On The Eve Of SAPPHIRE Conference, Vishal Sikka Puts SAP In The Rearview

It’s been a month of Sundays since Vishal Sikka resigned from SAP, and I spoke to him a couple of days before the start of his former company’s SAPPHIRE user conference that begins Monday in Orlando. The conference will be going on without him for the first time in 12 years, and Sikka is fine with that.

Sikka sounds like a man at peace with his decision, one he says was his to make. He told me he was not forced out. It was just time to move on.

Julie Bort writing on BusinessInsider right after Sikka’s resignation, suggested two possible reasons for him leaving. One was an internal power struggle between German and US executives. The other was he was hoping for a big promotion that didn’t happen.

Sikka put it this way: “It was a different idea of how we saw the future and that’s why I left. I wish them the best. It ended in a way that I left abruptly. That’s how it goes in big companies.”

He said he offered to stay through SAPPHIRE, but the executive team wanted a clean break.

And he says it’s worked out for the best.  He’s enjoying his time off, taking the time to talk to industry friends including VCs while he sifts through the list of career possibilities in search of what come next.

This is the first time in 12 years, he’ll get to spend a significant part of the summer with his family, something he was looking forward to, and at the very least he plans to take the summer off before he decides what he’s going to do next.

He puts a big caveat on that plan though, saying if a great offer came along, one he couldn’t refuse, he would take it–and he hinted there were some possibilities moving so quickly it might happen. For now though, he is going through the application process to become a consulting professor in Computer Science at his alma mater, Stanford University–and he’s excited about that opportunity.

One possibility being reported is that he could be the next CEO at Infosys, but an industry insider told me, there was no truth to the rumor.

Looking back on his time at SAP, Sikka is justifiably proud of his accomplishments at the company, especially overseeing the development of HANA and other significant software projects, but he says he is also gratified that he changed the company to what he called “a designer mindset,” including changing the way the company developed software, bringing in the 90 day work cycle and more recently a seven day development cycle, something he says is quite remarkable in a company the size of SAP. But he went even further, he says, changing the design of the work space itself to make workers more collaborative.

For example he tells me every wall that is not digital is writable, meaning you can use it on the fly to sketch out ideas.

But for all Sikka did at SAP, he is ready move on and see what comes next. He knows it will involve software just as it has his entire career, but he’s just not sure what form that will take.

“Given how profoundly software is changing the world, our ability is still primitive when it comes to authoring software. I want to dramatically improve the ability to author something,” he told me. And for Sikka that  means helping make the world even more programmable.

He sees these changes driven by design and great programming happening all around him and uses Honeywell as an example. For decades they made thermostats, but it wasn’t Honeywell that changed the thermostat. It was Nest because it had a great design sense and an understanding of programmability and connectivity. They were able to build that into thermostats and completely transform them in the process, while the thermostat company missed it.

He marvels at the amount of value lost or destroyed in this fashion inside large IT companies every day because these companies, in an effort to protect their traditional businesses, can’t look past the way they have always designed products. Yet smaller companies like Nest can afford to redesign these traditional products in new ways because they aren’t constrained by the old models.

Sikka has been talking to venture capitalists and may do some consulting over the summer, but he doesn’t necessarily see his next move involving a startup because what he has in mind needs a bigger platform. He even leaves open the possibility of joining another big company, but only one without what he calls “structural roadblocks” and that gives him “the long-term ability to innovate.” He adds that past success can sometimes inhibit the ability to innovate inside larger organizations.

Whatever he decides to do, he holds no ill will towards his former company, but he also seems to relish the opportunity to reinvent himself and jumpstart his career in a way that might not have been possible had he stuck with SAP.

He says one thing he hopes to do with his summer off is get back to surfing, something he hasn’t been able to do in a number of years because of the furious pace of his time at SAP. And now perhaps he can ride a wave to the next chapter in his life, a man without regret, and ready for whatever comes next, whatever that happens to be.