The SAP supply chain expert who was inspired by Carl Sagan

SAP Head of Supply Chain Solution Management Martin Barkman on taking a Carl Sagan university class, and why Alan Turing was way ahead of the AI game

Martin Barkman is Senior Vice President, Global Head of Solution Management, Digital Supply Chain at SAP.

Tell us about yourself and your role

I joined SAP in 2013. Prior to that, I was the CEO of a SAP partner software company called SmartOps. We’d partnered closely with SAP on inventory optimisation and in 2013, SAP acquired us. Since then, with SAP, I have had various roles in supply chain management - first driving growth and introducing a new planning solution, and most recently being responsible for solution management for our digital supply chain portfolio.

What drew you to enterprise software?

I actually have a chemical engineering degree but the one thing common to all engineering disciplines is the study of different types of processes, and enterprise software orchestrates processes. 

After college I joined Procter & Gamble. I was in the plant - three shifts a day, five days a week. Sometimes we knew how much to make of a thing but other times it wasn't clear. It felt like we were always scrambling, and I became intrigued by the processes behind how important decisions were made, and how the information flowed. 

How are business processes changing?

They are changing through Industry 4.0 technologies such as AI, IoT and machine learning. Assets within plants are becoming smarter. Enterprise software today is driving businesses in a whole new direction. Think cloud computing, machine learning, artificial intelligence -  these capabilities are allowing supply chains to be digitally twinned, and that's quite powerful.

Of course, machine learning is nothing new. Alan Turing was exploring it back in the 1930s, but he faced the limiting factor of a lack of computing power to process data in a reasonable time period. 

Best piece of advice you've been given?

It’s more a piece of insight than a piece of advice. Years ago, Bill Gates said that people always tend to overestimate the impact of technology in the short term but in the longer term they greatly underestimate how transformative it can be.

When I reflect on the past 25 years of my career, I find that this has been very true and pertinent. 

You sometimes get over-excited when a new tech first comes out, and then nothing seems to happen. But then when you look back - boy! You can't imagine life without it.

Who inspires you?

When I was an undergraduate at Cornell University I took a class by the famous astronomer, writer and broadcaster, Carl Sagan. There were only about 15 of us, and he was this Pulitzer Prize-winning astronomer. 

What I find really interesting now is that a lot of the themes that he would discuss with us extremely relevant today, but back then weren't mainstream at all. For example, it was in his class that I learned first about why the planet is warming up. We talked about what might be causing this.

He talked about how current warming was different from other temperature changes throughout history, and we wrote papers about these topics. 

When I look back on it now, I find it inspirational that Professor Sagan was going deep into these kinds of topics way before they had made any headlines. 

And I also love that professor Sagan was involved in the production of the so-called Golden Record. This is a vinyl recording made from gold that is on the Voyager spacecraft that has now left the solar system. 

If any alien life-forms come across the record, and can figure out how to play it - then what they will hear is a snapshot of life on Earth - human sounds, such as laughter, different languages and beautiful music, as well as the sounds of animals.


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