What's Holding You Back? Nothing.

Carved out of the SAP building in the David Johnston Research + Technology Park in Waterloo is a unique open space with no barriers or office cubicles. Desks are wheeled together for a team discussion. Random thoughts, ideas and to-do lists are written on walls, pillars - even the tops of desks coated with transparent whiteboard paint. It's SAP WatHaus - one of six such creative environments established by SAP worldwide for its engineering teams to build next generation apps and technology using design thinking principles.

Rewind to a year ago. Waterloo's Sybase team, newly acquired into the SAP organization, was forging connections with counterparts at SAP Labs in Palo Alto, California. The Sybase teams brought to SAP a rich heritage in mobility and database design stretching back to the Watcomdays, and a strong connection to the University of Waterloo's computer science and engineering programs.

"We began exploring ways we could work more closely together, and came up with the idea of a project centered around design thinking, leveraging our U of W connections and SAP's relationship to Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d:School)" explains Sarah McMullin, Emerging Technologies, SAP Labs Canada. "And from that idea WatHaus was born."

In the spring of 2012, SAP Labs Canada and its US colleagues set out to hire 12 coops to take up residence at WatHaus in the fall for a project wrapped around the principles of design thinking. The student's mission? Develop three mobile apps from start to finish within a window of 90 days using SAP HANA's in-memory database technology.

A Different Way of Thinking

Design thinking is a creative and user-centered approach to problem solving than traditional design methods.

One of the core attributes of design thinking is collaboration. Teams work across disciplines and in interdisciplinary groups to find answers to problems. Keeping this attribute in mind, the SAP Labs team looked to hire coops with strong engineering skills but also with life experiences beyond the engineering field - people who had a passion for art, or who had worked in a start-up, for instance.

None of the 12 coops hired knew each other previously, so the first month of the project was spent team building and immersing the team of 12 in the principles of design thinking. This immersion included field research to build empathy and approach the project from the customer's point of view - another core aspect to design thinking.

"Despite having no previous connection, within about two to three weeks the group was acting as a cohesive team," said Sarah McMullin, Emerging Technologies, SAP Labs Canada, who managed the project locally. "It's incredibly important in design thinking to have a team that is bought in, and our group was - they really wanted to succeed."

Delivering three fully baked apps in just 90 days is an aggressive goal for any engineering team, but the U of W coops were up for the challenge. "They were so incredibly fearless. They brought with them this amazing energy, and a fresh set of eyes that had us all - even the most mature employees - rethinking our business processes," says Sarah. "It opened our eyes to a different type of collaboration with the students who come into our organization."

Short deadlines mean long hours coupled with aggressive development sprints (SAP Labs is a follower of the Agile development methodology). But again the students proved they were in the game to win. "We've always prided ourselves on being able to achieve two week sprints - which is actually pretty good in our industry," explains Sarah. "The students, however, chose to work in one week sprints - and achieved their goals in that time frame. They had some of our full-time engineers feeling like they needed to step up their game to keep up."

A Place with No Barriers

One of the unique aspects of the project, and of WatHaus is the environment in which the team performed.

"Design thinking is about the intersection of technology, business and human values, and at its heart it demands a highly collaborative way of working, so people can come together in a safe environment to question and problem solve. We felt it was critically important to foster an environment where that kind of collaboration could take flight, so we took a different approach to management (more mentorship and barrier removal focused rather than authoritative or prescriptive) and combined it with a new physical space, our WatHaus. The WatHaus has no walls, no offices, no barriers or borders. All of the desks are on wheels so that the students could move around, or cluster together for a discussion. We also painted every surface - and I mean everywhere - with transparent whiteboard paint - so people in the space could jot down ideas and thoughts on a wall, on a desk, on the pillars. Finally, we wanted there to be an element of play in the space - again to foster creativity, so we added in a basketball net, foosball table, and lots of couches for lounging", explained Sarah.

Not only did the SAP Labs team find the space broke down barriers between members of the team, it also broke through layers of seniority in the company. "You might walk into WatHaus and find Terry Stepien (Senior Vice President, Emerging Technologies, SAP Labs Canada) hanging out on the couch checking his email," says Sarah. "The students just thought of him as one of the guys - and a really good developer at that." The WatHaus team of 12 succeeded in their mission to build three mobile apps in 90 days, contributing to a global launch for SAP into the sports marketplace.

WatHaus is now occupied by full time SAP Labs Canada staff and new coops who are currently working with amongst other things, an array of Micro Tiles from Christie Digital. SAP Labs Canada, inspired by the early successes produced by its design thinking efforts, is now actively looking for new collaboration opportunities with local Universities, other technology companies in the Waterloo Region such as Christie, and with the surrounding startup community.

"We're now actively looking at ways to evolve design thinking into our day to day life here in the Labs," says Sarah. "We're going to take maximum advantage of this awesome creative space to work with emerging technologies and innovations and bubble them up through the SAP organization."