Terry Stepien, Senior Vice President at SAP (Q&A)
WATCH You have a longstanding relationship with the University of Waterloo, as a student, as part of the team of the University’s first spin-off, and now as a partner and employer at SAP Labs Canada. Can you reflect on that relationship and the impact UW has had on your long and rich career in technology?
TS: It has had an impact in so many ways. First and foremost, there is the access to the world class talent it provides. The University of Waterloo provides our community with a continuous source of new talent. In addition, it is a source for leading research. And third, it has a very progressive open IP policy, which gives it the ability to work cohesively with industry. That ability that allows it to closely collaborate with industry partners is quite unique to Waterloo. One benefit that has come up more recently is the global reach the University of Waterloo has achieved. I can go to Hong Kong, or the Bay Area, and right away, I’ll get an e-mail from a University of Waterloo alumni group asking me to meet with them. For a University that by world standards is still very young, it has a reputation for excellence that literally extends around the world.
WATCH Much has changed in Waterloo’s technology landscape since the early ‘80s. What do you believe is this Region’s “secret sauce” for growth and success, and what lies ahead?
TS: It’s very difficult to distill the secret sauce that has allowed this Region to grow and prosper. But there are two things that come to mind for me. First, there is the desire and infrastructure for innovation. We have recognized its value and put an infrastructure in place in this community to foster innovation and the next generation of startups. There are places such as the Accelerator Centre here in the R+T Park and Communitech, where entrepreneurs can receive mentorship to mature and grow. Second, there is community. David Johnston calls it “barn raising,” -- I’ll call it a community that works together and supports others. For example, around the Region, we have many peer to peer networks, where people from all organizations can come together to discuss common concerns and share their ideas. That is quite unique. I don’t believe that exists anywhere else.
WATCH SAP Canada is longstanding co-op employer. We know how valuable this work experience is to students. How valuable are co-op students to SAP?
TS I was surprised to learn that this is actually our 40th year of involvement in the University of Waterloo co-op program. It has been part of our culture for a very long time. Approximately 80% of our developers in this building have been part of the University of Waterloo co-op program at some point in time. That just speaks to our level of involvement. We benefit of course from the access to world class talent and the fresh new ideas that balance the experience of our team. Co-op students come into the SAP organization as peers. In some organizations students don’t get heavily involved in projects. Here, however, after about a three-week training period, they are right in the thick of it. We have evolved our processes to allow students to have real hands on experience with some of the newest technologies available, in one of the largest technology companies in the world.
WATCH As a successful entrepreneur who is now in a leadership role in a large global enterprise, is there a formula for success that you would prescribe for startups following in your footsteps?
TS In short, no, there is no real formula, but there are three key ingredients I would look for. First you have to have a passion for building a company. It’s hard work and you are going to be at it for a while. Second, you have to have the ability. For example, if you want to be a major league baseball player, you need to have the ability. You can’t just wish it to be true, or get there simply by training. There’s a natural ability at play. And finally, you have to be able to differentiate yourself. You can’t just be the third highest-sudsing detergent on the shelf. Rather, you have to be a low-sudsing detergent and convince others they need to buy it. Striking a balance between passion, ability and differentiation is the closest I’ve seen to a formula for startup success.
WATCH As a computer scientist, what innovation breakthroughs from University of Waterloo - existing or on the horizon - excite you the most these days?
TS Traditionally, SAP has worked with the University in the area of data management and security. But if we look into the future, there are may exciting fields of research to be explored. For instance, there is quantum computing, which is still in its earliest days of exploration. We don’t completely understand the potential applications but we do know that it could find a way to break the cryptography algorithms we use today. So that means there’s more work to be done in the field of cryptography to make sure that it stays ahead of quantum computing advancements. Nanotechnology presents yet another really interesting field of research, and there are many applications there. For instance, nanotechnology advancements could very possibly lead to the development of new battery technology. We have reached a plateau with lithium ion, which means our technologies can’t advance any further. However, for the Internet of Things (IoT) to truly come to fruition, we need longer lasting battery technologies to support the necessary infrastructure. For electric cars to really gain mass market adoption, a vehicle will need to go longer than 500 kilometres. Right now, if you want to use your Tesla to take a family road trip to Florida, it’s a big production. You can’t pull into the local Shell station to fill up. Let’s imagine battery technology that can go 1,000 kilometers, and can be recharged at night in your garage. If that happens, everyone will be using electric vehicles.
WATCH Under your leadership, Sybase became the first tenant of the R+T Park. Can you speak to that relationship, and the important role research parks play in facilitating industry/academic partnerships?
TS This is a great park. I still look back with amazement at what it took to actually bring it to life. The University of Waterloo had to have the vision. Industry had to be engaged. And four levels of government needed to agree at the same time on the project. I don’t think that happened before, or since. That in itself is an amazing accomplishment that cannot be underestimated. As I mentioned earlier, being part of the R+T Park gives us amazing proximity to the University of Waterloo. We are literally part of the campus. So we have this direct access to research and talent. Students doing a coop at SAP can take a course during their work term if they choose, because the University is right across the road from us. Furthermore, as the park has grown, it has attracted other world-leading companies and infrastructure, such as the Accelerator Centre. Then what happens is you start to get collaboration happening between companies in the park. One of SAP’s largest partners is OpenText, which is a stone’s throw from our office within the park. When you combine community, as you see here in Waterloo Region, with proximity, it makes it very easy for collaboration to happen.