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Setting trends

Friday 15.11.2019 Christian Walter
Christian Walter

Christian Walter ist Geschäftsführer und Redaktionsleiter von swiss made software. Bis Ende 2010 arbeitete er als Fachjournalist für das ICT-Magazin Netzwoche, publizierte zuletzt aber auch im Swiss IT Magazin, der Computerworld sowie inside-it.

Businesses using ERP today expect both longevity and innovation. Abacus masters this by combining careful technological planning with substantial creative freedom for its staff.

“Our key focus is on setting new trends. And so we choose the right technology to do that,” explains Philipp Zwahlen, Co-Head of Development at Abacus, which is based in St. Gallen. One example is AbaWeb. In 2007, this was one of Switzerland’s first SaaS offerings. The app allowed an accountant’s corporate clients to log in and check their balance, for example, while the accountant continues to take care of bookkeeping. 

Abacus has a dedicated innovation department, which reports directly to the CEO. The innovation department analyzes new concepts and technologies, developing prototypes to test their assumptions. If the prototypes turn out well, the idea is handed over to the development teams. 

These each work with different ERP modules (financial accounting, payroll, accounts receivable/payable, real estate, etc.) and are largely autonomous. “We don’t tend to look over our people’s shoulders. There’s a clear goal, and other than that, just: make something cool.”

Trust your instinct

The HR solution launched in 2018 is a fine example of this. We specifically selected the Vaadin Java framework, then built a prototype which the corresponding team used to develop a deployable solution.
Our teams are so autonomous that there isn’t even a uniform approach to software development across the company. The teams decide for themselves whether to use Scrum, Kanban, or another method.

The way innovation happens at Abacus is closely linked to the company’s nature as a product manufacturer. “We have to guarantee our customers that our products will last, which is why we make tech decisions with longevity in mind. Following all the latest hype is just bad for business,” Zwahlen explains. This cautionary approach has proven itself many times over. “Many times, we’ve built tools and frameworks ourselves, even though there were already solutions available on the market. But these would sometimes disappear again in a few years. If we’d taken the obvious approach back then, we’d have had massive problems.” 

Aside from longevity, the other reason for making tech decisions on this basis is the complexity of the material. “It takes time for anyone to really become familiar with a module. Developers don’t just need to understand the technology, but the process, too, and the regulatory environment,” Zwahlen says.

Alternative concepts and challenges

The developers’ breadth of knowledge is also why product improvements are primarily initiated at the team level. “Technology provides the basis for product advancement.”

Abacus has gone against some of the common thinking in IT, like the idea that only companies that follow the latest tech trends will succeed, and that only companies like this can attract younger employees. “We have a lot of young people and there’s very little turnover,” says Zwahlen. 

The company is supportive when employees want to switch around within the company, for example, when a completely new team is being set up, which was the case with the development of the HR solution mentioned above. Half of the team was new to the company, while the other half transferred internally. “Anyone looking for a challenge will find their place here,” says Zwahlen. 

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