about what they do. All of us have worked in different leadership teams — some good ones and some bad ones — and when you get a great one, it’s such a joy. So that opportunity came together, and it was like this is it; this is where I have to go.

Q: How does SAP put sustainability at the forefront of its applications?

I’m so proud of the work we’re doing around sustainability. When I came to SAP, I was really impressed and continue to be impressed with the early focus and how mature we are in this area. Every application we have, from SAP S/4HANA, SAP SuccessFactors, SAP Ariba, and how we’re building sustainability into the core and then even having our cloud for sustainable enterprise of dedicated capabilities around measuring carbon footprint, designing products with a lower carbon footprint and helping with circular economy preceded me, but hopefully I helped amplify it and am helping it continue.

I haven’t had a single customer conversation that hasn’t included sustainability. It is the biggest crisis we face, and every business leader, myself included, is focused on it and increasingly paid on outcomes around sustainability. It is a core business process. It’s not something outside the core, but we lack the data, the transparency, to really tackle this right, and you can’t manage something.

You have to measure it before you can manage it. That’s how we’re thinking about it from a fundamental perspective. We’ve been the company measuring all these other business assets for so many years, and now sustainability is just the next generation of that area.

Q: What do you see companies doing to respond to the challenges posed by COVID-19?

There’s no going back. It’s just going forward. This is the norm, right? How do we adjust our businesses now? But you also need to be able to drive new innovations and new automations, and get more efficient with what you can do as well.

That’s why over a year ago we introduced RISE with SAP. It really is that focus on helping unlock and drive those innovations together. It’s not about doing it on your own; it is about a guided experience working hand-in-hand with you. The idea that we really do have a cloud ERP for every business need is significant because we know all of you are on a unique journey.

We need all the different approaches to be able to serve all those business needs, and that’s a very unique place that SAP serves in the world. There’s not one size fits all. We know the world is not that simple. It’s about a unique Journey of working with you on how you want to get there.

Every transformation has to start with the business process again. If I go back to my old life on a hyperscaler, it was all about lift and shift, but that’s not true transformation. It’s about the business process.

That’s why I love what SAP does so much. It’s about understanding and getting that data. That’s where Signavio comes into play. It’s an important way for our process management and data mining capabilities to stand, analyze and understand benchmark business processes against 40,000 other clients. You can see where you stack; you can see that low-hanging fruit. You can see those opportunities. I talk about it as the X-ray vision into your business process.

Q: With COVID-19 and the Great Resignation, how have you changed your leadership style?

You’re suddenly not just working with someone; you’re peering into their home. You see their kids and their family, people you’ve known for a long time, and it’s like, “I never knew you had a dog.” It’s helped tear down some of the false constructs between work and personal lives and allow it to be more personal.

So for me, it’s the adaptation of really leading with empathy, leading with what matters for this person holistically and thinking about that broader consideration. We all needed to do that just to survive through COVID-19 in those really hard times, and it continues to be challenging. I think empathy has always been important, but this has really amplified it. Another one that has become so important is communication; you’re not in the same room anymore.

Think about a company like SAP with many languages, many countries, and many lived experiences. If you’re not making sure your communications are clear, understood and repeated, people really just don’t understand. You can end up in different places quickly without realizing it. That’s something I’ve valued, but I’ve had to master it and become better through these times.

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