This is the 12th – and final – interview in this series of talks with SAP employees working in a variety of roles in the area of user experience and design. This time, I talk to Sam Yen, Chief Design Officer at SAP and Managing Director of SAP Labs, Palo Alto.

About Sam

Sam initially joined SAP as a senior member of the Design Services Team, a multi-disciplinary group in the Office of the CEO. Their task was to accelerate the adoption of Design Thinking as a process for innovation and development of internal and external SAP products.

Before joining SAP, Sam was co-founder of Covigna, Inc., an enterprise software company that delivered contract management solutions. Sam is a native of San Francisco and has a Ph.D. in Design Theory and Methodology from Stanford University.


Please briefly explain what you do at SAP as Chief Design Officer.

The role was created in 2014 as an external indication to our customers and the industry that design really matters to SAP. That said, I don’t think my responsibilities changed too much from my previous role as Global Head of User Experience (UX) and Design. In general, the role entails representing the face of design, design thinking and user experience at SAP.

There are both outward- and inward-facing aspects. The outward-facing role is to talk to customers, analysts and the market in general about our design and UX strategy and help customers be successful in bringing design and UX into their organizations. On the internal side, I have great people and a great leadership team who are doing a lot inside the company. I help them accomplish what they are trying to do by setting the UX and design strategy for the organization.


Does your additional role as Managing Director of SAP Labs Silicon Valley have impact on the topic of user experience and design?

Absolutely. First of all, I love the role of being MD for SAP in Silicon Valley. I grew up in San Francisco and have lived almost all my life in the area. And it feels like I’ve spent most of my working life at SAP now. So anything I can do to promote SAP and to show customers and the Silicon Valley community the innovative side of SAP is fantastic.

I love helping to raise SAP’s brand value in Silicon Valley. A lot of the successful tech companies in Silicon Valley have found that design is very important. Being Managing Director and Chief Design Officer for SAP highlights to the rest of the ecosystem that design is an imperative for SAP too. I think we have the opportunity to take a leadership role in bringing design into enterprise software, which is very cool.


What do you enjoy most about your job?

I think of SAP as an amazing platform – 300,000 plus customers, our global presence, the ecosystem around SAP. So we have the ability not only to influence our products but to actually change how design is perceived in the entire enterprise space. For SAP to be a leader in that really excites me.


What are the most challenging aspects of your work?

First, the scale of enterprise. It’s so much bigger than most consumer apps, which are very focused, deal with a very small domain, and have very specific roles and personas. Compare that to enterprise software with hundreds of personas and hundreds of thousands of screens. And every single industry and customer is going to have some permutation of that. It’s very challenging to scale.

Because of this large scale, innovation takes longer as well. You don’t get that instant gratification where you make a change, deploy it and, as in the case of Facebook, a billion and a half people are automatically impacted by the change. We’ve been working on and delivering SAP Fiori for 3 years and are finally starting to see that hockey stick in terms of adoption – but it has taken 3 years.

The other challenge is that the prioritization of design and user experience is pretty new in the enterprise space. It has grown up with that not being a high priority. Changing this mindset requires time and patience.


You have been at SAP for 12 years now. During that time, SAP has transformed itself into a major player in the design and user experience field. To what do you attribute the transformation?

I think we’ve always had design talent at SAP, and we have increased the size of the team considerably in recent years. But our transformation is really due to our customers prioritizing design more than in the past. So our design talent has been able to step up and show that we can make a difference for our customers on this topic. At the end of the day, we exist to provide value to customers. As they have spoken up, we have responded.


You are a designer by training. How does that influence your role as an executive?

Because I have the role of leading design at SAP I have much more flexibility to do things in a different way than other executives. Even something as simple as how I dress. One of our customers has a very suit-and-tie culture. Their senior executives visited us at SAP in Palo Alto, and we were all dressed down. So when I went to visit them at their office on Park Avenue in New York City, I wore a suit and tie. The CEO said to me, “Hey, that’s not you. You have my permission to dress down even when you are here.” It seems kind of trivial, but it’s actually important because for design to happen you have to be allowed to think a little bit differently. Part of my role is to help show a different side of SAP, not just from a user experience perspective, but also the design thinking perspective. We are innovative because we are thinking differently. That image is really important.


Are there any design skills that are particularly useful as an executive?

Embracing diversity is one of the things we preach in design thinking in order to get multiple points of view. You can’t have innovation unless you have diversity. You need to look at things through different lenses to determine what the problem really is and what the best solution might be. That’s been helpful because it allows me to justify why we do things differently, why we are including people we haven’t included before, and why we need to more directly reach out to customers.


What is the secret to your success?

Whenever I do something which rocks the boat a bit, but I think is the right thing to do, I make sure it is something the customer is asking for. And I always position it that way. That’s really been the secret sauce because people listen. As an organization we exist to serve our customers. So if they are saying what their real needs are, we have to rally around that.


What would make a young person want to join a company like SAP?

We started an SAP Next Talent pilot program in Silicon Valley because this issue is very acute in the Valley. If you’ve ever visited our offices in Palo Alto, you know that if you drive 5 minutes in one direction, you are at Apple. If you drive 5 minutes in the other direction, you are at Google. If you drive 5 minutes in another direction, you are at Facebook. And within that 10-minute radius, there are hundreds of well-funded start-ups. And then you have Stanford University and San Francisco in the area with their own ecosystems.

So how do you attract top talent in that environment? I think we have a value proposition that differentiates SAP from start-ups and other high profile tech companies. People want to make an impact. There is no better place to start your career if you want to make a global impact than at a tech company like SAP, where we have over 300,000 customers and have been a global company for almost 30 years. There is no center of mass where all the work is done. We have our headquarters in Walldorf, Germany, but we also have huge development labs around the world. I think there are probably more SAP developers outside of Germany than inside. We tell potential early talent prospects not to look at SAP as the next 40 years of their careers, but as the first 3 years. SAP can be a launching point where young talent can learn how the business world operates, as well as a lot about world cultures and how different people can work together. There is no better place than a company like SAP to learn that. In addition, our early talent program has a rotational aspect. In 2 years at SAP, you can get experience in different parts of the world and rotate through several functions. Early talents can learn more in 2 to 3 years at SAP than in 9 years at multiple companies. And we are actually having no problem hiring people from top universities. We have a 4% acceptance rate; that’s how successful the program has been.


What is your vision for design at SAP five years from now?

Design needs to be extended beyond the user interface and user experience to enable innovation. Design thinking is a way to better understand innovation opportunities and so needs to be part of the strategic discussion about how to elevate the value of IT. I think we can drive our thought leadership on that front.  


Is there a quote or motto that guides you?

There was a motto in my high school, “Courage to Lead; Passion to Serve.” The digital pioneers of the 60s and 70s believed that technology exists not for its own sake, but to enhance and augment human capabilities. It is one of the things that originally attracted me to technology. The ideal of service has always been a guiding principle for me in my personal and professional life. Whether as individuals or teams, we are here to help each other.


Sam, many thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview!

My pleasure. Thanks, Esther.

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  • Anonym  5 years ago

    That’s really impressed me a lot. I’m from SAP China, and the only way to learn about SAP Design is by reading: read the Fiori design guideline, read the IOS human interface guide, read the Material Design, read the article like this… I do believe SAP design will have a great impact to the enterprise industry.

  • Utpal Bhatt   3 years ago

    I agree with this point – Design needs to be extended “beyond the user interface and user experience” to enable innovation.