Dr. James H. Goodnight is the co-founder, president and CEO of SAS, an analytics software company based in Cary, NC. Goodnight received a bachelor’s in applied mathematics, and master’s and doctoral degrees in statistics from NC State. The largest privately held software company in the world, SAS is a perennial fixture on lists of “best places to work” around the world. Goodnight served as a faculty member in statistics at NC State from 1972 to 1976, then left the University with three others to form SAS. Goodnight is a fellow of the American Statistical Association and author of several papers on statistical computing. Graduate student and editor of the NC State Statistics Newsletter, Jami Jackson, had the pleasure of interviewing him in-person. A drive through the beautiful, sprawling SAS campus led her to Goodnight’s office and famous mineral collection. Although Jami was nervous as this was her first in-person interview, Goodnight had a calm and pleasant demeanor and answered her questions thoughtfully, with a twinkle in his eyes.
I understand that during your sophomore year at North Carolina State University (NC State) as an applied mathematics major, you took the only computing class that was available and this helped you to learn that you wanted to be in software. What motivated you to pursue a master’s degree and ultimately a Ph.D. in statistics, and why did you choose statistics as opposed to other areas such as computer science or applied mathematics?
Well at the time, there was no computer science degree. I had spent the summer after my sophomore year working two different jobs. I worked with the Department of Agricultural Economics at NC State in the morning and a tobacco company in Durham from one in the afternoon until nine o’clock at night. This was where I really started honing my skills as a programmer, because I was programming for both jobs. When the fall came, I got a part-time job working for the Department of Statistics at NC State as a programmer. They were the ones that taught the computing course that I took during my sophomore year. So I finished my junior and senior year working part-time programming for the Statistics Department. I found it really interesting and decided to stay on and get a master’s and Ph.D.
What were the initial difficulties that you faced when you transitioned from academia, as a faculty member at NC State, to CEO of SAS?
There really weren’t any transitional issues at all. The four of us had been running SAS as a business inside the University, as developers and documentation people, and we just moved across the street. The Department wanted us to stay close by so that we could still help them with their consulting questions. So we moved right across the street from Nelson Hall. We moved because we had run out of space and couldn’t grow. We had our first user group meeting in Florida in 1976 and the enthusiasm of our users was a big encouragement for us to go ahead and strike out on our own.
There is no lack of stories regarding young entrepreneurs who’ve dropped out of college to start start-ups in technology that would eventually become successful. How do you think your formal training in undergraduate and graduate studies put you at a competitive advantage as the CEO of SAS?
Statistics is all about trying to solve problems. Where to put your mouse trap when you are trying to catch a mouse. Taking into account type one and type two error while trying to maximize the power of your test. Statistics gets involved in every aspect of data analytics for dozens of different industries. So it’s a wonderful background to have, to be able to face the world and help solve problems.
Many students in statistics are accustomed to being asked whether they want to work in academia, government, or industry, but are asked less often whether they want to work for their own company. What advice do you have for students and alumni who are interested in starting a business that uses their statistical education?
Spend a couple of years working in industry. First of all, jobs in data analytics are extremely high-paying. I know in our master of science in analytics program at NC State, the average number of offers is three per student and they have a very good starting salary. I think it would be wise to spend at least a couple of years in industry working for a large company to be able to understand the problems of the particular industry. After that, it might be a good time to move out and start your own.
What advice do you have for current students and alumni in statistics to be successful in their careers, whether it is in academia, government, or industry?
Put as much emphasis as you can on analytics. By analytics, I mean analyzing large amounts of data. The amount of data that we are facing is getting larger and larger. As we move into the era of the “Internet of Things,” where everything has sensors on it and is sending information back – phoning home, if you will – the amount of data to analyze and use to build predictive models is going to grow even more and more.
What is a priority for SAS right now in the context of continuing advancing and developing statistical software?
Right now, and for the past five years, we have focused on massively parallel computing. We try to keep all the data in memory, scattered across hundreds of servers, in order to run the nonlinear iterative models, where we have to go through the data 25 or 30 times before our parameters converge. By keeping data in memory, and by spreading out the computations over hundreds of servers, we can do problems that used to take days and do them in just a few minutes. As I mentioned, the Internet of Things will dramatically increase the amount of data we receive, with data coming in from sensor reads in fractions of a second. For example, we are working with Duke Energy and NC State on a project that uses synchrophasor data from transmission lines to detect instability in the power grid.
Duke Energy has more than 100 of these sensors all across the state of North Carolina, and we are actually receiving feeds from these in real-time. Thirty times per second, the synchrophasor captures sensor readings about the conditions of different factors on the power lines. We are using these to build models to forecast failures of different equipment on the lines. For example, we may forecast that there’s a high-voltage transformer that’s nearing the end of life sooner than expected.
In another example, the sensors that you currently have on your car are going to be broadcasting data back to the factory so that we can build models to warn you that you are going to have an engine failure in 10 miles, so you better get off the road really soon. So once we’ve collected the data, we can move the model itself into the car’s computer. But we have to be able to collect all that data from different cars and build the models first.
You are passionate about education reform. You co-founded Cary Academy with your wife, Ann, launched free digital learning resources, SAS® Curriculum Pathways®, made software and training free to everyone through SAS Analytics U, and collaborate with colleges and universities around the world to create analytics degrees and certificate programs. Education is the focus of SAS philanthropy, such as the recent Jim Goodnight Endowment for Dr. Montserrat Fuentes’ professorship. What motivates your passion for education? What are some ways that you would suggest to current students and alumni who are also passionate about education to get involved?
The future of our country is dependent upon the talent that we are able to produce through our school systems, especially in the STEM areas. We need about 10 percent more students interested in STEM than we have today to build the STEM pipeline. It is, by and large, STEM graduates that innovate and create new things, new products, and new ideas. The life blood of this country is innovation. If we let that slip away and go to other countries, then the other countries will be doing not only the innovation and creation, but also the manufacturing, and we would be left as nothing but service industries in the U.S. So it’s very important that we spend more emphasis on STEM. We have a program at NC State called the Goodnight Scholars that supports 200 STEM students. We graduate 50 students a year and bring in 50 new students a year and maintain 200 full scholarships.
We need to put a lot of emphasis on our colleges of education. They need to be teaching best practices, and answer questions such as “what’s the best way to teach math?” and “what’s the best way to teach reading?” This should be the focus of the research that they do. Then that research should be brought back in and applied to the methodology. Their job is to produce teachers and we want to produce the best teachers. The best teachers need to know the best ways to teach. The Department of Education at the University of Michigan is one example where they have really worked hard to find best practices and what’s working.
What would you say are the needs of the STEM workforce in light of a culturally and linguistically diverse society?
I think we are extremely lucky that we have such a diverse workforce. Particularly, the Indians and Chinese bring a love of math with them to the U.S. Some of our great statisticians are Indian, such as C. R. Rao. We employ many Indians, Chinese and Koreans that were brought up loving math, analytics and computing. So we are very lucky to have them. One of the things we need to change in this country is the H-1B Visa program. Companies need to be able to hire more than 20,000 master’s and Ph.D. foreign students. We hit that limit every year, so that needs to be increased. We’ve got these brilliant foreign students; let’s grab them before they leave the country and we need to grab more of them. They come here because we have the best university systems in the world. Let’s keep them here instead of sending them home to compete against us.
Under your leadership, SAS is known worldwide for its commitment to maintaining an outstanding company culture, and year after year is ranked as one of the top 10 best places to work. What advice do you have for students and alumni who would like to become better leaders?
Here at SAS we very much believe in trusting the people that work here. I always say that if you treat the people like they make a difference, then they will make a difference. We have a very educated workforce here. Over 90 percent are college degree or higher. We have quite a few master’s and hundreds of Ph.D.’s. We have a very intellectual workforce that should be treated with respect. That’s always been the way I thought it should be done. As you say, we have been ranked highly for many years on Fortune’s best places to work list, and I am proud of it. I certainly don’t want to be known as having a mediocre place to work. Why wouldn’t every CEO want to be known as having a great place to work? My statistics background was a useful base to start from in learning about leadership. Programming is a creative endeavor. I learned how I wanted to be managed as a “creative” and that has guided my leadership philosophy.