Join us this week on the Connected Enterprise Podcast as Professor Robert Markley shares how he helps students prepare for careers in tech through ERP education.
Carl Lewis: Welcome to The Connected Enterprise podcast. I’m Carl Lewis, your host from Vision33, and my guest is Robert, aka Bob. Bob is a professor at Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania. Bob, tell us about yourself, your background, and your work at the college.
Bob Markley: Thanks for having me, Carl. I have computer science and business degrees from Pennsylvania State University and an MBA from the University of Chicago. When I graduated from the University of Chicago, I started my career with Pricewaterhouse in its midmarket consulting group. We focused on midsized and larger businesses. That morphed into working a lot with the Oracle enterprise resource planning (ERP) system in the early days of ERP.
After five years at Pricewaterhouse, I got the entrepreneur bug. In 1994, I launched an ERP consulting firm in Western Pennsylvania and grew it to around 30 consultants, plus 10 folks who sold the Oracle ERP system.
Bob Markley: The Y2K bug scared us, so we sold that firm in 1999 to a larger systems integrator. I worked there for several more years, then tried entrepreneurship again. In 2001, I launched Corporate Solutions. This firm was more diverse. We did Oracle, PeopleSoft, JD Edwards, and some web development. I grew that firm to around 30 folks and left in 2004. I've been teaching at Saint Vincent College since then.
I teach management and accounting information systems and wanted to bring ERP into the curriculum. So, in 2007/2008, we joined the SAP University Alliances program as one of two pilot schools in the United States to teach SAP Business One in our curriculum.
Carl Lewis: The other pilot school was in California, but they're not doing it anymore. And I don't know of anybody else doing it. Why do you think that is?
Bob Markley: I don’t know, Carl. There are 2,800 schools worldwide in the SAP University Alliances program, the majority of which work with S/4HANA and other SAP products. One or two schools in Europe work with Business One, but Business One has been more focused on entrepreneurial programs. I wish there were more programs in the US because businesses want these students, but I can only teach so many.
Carl Lewis: Tell us about the students. They do this in addition to their regular coursework, right?
Bob Markley: Correct.
Carl Lewis: How many students have gone through the program?
Bob Markley: The program was initially for seniors, but we restructured it in 2011/2012. Now, we recruit students right before their junior year. We started with 190 juniors, and 170 completed the program. 120 got full-time summer internships, and roughly 80 worked in the SAP ecosystem.
Training starts the July before their junior year and takes six months. We only take eightish hours of their week because they’re full-time students.
Carl Lewis: There are a lot of activities, right? They visit workplaces running SAP software, attend meetings at SAP offices, and get a general flavor of business. How important is that?
Bob Markley: Tremendously. It’s easier to train them on the software than on the business processes. I get numerous students who don’t know what sales and purchase orders are and how they affect a business. Walking them through business processes helps. One light manufacturing company shows the students how they get their orders, turn them into production orders, issue purchase orders, and deliver and bill the customer.
Carl Lewis: Do they get an SAP Business One certification?
Bob Markley: The program trains them on the same certification Vision33 or any other implementation consultant would be trained on. It’s expensive, though, so we don’t require it for the program. Those who take it mostly do it their senior year or after they start working for an SAP Business One partner. We prepare them for it by making our final exam mimic the certification exam.
Carl Lewis: That’s very innovative in education. I'm sure similar programs exist, but it's nothing like when I went to college. Then it was, “Here’s your degree—good luck!” Do you think education will become more like your program, where they get almost indoctrinated into business life? Because the thing that's hardest about hiring a graduate is their inexperience.
Bob Markley: The US has fewer students graduating from high school than in the past. So, colleges must get more competitive and find innovative ways to get students—and nothing’s better than knowing you’ll probably get a good job that will lead to a good career after graduation. I really emphasize how this course will open doors for them.
Bob Markley: We were at SAP's Pittsburgh office. It's a beautiful office. Lots of perks, great location. Helping students understand benefits like that attracts them and keeps them engaged.
Bob Markley: We just started an operational excellence lab. It will let the students look at a manufacturing environment and find ways to improve the overall processes.
We’ve incorporated SAP Business One into it so they can see how running the MRP process will generate production orders and purchase orders directly out of the system and how that affects inventory and the production process.
I want more ways to help students understand the software and the business processes—but helping them understand production is hard because most manufacturers don't want students wandering through their manufacturing process. This lab helps tremendously.
Carl Lewis: Internships with Business One partners are typically for a summer, right?
Bob Markley: Right.
Carl Lewis: So, about two months?
Bob Markley: Most internships are 10 to 12 weeks. But many partners have the students stay part-time during their senior year. Keeping them engaged is a great way to hire them full-time when they graduate.
Carl Lewis: I imagine the 10 to 12 weeks are critical as a more hands-on experience. Going more into the weeds than you can in a classroom.
Bob Markley: Yes. And all the partner experiences are different. Many have worked the students into a junior consulting role on a project, having them help with blueprinting, configuration, and data conversion. Others work them into support roles, handling tickets and lightly training new users.
And about five years ago, I started recruiting marketing students. They work with the partners in marketing, sales, and social media. We run the gamut of a consulting type of organization.
Carl Lewis: That’s interesting. I work under my company’s marketing umbrella, but I’ve had my hands all over the software. I guess that’s unusual.
Bob Markley: Yes.
Carl Lewis: Most of our marketing people don't have that experience, so they've never worked the processes. That skill would be a huge plus.
Bob Markley: One of my students interned for a partner who needed screenshots for marketing materials. They had no idea how to log into the software, navigate to the sales order/purchase order screen, and take the screenshots—but she did it all. Her coworkers were amazed at how well she could navigate the software.
Carl Lewis: Bob, how have you seen education change during the 18 years you’ve been at Saint Vincent College?
Bob Markley: Students are much more technology engaged than when I started. Social media, texting, emailing—they're all very comfortable with technology. I introduce SAP Business One to students in my management information systems (MIS) class, which every business student takes. They need only 10ish minutes of training in the demo system. I don't explain how to navigate—they figure it out themselves.
A surprising change I’ve seen is that most barely know Excel.
Bob Markley: High schoolers—at least from the student groups we recruit from—aren’t introduced to Excel. They’re more comfortable in Business One.
Another thing that’s frustrating to the faculty is that we often have to teach basic study skills like note-taking and test preparation. The pandemic was hard on students coming out of high school—even if they learned those skills, they spent that time not reinforcing them.
Bob Markley: It’s also affecting higher education that many schools no longer require ACT or SAT scores for admission. Saint Vincent College doesn’t, which makes it harder to place students in the correct English and math classes. The MIS course is an overview, where they do some writing, tech work, basic math, etc. Some students excel, and some struggle. So, eliminating the SAT and ACT has made it more challenging to evaluate skills.
Carl Lewis: Understandable. I can see how the pandemic would have affected juniors and seniors. That’s when you refine those skills. Being virtual changes a lot. My grandson is much younger, but I’ve watched him struggle with that environment.
Bob Markley: And they were used to working together over Zoom, and they're relearning skills for doing it in person.
Carl Lewis: What about the future? Any ideas about how your program might change?
Bob Markley: As I mentioned earlier, businesses want more students than I can train. We have 20 students this year, which is the maximum capacity based on the facilities and one-on-one time you need with the students. Some years, I could probably place 25 or 30 in internships because we mostly work with value-added resellers. Customers come to us looking for people to support their SAP Business One environment. Some customers have hired, but the students often go to the value-added resellers before we have an opportunity with the customers.
Bob Markley: And since higher education needs to stay competitive, schools are enticing high school seniors and their parents with programs that would help graduates get into good careers. So, programs like mine will become more popular.
Carl Lewis: We've always done that with certain professions, like medicine. There's classroom work and residency. That's what we're aiming for—students coming on board and quickly ramping up so they can contribute to a business. Your program is a great model. I can say without hesitation that those students are very welcome in the Business One community. And Saint Vincent College has a great reputation because of your contribution.
Bob Markley: Thank you, Carl. I wrote an article for ASUG last summer, and most professors support it. Some are pushing back; they believe higher education is different than career preparation. There's an argument for both, but I think parents want their children to be able to move into a well-paying career. I know students want that, and the SAP businesses appreciate it too!
Carl Lewis: Most of your students are from Pennsylvania, right?
Bob Markley: Right.
Carl Lewis: And they get internships and jobs all over the country. That’s quite an adventure for many. I would adore that if I were a student. Well, Bob, thanks for joining me today. And everyone out there, until we meet again, stay connected.