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What Is it Like Being an SAP Consultant?

In this post, I’d like to share some of my journey of becoming an SAP consultant to assist you in doing the same. Hopefully this will give you some ideas on how to find the fastest path to meet your goals. Let’s get started.

 

One thing that will help you stand out as a consultant is knowing how to code. I learned to code for fun at a very young age, during middle school. My family was an early adopter of “home computers” when they first became a popular, novelty household appliance. Back then there was no internet, so I had to program whatever I wanted the computer to do. I was curious and wanted to see what the device was all about, so I figured out how to code via basic literature and a lot of trial and error. To this day, I still see coding as fun rather than a chore, even though companies seldom provide the functional resources to code. Although you can be a successful functional consultant without knowing how to code, it makes life a lot easier and there is a lot more you can accomplish.

 

I was enrolled into a technical high school which provided me with a normal high school curriculum and then several hours of computer science, database architecture, programming classes coding on various languages (such as C++, Pascal, COBOL, etc.), hardware and infrastructure, organization, and methods. With no particular goal or clear career path in mind, I enjoyed this time very much and gained knowledge I use and value to this day. It was not easy, but nothing of value ever is.

 

After high school, I moved to the United States to attend university with a focus on computer science. I decided that theory alone wasn’t cutting it for me, and I felt the need to apply the knowledge I’d gained and get real-world experience. After one year, I decided the fastest way for me to achieve this goal was to move back to Brazil, where I got my first job as a systems analyst trainee and enrolled at university with classes at night. It was a very intense time, but my objectives were clear at this point: I wanted to be part of corporate culture and design and implement applications for them. The challenges of being in that environment had appealed to me since my father first took me to work as a young kid and showed me around.

 

Choosing an SAP Consulting Firm to Work For

After eight years, I was finishing up my university studies, and I was already on my third job which was working on the first project to go live with SAP in Latin America. SAP was not taught to us in school; I came into that job with work experience from two previous mainframe environments and knowledge of programming languages such as COBOL, Pascal, C++, Fortran, Clipper, and so on.

 

SAP classes were only available at SAP Inc. and were extremely expensive. I was sponsored by my employer at the time, and received the necessary training for my job. Training was helpful to break the ice and allowed me to start working on configuring the system and implementing reports, interfaces, conversions, enhancements, and forms. We continued implementing SAP on other subsidiaries of that company, and it’s safe to say I caught the bug of working in a project environment.

 

My personality has always been better suited to the fast-paced greenfield project rhythm. I had some experience with ongoing support and found nothing wrong with that, but deliverables and deadlines were challenges I looked for at every opportunity, and there is no shortage of those on greenfield projects.

 

After all the South American subsidiaries were implemented, I felt it was time to move on. I joined a large consulting company as an employee, specifically to work on a long-term implementation project. I was chosen due to my industry experience as well as my respectable three years of experience with SAP (at the time, this was very close to the most one could have!). This move was not calculated at the time, but working for a large consulting company as an employee turned out to be very important. You learn a lot about methodology and how a project is like a little enterprise; this is important to understand when learning to become a consultant, and it’s only taught on the job. If you are working for a consulting company, your primary goal is to make money for the consulting company, so you have to learn how to do that.

 

I recommend choosing a consulting company carefully; the job market will see you as a former “so-and-so” for many years. This often takes precedence over the college degree you have at this stage in your career. Granted, it is not often we have the chance to choose where to work, but if you have some relevant experience and a college degree in the field from an accredited institution, this is not unreasonable to expect. Relevant experience nowadays may be working as a key user in an SAP project, IT analyst, programmer, etc.

 

Don’t Be Afraid to Pivot

After three years with the consulting company, I decided to move back to the United States. I had 11 years of IT experience, 6 with SAP products, and a US passport. I found a job online and they sponsored my move. It was a great companyI was working on a long-term program with another big consulting firm, which had a completely different style of management, methodology, pace, culture, etc.

 

After one year with them, I noticed a trend of SAP venturing into the small- and mid-size business market segment and wanted to be part of it. Now based in the United States, I was offered a position with a start-up company in that space. Back then, the solution was offered with the company’s name plus “powered by SAP.” That trend was short-lived, but it gave me a taste of what it’s like to work with SAP in small- and mid-size companies. It reminded me of the first SAP projects I was in. Upon completion of one project, I usually changed jobs and started working on a different project with a new consulting company.

 

It quickly became clear to me that being an employee of a consulting company no longer made sense. So, I became independent. Before I left my last job and before the project was over, I opened my corporation and started learning the requirements of how to manage it. I found a CPA to assist me; he was also starting his practice so it was a great deal for both of us, although neither of us knew exactly what we were doing. In the United States, this is much less complicated than in other countries, especially in Latin America, and having experience with those other countries gave me the courage to take the leap.

 

Challenges to Being an SAP Consultant

Note that I spent much time jumping from company to companyif you are committed to working on project environments, this needs to be something you are looking forward to. This is not to be taken lightly; you will always be walking into companies where almost nobody knows who you are. Some of them will not be friendly to you at first, and some never will be, but most have a very amicable and receptive attitude towards third-party consultants.

 

A lot of the animosity you will encounter revolves around money. Some companies think you are making more than you should, but this will always be dictated by the market. If companies could pay you less, they certainly would. Mature companies are aware of this, and you will often find former consultants working in permanent positions who understand exactly where you are. Those are often the people you’ll get along with.

 

By the way, it is true that you can make more money as a consultant than with a job, but only if you are busy all the time. That means little to no vacation, few holidays, constant long hours, and most importantly, never overstaying your welcome (i.e., don’t wait to be firedfind your next gig when your time is up and get moving).

 

Some companies may feel bad letting you go after all you’ve done for them. Take the initiative and go, but only after the job is done. That is important because if you never finish the job, after a while companies won’t trust you to stay long enough. The catch is that they won’t bring you back if you linger around forever and they don’t know what to do with you.

 

How to Leave a Consulting Job on the Right Foot

When it’s time to leave, make sure to transfer all the knowledge you can to those who will stay. Keep in mind that it’s your job to communicate clearly and concisely all the information they need to hear, but it’s not your job to ensure they retain it. If possible, do this in writing, make a recording, or use any media they may refer to later.

 

Offer to continue supporting them, if necessary. For some reason, companies seldom take you up on that offer, and if they do, do your best to provide them with the best experience possible. If you spend more than a few minutes, make sure it’s billable time and that you’ll be paid. Before spending the time, let them know how long it’s going to take and how much it’s going to cost them. Be fair, be honest, or be unemployed.

 

The deal is very straightyou know how to do something they need done. You go in, you do it, and you leave. It’s important to remember that you must leave. Think of lawyers and doctors; it’s a very common deal. Love your customers, but keep in mind they are temporary. Your goal as an independent consultant is to ensure you provide the best quality professional services you can. If you leave enough happy customers behind, soon you will have no problems getting new ones.

 

What is Body Shop Consulting?

Following some turn-of-the-century litigation, a new term arose in the world of consulting: “body shop consulting.” These companies came into the picture to receive payment from the customer and pay you immediately after. It’s a business model that appeals to a lot of people, since there is little to no activity required of them and potentially a lot of money to be made. Several of these body shop consulting companies later transition into regular consulting (leading projects) and then are bought by larger consulting companies; this is a common success story.

 

In extreme cases, you will find multiple consulting companies between you and the customer. The customer first hires a large consulting company to lead the project. They need specialty resources that they don’t have available on staff, so they reach out to the market. A body shop consulting company picks up the requirement, recruits independent consultants, and then sells to the larger consulting company that in turn sells the same hours to the customer. This is often terrible for everyone involved; the customer ends up paying a lot for your time, you end up getting paid less than you usually get, and both the large consulting company and the body shop consulting companies have lower profitability on you versus their own staff.

 

What Does SAP Consulting Really Look Like?

While you’re providing a great service to those who hire you, as mentioned before, it’s a lot of work to be a good consultant. Consultants are road warriors. If you are afraid of the road, get a job. It is hard enough to find a project that needs your particular skillset right around the time when you are rolling off a project. Finding one of those in your own neighborhood is near impossible; relatively near you is hard enough. If you want to be independent long-term, be comfortable travelling.

 

A typical travel schedule is Monday through Thursday onsite and Friday from home. This allows for three days a week with family, which is great, but if you need to be home every day, this is not for you. You will find projects or instances where you work remotely, but as soon as that’s over, the next one may be far away again. Think of a remote gig as a welcome exception and get ready for that to change.

 

There are independent consultants that end up being with the same company for many years, but that is less and less common. It sounds like the best of both worlds, but you may struggle to find a new project if you have more than 10 years of experience at the same client. So, you will be locked into that company even if you want to leave at some point, and when they let you go, you may be in trouble finding new work.

 

Should You Become an SAP Consultant?

The ideal skillset for an independent consultant is a functional or technical skill that is in demand. That is often knowledge of the latest and greatest version of the system. You may need to take gigs that are less than ideal to have exposure to the latest tech. This is worth it. You will need to learn fast, and never stop studying. Read up whenever you can. I’ve found great reward in being an SAP consultant, and I hope you find it worth it as well.

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Christian van Helfteren
by Christian van Helfteren

Chris van Helfteren has been working as an order to cash (sales and distribution) ERP systems consultant since 1992. He began working with SAP products in 1997 and with SAP S/4HANA in 2016. He’s participated in 18 full lifecycle SAP implementation projects and a total of 46 different consulting assignments in industries such as automotive, high tech/consumer electronics, aerospace, life sciences/pharmaceutical, and industrial goods manufacturing with distribution organizations of various sizes. He looks forward to working with you on future assignments and continuing to contribute to your growth in this area.

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