One-on-One with SAP 'Demo Boy' Ian Kimbell

By Thomas Wailgum , CIO.com |  Software, SAP, Sapphire

If you've ever been to a large-scale SAP software demonstration or to a Sapphire show within the last 10 years, then you have likely witnessed the quick-witted antics of Ian Kimbell, SAP's self-proclaimed "Demo Boy."

When people mention Kimbell on the Web, he's most often referred to as the "always entertaining Ian Kimbell," and that's because he has a talent for making SAP product demos not only interesting but also fun. His cheeky disposition is the perfect foil for SAP executives intent on delivering the product pitch to audience members whose attention easily drifts to their BlackBerrys or Twitter posts. (To read an account of Kimbell's performance at SAP's Business Suite 7 launch, see "SAP's Most Recent 'Big News' Teleconference, Translated for Mere Mortals.")

In essence, Kimbell, whose official title is "Office of the CEO," is like that fun-loving uncle that every likes to be around. Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum caught up with Kimbell one day at the 2009 Sapphire conference.

CIO.com: So when someone who doesn't know you asks you what you do for a living, what do you tell them?

Ian Kimbell: I tell them I'm the demo boy at SAP. I tell them basically what I do is support our senior executives and their underlying messages at major conferences around the world. Which makes them a little bit envious sometimes. It's a very enjoyable job.

CIO: Are you as "cheery" and quick-witted offstage in your personal life as you appear when you're up on stage?

Kimbell: I think that's something you need to ask the people around me! I have fun. Life short, and I think it's worth living. I enjoy it, and I try to make other people around me enjoy it to.

CIO: Are you a diva when you're not on stage?

Kimbell: [Laughs]

CIO: Are you denying that you're a diva?

Kimbell: I would rather say that I'm a stage hog, rather than a diva.

CIO: What's your secret to keeping the crowds engaged on these demos that could be painfully boring in the hands of less skilled or less enthusiastic people?

Kimbell: The secret is to make it enjoyable for them. The two priorities I have in any demo is: 1. To support whatever message SAP is trying to bring out. 2. Is to pitch it at the right level to the audience. I make no assumptions of the knowledge of the audience. If I'm doing demos for a customer, we're talking about high level.

But in a typical Sapphire one, you've got so many different industries, you've got so many people from every different walk of life, so you have to pitch to make it understandable for everybody. Even the people who know the subjects very well are then engaged because it just re-confirms what they know. There's no danger in pitching anything too low. You just need to make sure everybody can understand it.

CIO: Do you rehearse with the SAP executives beforehand?

Kimbell: It varies from individual to individual. We will talk through, at the initiation of a speech, about what the key messages are. Then we'll work through with them. It's a very iterative process. I have a rule that I will only rehearse once on the day before the demo to make sure the spontaneity is there. If you rehearse too much, you can lose the spontaneity.

CIO: So you're able to go off script when needed?

Kimbell: As you may have seen from the keynote this morning [with Hasso Plattner], that's more than necessary in some cases.

CIO: You sometimes speak fast when you're up stage. Do you have an internal monitor that tells you to slow yourself down?

Kimbell: I do. That was one of my biggest problems. I do tend to speed up sometimes on stage. There's a team back stage that will help me. They have monitors in front of me and they will flash me very obvious and indiscrete warning messages if I'm going too fast.

CIO: What will they say?

Kimbell: "Ian, you're going too fast, dear boy."

CIO: What's the worst thing that's happened to you up on stage in front of thousands of people?

Kimbell: It was at Sapphire three years ago. I was with Hasso on stage, and I had a mobile device in my hand that we were demonstrating. The manufacturer of this device had told us that it was indestructible. We had literally played football with it across the stage the day before.

So I came on the stage, and before I was going to demonstrate it, I dropped it on the floor to show to the audience that SAP will run on any device, including these very rugged handhelds, I didn't realize that something actually broke inside. So when I picked it up and tried to demo with it, it was just broken. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. The executive I was demoing with had a fit of giggles, which didn't help.

CIO: What about the best moment?

Kimbell: It was the very first Sapphire I did, in Berlin in 2000, and I think it's one of the things I did that got me catapulted into the limelight. I was demonstrating something, and one person in the audience had started clapping. But it was sort of an embarrassing experience for me because I had shown some functionality that this customer wanted very badly, and then started clapping very loudly. And it was just one person clapping, and it was embarrassing for me because there was only one person clapping. And it was embarrassing for the audience, because they were going: Should we clap?

And this phrase popped into my head, and I thought, Should I say it? Should I not say it? And I thought, I'm going to say it anyway. So I whispered under my breadth, "Yeah, thanks, Mum." The microphone picked it up and boomed it across the audience. It was one of the most elated moments of my life. It's an incredible experience to make that many people laugh and get the audience on your side.

CIO: Who's the easiest SAP executive to work with on stage, and who's the toughest?

Kimbell: [Laughs] That's an interesting question. Why don't you just nail me up on a cross? How about this: It's most challenging when the executive changes his mind very shortly prior to the keynote speech.

Do you Tweet? Follow me on Twitter @twailgum. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.

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