In today’s hyper-connected world, technology underpins countless everyday actions and transactions. And when it’s working really well, we don’t even know that it’s there.

Perhaps that’s why the enterprise software firm SAP—though well known in business—is not a household name, even though most of us likely interact with the firm's technology every day. So central is SAP to the global supply chain that whether you’re downloading music on iTunes, buying packaged goods or drinking a glass of wine, the chances are that SAP touched it at some point.

With reach like that, SAP is a large employer, with over 88,500 employees in 130 countries. But it’s not just big: the US branch (headquartered just outside Philadelphia) is one of the top-rated tech employers on Indeed’s company pages. This year, the 45-year old firm pulled ahead of some of the most buzzed about young companies in Silicon Valley to secure the #5 spot on our list of the best places to work in tech.

We chatted with Jewell Parkinson, Head of HR for SAP North America, to learn more about what makes SAP such an extraordinary company and place to work.

Placing purpose at the core of the business

So just how does a firm founded in Germany in 1972 when Don McLean was riding high in the charts with "American Pie" keep pace with younger competitors? According to Parkinson, the challenge posed by young, hungry firms is itself important, as it provides an incentive to be continually innovating.

But that’s not all: “strong leadership and vision and culture” are fundamental. “We think about the root of why we exist, what is our purpose in society and what value do we still want to have?” The answer?  “It really is about driving a vision which we have been consistently articulating for the past decade: helping the world run better and improving people's lives.”

And in a world where most if not all industries are being transformed by new technologies, SAP’s ability to provide insight and access to information is increasingly valuable, says Parkinson. “It's almost as if we've never been more relevant,” she adds. But it’s not just about ensuring a smoother supply chain flow. SAP views tackling big picture challenges, such as climate change, food shortages and clean water supply problems as part of its mission.

“These are things that technology can directly influence, and this is where we see a particular passion, given that we specialize in over 28 industries around the world,” she says.

Groundbreaking diversity initiatives

What else keeps SAP innovative? Parkinson says it’s a commitment to bringing together diverse groups of talent and capitalizing on their unique perspectives. SAP diversity initiatives have been recognized for driving real, measurable results.  

For example, in 2013, the company’s leaders set a goal that 25% of the company’s leadership would be comprised of women by 2017. Not only did SAP reach that goal, but it became the first technology company to receive an EDGE (Economic Dividends Gender Equality) certificate for its commitment to achieving gender parity.

“We're very proud to have achieved that and now we're embarking on our re-certification process,” says Parkinson.

SAP is also continuing to improve workplace equality in other areas through its networks for communities of color and the LGBTQ community.  But perhaps one of the company’s most groundbreaking diversity initiatives is called Autism at Work, which facilitates hiring and integrating individuals on the autism spectrum into the SAP workforce.

“This falls under our differently-abled pillar or strategy, and we have found tremendous success with hiring individuals on the autism spectrum, who bring tremendous gifts and different skill sets that really resonate with a number of jobs that we have at SAP. We now have close to 130 colleagues around the world who are on the spectrum, the highest number being in the U.S., where we have close to 45, and we have a goal to increase that representation.”

“This is a community of talent—yet 80 percent of people on the spectrum largely go unemployed, even though many are highly educated, have advanced degrees and have a number of skill sets that meet the needs of enterprise,” Parkinson points out.

Harnessing data to improve HR practices

SAP processes and analyzes massive amounts data, and it puts those insights to good use by improving efficiency and reducing bias for HR professionals and departments.

One of SAP’s most interesting initiatives is the Business Beyond Bias campaign, which uses machine learning to cut back on gender bias in job postings.

“We actually have algorithms that review job postings, and make recommendations on content and language changes that make the profile more gender neutral,” Parkinson says.  

The result? Postings that have gone through a gender neutral review receive more female applicants, giving hiring managers more diverse groups of applicants.

SAP aims to promote pay equity and fairness by applying this technology to performance assessments. Parkinson brings up the example of an employee who has historically been rated as a high performer, but who hasn’t received a salary increase reflective of that great performance.

“You have algorithms that can pick that up, and make it more visible and transparent to the decision maker.”

The company also uses robotics to improve parts of the onboarding process, such as putting together onboarding packages. “Historically, that was done by people, which takes a lot of time and is subject to error,” says Parkinson.

SAP is automating some of that process, leading to a more time efficient, cost efficient and accurate solution.

Giving back—on a global scale

One of the most unique opportunities at SAP comes from the company’s social sabbaticals. These three to four week programs bring together employees with different skill sets and send them around the world.

“It's a program that really is intended to serve two purposes,” says Parkinson. “One is to live up to our values to help the world run better and improve people's lives by going in and using talent—employees from SAP who have different skill sets, from different parts of the business—to go in to help solve business challenges within, largely, the entrepreneurial sector within emerging markets.”

“But it’s also a developmental learning experience for our colleagues, many of whom are high performing and who do have the ambition and desire to give back and translate their knowledge and know how into real world experiences that can help some of the entrepreneurial segment around the world, largely in emerging markets. There are specific deliverables that we are accountable to achieve . . . it's been wonderfully received,” she adds.

The program, which has an open application process twice a year, is extremely popular among employees, says Parkinson, who completed her own three-week sabbatical in Ethiopia in 2017. “It was an extraordinary experience,” she says.

This program not only gives employees a chance to see the world and make meaningful change, but it may be one of the most direct embodiments of SAP’s core goals - “To live up to our values to help the world run better and improve people's lives.”