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Monday, 25 April 2016 14:00

SAS is way more than analytics software

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SAS is a hugely successful, privately owned, mega analytics software company that lives by good, old fashioned values, to keep its staff and clients inordinately pleased.

I was a guest, along with journalists from 14 other countries, at the SAS media day held at its Carey, North Carolina Headquarters, and at its user conference following in Las Vegas.

The verdict – I was incredibly impressed with the company, its founder, its executive staff, its collective values, and more than a little in awe of what they all had achieved in the past 40 years – let’s not talk about its software yet.

The article is a follow up to my initial musings on Big Data penned a few ‘jet lagged’ hours after arrival at SAS HQ. This article follows numerous paths – more of a blog style.

To understand SAS, you need to know some of the backstory. Otherwise, it is just an analytics software suite, and that description does not begin to do it justice. If you are interested in Big Data and Analytics, and the company that has had the most influence in shaping them, then keep reading.

SAS (pronounced as the word SAS not spelt out as S-A-S) is the undisputed leader in the advanced analytics software space – it has around 40% market share. It has lots of competitors – many in niche areas - like IBM/Cognos, SPSS, SAP, Oracle, Microsoft Business Intelligence, Dell Statistica, and Zuroa.

By advanced analytics I mean it has developed tools to capture, clean, store, and analyse the tsunami of big data generated. Those tools are used by business analysts, data scientists, marketing, C-Level and Board members to reveal links and insights contained in the data and apply those to improving service delivery, infrastructure, customer experience, and much more.

Over the past few years, the world has changed, and you will see the term customer experience (CX) as the chief justification for gathering big data. It does not matter if its used by Government or enterprise – ‘We want to improve CX’ is the catchcry.

While that is a lofty goal what they are really saying is that big data analytics allows them to benefit too via streamlined digital delivery of goods and services (digital transformation) and to make you a happier customer – who spends more!

Let me just say that if you are looking to harness big data and analytics, SAS should be your first stop.

SAS early days

SAS (Statistical Analysis System) was founded 40 years ago as a spin-off from the North Carolina State University. It was co-founded by Tony Barr, James Goodnight, Jane Helwig, and John Sall.

Dr. Jim Goodnight is its sole CEO and has overseen 40 years of continuous positive growth. In his youth, he worked at his father's hardware store. Mathematics and chemistry were his strongest subjects in school thanks to a ‘wonderful chemistry teacher’. He has a Masters in Statistics.

At the time, he said, “A light went on, and I fell in love with making machines do things for other people. He later got a student job writing software for North Carolina’s agricultural economics department and met Barr.

I interviewed Goodnight, who is an active, healthy, erudite, 73-year-old with no intentions of going anywhere. “I love what I do, I am healthy, and I contribute in meaningful ways,” he said.

He has three management philosophies:

  • Help employees do their best work by keeping them intellectually challenged and by removing distractions
  • Make managers responsible for sparking creativity; eliminate arbitrary distinctions between 'suits' and 'creatives'
  • Engage customers as creative partners to help deliver superior products

I asked him what he did to clear his head from the pressures of running such a huge company. “Code,” was the response. The man still has it!

 SAS culture

The little I knew about SAS before I arrived was that (a) it made analytics software and (b) everyone seemed to be really happy with many having been with the company 5, 10, 15, 20 years – or more. SAS has won so many “Great places to work” that it probably needs a bigger trophy case.

Goodnight said, “95% of a company’s assets drive out the front gate every night, the CEO must see to it that they return the following day.” He said that the employee environment and benefits were not just altruistic but made good business sense, “85% of our costs are people. The company’s best practices allow employees to focus on the task – free from distractions.”

The Campus is amazing

I don’t want to get into minutiae because it is too large to drill down too much. Set in 900 acres of pristine, forested, parkland are more than 20 buildings built from 1980 to now, it is where more than 6,000 employees work to make SAS great.

It is laid out campus style with separate buildings dotted over the parkland set among trees, lakes and greenways. Very pleasant.

It has a 12 acre, 2.2 Megawatt, solar farm, specially bred sheep to eat the grass, lakes, water recycling and much more. It has a large grounds staff. It has electric vehicle parking/recharging everywhere.

Goodnight has a philosophy of not outsourcing, “You get a lot better work product when they work for a company they identify with.” We chatted about this but in essence, as the company grew so did its needs for things like advertising, audio-visual support, grounds staff and so much more. “When we could justify insourcing we did so,” he said. I think people just like working for a man that they know looks after them and is transparent and consistent about his values.

“The investments we make in employee health, well-being and work-life balance can be seen in a dedicated workforce, committed to moving up the ranks rather than out the door. SAS’ turnover rate of about 4% - far below the industry average of 15%, which translates into consistent, long-term relationships with our SAS customers,” he said.

About 90% of the employees there use company provided facilities on Campus like:

  • Child care and preschool
  • Primary and Secondary School (open to all)
  • SAS University (open to all)
  • Playing fields and sports teams
  • Health care centre for employees and their family – doctors, nurses and pharmacy
  • Free recreation, swim and fitness centre
  • Life support – free financial, legal, wellness and work/life counselling
  • Investment in emerging leadership programs, tuition programs, technical training and business development - talent is the key to innovation
  • The 5-star Umstead Hotel and Spa
  • Most buildings have a coffee shop and some have huge restaurant grade cafeterias
  • Beautiful sculptures and art throughout

In other country offices, SAS subsidises things like gym memberships and offers a work environment that keeps people happy and focused. It focuses on four areas: Your money, health, career, and life.

Its latest Building C houses about 600 workers – most of which have their own discrete offices (another Goodnight philosophy – none of the open space distractions for them). It is LEED-certified Platinum – the highest level for a sustainable building.

SAS giving back

I want to mention briefly the major education initiatives that SAS undertakes globally. In essence, it provides its full software suite free to eligible teacher and students; it has numerous scholarships; it helps develop masters and undergraduate programs; and actively encourages women to enter STEM courses.

Goodnight was pragmatic, “It started because we needed trained staff then we realised that everyone who learned SAS was a potential client later. No-one has the educational underpinnings that we do.”

It was clear from the massive conference in Las Vegas that everyone was there to learn more – head down and bum up in sessions to get a high take home value was more important than partying – that is what delegates told me anyway!

SAS Size

Reported revenue in 2015 was US$3.16B – the majority of which is recurring licence revenue and its software sales increased by 12%. It reinvests about 25% of revenue in research and development and a great deal more in education and community activities.

It has over 14,000 employees, customers in 148 countries and 91 of the top 100 companies on the Fortune Global 500 are its customers. Its solutions scale from very small to very large.

SAS is privately owned and will remain that way for the foreseeable future. Goodnight did say that he receives frequent offers to sell, but he feels it may jeopardise what SAS is about – the backstory. “Most of our competitors have gotten into the market by acquisition, and you can so easily lose what makes that company special in the first place,” he said.

SAS uses and users

In general terms, the Banking/Finance/Insurance industries were first to embrace Big Data and analytics – its SAS’ strongest market.

Emerging markets are retail (especially online), and it announced its updated Customer Intelligence 360 that serves as a new digital marketing hub that unites data from all channels to help users make smarter decisions and improve their customers’ experience.

All levels of Government and utilities are huge users especially for forward infrastructure planning but also in digitalising its services to provide them online. It is also using analytics to minimise welfare and tax fraud. Essentially it can model what is ‘good or usual’ then simply look for departures from that.

Healthcare, Health Insurance, and sports analytics are growing markets. Analytics are improving patient care, operations outcomes, reducing risks and increasing patient health. At the same time, the money to pay for these is more efficiently used as it provides risk and cost containment. Sports analytics give teams the edge and are also used to engage with their supporters.

Then there is the emerging IoT where 20 billion ‘sensors’ provide data that needs to be analysed and acted on. More on that in another article here.

In all, it has over 24 different industry solutions and many more one-off users.

Summary

I think the worst thing you can do when looking at analytics software is to try and compare it – well analytically. Sure you can set up a spreadsheet and compare functions and features but from what I see its more about how you use the tools and what support you have from the company.

To me, SAS was just an analytical suite. Now it is a company with a rich history, an amazing staff and customer focus, and the safe bet that it can do whatever you can dream up. If that sounds like an endorsement so be it - it is a free, unbiased one arrived at after talking to hundreds of C-Level staff, employees, customers and industry partners.

It got to the stage that I had to start asking what the downside was – had they all been drinking the same ‘Kool-Aid’ (a figure of speech that refers to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination).

Without exception, everyone was glowing, and later I learned that out of 62 analytics vendors SAS was the top performer with a net promotor score of 57.

I still have a few interviews to write up covering education and privacy and will do so soon.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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