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SAS CEO Jim Goodnight: Not The Retiring Type

Cloud, shmoud! Hadoop, big whoop! SAS' top executive and co-founder throws cold water on hot trends. Behind the times, or a clear-headed realist?
The discussion of Hadoop turns naturally to unstructured data and sentiment analysis. Why, I ask, is SAS seldom mentioned in the buzz about sentiment analysis, where companies try to determine what would-be customers are saying about them on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter?

Goodnight turns and looks out over a commanding 47th-floor view of Central Park, looking bored by the turn in the conversation. He asks Jim Davis, senior VP and chief marketing officer, to field the question.

Davis details SAS's Social Media Analytics platform and its recently upgraded SAS Conversation Center, a hosted service that lets companies analyze Tweets and other social network comments. Davis acknowledges that SAS's direct sales channel hasn't been very aggressive about selling these offerings because they're not as lucrative as "high-end analytic solutions for solving complex business problems."

It's a channel problem SAS will solve, Davis vows, because the company views social as an important new data source for the overall customer intelligence environment. SAS, he says, can take sentiment analysis further than "some of the newcomers on the scene."

[ Want more on analytics competitors? Read Low-Cost Options For Predictive Analytics Challenge SAS, IBM . ]

"Maybe you understand the sentiment around a particular topic--great," Davis goads, citing Salesforce.com's Radian6 business as one notable newcomer. "Who are the people you want to affect?" SAS can feed the sentiment insights into a company's CRM, marketing, and campaign-management environment, where it can be used to optimize email or advertising efforts, Davis says. Or it can tie that data to social network analysis to look at the rings of influencers and target the important customers and influencers who are most vocal.

With talk of competitors, Goodnight swivels back into the conversation and I ask him why SAS's partnership with Netezza hasn't been extended to the new High-Performance Analytics offering. "We do in-database scoring with Netezza, but once they were acquired, we had to quit working with them because we didn't want to share our secrets with that company," he says, avoiding naming IBM, which bought Netezza.

Indeed, SAS is in coopetition with IBM. But IBM is really three companies in SAS's view, and it has close ties with two of them—the hardware IBM and the Global Services IBM. The third is its software group; SAS taps into data from lots of DB2 databases, but that's the division that has also acquired SPSS and Cognos, two of SAS's closest competitors.

I ask about R, the open source analytics language being promoted by commercial support and software vendors including Alpine, Information Builders, Revolution, and Tibco Spotfire. We can invoke R, too, he grants, but he doesn't give an inch on R's growing prominence and influence in academic (and commercial) circles. He points out that the SAS OnDemand service is free to undergraduate and graduate students and is being used by some 5,000 students. He slips in one last dig. "R was free for a while, but now you have Revolution charging for it," he says. "It seems like all this open source software ends up being sold by people."

I submit that the core software is free and add-on software and support is what you're paying for. "But it keeps getting more expensive every year, so you have to question that," he says.

With that, Goodnight stands and announces, "We need to eat and leave. Would you like to have some pizza with us?" There's a stack of pies and a crowd of employees in the lunchroom across the hall. The night before, SAS was announced as the number-two company on the "Top 25 World's Best Multinational Workplaces" list, published by Great Places to Work. In celebration, Goodnight is buying lunch for the entire staff.

I didn't get to ask him my last question about succession plans, so I ask Davis instead. "CEOs like Jim don't retire," Davis says. "Their passion is for their work, and there's no delineation between their personal and professional life. The passion is there and he's not retiring."