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Shai Agassi: At 37, SAP AG's High Flier Is a Lesson in Rising to the Top

On Wednesday, September 28, Shai Agassi, president of the product and technology group and executive board member of SAP AG, shared advice and insight with students at a TechMedia Club event. He discussed trends in enterprise software and cautioned against following current trends.

“Understand the long-term trends,” Agassi said. “What you see in today’s perspective in today’s market are waves that have already happened. If you sit down at a beach in Hawaii and watch surfers, you never [see them] catch the back of a wave. If you see a wave already hit the shore and you catch that wave, you’re not going to go very far. A lot of it is trying to understand what is going to be the next big impact and making a bet on that.”

This applies to both large companies and startups. Agassi suggested students look for new waves within existing technology companies or the entrepreneurial market, but only if they love technology.

“Figure out your passion,” he said. “If you don’t do something for passion, you won’t be good at it.”

At 37, Agassi is the youngest member of the Executive Board. He cites his passion as his driving force. Bringing up the example of renaissance painters who, after gaining fame, would outline a painting for others to color, Agassi doesn’t see himself having transitioned away from his technology background.

“I never left,” he said. “For me the business side is a necessary evil. I’m truly a creative guy. [The renaissance painters] painted the vision, and had lots of people painting for them. What I do now is bigger art.”
Recounting his startup experience, Agassi cautioned students about the kinds of teams they work with.

“[In a startup,] your biggest decision will be to pick the first 5 or 6 people around you,” Agassi said. “The most important thing you have to remember is that those people in the core group are going to spend a lot of time with their backs to each other. You’re going to need to turn your back and walk out to expand the circle. You’ve got to pick people that are not going to stab you in the back, so pick people you can trust.”
At the same time, he warned against swinging for the fences.

“If you go for consistent singles, you can last until you hit the eventual home run,” Agassi said. “And even if you don’t, you continually grow.”
Going for home runs is dangerous because you only have a certain number of balls to swing at, after which you won’t be able to raise funding, Agassi explained. Discussing SAP’s business, Agassi predicted a new wave in the industry.

“In enterprise software, we’re going to go through a major inflection point between two fundamentally different architecture, from client-server to service-oriented architecture,” he said, adding, This shift may have very broad implications.

“When [web services] happened in the consumer space, we had the dot-com wave,” Agassi continued. “It’s happening now in the enterprise space, and we might have the dot-biz wave, and that would be a huge wave if it materializes.”

Combined with SAP’s new open architecture, which lets vendors build directly on top of the core system, Agassi has a bold outlook for the future, claiming “there can be only one” major enterprise software provider.

A serial entrepreneur, Agassi founded TopTier Software in Israel in 1992 and later moved the company’s headquarters to California. He served the company in various capacities including chairman, chief technology officer, and then CEO.

TopTier was a leading enterprise portal vendor when SAP acquired the company in April 2001. In addition to TopTier Software, Agassi founded several other companies, including Quicksoft Ltd., a leading multimedia software localization and distribution company in the Israeli market, and Quicksoft Media, a multimedia production company that ceased operations in 1995. He graduated with honors from Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, where he received a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

According to one of three Techmedia Club presidents, Eldad Persky, bringing Agassi to speak “has been the result of over a year of work. It was hard to find time that was good for the school and good for SAP and Shai.”

The Techmedia Club is looking to continue to bring notable speakers to campus along with other events.

“We changed the name and changed the logo, but we’re doing a lot more activities now,” Persky said.

October 11, 2005
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