Thursday, 19 April 2018 08:51

Top takeaways from SAS Global Forum 2018


Analytics software company SAS held its annual Global Forum last week. Among product announcements, there is a lot of smart thinking that organisations worldwide can benefit from. Here’s my pick.

It’s a privilege and pleasure to attend large technology conferences and events in the US and elsewhere; it’s fascinating to learn the advances in software made by these organisations, as well as how they help enterprises and government solve real problems.

However, it’s not just about tech; I am always seeking to identify the industry trends that emerge, the solutions emerging to common global enterprise problems, and simply what’s becoming the new normal in big business from organisations far larger than my own, to bring back whatever inspiration and direction I can for us all to take into our businesses and thinking.

I've recently returned from Denver, Colorado, where I attended SAS' Global Forum 2018. SAS is an interesting company, with novel characteristics:

  1. It remains a privately owned business, yet is the world’s leading analytics software business.
  2. It invests 26% of its revenues — not profits, but revenues — into research and development, over twice the industry average.
  3. It has enjoyed growth every single year in its 41 years of operation, without exception.
  4. It has had a single chief executive this entire time, since inception.
  5. The company places a high value on culture and employees. It has received accolades for its workplace design; it has been studied in business schools as an example of a model employee; it was the basis for much of Google’s thinking when designing the Googleplex. Yet, while Google’s workplace culture is well publicised, it is SAS that inspired Google.

Consequently, it’s fair to say SAS can teach other companies a thing or two about how to run a leading business – not just a business, not just a good business, but a business that strives and surpasses ideals of excellence.

The next big thing

We all know about the cloud; if your business is not embracing a cloud strategy then you’re already behind your competition. The cloud is not simply a “thing” and nor is it an end in itself; the cloud is an enabler that brings massive computing power and storage and vastly scalable resources to whatever challenge you have. It’s also an equaliser, giving this power to a business of any size and revenue.

The cloud was still news in 2016 when I attended global conferences, and arguments were still being made as to why you should be paying attention to the cloud. However, by 2017 the conversation had shifted and it was all about machine learning. The cloud was simply considered normal now. Where Oracle, NetSuite, AWS, VMware, Splunk and others were headed was down an artificial intelligence route, underpinned by machine learning, introducing smarts into their products to help human operators be more efficient and focus their energies on things that delivered the greatest value.

In 2018, AI is still big news, but the Internet of Things has risen to the surface. While IoT is not new, it has become big again. This is due to the convergence of several factors:

  1. The range of devices has increased, and their cost has decreased. It becomes increasingly realistic that things can be Internet-connected because the technology to do so is coming into existence and is affordable.
  2. As IoT is increasingly embraced, the volume of data being generated is massively increasing.
  3. It is increasing so much it can never be effectively managed in real-time by any human operator.

Researchers believe there will be 55 billion Internet-connected devices by 2025, and it will become increasingly critical to have AI-based analytics performing real-time inspection and actions on the vast traffic coming from these devices.

If your business is already on-board with IoT you will do well to consider what you are doing with that data and whether your current software tools aid you in management and decision-making. If you are not currently using IoT you may wish to think about if you could. Excitingly, we're quite literally on the verge of the worlds of science fiction where anything could and can be Internet-connected if it makes business sense to do so.

Enabling self-driving cars to make decisions about braking and lane changes, or identifying predictive maintenance on industrial equipment saving unplanned downtime costs all stand to reason, but why not sensors on glasses so waiters know when to refill your drink – or any other thing that might initially sound trite but could transform your business if only they existed.

Company culture

iTWire spoke to Dr Jim Goodnight, chief executive of SAS, about the fact that the company is consistently cited as a great employer.


"The most important thing is a challenge," Goodnight said. "A challenging environment and a challenging job — that’s what STEM workers are interested in — and that ranks higher than salary."

Dr Oliver Schabenberger, SAS chief operating officer and chief technology officer, adds, "we are known to invest very heavily in research and development (R&D). We had $3.24b revenue last year and we reinvested 26% of that revenue into R&D. This is twice the industry average, and is innovation-driven."


It’s an interesting situation to have one person hold two C-level roles. Schabenberger explains, “I have been recently appointed COO where I execute the strategic objectives of the company and implement business priorities. However, I still love the CTO role, setting the strategic technology and thought leadership. We’re in an era when analytics and data and digital disruption is very hot. Everyone wants to change their way, everyone needs an analytic strategy today. There’s a lot of noise and buzz but I enjoy providing a well thought-out message on what some of those technologies mean.”

One concern Dr Schabenberger warns about is hype around artificial intelligence. “So much good work can be done, but there is a danger in lumping too much under the umbrella,” he warns, speaking about the "AI winter" of some decades ago where AI was previously on the global radar.

“Expectations were so high it was just not achievable and when it was realised we weren’t going to achieve what was going to happen everyone stepped away. You couldn’t publish or get funding and [the hype] damaged the effort.”

However, “now the technology is right and the opportunity is right. We need to meet expectations and understand boundaries and limitations on what AI can deliver".

When it comes to marketing, Randy Guard, chief marketing officer, explains he's really a chief growth officer, offering a view which may be interesting in your business.


Guard says he most certainly has a team under him who take care of putting on events and running demand generation and all the typical aspects of a marketing division. However, his role also entails incubating new business units before handing them over to the operational divisions of the business. "Two years ago we formed an IoT group," he says, "and now we've created the IoT division, set it up on its own to be a $100 million unit, and it reports to the COO."

"I find growth units, work with the executive team, with the domain experts and cultivate them. Then I set them free to run and to do the business they need to do."

Guard also offers the view data science is so important to any organisation that it "shouldn't be in the basement". Instead, he says, "the leadership team of the company need to have business analysts in their line-of-function, and not have them outsourced to one single department".

Proctor and Gamble provides an example of this, Guard says. Their executive boardroom is shaped like a football and the executive for each line of the business  has their business analyst with them. They can bring up screens with applications and information like net promoter score while talking, providing factual information then and there. This compares favourably to a meeting full of "political banter, where everyone goes off with their version of the truth", he says.

Customer obsession and data first

iTWire spoke to Sameer Gupta, the inaugural chief analytics officer for DBS Bank, a longstanding SAS customer who was presenting at the event. DBS stands for “Development Bank of Singapore” and trades in several markets. While many financial institutions think having “an app” is how to thrive in the digital world, DBS aims to be a leading digital-first bank, and Sameer’s appointment as CAO is strong evidence this is action, and not simply rhetoric.


The CAO role is new to DBS, but the role was created as a strategic move recognising the huge need for data analytics to achieve digital transformation. Previously, DBS certainly had analytics staff and teams but they were spread across different departments. The CAO role now sees analytics focused at the highest level, with an overview of the entire bank. There are four components to the CAO role, Gupta explains.

  1. Building an analytics centre of excellence with a data science team performing high-end analytics;
  2. Implementing culture change to get staff excited about data and what it means for them in their own roles and deliverables;
  3. Managing bank-level data governance and access; and
  4. Managing the data technology, both in terms of the team and the data lake itself along with compute and all other elements around it.

Sameer explains two things are needed for  a company to shift its mindset to digital-first, in the case of DBS from “bank” to “fintech.” First, you need a “bit of paranoia,” he says. It is important for the organisation to embrace an entire shared vision, and concern over how to execute completely, what your competitors are doing, and security are imperative to thrive in the new world.

“Secondly,” he adds, “you need customer obsession. Banks have not been very good at this. If you look at a bank traditionally it has the face of ‘I am the bank, you are the customer’, not ‘you are the customer and I am here to serve you.’ - you need to change to a customer obsession focus and deliver that.”

Your company cannot be focused simply on service, Gupta explains, but how to help the customer do what they want to do. “People don’t want to do banking,” he says. “They want to do other stuff and banking is an enabler. People don’t want a mortgage - they want a home. We have to ask how do you support customers through their home journey?”

If your company wishes to embark on a digital transformation journey, Gupta has advice for you. “Start with data in silos and determine some learnings related to it. Don’t focus immediately on getting all the data organised before you do stuff - if you try to get it all organised it will take years and you have nothing to show. Instead, focus on use cases and whether data can help. Experiment, start small, do something, test it, see if it works and scale up,” he says. This is precisely the approach Gupta himself took, describing how his team focused on customer attrition as a use case. By analysing the data and determining key predictors about what may make a customer churn away from the bank, DBS is now able to successfully proactively intervene and retain customers, reducing the overall attrition rate by 85%.

Dr Schabenberger adds, “The world is going to automate many more tasks that we currently perform with human capital, in a bespoke way, and business has to adjust and adapt to a new era of automation. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are drivers of this, and we should not be afraid of it.”

“We need to see the opportunities and understand how it increases the value of what we produce, how we work, our own labour, and how it makes us better and makes work more enjoyable,” he says.

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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