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PM Leadership Connect

Mr. Rajnish Prasad, Engineering Head, APJ And Greater China, Sap Innovative Business Solutions

Interview by Himadri Sekhar Chowdhury

Q1. Tell us a few things about yourself and your journey so far. How did you get to where you are now?

I have been into Project Management for the last 27 years. I am a Civil Engineer by training and started as site in-charge for Tata Steel for their Ultadanga-Phoolbagan footbridge in Kolkata, just three days into my first job. As a newbie, I had to do the night shift – oversee the site, overseeing the workers, review the status and the plan, and interact with Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA). As you can imagine, I learnt a lot by working on ground. My next project was also interesting, heading the installation of the signages on 2nd Hooghly bridge for Hooghly River Bridge Commissioners (HRBC).

A few years later, I took a sabbatical to do my MBA. After coming back, I was given the responsibility of building the Tata Technical Institute at Gopalpur, being designed by the famous Charles Correa.

It was probably these credentials that helped determine my first assignment at SAP. I was responsible for setting up the training center for SAP that included doing the feasibility study and budgeting for the entire set-up. I have worked on many interesting projects at SAP. I was the deputy PM for Reliance’s Jamnagar Refinery in 1999, and I managed Avaya between 2001-2002 and ONGC between 2002-05. Between 2005-08, I was the Delivery Head for SAP India Consulting.

I was fortunate to be exposed quite early to some very good PMs in different setups. What I have realized in these years is that the basics of Project Management don’t change – stakeholder management, risk management, resource management, having a Plan B, leveraging people for strengths and always finding solutions (which requires you to have deep domain expertise). Be it Civil or IT, Project Management aims to create a solution, something new that didn’t exist before. The nine knowledge areas of PMBoK are relevant for any Project Manager in any industry.

Today, I am heading the Engineering in Asia-Pacific Japan & Greater China for Innovative Business Solutions. While the product portfolio of SAP spans across 25 industries across 75 countries, there are still niche innovation opportunities leveraging our platforms & applications that give that competitive edge to our customers. My team gets the opportunity to lead these innovations in the customer’s Digital Transformation journey.

Q2.What do you consider your key achievements?

Being able to translate the business requirements to tangible results for our customers. Easy as it may seem, this is a good enough challenge in stakeholder management and execution. Stakeholder management is the key here and it is not limited only to externals and positions of authority but includes all who are involved in the change management process which is crucial for the outcome. “What’s in it for me” is the question that needs to be answered for all – and the individual needs and expectations need to dovetail to the objectives of the project. Aligning the project team, along with the whole delivery setup (which includes partners and customers) and then rallying the whole organization successfully towards a sense of purpose has been both my greatest achievement as well as my biggest continuous challenge.

Q3. In your journey, what is the one thing you would do differently if you were to do it all over again?

Planning. Not because it has been my weakness, or it has not been adequate, but because I feel that no level of planning is adequate ever. Every experience makes me realize that there’s something different I could have done at planning stage. In fact, this is one very strong reason for me to be motivated for DevOps as a concept as it involves a continuous feedback loop. From Waterfall to Agile to DevOps, we have increased the feedback loops. Planning being a complicated subject, Agile and DevOps also help people plan small and take corrective action when things go wrong, thus enforcing a more detailed level planning.

Q4. Technology change is impacting business all over the world. Obsolescence now happens in matter of years, not decades. New technologies like AI, Machine Learning, Blockchain are the buzzwords. How are the changes impacting the Indian software services industry?

I see with newer technologies the need for increasing both deep technical skills and domain skills. We are getting more and more into a specialization mode. While it may sound ominous that the industry will shrink, I believe in the contrary. It will grow both in size as well as in profile. Our next generation is a learned workforce already at par with global counterparts in terms of education. Our basic education has started integrating concepts like continuous assessment, understanding and interpreting data, and focusing on analysis, research and design thinking.

In software industry, India has been viewed as the low-skill and low-quality destination. But with our greatest asset being scalability and flexibility, our workforce today is much more adept at bringing front runner technologies to innovations that scale. Learning curve is steep but I see it only going up from here.

Q5. Are we seeing a change in client interests and requests? What kind of solutions are being asked for?

Clients more than ever are familiar with the recent trends in the software industry as this industry is no longer a mere support function, but a strategic function for businesses to achieve their growth, compliance, and profitability. So, the clients today are asking us more to define the fitment of these technologies to their businesses. And this is where I see the ever-increasing need for domain/industry knowledge and deep technical knowhow. When I started my career, software was a black box for business users. Today a common man talks about technology and how it’s impacting their lives. If a system is offline for 30 min, companies lose crores, so the importance of information technology and information integrity cannot be overstated.

When we sell a solution to a client today, they don’t ask for features and functions anymore. Rather they evaluate the relevance of its deployment to the company’s business and its fitment into their existing infrastructure. 

Q6. Are Indian companies poised to make the switch from a service provider to a lifecycle-provider mode?

Yes, they are. We have over time developed a lot of competencies. When you compare technical knowhow, as a nation we know every bit of technology that is currently deployed, and, as we do more and more projects globally, we are becoming aware of all the challenges in terms of infrastructure, security, government regulations and changing business needs. I strongly believe that Indian companies can make the switch fast as we are process-driven. KPIs for success are known to us. The only thing that is not so well-used is having an outcome driven mindset. Whether it’s an organization, a team or an individual, at some point in time we must measure productivity in terms of outcome and not in terms of output. But, how do you move away from being output orientated to being outcome orientated? Think of it this way – if the outcome of your client organization doesn’t get impacted by your product or solution, what is the use of the output? This mindset change requires not only software engineering knowledge, but also the business success metrics.

Q7. Though JavaScript is still the number one programming language preference, we are increasingly talking about Python, Ruby, PHP, Perl. What would be the dominant programming language of the future?

All the languages that are prevalent today were not there five years ago. Things change every year. However, for a language of the future, two things are necessary – first, an open source which can be secured and platform independent, and second, which can drive interoperability through connected networks, and where you can tie in concepts like AI and Machine Learning.

Q8. How is the job landscape changing for developers? Will Machine Learning change how humans code?

Machine Learning should be and is being used to improve productivity. For e.g. it will change the way in which software testing is done. However, for developers, it is more of code automation (or automation everywhere) which is driving the ease of coding rather than Machine Learning.

Q9. What are the next big challenges for project managers?

The ideal Project Manager of the next generation should be a combination of a McKinsey consultant and a NASA scientist. I understand it’s a difficult concept to understand and implement. But, the deeper you understand the domain and the more learned you are about technology and the fitment of the said technology, the more successful you’ll be going forward. I can’t claim that I am qualified for either of the organizations, but the penchant desire to pursue the fitment of technology to business, whether it is at strategic level, or tactical, or operational, has been quite rewarding for me, and I don’t foresee life of a Project Manager any different in future. What adds to the complexity is the usage of methodologies and tools that drive faster delivery cycles e.g. being DevOps, various test automations, infrastructure automation, etc.

Q10. How will AI impact the project management function?

SAP demand one solution in the last PMPC. We are trying to predict when a project will change from green to red or red to green. The prediction or risk management is something that will be enhanced with higher uses of Artificial Intelligence. I still believe that this is a simplistic beginning. The day we can predict the various Stakeholder expectations and buy-in within the complex world of Project Management, I will consider that as something significant.

Q11. What should project managers do to stay ahead of the curve?  

Let me answer this question more from the IT industry perspective. For the PMs of IT industry my recommendation will be not to be a generalist. Be a specialist – pick up an industry or two and have deep knowledge of the industry. Try to get a lot of insights into how some of the industry trends and pain points can be addressed through technology. Enable new business models for the organization. Project Management is no longer a support function – digital transformations are enablement initiatives. Be the enablers of the strategy. And be the leader to rally a team behind towards the sense of purpose. The question to ask is: How would you get all minds to work together for a cause?

Q12. In your role as the HoE, APJ and Greater China, SAP Innovative Business Solutions, where do you see the company growing in the next 5 years? What innovations are we likely to see?

My organization is a key enabler of SAP’s overall vision – “to help the world run better and improve people’s lives”, and our strategy to “Deliver the Intelligent Enterprise”. We work with our existing and new customers in their Digital Transformation to “make innovations real”. So how we do this? First, we are helping customers to re-platform from older releases of SAP to the latest stack of C/4 and S/4 HANA. This is necessary for our customers to leverage the cutting-edge technologies in the most efficient and optimized manner. Second, we are helping customers drive business innovations both on premise and in the cloud. We already have created a few success stories in Blockchain, Machine Learning, AI, Big Data, IoT, Data Analytics, etc. on different SAP platforms and applications, and enabling a myriad of business processes. We are not just building PoCs for the sake of showcasing technology but are continuously deploying technology to solve real business issues. It is too exciting and rewarding a role to change in the next 5 years! There is a lot to be done and the journey has just begun.

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