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SAS Analyst Day: ‘The Great Facilitator’ Appears

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Partner Paula Rosenblum and I recently attended SAS’s annual analyst day in Sanibel Harbour, Florida. Due to most upcoming events being either cancelled or postponed (SXSW, Shoptalk) it will likely be the last time we travel for business for a while, which is an absolute shame. However, as shows go, it was fantastic, so at least we begin our hiatus from industry events on a high note.

What made the show special? A few things, really. Time and location always help, and heading to the gulf coast of Florida in the grip of February is something few would grumble about (compared to say, Manhattan in January). However, that’s not what will keep me remembering this particular event in the eventless months to come. What will be is SAS’s candor. It’s rare to find a vendor so willing to strip back the veneer of “look how impressive we are” as quickly and as earnestly as SAS does. It’s really a very different kind of company.

For example, Oliver Schabenberger, the company’s COO and CTO, served as ringleader for the day, with founder and CEO Dr. Jim Goodnight unable to attend. In his presentation, Oliver quickly set about how SAS is differentiating itself in a tech market increasingly dominated by AI-empowered analytics. Despite being in the analytics space for decades now, SAS has lots of new sources of competition espousing the ability to help companies make better decision making through smarter analytics, and retailers need to be able to know who’s who. Who SAS is positioning to be, it would certainly appear, is what I’m calling “The Great Facilitator”.

Schabenberger laid out the four principles of analytics driving the company’s vision, which, while interesting, as I sat and listened, essentially drove home one thing for me: this company recognizes that its perceivable value is not in its technology. Driven by math? Absolutely – but retailers don’t care about that, and SAS “gets” that. Analytics are much more than algorithms, and everyone has both data coming out their ears and real challenges in bringing their business value to life.

As a result, SAS has identified what it calls its Analysis Differentials:

  • -What is at stake?
  • -Who is doing wrong?
  • -What do my connections need and want?
  • -What should I be doing next?

If a proposed solution cannot answer one of these four questions for a client, then the company will simply cede that space to another vendor. It’s as clear a corporate vision for what-we’ll-do-and-what- we-won’t-do as I’ve ever seen.

In order to accomplish this goal, the company is leaning heavily on open-source integration (more on that in a moment), and the company’s analytics engine, VIYA (a programming and visual environment for advanced analytics, available in both cloud-based and on-prem options), is being messaged as nothing short of a “have it your way” toolset. Accepting programming from Python and Java (among others), Oliver’s response for “What is VIYA?” was “It’s what you make of it. It’s what you build with it.” At first this seemed a bit vague to me, but as the day went on (and customers began telling their stories) it became apparent that this is about as good an answer as anyone could ask for. SAS isn’t selling you a solution: it’s selling you the ability to build the tools to help solve your own problems.

That may seem like a minor distinction, but as someone who hears a lot of vendor messaging, I can promise that it’s not.

Whereas most vendors are focusing on how they are the source of vision that can take the pain away, SAS’s message is based more on self-reliance. The concept of “what got you here won’t get you there” pervaded much of the company’s content in a cleverly-orchestrated fashion, but again – it never felt forced. This is simply the tack SAS is taking to stand out. They can provide the analytics to achieve insight - it’s still up to you to make decisions.

The company also talked a lot about its “worthy rivals,” a business term borrowed from Simon Sinek’s latest book, “The Infinite Game,” whereby finite players are defined as those just playing to beat the fellow players around them. By way of comparison, infinite players play to better themselves, constantly on the look out for worthy rivals to help them feel like they are all improving. Who does SAS identify as its worthy rivals?

First up is open source. “There’s no beating it, there’s no killing it- you can’t beat free.” But in SAS’s opinion, the industry’s desire to utilize open-source software is a sure-fire sign of an immature market, and believes that commercial AI will soon dominate open source AI – maybe even as soon as 2022. As a result, in the meantime, it is banking heavily on its ability to lure open-source fans in, only to then display commercial-grade AI’s strength against its weaknesses. This is a bold move.

At the same time, it identifies cloud players such as AWS, Azure and Google as worthy rivals, due solely to these behemoths’ understanding that more data is good for everyone’s business. To quote SAS, “Our customers aren’t moving to the cloud to save money – there are doing it to save IT headaches.” We have data from our latest Cloud Report that supports this very thing.

All in all, things are looking good for SAS. They’ve made some key hires (Richard Widdowson to head up Retail/CPG, Jennifer Chase to head up Marketing) to help bring their vision to life. They’ve started increasing the length of their long-term deals with clients (up to 5 years) in order to defer revenue, thus enabling the company to fully shift to a Total Operating Revenue model. They also believe that in an age where “digital transformation” has become the buzzword of the moment, their message of assisted self-enablement and self-empowerment will help cut through the hype. Only time will tell. But I really liked this notion of SAS as The Great Facilitator – it’s something I’d never heard from them before, and now that we’re all housebound for a while, it’s an angle we’ll have some time to reflect upon.

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Articles & Opinions March 10, 2020
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