Agassi, Shai 1968–
Chief technology developer, SAP
Born: 1968, in Ramat-Gan, Israel.
Education: Technion, BA, 1990.
Family: Son of Reuven Agassi (retired Israeli Defense Force colonel and telecom executive); married former general manager of QuickSoft Media (name unknown); children: two.
Career: Israeli Defense Force Intelligence, 1986, computer programmer; QuickSoft, 1991, founder; TopTier Software, 1992, founder; TopManage, 1993, founder; QuickSoft Media, 1994, founder; SAP, 2002–2003, CEO of Portals, CEO of Markets, chief technology officer; SAP, 2003–, executive board member.
Awards: Most Influential Businessman in the World, Time, 2003.
■ The entrepreneur and programming expert Shai Agassi founded a series of technology companies in Israel in the 1990s. He joined SAP in 2001 when the German company paid $400 million for his corporate portal company TopTier Software. As part of the deal Agassi joined SAP's executive board in order to guide technology strategy for the world's third-largest independent software supplier. Technology analysts described Agassi as a bold visionary with the potential to develop a service-oriented computer infrastructure that could be the industry standard for years to come.
Technology came naturally to Agassi. As a seven-year-old he began programming in a computer-science class for children at Tel Aviv University. Programming appealed to him because he could control and build things; he recalled, "While other children collect baseball cards, I collected punch cards" (Time Canada, December 1, 2003). After a brief term of mandatory military service as a programmer for the Israeli Defense Force, Agassi earned a bachelor's degree from Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology, in 1990. He then began to start up technology companies, including TopTier, his most successful venture, in partnership with his father. TopTier provided the technology needed to build enterprise portals—internal corporate Web sites providing company information to employees as well as access to select public sites.
In May 2001 Agassi sold TopTier to SAP, the German firm that led the world in sales of basic applications for corporations. Typically after selling a brainchild, a computer-age entrepreneur would leave an established company in pursuit of the next exciting opportunity. Agassi, however, chose to stay with SAP, first as the chief executive officer of a subsidiary called SAP Portals, then taking responsibility for another subsidiary, SAP Markets. In 2003 he became responsible for xApps, a new set of software products designed to allow disparate applications to interact across an entire corporate network with great efficiency and little risk. He was also one of eight members of SAP's executive board, taking part in determining the future direction of the firm, which had $6.5 billion in revenues in 2002.
Agassi explained that he sold TopTier and remained with SAP because of the opportunity provided by the sale. As he described, the software giant possessed "an environment where my ideas about computing can have a real impact on the market" (Red Herring, March 2003)—especially since he believed that start-up companies no longer had the potential to change the software industry. Agassi was convinced that small companies with big ideas operated at an incredible disadvantage because corporate chief information officers were no longer gambling on high-risk projects. They wanted to buy products that would be around for decades; large companies offered the promise of stability.
Despite his eagerness to become part of a large company, Agassi feared the challenges that he would be undertaking. As by far the youngest member of SAP's board and an entrepreneur by nature, he was an outsider within the most conservative firm in the software industry. His introduction of the xApps idea at a high-level SAP strategy meeting led to a four-hour argument with coworkers who insisted that the company should continue with traditionally designed applications. Agassi realized that his value lay in his willingness to take risks, and he persisted. In 2003 he described himself as a "retrovirus" that could awaken the genetic material possessed by SAP (Red Herring, March 2003).
With xApps Agassi pushed for a new generation of applications emphasizing simplicity. While existing applications comprised collections of transactions built on top of databases, Agassi was attempting to develop applications that could build new processes without being tied to predetermined database structures. He explained, "Looking at the world from customers' eyes and then trying to understand where complexity is and then designing it out—that's been the goal of my programming" (Network World, December 22, 2003).
SAP came to view xApps as the linchpin of an emerging corporate strategy that would carry the firm through its next stage of growth. If SAP failed to develop the next generation of web applications, analysts believed that the company would become merely a component provider to a larger company such as Microsoft. As the self-described "quintessential outsider" (Red Herring, March 2003), Agassi was uncertain whether he would remain with SAP once the xApps venture was completed. He had not ruled out founding another start-up sometime in the future.
sources for further information
Bednarz, Ann, "SAP's Resident Entrepreneur," Network World, December 22, 2003, p. 42.
Hamm, Steve, "The Youngster Who's Out to Energize SAP," BusinessWeek, June 26, 2002.
James, Geoffrey, "Odd Man In," Red Herring, March 2003, pp. 40–44.
Laing, Yehezkel, "Time Names Israeli World's Most Influential Businessman," Jerusalem Post, November 27, 2003.
Taylor, Chris, "The Software Industry's New New Man," Time Canada, December 1, 2003, p. 51.
—Caryn E. Neumann