Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Notes from SAS Analyst Conference

I spent yesterday at an analyst conference for SAS, being briefed on the company’s plans for 2009. The presentations are considered confidential, so I can’t go into details. But I think it’s okay to share a few points that struck me.

- credit and other financial risk analysis are a very strong business for the company right now. Of course this makes perfect sense, but it’s nice to see on two levels: first, that financial institutions are working on the issue and second, that there’s some good news somewhere.

- SAS sees itself as selling software applications for specific tasks (like credit risk analysis) rather than the underlying analytical tools. This isn’t news, but I hadn’t quite realized how fully the company had committed to this approach. One big difference with SAS is that they essentially create a separate data warehouse using SAS technology, instead of drawing on other systems for data integration and database management. The SAS “framework” (they avoid the term “platform”) might draw from a conventional warehouse, exist alongside it, or replace it altogether. But however you structure it, the SAS approach implies a relatively substantial investment to bring up the initial SAS application. The advantage is it's easier to add later applications – a major selling point when SAS tries to expand its footprint within an existing client.

This approach also puts SAS in conflict with several other parties: corporate IT departments who may view its foundation as redundant; other application software developers; and channel partners who may want to integrate solutions from several sources. SAS did mention several initiatives to cooperate with other players (except maybe other application software developers), but also seems quite willing to go it alone when necessary. The underlying attitude seemed to be that their solutions are good enough to win on their merits, and ultimately that’s what matters.

- improved user interfaces are a major initiative this year. SAS leaders mentioned several times that they had lost deals to less capable products that looked more attractive, and clearly this rankles. However, SAS seems to believe that better user interfaces are all about flash (and, in this case, specifically Adobe Flash). I saw and heard little that suggested a deeper understanding of usability as a way of helping people to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. One red flag: the sample dashboard they proudly displayed included many gauges, which are almost universally rejected as a poor use of screen real estate. Ironically, one of SAS’s own presentations made this exact point about gauges—but then someone illustrated emailing a picture of a gauge as a way of alerting a colleague to a value. Ouch!

(In case it's not clear why you wouldn't email a gauge: if you just wanted to tell someone the number, you'd just send the number and save the person the need to look at the gauge, find the needle, and then relate it to the scale. If you wanted to show the number in context, you'd send a note along the lines of "revenue is $45,000, 20% ahead of plan". Again, much easier than trying to interpret values and color zones on the gauge, and conveys precisely the point you intended.)

But those are just my little quibbles. SAS remains a tremendously strong company with great technology, far-sighted management and dedicated employees. I have no doubt that they’ll continue to succeed and, more important, deliver great value to their clients.

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