Daniel, you are of half Singaporean, half German descent. Tell us about your life and your university career in these two countries.
I grew up in Paderborn, Germany and later moved to Karlsruhe to study computer science at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). I always wanted to study overseas, so I spent a year at the National University of Singapore (NUS) as an exchange student. After my exchange, I completed my studies in Karlsruhe and returned to Singapore to pursue my Ph.D. in the area of natural language processing.
The university system in Singapore is very different from the system in Germany. The Singaporean model is similar to the Anglo-American system, with a very structured, didactic approach to learning, including continuous assessments, projects, and graded assignments. In Karlsruhe, the curriculum was less structured and students had a lot more academic freedom in their studies. The computer science curriculum was very theoretical and had a strong focus on mathematics. That made the first years of studying quite dry and even painful at times. In retrospect, however, I realize how important this deep understanding of fundamental concepts is, and I am happy that I studied at the KIT.
When and why did you make the decision to study computer science?
I have never really considered studying anything else but computer science. My mother has been working as a software engineer for over 30 years, so you can say it runs in the family. I have been programming since I was a teenager, starting with languages like QBasic and Pascal.
And why did you move to Singapore after finishing university in Germany?
Truth be told, the reason I moved to Singapore was that I met my future wife in Singapore. We met at the university when I was an exchange student and my wife was doing medical school. I had promised to come back to Singapore, so I applied for the NUS Graduate School and got the Ph.D. scholarship. When I was just finishing up my Ph.D., SAP Research opened a new location here. I was just extremely lucky that everything worked out so well.
Let’s start talking about your life/ work in Singapore. What is your daily schedule like in this unique city?
I live near the Innovation Center, so I usually start my day by walking or jogging to work and hitting the gym before work. I usually spend the morning answering emails and reading research papers. The rest of the day is usually busy with meetings and discussions with students, universities, project teams, and customers. I still do research in machine learning and natural language processing whenever I find time, but I increasingly delegate and manage research activities in our research team and coordinate our efforts with the activities in the other Innovation Centers rather than doing the work myself.
Let’s stick to the city and its vibrant culture. Singapore is known as a “Smart City.” Is this something you are confronted with through your work?
Yes, definitely. Singapore’s ambition is to become the world’s first “smart nation” and to be a test bed for smart cities technology. Smart Cities is also a strategic initiative in the Innovation Center Network and is the main initiative for our location. Over the past two years, we have done several projects and prototypes related to smart cities, ranging from smart port to smart retailing and smart traffic and public transportation. While smart cities are widely regarded to be the answer to urbanization challenges of the future, we have also learned that finding tangible use cases beyond fancy demos is not always easy. At the moment, our development team is working on a consumer-centric smart cities project that aims to bring together citizens, the city administration, and local retailers. At the same time, our research team is already looking for new ideas that we can tackle in this space.
Moreover, you are a team leader in Singapore. How many people are working with you and what makes your team unique?
I am very fortunate to work with a very diverse and talented team here in the Innovation Center. We are a fairly large location with close to 70 full-time engineers and researchers. I am leading the core research team which is consisting of nine researchers including myself. All of us have a Ph.D. or Masters in Computer Science or information systems and bring in expertise in a particular domain (for example, natural language processing, optimization, user experience, cloud storage systems, supply chain, or pattern recognition). On top of that, we have over a dozen Ph.D. students who are part of our SAP Industry Ph.D. program, which we have established with the local universities in Singapore.
What makes our team unique is the great mix of talented young people who are determined to create impact through SAP. As most of the team has joined SAP only within the last two years, they bring in fresh perspectives from outside the company.
Finally: what makes the Innovation Center in Singapore matchless?
We are sitting in a very unique location with pretty much all the right ingredients in place; Singapore is one of the world's major commercial hubs, an international financial center, and a global transport and logistics hub. Singapore is also attracting some of the best research institutions and universities. We can go up and down in our CREATE research center and meet with half a dozen top universities from all over the world. We are very proud that the SAP Innovation Center is currently the only commercial lab in the center. Finally, with the SAP APJ headquarters in Singapore, we have the right connection to our field organization and SAP customers in the region.