This year, SAP is celebrating 20 years of the web-based SAP Community platform. Happy anniversary! I thought I'd contribute to these celebrations with some memories of my own.
Recently my good old friend Craig Cmehil posted a discussion over on the SAP Community: Did you know? It's been 20 years! What's your favourite community memory?. There are some great photos and memories being shared there, and it's definitely worth heading over there after reading this post and checking out the thread.
Twenty years - has it really been that long already? Well, it's actually been longer, but more on that shortly.
The SAP Community (capital C) is the latest name and incarnation of the web-based platform that was born in 2003, twenty years ago this year. Back then, it was launched as the "SAP Developer Network", which aligned sensibly with other similar initiatives that existed around that time, such as MSDN, the Microsoft Developer Network.
Later that decade, in 2007, the name was changed to "SAP Community Network", partly to acknowledge the presence of other practitioners and welcome them into the mix.
Most recently, in 2016, the name was changed again to simplify things, and became "SAP Community".
The launch of SAP Developer Network, which we now take for granted in the form of the SAP Community, was in the first half of 2003. It was the result of a lot of work from a small team working behind the scenes. I was a member of that team. How did it come to be so? Well, there were a number of factors, which I'll describe here.
Just over a year before the birth of the web-based platform that we now know and love as SAP Community, my first book "Programming Jabber" was published by O'Reilly (see the books section in my About Me page). O'Reilly was (and still is) a very well respected technical book publisher and also had some great experience with building community platforms on the Web back then.
My work writing Programming Jabber, and speaking at O'Reilly's annual Open Source Convention (OSCON) event, meant that I had a great relationship with the wonderful folks that worked there.
I started working with SAP software in 1987, with the mainframe version SAP R/2 (version 4.1d to be precise). So by the time SAP decided it was time to build and run a community of its own, I had already 15 years worth of relationships built up, and a reputation (mostly as a troublecauser, no doubt) based on my day job as an SAP basis person, developer, architect, consultant, and so on working at customers and partners and as an independent.
Moreover, I had been active in the community in the decade leading up to the birth of SAP Developer Network in 2003 too.
In the early days of my career, I was working as an employee of a small SAP consultancy and travelling around, spending most of my evenings in hotel rooms.
In early 1995 I created the first online SAP community. Back then, the Web wasn't what it is today; most Internet based communities were based around either Usenet (newsgroups) or mailing lists. Mailing list software was the norm for handling community discussions and interactivity, and I used Majordomo for the community I created, which was called "merlin", and was mainly for technical discussions and Q&A activities around both SAP R/2 and SAP R/3.
I spent pretty much every evening at the desk in my hotel room on my Sanyo NB 17 laptop (with a whopping 1MB of RAM and a 2400 baud modem), administering this community of like-minded folks who wanted to connect and exchange ideas and questions.
It was hard work, seemingly never ending, but very rewarding.
Later that year I got to know of another mailing list that had just formed, called sapr3-list. I reached out to the creator of that list, Bryan, and we proceeded to run our lists in parallel, exchanging stories of administrative issues and more.
Then a few months later, we were approached by some lovely folks from MIT, who were SAP customers, and who wanted to offer us help with our SAP community activities.
Sue Keohan was one of the folks that reached out, and between us, we formed a new single mailing list called SAP-R3-L that became the central SAP community that encompassed all the discussions, memberships and more of merlin and sapr3-list. This mailing list, by the way, was based on another piece of (now venerable) community mailing list software, LISTSERV.
The posting guidelines on our SAP-R3-L mailing list
With a rapidly growing number of community members, and multiple administrators able to deal with the discussions, the traffic, the issues and whatever else came up, the community blossomed further.
Hopefully that gives you a bit of context as to where things were when SAP decided to make its move. This was great news, and I got together with folks from O'Reilly and SAP to thrash out strategy, design, purpose and types of content that would make for a successful Web based community (because by this time mailing lists were less popular, and communities had started moving to the Web, so it made total sense).
We spent a few months working on this, and the result was launched in early 2003. It was super exciting, and I, along with a couple of others, including my old friend and colleague Piers Harding, had been busy creating technical articles to give the website some substance so we could launch with something that wasn't completely void of content.
There was a blogging system too, and we used that to express our thoughts and ideas from the start. I published my first blog post on the new website on 30 May 2003; this was the second blog post ever on SAP Community, the first being the inaugural one three days before that from Mark Finnern, who was at SAP and designated chief community herder and organiser on the new website.
So there you have it, my memories of the birth of the Web-based SAP Community. I'm proud to have played my part, and very happy to continue to do so in today's incarnation. The SAP Community flourishes because of the people, inside and outside of SAP. That's what a community is all about. And as long as it's about that, I think it will flourish for years to come.
Since we're on the subject, here's some "inside baseball" or a look behind-the-scenes:
While the MIT list was helpful and a great first resource, it was one of more than a dozen similar grassroots efforts to publish SAP technical information, how-to articles, peer-to-peer advice forums, and other bits of developer help. In addition to that one, there was one at a university in Texas, at least one in Germany, maybe an ASUG resource, a forum in Australia. Some were run by individuals with a server under their desk in the home office, others were run by someone at a university or a customer business, others by publications or user groups.
The landscape was fragmented, quality was out of the purview of the company so it was unclear whether it was valid and high quality -- and it was too scattered to be able to actively monitor.
Those of us within SAP were concerned whether customers were getting helpful or detrimental information, and as I was tasked with building-up the SAP Developer Network I saw these other online resources as a type of competition for attention, and even the success and basic survival of SDN. If SDN was just one of a smattering of islands of information about SAP products, we wouldn't be able to grow and thrive; we needed to be at the very least the main, core source of information and collaboration, perhaps with small satellites of additional info, but better to subsume them all and put them out of business by making them unnecessary.
But we didn't go after these aggressively, or legally (as in 'cease and desist'), or in a confrontational manner. We wanted to take a more positive, collaborative tone -- one consistent with open source community values and the values we hoped to instill in SDN itself. So, instead, we set out to out-execute, to provide better information, better support, to entice and encourage the people running these islands of information to join us by contributing to SDN instead of running their own online spaces, we worked hard to get SAP product managers and product developers/engineers/support people to engage in the SDN discussion forums (and later, blogs) so SDN would feel more "official" and of the highest quality, we worked to get partners (especially the System Integrators who had armies of people) on board -- in other words, to compete in the open marketplace in order to make SDN *the* place where any SAP developer, customer, partner, or prospect would come for the highest quality, most up-to-date information and connection. We wanted to make SDN the center of gravity for all things technical regarding SAP.
It was hard work, but we did it. Looking back, it might seem inevitable that the premier SAP developer community (and broader business community) would be hosted by SAP. But I'll tell you that in the early days we were coming from behind (late to the idea of community, behind MSDN, Oracle Technical Network, Java community, open source, and all these small islands of SAP resources like the one at MIT), we were flying under the radar at SAP (we had one executive's support which was critically important, but none from about 90% of the company, many of whom didn't understand what we were building and wanted us to stop our silly and dangerous journey). Credit goes to the early team members and the early adopters (customers, partners, independent consultants...) of SDN itself.
And I noticed the "posting guidelines" are quite similar to our SAP Community Rules of Engagement! It's so long ago this has been founded but still, the "friendly community" is the main thing! 🌼