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Vishal Sikka's exit at SAP stuns, but does it matter?

It seems few anticipated the departure of Vishal Sikka, the very public face of SAP's technical vision. But how much does it matter to SAP users?

SAP abruptly announced late Sunday that Vishal Sikka, the very public face of SAP's technical vision and strategy, had resigned for personal reasons.

"This situation was totally unexpected. It happened very, very quickly. Basically, the announcement came that 'Vishal's no longer working here," said Forrester Research Inc. analyst Paul Hamerman. "It may be part of some kind of internal power struggle, or it could be something to do with the products, although I don't see any evidence of issues with the products that would precipitate this kind of change. It's really hard to say."

The move has forced SAP into making unforeseen organizational changes just before the company's behemoth Sapphire Now user conference this June in Orlando, where Sikka would have once again played a critical role laying out SAP's roadmap before thousands of attendees.

"It's already roiling the company, without a doubt," said Joshua Greenbaum, president of Enterprise Applica­tions Consulting, based in Berkeley, Calif.

Sikka, the head of SAP products and innovation, was synonymous with SAP HANA, its flagship in-memory database platform, and which he oversaw the development of during his tenure at the German company. He joined the company in 2002 as head of its technology group and was appointed CTO in 2007, according to SAP. He was named to the executive board in 2010.

SAP said current company executives Robert Enslin and Bernd Leukert would replace Sikka on the executive board. Enslin will continue to lead global customer operations and Leukert will assume responsibility for product development globally, the company said.

That still leaves SAP without a high-profile technical spokesperson for its vision and technology strategy, Hamerman noted.

"My guess is that [SAP co-founder and chairman of the board Hasso Plattner] is very sorry to see him go," Hamerman said, noting that Plattner had groomed Sikka for years to take on increasing levels of responsibility, which later included assuming control of SAP's development operations. "He's one of the most important people at SAP, and it will be hard to replace him."

SAP has had its share of high-profile departures and reshuffling in recent months, including some that were viewed as routine or part of the ebb and flow of corporate governance in any big company, along with some unexpected ones. Those changes include Jim Hagemann Snabe's decision last year to step down as co-CEO and move to SAP's supervisory board, and the departure of Bob Calderoni, the former CEO of Ariba, who became the head of SAP Cloud after only one year at SAP.

Effect on SAP roadmap

Still, Hamerman said he thought the impact Sikka's departure will have on SAP's technical direction in the coming month and years, however, will be limited.

"I think the company has a clear direction. It's possible there might be some change to that direction, but I think they've mapped out a pretty clear path. I don't think there's going to be much deviation," Hamerman said. "The platform direction seems to be pretty clear, and it's all based on HANA."

Greenbaum agreed.

"I don't think it's going to be as significant as it might appear. SAP's got a pretty deep bench," Greenbaum said. "Vishal did frontload SAP with a lot of things to do on making HANA a reality, and spent years on solid execution. But you don't necessarily need Vishal to [see everything through]."

Greenbaum added that SAP would, in time, find someone to fill Sikka's role -- or at least significant parts of it in the beginning --and that the person would come from SAP's internal ranks.

However, Vijay Vijayasankar, the head of global channels for database company MongoDB and former SAP executive who occasionally worked alongside Sikka, wrote in a blog post that the news wasn't a total shock given the amount of stress that comes with the position. He thinks the move raises questions about the future of SAP HANA.

"As much as Vishal was the face of HANA, there are plenty of people who are experts on HANA in SAP at all levels. The real question is whether SAP [will] continue to keep a technology focus on HANA, or [will] let apps take a front seat again and [have] HANA just powering everything in [the] background," Vijayasankar wrote.

"Success of a platform is based on apps built on it -- so I am hoping SAP strikes a good balance on apps [versus] technology when it comes to HANA."

But in the end, Ethan Jewett, the owner of Coredatra BI software and consulting services, said it's too early to really know or understand why Sikka left.

"I think there's something to be learned here, but I don't think [there is] anything we can take out of it at the moment," Jewett said. "I really think that what people need to do is watch what happens over the next couple of months and see if there are any indications of what might happen in the future."

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