Interview – Anne Milley, SAS Part 1

Anne Milley has been a part of SAS Institute’s core strategy team.

She was in the news recently with an article by the legendary Ashlee Vance in the Bits Blog of  New York Times

In the article,  Ms. Milley said, “I think it addresses a niche market for high-end data analysts that want free, readily available code. We have customers who build engines for aircraft. I am happy they are not using freeware when I get on a jet.”

To her credit, Ms. Milley addressed some of the critical comments head-on in a subsequent blog post.

This sparked my curiosity in knowing Anne ,and her perspective more than just a single line quote and here is an interview. This is part 1 of the interview . Anne_Milley

Ajay -Describe your career journey , both out of and in SAS Institute. What advice would you give to young high school students to pursue careers in science. Do you think careers in science are as rewarding as other careers.


Originally, I wanted to major in international business to leverage my German (which is now waning from lack of use!).  I found the marketing and management classes at the time provided little practical value and happily ended up switching to the college of social science in the economics department, where I was challenged with several quantitative courses and encouraged to always have an analytical perspective.  In school, I was exposed to BASIC, SPSS, SHAZAM, and SAS.  Once I began my thesis (bank failure prediction models and the term structure of interest rates) and started working, it was SAS that served as the best software investment, both in banking (Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas) and in retail (7-Eleven Corp.).  After 5+ years in Dallas, my husband wanted to move back to New England and SAS happened to be opening an office at the time.  From there, I enjoyed a few years as a pre-sales technical consultant, many years in analytical product management, and most recently in product marketing.  All the while, it has been a great motivating factor to work with so many talented people focused on solving problems, revealing opportunities and doing things better—both within and outside of SAS.

For high school and college students, I urge them to invest in studying some math and science, no matter the career they’re pursuing.  Whether they are interested in banking/finance, medicine and the life sciences, engineering or other fields, courses that will help them explore and analyze data, and come up with new approaches, new solutions, new advances based on a more scientific approach will pay off.

Course work in statistics, operations research, computer science and others will help hone skills for today’s data- and analytics-driven world.  One example of this idea in action:  North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) Institute for Advanced Analytics is seeing a huge increase in interest.  Its first graduating class last year saw higher average salaries than other graduate programs and multiple job offers per graduate.  Why?  Because there is still a huge demand for graduates with the ability to manipulate and analyze data in order to make better, more informed decisions.  I personally think careers in math and science are especially rewarding, but we need many diverse skills to make the world go round :o)

Ajay- Big corporations versus Startups. Where do you think is the balance between being big in terms of stability and size and being swift and nimble in terms of speed of product roll outs. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a big corporation in a fast changing technology field.


Ever a balancing act, with continuous learning along the way.  The advantage of being big (and privately held) is that you can be more long-term-oriented.  The challenge with fast-changing technology is to know where to best invest.  While others may go to market faster with new capabilities, we seek to provide superior implementations (we invest in ‘R’ (Research) AND ‘D’ (Development), making capabilities available on a number of platforms. 

In today’s economy, I think the big vs. small comparison is becoming less and less relevant.  Big corporations need to be agile and innovative, like their smaller rivals.  And small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) need to use the same techniques and technologies as the “big boys.”

First, on the big side, I’ll use an example of which I’m very familiar:  At SAS, a company founded more than 30 years ago as an entrepreneurial venture, we’ve certainly changed over the decades.  SAS started out in a small office with a handful of people.  It’s now a global company with hundreds of offices and thousands of employees around the world.  Yet one thing that has not changed for SAS in all this time:  a laser-like focus on the customer.  This has been the key to SAS’ success and uninterrupted growth .Not really a “secret sauce.” Just a simple yet profound approach: listen carefully to your customers and their changing needs, and innovate, develop and adapt based on these needs.

Of course, being large has its advantages:  we have more ideas from more people, and creativity and innovation knows no borders.  From Sydney to Warsaw, São Paulo to Singapore, Shanghai to Heidelberg, SAS employees work closely with customers to meet their business needs today and in the future.

SAS provides the stability and proven success that businesses look for, particularly in troubled economic times.  Being large and privately held enables SAS to grow when others are cutting back, and continue to invest in R&D at a high rate – 22% of revenues in 2008.

Yet with our annual subscription licensing model, SAS cannot rest on its laurels.  Each year, customers vote with their checkbooks:  if SAS provided them with business benefits, results and a positive ROI, they renew; if not, they can walk away.  Happily for SAS, the overwhelming majority of customers keep coming back.  But the licensing model keeps SAS on its toes, customer-focused, and always listening and innovating based on customer feedback.

As for SMBs, they are rapidly adopting the technologies used by large companies – such as business analytics – to compete in the global economy.  Two examples of this:

BGF Industries is a manufacturer of high-tech fabrics used in jet fighters, bullet-proof vests, movie-theater screens and surfboards, based in Greensboro, NC. BGF turned to SAS business analytics to help it deal with foreign competition.  BGF created a cost-effective, easy-to-use early-warning system that helps it track quality and productivity.  Per BGF, data is now available in minutes instead of hours.  And in the business world, this speed can be the difference between success and failure.  Per Bobby Hull, a BGF systems analyst: “The early-warning system we built with SAS allowed us to go from nothing to everything.  SAS allows us to focus away from clerical tasks to focus on the quality and process side of the job. Because of SAS, we’re never more than three clicks away from finding an answer.”

For Los Angeles-based The Wine House, installing a SAS-powered
inventory-management system helped it discover nearly $400,000 in “lost” inventory sitting on warehouse shelves.  For an SMB with annual sales of $20 million, that was a major find.  Business analytics helps it to compete with major retail and grocery chains.  Per Bill Knight, owner of The Wine House: “The first day the SAS application was live, we identified approximately 1,000 cases of wine that had not moved in over a year. That’s significant cash tied up in inventory.  We had a huge sale to blow it out, and just in time, because in today’s economy, we would be choking on that inventory.”

So regardless of size, businesses must remain agile, listen to their customers, and use technologies like business analytics to make sense of and derive value from their data – whether on the quality of surfboard covers or the number of cases of Oregon Pinot Noir in stock.

3) SAS Institute has been the de-facto leader in both market volume share as well as market value share in the field of data analytics. What are some of the factors do you think have contributed to this enduring success. What have been the principal challengers over the years.(Any comments on the challenge from SAS language software WPS please ??)

At SAS, we seek to provide a complete environment for analytics—from data collection, data manipulation, data exploration, data analysis, deployment of results – and the means to manage that whole process.  Competition comes in many forms and it pushes us to keep delivering value.  For me, one thing that sets SAS apart from other vendors is that we care so deeply about the quality of results.  Our Technical Support, Education and consulting services organizations really do partner with customers to help them achieve the best results.  That kind of commitment is deep in the DNA of SAS’ culture.

The good thing about competition is that it forces you to re-examine your value proposition and rethink your business strategy.  Customers value attributes of their analytics infrastructure in varying degrees— speed, quality, support, flexibility, ease of migration, backward and forward compatibility, etc.  Often there are options to trump any one or a subset of these and when that aligns with the customers’ priorities of what they value, they will vote with their pocketbooks.  For some customers with tight batch-processing windows, speed trumps everything.  In tests conducted by Merrill Consultants, an MXG program running on WPS runs significantly longer, consumes more CPU time and requires more memory than the same MXG program hosted on its native SAS platform.

While it’s easy to get caught up in fast-changing technology, one has to also consider history.  Some programming languages come and go; others have stood the test of time.  Even the use of different flavors of analysis ebbs and flows.  For instance, when data mining was all the rage almost a decade ago, many asked the very good question, “Why so much excitement about analyzing so much opportunistic data when design of experiments offers so much more?”  Finally, experimental design is being more readily adopted in areas like marketing.

At the end of the day, innovation is the only sustainable competitive advantage.  As noted above in question 2, SAS has remained firmly committed to customer-driven innovation.  And SAS has “stuck to its knitting” with respect to analytics.  A while back, SAS used to stand for “Statistical Analysis System.” If not literally, then philosophically, Analytics remains our middle name.

(Ajay- to be continued)

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