The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

SAS Analyst Day 2019 In Review

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If you listened in our post-NRF Big Show webinar, you’ll know that one of the things we were troubled by was that amidst all the talk of doing exciting new things with the ever-growing stream of data that retailers are collecting – we heard all but nothing about the measures needed to keep that data private and secure.

So when my RSR partner Brian Kilcourse and I heard the issue addressed in the very first few sentences of the opening keynote at last week’s SAS Analyst Conference in Naples, Florida, it grabbed our attention pretty quickly.

SAS has always been an interesting company. It has always done things its own way, and nearly everyone is aware of the many accolades it has collected for being a great place to work. But beyond the culture, SAS is all about advanced data analysis and statistics. The annual Analyst Conference is interesting because of the balance between the company’s statistical expertise and the rationale for why its particular breed of analytics is important, presentation of a highly-strategic roadmap of future plans, and candid conversations about where the company sees itself going forward – strengths and weaknesses. It’s difficult to sum up any conference in one word, but if forced to, I’d choose earnest.

Founder and CEO James Goodnight gave the perfunctory state-of-the-company address (joking that SAS’s revenue only grew $30M last year), and how the company is banking heavily on its flagship Viya product’s ability to increase data access by orders of magnitude. Dr. Goodnight highlighted how Viya delivers access to advanced analytics via a controller module serving as both data server and analytics server in one.

“Access ” was a word we heard a lot. In both main-stage presentations, product demos and casual conversations, the concept of giving everyone access to better data to do their job in a more intelligent way was front and center. And as Oliver Schabenberger, COO and CTO stated, “When a technology becomes so ubiquitous that it becomes commoditized – access becomes far more important than ownership. “

But what about the privacy and security part? Access and privacy don’t always go hand in hand. But for each mention of the growing need for access, there invariably came a caveat about the need to treat that data with respect. It reads as being legitimately ingrained in the company’s DNA. Or as Heather Roth, director of analyst relations put it, “It’s our job to make sure that data helps people, not harms people. ”

And paradox, itself, actually informed much of the show’s content. The ability to be profitable as well as flexible and open permeated a lot of the conversation. There was plenty of discussion of AI, IoT, some chatbot demonstrations of varying impact, and a panel of customers from such industries as banking, government and hospitality that took place under NDA. I wish I could share some of that content, because it was truly fascinating, but I fully appreciate why it had to stay under wraps. That said – it’s very cool when a technologist is comfortable enough to make that part of the agenda. Often times the most valuable thing we take away from cross-industry events is hearing lessons learned from outside of retail.

But one of the most compelling things I heard in Florida was something Dave MacDonald, SAS’s brand new chief sales officer, offered up during the Q&A portion after his presentation. “With our solution, you don’t have to hire great data scientists anymore. ” It seemed to come out off-the-cuff as part of a reply that didn’t feel rehearsed in any way. But still – if that’s true, that’s a heavy piece of artillery to be carrying around. Retailers continually tell us in our benchmark research that finding and keeping qualified data scientists is one of the most significant impediments to making better use of analytical tools.

So if SAS really can solve for that, in an earnest way – that’s something retailers are going to want to hear more about.