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The CTO as COO and vice versa

The CTO as COO and vice versa

Oliver Schabenberger talks about his merged role at SAS, and what he believes is the next phase for AI

Data without analytics is value not yet realised

Oliver Schabenberger, SAS

Early this year, Oliver Schabenberger attended a conference where the speaker talked about having just bought a Tesla.

“I love it,” he recalls the speaker saying, “and a couple of days later, I ask, ‘What is next?’”

For Schabenberger, executive vice president at SAS, this simple question reflects what is happening in an environment constantly changed, when enabled, by technology.

“It seems our attention span and our expectations with technology and being surprised by new technology is getting increasingly smaller,” says Schabenberger.

“When we first interact with smart devices, using natural language, the voice, all of a sudden when it works, we will assume it will always work, and it will always be everywhere.”

“So we ask, what’s next?”

“This acceleration is actually quite challenging,” says Schabenberger, who also holds the concurrent role of chief operating officer and chief technology officer at the analytics provider.

He does not, however, see this as a downside as a range of technologies emerge and impact organisations and sectors across the globe.

“I am an optimist. My German background does not suggest that,” he says, smiling.

Schabenberger had moved to the US from his native Germany for his post-graduate degrees, a masters in statistics and a doctorate in forestry.

“I see opportunities, I see the good with technology,” he adds. “I don’t want to get too distracted on what could go wrong.”

At the same time, he explains there should also be awareness on the general implications of technology, and what it means when these technologies replace the work of humans.

Indeed, at the recent AnalyticsX in Milan, Schabenberger says the rise of one of these technologies, artificial intelligence, has also led to a raft of questions, such as: How and why does AI work? What does AI mean for us, for jobs, for societies, for economies? How are we dealing with ethical considerations of this technology? What does the future look like?

Schabenberger recently sat down with CIO New Zealand for his views on how organisations can prepare for the analytics economy and a world that is moving towards the ‘AI of everything’.

The interviews starts with how his conjoined role came about.

“It is an interesting combination, it is pretty unique,” he shares, on his ascent to COO in January this year.

This was on top of his positions as EVP and CTO from August 2016. Before that, he was vice president, analytic server research and development at SAS.

“SAS is a very unusual company,” he states.

It is a private company, established 42 years ago, and still “founder-led” by Dr Jim Goodnight.

SAS CEO Dr Jim Goodnight and COO/CTO Oliver Schabenberger
SAS CEO Dr Jim Goodnight and COO/CTO Oliver Schabenberger

“We don’t necessarily do things like other companies,” he points out.

“There are no templates for a company like SAS.”

“My role is to help him (Goodnight) drive the company strategy to execution,” he discloses. “That is how we create the role of chief operating officer.”

Schabenberger further says, “I am a technologist by heart, I love to work with technology, I like to think about technology, its strategy and vision.”

Hence, the concurrent roles.

He also shares that prior to being COO and CTO, he was global head of R and D.

Today, he no longer sees the day to day operations of R and D (“We invest a lot of money in R and D [26 per cent of revenue], more than twice the industry average,” he points out.) But it remains one of one of several divisions he oversees which include IoT and information technology.

“In that sense, the COO role at SAS is also different from other operations officers who are more focused on day to day operations,” he says. “Those are exactly the areas I am not in.”

Schabenberger discloses, “I am very proud to be CTO and represent the company this way, and to provide the leadership in these times; a voice that cuts through the hype.”

For instance, he likes to spend time thinking about technologies such as IoT, blockchain, AI, and machine learning.

“What will we do as a company, with our products, to react to, and prepare for these? What do they mean as a technology, without the hype, to boil it down to the barebones, and how it can be useful?”

Oliver Schabenberger with (from left) SAS CEO Dr Jim Goodnight, CMO Randy Guard and Chief Sales Officer Nick Lisi
Oliver Schabenberger with (from left) SAS CEO Dr Jim Goodnight, CMO Randy Guard and Chief Sales Officer Nick Lisi

Into #Data4Good 

Schabenberger further reveals how his work on AI, big data, and analytics, permeates into his personal life.

This year, he wore something pink everyday for October, as part of his support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

“My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and that made it very personal,” he discloses.

“I realised I can use my voice, influence, and position to raise awareness of the disease.” 

“It is very powerful for me to find out the efforts we have been doing in the past in cancer research have led to the development of drugs and treatment that today are standard treatments.”

He also says, “They are reducing the mortality of breast cancer and to help in its early detection.”

Schabenberger further discloses, “My wife was prescribed with one of those medications. She is a beneficiary of the past work we did.”

"She was diagnosed at an early stage, because we knew she had risk of breast cancer,” he explains. “Her mother had breast cancer.”

“We were aggressively monitoring it, we found it earlier and we had choices. But not everybody has access to those mammograms and screenings. So how do we change that?”

“How do we raise visibility and awareness and make sure everybody has access [to these]?”

He links this to the involvement of SAS in the #Data4good movement.

Their CEO, Dr Jim Goodnight, is one of the founding members of the CEO Roundtable on Cancer.

Schabenberger says SAS is hosting Project Data Sphere, an independent not for profit initiative of the CEO Roundtable on Cancer. It is a free digital library-laboratory that provides one place, where the research community can broadly share, integrate, and analyse historical, patient-level data from academic and industry phase three cancer clinical trials.

 'It is very powerful for me to find out the efforts we have been doing in the past in cancer research have led to the development of drugs and treatment that today are standard treatments': Oliver Schabenberger
'It is very powerful for me to find out the efforts we have been doing in the past in cancer research have led to the development of drugs and treatment that today are standard treatments': Oliver Schabenberger

“Imagine, cancer trials are being conducted all over the world in isolation. What can we learn from data that is anonymised? Simply, the act of sharing data and bringing different data resources together is bringing new insights in the fight against cancer.”

He stresses, “This is something I am very passionate about, because I believe there is a lot of opportunity for us in using analytics for good, if we have the best data sources possible.

“Many times, it is simply a matter of bringing data together that is sitting in silos, in an organisation, in government.”

His worry is that consumers are turned off from sharing their data.

“Because right now, we are handing over data left and right and companies are using it in a non-transparent manner,” he states.

“If I purchase an IoT device, it communicates with the mother ship, the cloud. What do I get out of this? Is that data being shared for the benefit of the device manufacturer, or is it that to my benefit? I believe that customers will gladly share data if it is used in a transparent way, if it is used for their benefit.”

Cutting through the hype

So how does he keep pace with the evolving technological landscape?

“It is quite difficult,” Schabenberger admits. “Technology is moving at an incredible pace.”

His approach is to go back to the principles of SAS.

“We are a customer-driven company, so we solve the problem because it is a problem for our customer.”

Schabenberger adds, “We don’t just chase technology, [that] because there is a cool thing out there, we have to build something cool.”

“I want to know how it is innovating,” he says.

For him, innovation means improving existing processes, delivering higher performance, greater security, or more functionality.

He then asks a very important question: “Does it matter to our customers?”

Schabenberger states, “If it doesn't matter to our customers, we are not going to spend a lot of cycles on developing the product.”

Nonetheless, he says, they will be spending cycles on understanding the said technology, even if it is something that they may not immediately invest in.

“I am very proud to be CTO, to provide the leadership in these times; a voice that cuts through the hype

Oliver Schabenberger, SAS

This is because their customers come to them and ask them about these new technologies.

“We can articulate to them our position on it and why we think it matters, or does not matter,” he says.

Blockchain is a good example of this type of discussion. Blockchain is high in the hype cycle of technologies. There are some really great opportunities with it, he states.

“From our viewpoint as an analytics provider, it is primarily a data infrastructure, a way to access data that is complete, validated and historically accurate, in one place.”

“The question is, if we have such great data, what kind of analytics can we do with it?”

He discusses their approach with IoT.

“IoT is just the reflection of an increasingly connected and data-driven world,” says Schabenberger.

“And if data flows, analytics needs to be there.”

He explains that, “Data without analytics is value not yet realised, so we have a strong value proposition in applying analytics anywhere data is.”

As data flows in industrial equipment, in sensors, network routers, and cloud data centres, it does not matter where, “we want to be there.”

IoT, he points out, does not live in software alone.

“You need a network, you need infrastructure, you need sensors.”

He stresses that SAS does not build the sensors or the industrial equipment. “It is not our strength.”

An ecosystem of partners

“Let us focus on our strengths, let us find partners,” Schabenberger says on how SAS approaches this.

Rather than stepping outside our comfort zone and trying to build something, he advises, “We should be part of a partner ecosystem that helps us provide IoT capabilities, and together, we actually make each other better.”

One such example is their partnership with GE Transportation, which has EdgeLINC software inside industrial equipment like locomotives. GE Transportation is integrating SAS solutions to decipher locomotive Internet of Things data.

This way they can get analytical insights on their locomotive data in real-time, as well as uncover use patterns to help in operations.

Schabenberger says SAS has hundreds of partners - technology companies, resellers and delivery partners.

“It is about finding the right partner for the right application,” he says.

Octo Telematics CEO Fabio Sbianchi and SAS COO and CTO Oliver Schabenberger at the Analytics Experience in Milan
Octo Telematics CEO Fabio Sbianchi and SAS COO and CTO Oliver Schabenberger at the Analytics Experience in Milan

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He further adds, “We also find partners that we can approach with customers to solve a problem, like the case of GE Transportation.”

When asked which technologies excite him, he answers: “Personally, we are now at a time of history at SAS where I see the confluence of a lot of technologies.”

Maybe, these technologies are “in a bit of isolation, but when you bring them together, it is incredibly powerful.”

Take AI-related technologies.

“Natural language understanding, computer vision, and modern analytical technique...when you bring these to event stream processing, that combination is new,” he states.

According to Schabenberger, AI and computer vision from SAS is being used to analyse soccer games. “It is a fun application, and a cool application. But it also shows the power of that combination.”

Another use of AI is around biomedical image analysis.

“How can we use that to determine whether a cancer patient is a good candidate for chemotherapy?”

“How can we take the knowledge that individual superstars in the healthcare field have, so they can help us build systems that we can deploy at large scale?”

“How can we bring through analytics healthcare in areas where you don’t have high density of physicians? How can we use technology to supplement that as a first line of defence or for triage?”

He lists these major trends -  connectivity, digital transformation, automation, augmentation and intelligence - as incredibly powerful by themselves.

“But put them all together - wow,” he says.

“For example, due to connectivity, you can start a business in your own home that is connected to the rest of the world, in principle.”

There is, however, still one major barrier to doing it, he says. It is language.

“You can use natural language translation and translate any document, any email and voicemail to your language of choice. You can run that business without even knowing or worrying about the language of your customers.”

Schabenberger says, “That is transformational, very powerful... those are the opportunities that we have by bringing those technologies together.”

The next AI front

“The amplification that we get from bringing these technology trends together is the theme we want to continue” in future SAS forums, says Schabenberger.

Citing the recent AI Momentum, Maturity and Models for Success report that SAS commissioned together with Accenture Applied Intelligence and Intel, he says among the goals of organisations in deploying AI are operational efficiency, greater productivity, better safety, and customer experience.

“What we are missing is the truly disruptive combination of these technology trends, when they come together,” he explains.

He applies this to AI and IoT.

“Just because things are connected does not give us learning,” he says.

“How do we use connectivity, not just of internet devices, but devices by themselves?”

Schabenberger proffers one scenario: “Wouldn’t it be great if my flight gets cancelled and as if by magic, the phones of everybody on the flight connect to each other for a moment? We then form an informal network of everybody who needs to solve the task of finding a new way to get home, to rebook a flight and get it sorted out. And, when it is done, we disconnect.”

That is exactly how humans interact, how humans cooperate, he points out.

“We get together, solve a problem, we listen to people, speak, and share ideas.”

He muses, “Maybe there is a model in which inanimate objects can cooperate. We have not defined it yet, but the opportunities are there.”

The technologist in him already has a name for it: ‘The AI of things’.

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