CXO

Jim Goodnight: SAS CEO. Statistician. North Carolinian.

Jim Goodnight, the longtime CEO of SAS, spoke with TechRepublic about his career in technology and the future of analytics in enterprise IT.

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Image: SAS

Every morning with his breakfast, Jim Goodnight solves a Sudoku puzzle.

The long-time programmer and nearly four-decade CEO of SAS wrote a computer program to solve the puzzles long ago, but solving them by hand helps flex his mental muscles in preparation for the day.

"That's what programming is all about about, it's like working a puzzle," Goodnight said. "I've always enjoyed puzzles, and programming is like that where you've got a problem and you have to try to break it down into smaller steps."

Goodnight has led SAS as its CEO since the company incorporated in 1976, growing it into a multi-billion dollar company, all while keeping the business private. SAS is lauded for its employee-focused culture and routinely ranks as one of the best multinational companies to work for.

The enterprise technology space has a changed a lot in the last 40 years. Goodnight's position working with thousands of enterprise customers has given him insight into the important trends in enterprise IT.

"We're definitely seeing fairly rapid movement to commodity hardware," he said. Almost all of it is Intel-based hardware that is manufactured by companies like Dell, HP — Cisco even is in that business."

One of Goodnight's favorite products right now is the Dell R920, a four slot server. He likes to put in Intel Ivy Bridge chips that each have 15 cores, allowing for 60 cores in a single box.

At SAS, they've been trying to take advantage of the cores, working with symmetric multi-processing to take advantage of the architecture of certain machines so they can use all parts of the memory. For bigger problems, Goodnight said they go to massively-parallel.

Goodnight has also watched the enterprise focus on analytics ebb and flow. He called analytics a "hot topic," noting the rise of products like Hadoop, and said we are going to see more and more companies building out large analytical shops.

The demand for analytical talent is also high. SAS has helped start a master's program at NC State in advanced analytics, which produces 80 graduates every year. Goodnight and his team have also helped establish analytics programs in other schools across the country to drive people to the profession.

"We're doing everything we can to encourage more people to get into analytics," he said.

Goodnight first got interested in computers when he was a sophomore at NC State. He heard about a computer class and went out to check out the lab. There, he found a Selectric typewriter that was typing all by itself. That intrigued him, so he took the course and was surprised by how naturally he understood it.

"The light went off and I totally understood all about how this machine operated," Goodnight said.

Goodnight first worked on an IBM 1620, and he remained at the university during the summer working two jobs to write software for that machine. He later stayed on during the fall and worked part time as a programmer to put himself through the rest of school.

Working and going to school began to take a toll on Goodnight as he was halfway through his master's program. So, he went down to Florida and worked on the Apollo program for a year. A year later, he and his wife moved back to NC to be near an ailing family member. That's when he finished his master's degree and PhD.

After finishing his degree, he became an assistant professor and continued researching SAS and working to build software to analyze all the agricultural experiment on the campus of NC State. That work laid the foundation for what we now know as SAS and a nearly four-decade career for Goodnight.

"I guess for the last 38 years I've been in a dead-end position, I haven't really done anything to grow," Goodnight joked. "I'm still the same title as I was 38 years ago. Everybody else below me has advanced, except me."

In his own words...

What do you do to unplug?

"I do have a tendency after work to go home and sit out on my back porch and have a glass of wine or something like that. That gives me time to think about things that happened during the day and think about things I want to do the next day, or things that we should be working on. It's a good time. Sometimes, we'll go down to the beach and I'll sit out on our deck looking out over the ocean and just use that as a time for contemplation, and just being alone and thinking about things. I think we all need a little bit of time alone every once in a while, just so we can organize things in our minds."

What is your main hobby outside of work?

"I play golf every pretty weekend I can. If I'm in town, I'll try to schedule a couple days of golf on the weekend. During the winter I like to go out to Colorado and ski. Usually the week after Christmas the family goes out to Colorado for skiing. Plus, a number of our friends go out at the same time, so we usually have a pretty good group of skiers out there."

What's the best thing you've read lately?

"The last book I read was one about fracking. It was interesting that all the natural gas and oil that's being found right now is through this technique of fracking where they drill down and then they actually turn the drill bit sideways and drill horizontally through the earth. It was all done by a bunch of wildcatters just wildly speculating until they proved it was a great way to look for oil and gas, and then they were able to sell off to the majors. I just thought it was a very interesting book about innovation."

If you weren't working in tech, what other profession would you love to try?

"Probably some form of nuclear fusion. I'm interested in molten sodium reactors as well. So, more of a physics type thing, I guess.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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