SAS CEO Dr Jim Goodnight on the power of big data, literacy and philanthropy

It is no longer enough to collect the data. You have to take it a step further and become rich in actionable insights.Dr Jim Goodnight, SAS

“My primary mission right now is to encourage people to understand the sheer number of possibilities that are now before us,” says Dr Jim Goodnight, co-founder and CEO of SAS.

After decades of growth, the field of analytics has truly arrived, says Goodnight, in his keynote at the inaugural Analytics Experience conference in Las Vegas.

He says the questions needed to be discussed around analytics are very different now. “We no longer need to persuade anyone on the value analytics can bring today. People want to know more about how, rather than why.”

“We are no longer in our infancy or even in our youth. We are a mature discipline that is embedded in all the best decision making.”

What is happening in analytics today is nothing less than a total revolution, he states in his presentation at the forum, which coincides with the company’s 40th anniversary.

“The past four decades saw a lot of innovation in analytics, but that is nothing compared to what is coming,” he says.

With every organisation rich in data sources, “It is no longer enough to collect the data. You have to take it a step further and become rich in actionable insights.”

The key, he says is to form the “connective tissue” between the insights generated and daily operations.

He says the collective efforts of the company has made analytics easier and faster to use, and opened up benefits to people of all background and skills levels.

“It no longer makes sense to cling to rigid classifications about who can solve which type of problem, or whether you are on the business side or the IT side of the house. Most likely it is a little bit of both.”

He says Viya, which SAS launched early this year, is a transformational platform that was built for both data scientists and business users. It is “for simple analytics and the toughest machine learning problems, for data in motion and data at rest”, he states.

Goodnight points out the most revolutionary part of Viya is that it is open to the most popular analytics languages and can operate on the cloud and on premise.

“There is a real sense of urgency about capturing all the opportunities presented by cutting edge analytics,” he states.

“I would say your biggest challenge would be picking the technology that can grow and flex with future demands, without having to rebuild each time the landscape changes.

“Digital disruption is now a fact of life and every organisation is compelled to have a plan to address it,” he says.

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Customers are very good sources of information.Dr Jim Goodnight, SAS

Building for innovation

He says the work SAS is doing in deep learning, cognitive computing and machine learning, means “a very exciting time” for the company.

But, as he notes during his keynote presentation, the best part of celebrating the company’s 40th anniversary is “not looking back but looking forward to everything that is to come in the analytical driven future”.

In an interview with CIO New Zealand, Goodnight talks about SAS programmes that ensure the company stays ahead in a competitive landscape.

“We stay dominant and relevant because we are a very innovative company,” he says.

“We spend 25 per cent of our revenues on R and D every year, which is more than any other major software company,” says Goodnight, who was a statistics professor at the North Carolina State University when he started working on software for agriculture.

That work led him to become one of the co-founders of SAS, which is now a world leading business analytics software company.

Goodnight reveals that each week, he and SAS team leaders meet to discuss current and proposed programmes.

The meetings include demonstrations so, “we are always aware of things people are working on”.

“Some things we kill and some things, we say, 'this is good to progress','' he states.

These meetings are for internal teams, but he says SAS also regularly invites customers to see what the company is doing. These meetings are a two-way dialogue, as customers discuss their challenges and suggest things they would like SAS to work on.

SAS likewise runs customer advisory boards across the globe, including Australia and New Zealand.

Since 1976, he says, the company has been holding a SASware Ballot. The company asks its customers to vote for the enhancements to SAS software and services that they want implemented.

“We let the people vote on those, to determine what to work on in the next year or two,” says Goodnight.

“Customers are very good sources of information, because they get to look at other software packages and ideas,” he says.

He also discusses an area SAS has devoted a lot of time and resources to, and that is programmes to encourage students to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses.

“I believe that we need more of our kids going into college majoring in STEM disciplines, because that is where the jobs are.

“The innovation is coming from the STEM graduates and that is what creates new jobs, new products,” says Goodnight.

A related advocacy of his is literacy. “Before you can really excel in STEM, you need to know how to read,” he states.

This was the driver behind the creation of SAS Curriculum Pathways, which provides free interactive, standards-based resources in the core disciplines (English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, Spanish) for traditional, virtual and home schools.

Goodnight cites one of the programmes, called Read Aloud, that was inspired by his experiences teaching his children to read.

He explains how it works: “You basically have a simulated book, you point to this underlined word, and the computer pronounces the word for you.”

The user then keeps on pointing to the rest of the underlined words, until they are reading the story. The reader sees words highlighted as the book is automatically read aloud.

Hopefully, he says, when children have done this several times, they will begin to recognise the words themselves.

“That worked for me, because that is how I taught my children,” he says. “I would point to each word as I read it.”

He then asked the team at SAS to develop the software. He says his seven-year-old grandchild used Read Aloud when she was three.

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We need more of our kids going into college majoring in STEM disciplines, because that is where the jobs are.Dr Jim Goodnight, SAS

Data for good

Goodnight talks about another area where SAS is committing its resources - using data and analytics to help solve critical humanitarian issues.

He cites two recent uses of their technology for this purpose, both with The International Organization for Migration, a UN agency.

Three years ago, IOM was among the first agencies on the ground when Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) hit the Philippines in 2013, leaving more than 300,000 people homeless.

IOM did quick surveys to find out what was needed. Staff used SAS Visual Analytics products to answer questions on where the resources were most needed, so they could direct supplies, he states.

In Nepal IOM also provided aid when a powerful earthquake struck in 2015, killing nearly 9000 people and injuring up to 22,000.

IOM was building temporary shelters for the displaced people, but wanted to know where and how to quickly procure sheet metal roofing before the monsoon season.

Using SAS Visual Analytics, IOM was able to determine that Nepal is the world’s seventh largest producer of these roofing sheets, but neighbouring India is the world’s largest producer.

“These projects just scratch the surface of what’s possible when new data, and those that know how to use it, are applied to humanitarian needs,” says Goodnight, who wrote a blog about SAS’ work with IOM during the earthquake in Nepal.

“It’s an exciting time to be in the world of big data and analytics,” he writes. “We’re just beginning to understand how technology can tackle society’s ‘grand challenges’.”

Divina Paredes attended Analytics Experience 2016 as a guest of SAS.

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