We try to make sure everybody is working on very challenging projects and cutting edge stuff
‘Think like a startup’, ‘partner with startups’.
There is no shortage of advice like the above, for organisations rethinking their business models in the age of digitalisation.
However, for Jim Goodnight, the startup territory is familiar terrain. He says SAS has been working this way for more than four decades.
“We do work with a number of startups, but SAS is a continuous startup business,” says Goodnight, as he talks about the analytics company he co-founded 41 years ago.
“We continue to develop new things, we bring new people in with new ideas and all these tend to surface through new products.
“We are always looking at encouraging people to create their own ideas,” he says.
Every two weeks, SAS has some of these people present to the executives in the company on what they are working on, and what are some of the issues and trends they are seeing in the market.
“Then we decide whether we will provide more funding to give them more support,” says Goodnight.
This approach has been recognised by industry analysts, as SAS has consistently been in the top 10 list of best companies to work for.
“Because we are one of the best places to work, it is easy for us to attract talent,” he says. “Plus, all the cutting edge work we do appeals to people.”
Social responsibility, especially for millennials, is very important...They want to work for a company they can be proud of.
He says this is crucial for technical staff, who find “the most important aspect of their job is the challenge”.
Thus, he says, “we try to make sure everybody is working on very challenging projects and cutting edge stuff as well.”
About 30 per cent of the SAS workforce are millennials.
“The main difference is they like to work in groups versus by themselves,” he says, on how this group, referring to those born after 1980, is impacting the workplace.
The SAS campus in Cary, North Carolina took this into account when designing its new buildings, with more spaces s for collaborative meetings.
At the recent Analytics Experience in Amsterdam, Goodnight talks about the emergence of an analytics economy, where analytics provide organisations opportunities to either move ahead - or fall behind.
He says ''democratising the analytics economy'', is a major component to ensure organisations move in the first direction.
One way SAS is doing this, is to allow more people to access its analytics platform Viya.
“We are making it more open and available for all different types of people to use,” not only computer scientists and statisticians.
One of the cutting edge areas SAS is working in is with the company SciSports. That company is tipped to be one of the next European ‘unicorns’, referring to startups that are valued at more than $1 billion.
SciSports worked with SAS to develop systems to predict the future performance of players.
"We are trying to move object recognition down to our streaming engines," he says.
“You can keep track of the different players in the field and how fast they are moving, how fast they just kicked the ball and all those statistics add up,” says Goodnight. “We felt like no one else was doing this and we wanted to be the first to be able do it."
He says one of the biggest applications of the company's technology is cybersecurity.
This is done through the use of Event Stream Processing, to analyse everything that is happening, or as he puts it, “all of the connections that are being made”.
It could be a desktop computer talking to a server and all of a sudden they are showing scanning activities, looking for open portals, and communicating with “some bad guys on the outside”.
“We can spot all of that,” he says, “and that takes a huge amount of data that is coming through our streaming engine. We are talking 400,000 or more events a second happening in large companies.”
He says the technology is also used in US police ‘fusion centers’, which receive, analyse and share threat-related information across government agencies and private sector partners.
To be an innovative country, you are going to need people that are educated in STEM...That is where most ideas and new products come from.
Analytics for good
Goodnight explains how all the cutting-edge projects the staff work on are done in parallel with another goal - to use analytics to help solve social problems.
SAS is involved in the Data for Good movement, which encourages using data in meaningful ways to solve humanitarian issues around poverty, health, human rights, education and the environment.
One such project, GatherIQ, is a crowdsourcing community of volunteers who work with not for profits.
A recent programme SAS got involved in is with the Sepsis Alliance. The not for profit aims to raise awareness on this medical emergency. Sepsis is the body’s life-threatening response to infection, which can lead to tissue damage, organ failure and death.
As SAS points out, more Americans know of Ebola, which is nearly nonexistent in the US, while Sepsis affects more than 1.6 million Americans every year.
A patient can die from sepsis within 12 hours, yet it is a preventable disease which affects more than 250,000 people in the US and five million worldwide each year.
At the Analytics Experience in Amsterdam, Pieter Christiaan van Oranje-Nassau, a member of the Dutch Royal family and vice chairman of the board of the Dutch Red Cross, talked about using SAS analytics for a ‘smart aid initiative’.
He says the 510 mission, (510 refers to the total surface area of the earth in km squared) aims to shape the future of humanitarian aid by converting data into quantifiable components and putting it into the hands of humanitarian relief workers, decisions makers and people affected during a disaster.
For instance, this data is used to predict which area would be flooded first and most affected, and where the poorest would be living.
“We should be able to share data more frequently and use data,” says Pieter Christiaan van Oranje-Nassau “and see how to make humanitarian aid more effective. There are gaps that need to be solved. This is not a want, it is a need.”
SAS software is also used by the UN Migration Agency (IOM). Leonard Doyle, head of media and communications at IOM, talks about how data and analytics wielded effectively, can change lives.
Doyle talks about the "uberfication of aid", with the creation of a simple tool that can collect information from every agency in the field. With this process, information coming from the displaced people gets quickly fed into the system for quicker decision making.
Goodnight says SAS helps to ensure a certain number of people graduate each year, to help fill jobs that are needed for these types of work and to advance the analytics economy.
Over the past eight years, he says, the company has been working with colleges and universities around the world to create advanced analytics masters programmes.
To date, it has launched 65 masters programmes and 140 certificate programmes in analytics and related disciplines.
In addition, more than 1.2 million people have downloaded SAS University Edition or SAS OnDemand for Academics. The university edition provides SAS foundational technologies to anyone, for free.
Related to this advocacy is Goodnight's advocacy to encourage more students to go into STEM (science technology, engineering and maths) degrees.
“I believe that in the future to be an innovative country, you are going to need people that are educated in STEM,” says Goodnight.
“That is where most ideas and products come from.
“There are a few that come from non-STEM areas, but they are not as impactful as those coming from STEM areas.”
He says SAS has a scholarship programme for STEM students at the North Carolina State University.
The programme pays for the tuition of students from low to middle-income families who are majoring in STEM. This year, they have more than 200 scholars.
Goodnight says the “biggest push” the company made over the past year, has been to get the legislature to provide more funding for pre-Ks - four-year-old children - to teach them the basics of reading and mathematics.
This, he says, will especially benefit low-income families, whose children may not be as prepared to go into kindergarten, compared to those coming from middle-class families.
“They do not have the exposure of parents asking questions like, ‘what is this colour? What letter is this?’ Those games go on in middle-class families all the time, but not so much in lower-income families,” he states.
“So to make up for the difference, we need at least to start them out sooner,” he says. “This is all part of a concentration on making sure kids can read by third grade.
“We want 100 per cent [reading] proficiency by third grade,” he says.
“In the US, if you do not read proficiently by the third grade, you are four times more likely not to finish high school,” he says. “If you don’t finish high school, you don’t have much of a chance.”
“I think every corporation needs to review its social responsibility,” says Goodnight, on this key focus of SAS. “What are they planing to do for the community as a whole, versus what they are going to do for themselves?
“Social responsibility, especially for millennials, is very important,” he points out.
“They want to work for a company they can be proud of.”
Divina Paredes attended the 2017 Analytics Experience conference in Amsterdam as a guest of SAS.
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