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Sindhu Gangadharan, managing director of SAP Labs India and senior vice president of User Enablement at SAP, is the first woman to lead SAP Labs India. The latter is the second-largest SAP development centre after its headquarters at Walldorf in Germany but is the company’s largest core research and development (R&D) hub. In an interview, Gangadharan spoke about her role at SAP Labs India, how it complements SAP’s global R&D hubs, the role of artificial intelligence (AI), and her thoughts on women in tech and work-from-home, among other issues. Edited excerpts:

How big is SAP India Labs, and how do you steer it to complement the other global labs?

We are one of the 20 labs in 18 countries, and in some of the countries, we have multiple labs. India is one of the five hubs of SAP. Hubs handle a larger part of the product portfolio, such as the ones in Palo Alto (US), Walldorf (Germany), and China. From a core R&D perspective, though, India is the largest hub with more than 14,000 people, of which 12,000 plus are focused on R&D.

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I orchestrate the delivery of the core products from our five India Lab locations, Bengaluru being the largest; the others are in Gurugram, Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad. Globally, I drive user enablement as a core function across our lines of business. Our development teams here serve not only Indian customers but also global ones. We have about 250 million cloud users across the globe, which translates into over half a million customers.

What core R&D are you referring to in the context of India?

I’m talking about our engineering capabilities across multiple functions that cater to the current product releases. For example, we build core business processes for areas within our suite for S/4 Hana Cloud, such as finance, procurement, manufacturing, warehouse management or inventory management, or even supply chain management. The foundation for the business technology platforms, atop which we build many of our capabilities, comes from our labs. One example is our cloud platform integration that allows a customer to be able to bring together a hybrid cloud world which includes on-premise and federated deployments on the edge.

Give us examples of some specific solutions from SAP India Labs that are serving as global templates.

During covid, the government of India’s biggest challenge was to track the oxygen supply chain. Given that 80% of oxygen manufacturers in India run on SAP, we were able to build that integration into the oxygen digital tracking solution of the government in just two days. The SAP digital commerce solution was completely re-platformed (upgrading an application from its existing platform) in India. We also localized for India; the goods and services tax (GST) and e-way bill solutions were done completely by the India Labs. We are currently working on a solution to address the Indian government’s data privacy requirements in terms of localization needs of data — where the data should reside in the cloud and end-to-end encryption solutions, among other things.

You like to be called a ‘Technology humanist’…

I believe in the power of technology. We have so many problems in the world to solve, and we can solve them in different ways. But if you want to scale, technology is the only way to do so, as the earlier example of our oxygen digital tracking solution, shows. Similarly, if you want to talk about zero inequality in your organization, you will have to build that right into the core of your solutions where if you have a recruiting solution, you will be able to identify biases in the way you put out a posting (for a job). AI can be leveraged here to alert the recruiter that the position advertised does make a potential candidate feel excluded.

What more are you doing with AI?

One, we’re building the core AI foundational pieces into our platform — the business technology platform that I alluded to earlier on. These can then be leveraged on any application that’s built on top. At the same time, we are exposing those core AI services as business services on our public API (application programming interface) hub. For instance, if a company wants to only work with suppliers from a certain region or certain gender, it will be a very tough for a chief procurement officer to perform this task. Embedding AI in the core (supply chain) business process can help in this task.

Do the five centres of SAP India Labs handle different functions? And do you plan to expand?

Our Pune centre is mainly focused on our core HANA database. In Mumbai, we acquired Fieldglass in 2016, a solution that is focused on contingent workforce management (SAP Fieldglass is a cloud-based, open Vendor Management System (VMS) to help companies find, engage, manage, and pay external workers anywhere in the world). Hyderabad is a result of our Callidus Software acquisition and focuses on our global customer experience portfolio. Gurugram is mainly focused on the customer innovation and maintenance. Bengaluru has the whole portfolio.

Our second campus will come up in Devanahalli (Bengaluru), which is targeted for early 2025. We are also exploring innovation centres, closer to the universities we engage with. We go where the talent is.

You focus a lot on sustainability solutions too. Please elaborate.

If 87% of the world’s business transactions touch an SAP system, who better than us to give organizations an idea of how their decisions are impacting things -- be it from a social or an emissions point of view. So, it’s not only the topline or bottomline that matters. We are building a green line solution for our customers to help them measure, report, and even act on issues such as emissions, waste, or even inequality in their organizations. We’re building this visibility into our core processes. For example, take a process in the manufacturing sector where you want to know where you seller is sourcing the materials from. If you have this visibility, you may want to work only with those suppliers that control their emissions.

As a woman tech leader, what more should be done to get more women in tech?

It’s more about more role models. We have many role models today as compared to 20 years back when I started, but I think we need even more of that. And we also need examples of women who talk about their journey (to inspire others). This will also make other women realize that “I can do it, too. It’s not rocket science". But one should not only talk about the endpoint -- like running the largest lab. Rather, you should talk about “How do I get there?"

And what are your thoughts on work from home, especially given that an R&D centre would require people in the office for collaboration?

We undoubtedly support a hybrid working culture. But we are a product organization, which makes it very important to have our people together. When we talk about innovation, there is no way you can stick to the confines of your home.

You focus a lot on sustainability solutions too. Please elaborate.

If 87% of the world’s business transactions touch an SAP system, who better than us to give organizations an idea of how their decisions are impacting things -- be it from a social or an emissions point of view. So, it’s not only the topline or bottomline that matters. We are building a green line solution for our customers to help them measure, report, and even act on issues such as emissions, waste, or even inequality in their organizations. We’re building this visibility into our core processes. For example, take a process in the manufacturing sector where you want to know where you seller is sourcing the materials from. If you have this visibility, you may want to work only with those suppliers that control their emissions.

As a woman tech leader, what more should be done to get more women in tech?

It’s more about more role models. We have many role models today as compared to 20 years back when I started, but I think we need even more of that. And we also need examples of women who talk about their journey (to inspire others). This will also make other women realize that “I can do it, too. It’s not rocket science". But one should not only talk about the endpoint -- like running the largest lab. Rather, you should talk about “How do I get there?"

And what are your thoughts on work from home, especially given that an R&D centre would require people in the office for collaboration?

We undoubtedly support a hybrid working culture. But we are a product organization, which makes it very important to have our people together. When we talk about innovation, there is no way you can stick to the confines of your home.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leslie D'Monte

Leslie D'Monte has been a journalist for almost three decades. He specialises in technology and science writing, having worked with leading media groups--both as a reporter and an editor. He is passionate about digital transformation and deep-tech topics including artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, crypto, metaverses, quantum computing, genetics, fintech, electric vehicles, solar power and autonomous vehicles. Leslie is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Knight Science Journalism Fellow (2010-11). In his other avatar, he curates tech events and moderates panels.
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