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WRAL TechWire Hall-of-Famer: Dr. James Goodnight, from moment of inspiration to building SAS, a global software powerhouse

May, 30 2017, 6:50 AM

Editor's note: Reacting to requests from our readers, WRAL TechWire is reprinting its series profiling the first five technology leaders named to WRAL TechWire's Hall of Fame. The series originally was published behind our paywall. For the next 30 days, the series will be made available to all readers.

CARY, N.C. - Who could have known that two "undefeateds" were created in 1976 - the Indiana University men's basketball team under Bobby Knight which is the last men's team to finish with a perfect record and the launching of a software company in Raleigh called SAS Institute.

While Indiana's season was a one-and-done, however, the legacy of a winning streak has continued at SAS ever since. The now global analytics and services software giant has grown to well over $3 billion in revenue - and NEVER lost money.

Under the direction of CEO Dr. James Goodnight and with the help of co-founders John Sall and Tony Barr, the privately held company launched at N.C. State build around what was called "statistical analysis system" now has offices around the world and more than 14,000 employees.

How far has SAS scaled? Its first-year revenues were $136,000.

SAS emerged as a founding pillar of the Research Triangle region's booming high-tech sector along with such companies as IBM, the Research Triangle Institute, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, MCNC and many others. Additionally, SAS under Goodnight has been an active corporate citizen with aggressive philanthropic efforts, such as the building of Cary Academy.

For many reasons, then, Dr. Goodnight is one of the first Hall of Famers that WRAL techWire will honor Tuesday evening in Raleigh at Google Fiber's new Triangle headquarters. (Dr. Charles Hamner, who led the N.C. Biotech Center from obscurity to national prominence, was featured Monday. Also to be profiled are our other inductees: Venessa Harrison of AT&T North Carolina, Dennis Dougherty of Intersouth Partners, and Moncia Doss, longtime Council for Entrepreneurial Development president.)

In the first of a two-part interview, Dr. Goodnight talks about the genesis of SAS, and much, much more

We developed SAS [Statistical Analysis System] at NC State University in the sixties to analyze agricultural data. At the time, we were just looking for a more efficient way to do this type of analysis. It was still early days for computers so the field was wide open. Over time, SAS spread beyond universities and people started using the software for business applications, particularly in pharmaceutical and insurance companies.

It was becoming so popular, one of the software users organized a SAS users conference down in Florida. The conference drew a couple hundred attendees. I participated, along with the other original SAS developers, and realized there was some serious momentum behind the software.

It was clear we had something that customers wanted, and we needed space to grow. That’s when we decided to take the risk and start the company. A couple of the founders weren’t initially comfortable with leaving the stability of the university and tenured positions, but we couldn’t have grown if we hadn’t made the leap.

Recognizing when to start a company isn’t that hard. You need to have a product or service that people want – and a financial strategy to support it. The hard part is having the confidence in yourself to take the risk, and the determination and work ethic to make it successful. We just hoped we could cover our salaries. That worked out for us.

The key is surrounding yourself with people who are as passionate about the same thing that you are passionate about.

When SAS started, I was writing code with John Sall and Tony Barr. We had a very small staff, but we did all of it – down to answering the phones to take orders and do our own tech support. Each of us worked in telemarketing to sell service agreements.

When a shipment of user manuals arrived, everyone stopped what they were doing to create a human chain and unload them into the building.

We were all passionate about the same thing – and succeeding together.

When you’re starting out, the passion stays ignited because your livelihood depends on it. After that, it’s more about personal pride and loving the challenge of the work, so it helps if you’re doing what you love. Data scientists are problem-solvers at heart. So, the ability to solve problems – no matter how big or small – is what has always driven me. It’s exciting to use our creativity to help change the way society works. We do that by using our expertise in all things analytics to make progress happen faster.

At the most basic level … we exist in order to help others. We’re here so that our customers are not alone in the battle to solve tough problems. Our purpose is to make analytics easy and friendly for them. We exist for all the folks who are working to make their corner of the world a better place … whether that corner is a bank, a hospital, a store … or a nonprofit, or a university, or a government.

Without us … their road would be harder. We are here to ease their way. That’s the satisfaction we get developing SAS software.

Our primary focus at SAS since day one has been to help our customers solve their problems. That process of listening to your customers leads to innovation. But innovation is also coming up with new ideas and then bringing them to life – anticipating what your customers might need before they ask for it. That takes creativity and passion. We’ve made it clear that we are never done innovating at SAS. We’re not riding on past successes.

Coming in Part Two: What kind of business would he start today? What are his proudest moments? And how did he deal with problems?