When Sindhu Gangadharan tells you that she sees Labs as the heartbeat of SAP, she’s not overstating it – and she has twenty years of perspective on which to base that assertion.
“Actually, I started here at SAP Labs in Bangalore back in 1999,” she recalls, late in the evening as the light is fading. “It was certainly not as big as it is now. It was a little Labs operation in the ITPL building on the other part of Whitefield. The present campus did not even exist back then. All of this was just barren land, so SAP bought the land from the Government.
“Back then, we were located in the ITPL building, ‘Discoverer’ Tower, as it was called. We were only about 250 people in the Labs back then. SAP had just acquired this company called Kiefer and Veittinger, who were in the CRM space.
“That was how I started in the CRM Middleware space back then. I was a young developer, very happy to be at SAP after spending a short stint at a very small start-up. Then in 2001 my husband and I – he was and still is an SAP colleague – decided to move to Germany, because he was asked to take on a role at Walldorf.
“When he was asked to move, at first I was like, ‘Why Germany? We don’t know the language, we don’t know the people.’ So then he said, ‘Honey, come on, let’s do it for some time,’ and we discussed it and so we said okay, max two years. I said, ‘Okay, we’ll come back here in two years,’ and he said yes. So we both moved to Walldorf in 2001. SAP was great, because I got to move over as well with my job. I talked to my then boss and the VP of development in Walldorf and he said, ‘Of course, we’d love to have you, so come over.’ That was really a big move for us back then.”
How quickly did the two years go? Sindhu smiles and snaps her fingers. “Like that,” she replies. “In a flash.”
They made local friends and settled in. “It’s funny how quickly two years can go. We were sitting in our living room and wondering what we were going to do next, because the time had passed too quickly. So we decided to do another two more years. It wasn’t such a big decision to stay on. But the initial decision to move to Germany was huge for me.
“The initial months when we first arrived there, that period was very difficult. Part of it was about not understanding the language – and for me that’s super important, to be able to understand, to be able to converse, to know what’s happening around you. But I was very fortunate that we had really good people around us, both in our private life as well as at work, because everyone has these stories of, oh, how difficult it was. I have to say, it wasn’t that difficult. In the end, we stayed there eighteen years, until I moved back to India in the second half of 2019.
“My last role in Germany was actually driving a cross-Board area initiative, which is the number one strategy of SAP – the Intelligent Enterprise strategy. Of course, that meant I had to work with pretty much every LOB at SAP, and to pull them together. That was extremely challenging, but super fruitful in terms of the learning involved. I had the chance to work with SuccessFactors, Fieldglass, Concur, Ariba, the cloud platform, S/4, Digital Business Services, you name it. It was really about bringing the teams together and making sure that we could deliver on joint strategy. Are we done with that yet? No, far from it. It’s a journey that continues.
“When I was told to move back to India to take on this role, it meant a lot of brainstorming and discussion at home, as you can imagine. The kids were up in arms. They were both born in Germany and it was a very tough call to convince them. I said to them, ‘Mummy only does this if we are all in it together.’ And I have to say I have an extremely supportive family. I’m blessed.
“When I first came back to Bangalore, I spent a lot of time just talking to as many people as I could. Clusters, individuals, experts, different age groups, men, women, young joinees who’ve been here only a few months, senior leadership teams. What’s absolutely unique is the fact that here we have an equal distribution of development that goes across SAP’s product portfolio. If you go to Vancouver, it’s analytics. If you go to Palo Alto, you have significant chunks of technology and parts of S/4. Or if you go to Israel, it’s technology. In Bulgaria, it’s Java development. But here, I was like, wow!, every single element of the Intelligent Enterprise is all here in Bangalore.
“There is huge potential here. I mean, we don’t even need to talk about re-orgs or anything like that. I was delighted with visioning these wonderful synergies. It’s about bringing elements together and understanding what each element does, what their value is and whether they can be brought together. It’s like a fascinating jigsaw puzzle.
“Here, the beauty is that people are co-located, so we don’t even need to get on a flight, we don’t need to cross time zones, we don’t need to get on late-evening calls. Everyone is here. One of the first people I spoke to was Mahesh (Nayak), the COO of Labs India. I said, ‘Can you just explain the distribution of CBG and IEG’ and his explanation immediately made so much sense, enabling me to see how it all fits together.
“What I did in the initial weeks and months was to listen, learn, assimilate, observe and lay down a vision comprising four pillars for Labs. The first pillar is Innovation and Customer-Centricity, it’s about making sure that we build connectedness.
“The second pillar is all about end-to-end product focus and its ownership. One aspect that I strongly push for across teams is that you cannot just be operating in your space alone, you have to understand the broader context and be engaged in it. It’s about overall context rather than an individual team context. It’s about thinking broader.
“The third pillar is Thought Leadership among our employees and projecting the image that we build the coolest and the most innovative products. And the fourth pillar is to build a Culture of Inclusion, making sure that everybody is respected and that everybody can bring their very best self, focus and energy to work.
“We want to elevate the roles of many of the leaders within the organization, projecting them outside, in a thinking space and putting them into the realm of patents, speaking opportunities and publications. Doing this will help in the larger branding of SAP Labs India for several reasons, but also because it’s important that we continue to attract the best talent in the industry.
“I really see this role as a huge honor. But I was also nervous about it at the same time. It was a mix of emotions, I must admit. Then there’s another aspect, I’m also nervous for the kids to readjust. There is nervousness on many levels, not just on the professional front, but for the people as well. And there is another element too. After almost two decades in Germany, there are times when I feel I’m more German than Indian. And I have to remind myself, ‘No, no, I’m a Bangalore girl, born and brought up here."
This Bangalore girl now speaks German, having worked such a long stint in a country where she never really thought she would go? “Yes, absolutely. When I started my career, I never thought I would go to Germany. I always thought I would go to the United States. But I love Germany, it is home, it really is.”
Ask Sindhu what initially drew her to the world of technology and she says, “Oh, I was always a fan of technology. But if you ask my parents, they’ll say, we always wanted our daughter to study medicine. My dad was very clear about that. And I used to say, no, that’s not what I want to be. I was kind of a rebel at times, I have to say.
“And because Bangalore was always the technology hub, I was fascinated by the possibilities. I ended up studying computer science, and I think that was also probably influenced by my oldest brother. He was a mechanical engineer and he was also very influential in that thought process. I was always drawn to logic, and that’s probably why I loved mathematics as a student.
“My parents were also very inspirational, especially my mother. She was very clear about how things needed to happen. She’s a strong influence in some of the core values that I’ve carried through my life. She knows that. I’m so grateful and so thankful to have strong parents who gave me those strong values.
“I’m grateful to the mentors who guided and shaped my career. Now, one of the huge opportunities in my present role is to give back. I think this is the beauty of SAP. If you can really help influence people’s lives in a positive way, both inside and outside this company, we really can live up to our sense of purpose and our promise to make the world run better. There is so much that we do as a company, and that is a big part of what drives me.”