Can SAP freelancers still make a decent living in 2017?


The simple and straightforward answer to the question whether or not SAP freelancers can still make a living in 2017, is a plain yes. SAP as a company is financially strong, growing, and heavily investing in innovation. That is all good for freelancer demand. But does it pay?


SAP as a company is quite future proof

2016 was another year of profitable growth for SAP. €22B of total revenues, 84% of which are software related and 10% cloud subscriptions (SaaS). An increase of 7% compared to 2015 and SAP expects year-on-year growth for 2017-2020 to be in the range of 6-8%. More than 5400 customers have now adopted S/4HANA, including for example Nike and Ameco Beijing. The SAP multi-billion innovation agenda is accelerating in Machine Learning, the Internet of Things (IoT), and Blockchain.

So SAP as a company is quite future proof, subscriptions to SAP SaaS solutions are still fairly limited, and since moving to S/4HANA in most cases is not merely a technical upgrade, that is all good for freelancer demand. But does it pay?

Can SAP freelancers make a decent living in 2017? Well, it depends.

The traditional SAP ERP freelancer market declines

Freelancer rates for commodity SAP ERP skills have been under pressure for over a decade. The market place for hands-on configuration or ABAP development in SAP ERP products like R/3 or ECC became global. But the number of large-scale new SAP ERP implementations shrunk to near-zero in Europe and the US.

Most of the work for traditional SAP ERP consultants here will be in ERP enhancement projects and in lower-paid support roles that require ITIL certification. Unless you have upgraded your skill set to HANA, of course; or you could go work for instance in Australia, Latin America or the Middle-East.

Funny thing to note is that rates for specialized senior SAP ERP functional experts can still be higher when compared to SAP project managers or SAP project architects working in the ERP domain [Pssst, if you decided to stay in the ERP domain, you can jump to the end for more on S/4HANA].

Move beyond SAP ERP

Luckily for SAP freelancers, the portfolio of SAP products in 2017 is quite diverse. It will pay off in case you moved away from ERP in time and learned how to implement other SAP products. Especially the following five IT domains are hot in 2017, based on an IT leadership survey:

1 – Big Data and Advanced Analytics

2 – Cloud

3 – (Digital) Marketing

4 – Mobility and mobile applications

5 – Security


Let’s take a closer look at SAP specifics, leaving out SAP solutions for small and midsize companies and solutions for specific industries:

1 – Big Data and Advanced Analytics

If you, as a SAP freelancer, have chosen to specialize in SAP BW and BusinessObjects, your bed is made. Demand is excellent and rates are good. Don’t forget to keep up with the latest developments as BW/4HANA was launched in September 2016, also available as a cloud version. A less obvious product is SAP Hybris Cloud for Social Engagement.

Given the SAP marketing effort around Hybris, this is one to watch since Hybris expertise in the market seems limited. And we all know the economic law of supply and demand. Another Big Data topic on the rise is machine learning. SAP will release the machine learning prototypes demonstrated at SAPPHIRE 2016 as applications in 2017. The HANA Cloud Platform (HCP) plays a dominant role here while it also hosts Cloud for Analytics.

2 – Cloud solutions

There’s work in transitioning on-premise stuff onto the cloud, be it a private one like HANA Enterprise Cloud (HEC) or a public one like Amazon Web Services (AWS). But that’s not where the real good rates are, not even if it concerns S/4HANA or BW4/HANA.

Even worse than aforementioned Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) or Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) cloud projects are Software-as-a-Service projects. Those SaaS solutions pose a threat to some freelancers as there’s limited to no configuration to be done and SAP Ariba for one is very happy to provide those services themselves for their Source-to-Pay solution.

The customer count for SAP SuccessFactors Employee Central, which is the core of the Human Capital Management (HCM) offerings, exceeded 1580 at the end of 2016 – which by the way is just 0,5% of all SAP customers. More than 45 million end users process travel and expenses with Concur and SAP customers managed over 3 million flex workers in over a 100 countries with SAP Fieldglass. So, opportunities for SAP functional consultants are likely to be in Concur, SuccessFactors, FieldGlass, and Hybris Cloud.

Hottest cloud topics though probably are in security (topic #5) and also integration, especially when it comes to cloud-to-cloud-to-ground integration. And there is the HANA Cloud Platform (HCP) again, as it is also home to HANA Cloud Integration (HCI) which integrates across applications and deployment models.

3 – Digital Marketing

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems and Sales Force Automation (SFA) are so 2016. Even though I see MS Dynamics and Salesforce a lot, demand for SAP CRM freelance consultants will be there in the coming years. Customer Experience is the key theme in marketing, though. This means work for user experience designers and HTML5/UI5 developers that have familiarized themselves with the SAP HANA Cloud Platform (HCP).

Burger King Brazil for one selected the HCP to analyze sales in real time to improve marketing strategies, manage store performance, and improve the customer experience through the Internet of Things, gamification, and mobility.
And did I mention Hybris Cloud already? The SAP Exchange Media Platform for digital advertisements may just be one more product to mention here.

4 – Mobility and mobile applications

Apart from SAP Financial users, there are probably not many SAP ERP users that got carried away by the SAP GUI screens. So there was Fiori, charming modern UI5 apps running across multiple devices. While those Fiori apps are supposed to be working out of the box, there is a bit of effort to get it all working, to tweak it, secure it, integrate it properly with the back-end, and potentially adjust or even develop apps. Develop? Yep, because not all SAP GUI screens are available as a standard app and never will be.

In the SAP App Center there are over a 1000 standard SAP apps available like the SAP CRM Service Manager, SAP Customer Briefing, and SAP Work Manager mobile app. As opposed to Fiori apps those apps can run offline, with the proper backend in place.

For running SAP mobile apps, the SAP HANA Cloud Platform (HCP) Mobile Services offers the same functionality as the on-premise SAP Mobile Platform (SMP). For developing mobile apps, developers won’t be massively jumping onto SAP platforms. For functional SAP consultants with mobile affinity there’s work here, but be prepared to compete with ‘native’ mobile app boys and girls.

5 – Security

From an attacker’s standpoint, SAP applications are quite valuable to gain access to. Security must be an integral part of any blueprint, any solution architecture, and any project. The SAP secure operations map is available as a reference model to identify and structure all areas for the secure operation of SAP software landscapes.

SAP freelancers will continue to be asked for support in preventive Single Sign-On and Role Based Access Control to applications and data using (Cloud) Identity Management software, as well as for implementing and enhancing reactive risk management by means of SAP GRC. Demand will increase for SAP security freelancers with HANA experience. Securing connections with mobile devices running Fiori apps will be another competence sought after more and more.

On the network’s level, robust security architecture is indispensable. I don’t see a major role for SAP there however so SAP Enterprise Threat Detection or mobile device management (MDM) with SAP Afaria. A threat for freelancers in this area anyway is in the security monitoring center at SAP, a dedicated IT security team that operates 24×7 to detect and analyze attacks on customer sites.

ERP (essentially S/4HANA) is still in the top 10 in IT Leadership survey

As promised, more on SAP ERP at the end of this piece. And actually, it is still in priority top 10 of IT leadership. ERP? Well actually, any CIO should by now have S/4HANA on their roadmap somewhere, or have their Enterprise Architects working on it. If you as an SAP freelancer missed the launch of Suite for HANA (S/4HANA), you probably are about to retire.

Most important thing to notice about S/4HANA is that it is no longer ‘just’ ERP in there. The other parts of the Business Suite have moved in or are being moved in. SRM, PLM etc. all on top of one single HANA database. Most of those products, including ECC 6.x, run out of mainstream support in 2025. SAP application consolidation projects will be kicked off in the next year, resulting in work for SAP freelancers.

Second important thing is that moving to S/4HANA is not just a technical upgrade. ‘Old’ functionality has been removed along with their transaction codes. Dealing with Master Data is different. All sorts of database tables are gone. Read the simplification list to learn about the changes in your functional domain. Good news is that customizing in S/4HANA has stayed pretty much the same – integration with the front-end, that’s where the trouble is.

As a side note: when browsing the SAP documentation on S/4HANA, there’s little mention of good old HR or HCM functionality since SAP wants customers to move to SuccessFactors. I even had that issue with SD and PS. A Proof of Concept cleared my doubts. All functionality essentially is still there.

Quite a few companies have large SAP programs running to consolidate local ERPs into one global system which is then rolled out. If that is not S/4HANA, those companies better stop and think again. The next years will see major projects to move to S/4HANA, trying to get back to standard SAP as much as possible – quite a few may even be Greenfield. Good for freelancer demand.

Thirdly, S/4HANA is available in a variety of versions – also cloud versions. I don’t see the SaaS version being adopted all together so work remains for hands-on functional consultants and developers. Yep, also for developers because even though rumour has it that when moving to S/4HANA, you are restricted in custom development, this is not the case.

So, can you make a decent living as a SAP freelancer in 2017?

I believe so. But mind digital disruptions beyond 2017. If you’re in SAP Finance you may think nothing too much will change for you in the next decade. You’re wrong. Think of Blockchain and Robotic Process Automation (RPA). If you are in SAP Logistics, think of 3d Printing and drone deliveries.

Furthermore, keep up to date with SAP Activate and tools like SAP SolMan. Understand how DevOps and Scaled Agile will mandate you to broaden your skill set. Agile teams call for people that can ideally do business and information analysis, configuration or development, and testing all in one. And always remain in good contact with the SAP Solution and/or SAP Enterprise Architect to ensure across-the-board business management satisfaction.

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Mendel Koerts

Mendel Koerts is the author of Jeff’s Journey To A Digital Business. As an independent IT advisor and Enterprise Architect, he has specialized in IT Strategy & Architecture with a specific focus on SAP-enabled Digital Business Transformation. He joined EY Consulting in 1996 after graduating from both Business Administration and Computing Science. Mendel founded ENSEAD Advisory in 2011 and is proud to have Gartner Consulting as one of his clients.

By Mendel Koerts

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