People see SAP as this behemoth but within SAP there is an incredible amount of innovative work going on. An added benefit is that with the size of SAP the internal community is a massive resource in itself.
Justin Lew started with Concur in Seattle in 2006, before the SAP acquisition.
I was at another company and half the employees were put in one room, and the other half in another, and we were told that the other room no longer worked for the company. I called my best friend who was at Concur and said, “I need out of here” and within two weeks I had an interview.
Working abroad was always a goal of mine and in 2010 I started to have conversations with my manager about relocating. A year later Concur began to talk about the need for a European data center and expansion of our engineering teams. I was lucky enough to be a part of an early group of expats and moved to Prague in 2012 and stayed there until this year with my new role (still at SAP).
SAP Concur / SAP has only been the second company I’ve worked at. In my 15 years though, I have had many roles and kind of fell into the technical side as my degree was actually in business. I now work in the SAP Global Security organization looking at how to modernize our systems and applications and transition to the cloud.
I’m very proud of my time at the SAP Prague office and being part of the significant growth in both employee size and in responsibilities and capabilities. Years ago, engineering teams in this region were seen as outsourced centers. Now we have deep, experienced, technical teams leading projects and defining how our applications and services look and function. There is an exceptional level of engineering talent here that I feel is unrivalled but with a culture of humility and a down-to-earth work ethic. We are a tight-knit community and co-workers are also great friends outside of the office. The level of exposure you get to different cultures is also amazing here. I think there’s something like 45 nationalities in the Prague office which brings a range of perspectives on projects.
Earlier this year, my team’s application won the Hasso Plattner Award: Customer Success, the highest honor for innovation at SAP.
This all started as an idea during a hackathon – an event specifically designed to celebrate the engineering culture that has been developed at our Prague office. At the time I was running development and integration teams based in Bellevue and Prague. Two of our team members Lukas and Frantisek had an idea that they could use SAP Machine Learning to solve a very large problem in our product support world. Namely, the manual and labor-intensive process of routing and triaging support cases.
They built a proof of concept and won one of the hackathon’s awards. When they came back to the team and talked about their project potential I said, “you’re on to something here, let’s run with it”. Our team had the philosophy that if you see a problem you should come with a solution, so we started to develop it as a side project.
Not long after, our Client Support leadership team was in town and we asked for 10 minutes to pitch our fledgling SAP Machine Learning project. We gave them basic numbers to support our business case and explained the potential to drastically improve customer experience. They came back and said, “you have 30 minutes”. Client Support leadership was unbelievably supportive of the idea and we took it back to the larger IT team to get on their roadmap. This was more of a challenging step as often times, organizational priorities within IT differed from ours. Our team believed in the application and the potential to drastically improve our customer experience, so we continued to develop the application in our free time. Through those efforts and extra hours, we were able to create a service that has already made a significant impact to our client support world and overall customer experience. I’m proud of the efforts and dedication our team had and look forward to continuing to develop and grow our SAP Machine Learning application.
What was great about this was that the idea did not come from a strategy meeting. It was not a top-level idea that was given to us. It was from a couple of engineers having beers at a hackathon who believed they could fix something and had the abilities and resources to open doors and made this a reality. You might think that in a company of over 100,000 people this would be difficult to do, but we were able to turn a white board idea into a product within two years. Yes, we could have done it faster, but we worked on this in addition to our day jobs!
People in development always say they wish they had the time to work on the things they really want to work on, and this doesn’t happen a lot in many organizations. But this project was an example of how within SAP we are given time, resources, and support to see things through to completion. It’s all about creating environments where creativity and innovation can happen, and the hackathons do that by bringing together people of different backgrounds and skillsets. It’s not all business related. We’ve done fun stuff like creating beer dispensers. The sessions are a fun way of getting innovative and creative people involved, and in our project’s case this created a perfect storm. It created the right environment to build something that then helps our customers on a daily basis.
It’s been a completely organic process for us. We’ve worked on the project with a start-up mentality in the last place most outsiders would expect a startup to happen. People forget that. People see SAP as this behemoth but within SAP there is an incredible amount of innovative work going on. An added benefit is that with the size of SAP the internal community is a massive resource in itself. We needed machine learning skills – there are about 10 teams we could reach out to. Once you reach out people within SAP they have answers for you. Everyone is always willing to collaborate and support which means there is a massive amount of information, resources, and services to support your ideas. Creativity and innovation are rewarded, and this is consistently reinforced. It was great to see how many people joined the team as the project gained momentum, one of these being Alena.
This project allowed everyone ownership of a whole product rather than working on only a section of an application. Also, being seen as an expert in a particular development area helps to build your personal brand within SAP. When I speak to engineers about career progression to a senior level, I tell them that it’s not about their technical prowess anymore, it’s about how you connect with other people and enable them to be as effective as you are.
This is the part of my own career I have really enjoyed. Creating an environment of mentoring and coaching to develop people, whether that’s been in management roles or as an individual within a team.
Outside of work I am a keen photographer and a father. I am also a big-time foodie whether that is cooking, eating or trying new restaurants. One of life’s greatest pleasure is travelling with friends and experiencing new cultures through food. One of the best clam chowders I have every eaten was from an unmarked tin given to me in Alaska after 20 hours of travelling. It was one of the best things in the world. Some of the best food can be found for 50 cents at the side of a road –it’s the experiences you share that make it special.
In 2020 one of the winners of the Hasso Plattner award, SAP’s highest award for innovation, was the Intelligent Case Routing Solution created within SAP Concur in Prague. The solution leveraged AI and machine learning to route customer problems directly to engineers, allowing engineers to work smarter and provides a streamlined and improved experience to customers.
This breakthrough was a team effort. A team made up of colleagues in both customer facing and engineering roles, providing different perspectives, making the solution so effective. Two such people are Alena and Justin.
Alena: “The project was a perfect example of a true collaboration across different departments from developers and product support to the people that speak to the customers about their pain points on a daily basis. We all came together as one.”
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