Statistical software maker SAS Institute has spent more than a decade giving money, software and support to university programs across the country, growing analytics education and producing data analysts for a talent-hungry job market.
The strategy of financial investment and inexpensive software distribution has paid off for SAS by ensuring graduates from these analytics programs have familiarity with SAS products.
But technical skill alone is not enough to make a great data analytics professional. The universities that SAS has supported have designed programs that pair software familiarity with learning in statistics, business, IT, teamwork and problem-solving aimed at creating well-rounded graduates ready for enterprise analytics roles.
Jerry Oglesby, the manager of SAS’s global education program, said an obvious reason to support analytics programs was “to create future users of SAS to continue the development of our products and our company.” But Oglesby stressed that supporting universities creating knowledgeable and business-ready professionals is just as important as creating a pool of future SAS users. Supporting education at all levels through analytics is the goal, Oglesby said.
SAS is not the only technology company investing in higher education. For example, IBM in November opened an analytics center at Ohio State University, and established free online classes in a program it calls Big Data University.
Delving into graduate schools that specialize in analytics, however, it is difficult not to encounter SAS in the classroom. The company has worked closely with administrators to set up programs such as:
- At the University of Alabama, a SAS data mining certificate is the core of a specialization in analytics for the MBA program, or a master’s degree in applied statistics. The school partners with several local companies so graduates can solve real business problems and learn corporate communications skills.
- Central Michigan University started its SAS partnership in 2006, creating a data mining certificate program to train graduate students working as researchers at the school’s entrepreneur incubation corporation. Now the certificate adds an analytics specialty for students across several disciplines, from economics to engineering to psychology.
- At the North Carolina State, SAS CEO Jim Goodnight’s alma mater, the university created the Institute for Advanced Analytics. The institute is an independent entity but draws from expertise from many departments to create a cross-disciplinary program. SAS and Goodnight helped develop the curriculum and is a model that several other universities have sought to replicate, Oglesby said.
At NC State, it’s those cross-disciplinary and soft skills that make the difference, according to the institute’s director Michael Rappa.
“Universities tend to produce people around disciplines, like statisticians or mathematicians, and the departments are built around entirely the technical skills,” said Rappa. “But employers really want more than that. Technical skill is really the minimally sufficient criterion for employment.”
An Ivory Tower Origin Story
Oglesby said SAS was born from a collaboration in the 1960s of 13 state universities in the southeast United States to analyze agricultural data, headquartered at North Carolina State. SAS was formed in 1976, and its first offices were across the street from the university.
But over the years the company began to drift away from its closest university relationships. Oglesby said at the end of the 1990s, Goodnight mandated SAS refocus on education, and begin to provide software and support to universities at no or very low costs.
“That program was to support professors in using SAS in the classroom and in any other ways that we could,” Oglesby said. “As analytics began to get as popular and in as much demand as it now has, about seven or eight years ago it became obvious from all the calls we were getting from industry, folks saying ‘where can we find talented people that know how to solve problems, and in particular have knowledge of SAS to do that?’”
SAS started working with universities like Alabama and Central Florida to include SAS certificate programs as part of general curriculum to full master’s level programs, both of which started in 2001.
In 2005, Rappa pitched Goodnight the idea North Carolina State’s Institute for Advanced Analytics. It was created the following year and admitted its first students in 2007. The institute now serves as a model for universities looking to create analytics programs.
“That program hit the ground running and was extremely well received, and we’ve had 50 or 60 universities that visited us and with Michael Rappa to see what they were doing,” Oglesby said, “what their successes were and how they might do some of those things in building their program.”
Professors from Louisiana State visited Rappa’s program in 2010, and started a Master of Science in Analytics program that accepted students in fall of 2011. Like N.C. State, it’s a 12-month intensive program that focuses on more than SAS technical skills, said Jim Van Scotter, LSU’s analytics program advisor.
“We’re really training people for a high level role in business and we’re trying to give them not just the technological skills but the understanding and the managerial perspective they need,” he said. “It’s not just doing a project well, but picking the right project to do. You should do the thing that benefits the company the most.”
Van Scotter said SAS supplied software from the start, and a $1 million commitment to help grow the program after LSU created its curriculum and started accepting students.
The Education Division
Four years ago, SAS created another division in the company to get university administrators and state education departments hooked up to SAS software at a steep discount.
Emily Baranello, the senior director of the education practice, said supporting education as an industry was part of the same effort. AS also provides training seminars so educators can learn how to pull insights about the effectiveness of educational programs out of their data.
“When we talk about needing to have the analytics talent in business, we need to have the talent in higher education and in [kindergarten through high school education] as well,” Baranello said. “We’re running into the same problems in education as corporate America in needing to have those data scientist talents out there. It helps us in the long run as well, and it helps us to figure out how we can utilize internal resources at the universities so that they’re able to save some money.”
SAS has also created a software-as-a-service program, called SAS OnDemand, for administrators and professors, so universities and education departments don’t have to buy significant amounts of hardware. Oglesby said the company is spinning up new instances of SAS OnDemand in Sydney, Singapore and Dublin in 2013, so more
universities can access the service.
SAS also hosts the Data Mining Shootout contest, which provides a competition based on real data to university teams of four to six students. Finalists are flown and housed at SAS’s annual analytics conference to present their entries, and the presentations draw industry leaders keen on finding data mining talent.
“More than anything else, it provides a platform for the students to network with industry leaders that come to the conference, and they get to see what the students have done, and the students get to see the type of things industry is looking for,” Oglesby said.