SAS Boss: Arkansas Education System Needs More Innovation, More STEM Focus

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 204 views 

The chief executive of data analytics software giant SAS told a roomful of Arkansas business leaders, educators and economic development officials that making sure Arkansas children get a good education and are able to go to college is critical to the state’s future business success.

“I still believe that education is the key to the future of this country,” said Jim Goodnight, CEO and founder of SAS, a global business intelligence, data marketing and analytics firm.

Goodnight was in Arkansas at the invitation of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, where he held meetings with state officials to discuss ways to reduce fraud and waste in state government. In his first nine months in office, Hutchinson has made cost-cutting and government consolidation a centerpiece of his administration.

Before catching a flight back to his company’s headquarters in Cary, N.C., Goodnight held a roundtable meeting with about 25 people who were invited to meet and talk with the North Carolina tech executive at the downtown headquarters of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC). AEDC Executive Director Mike Preston said the gathering with Goodnight is the first of many such meetings that he hopes to host in the future that will allow top Fortune 500-type executives to sit down with Arkansas leaders to establish business contacts, exchange ideas and arrange for potential deals in the future.

During Monday’s meeting, Goodnight talked largely about the success of East Coast data analytics software firm that was originally developed by him and colleagues at North Carolina State University to analyze agricultural-research data. Today, SAS is best known for sifting massive mountains of data for nearly all of the top federal agencies and most of the Fortune 500 companies. The data software giant now has more than 13,000 employees across the globe and had revenues in 2014 exceeding $3.09 billion, according to the company’s annual report.

Goodnight told the Arkansas delegation the way he has grown SAS is simply by investing in the people that work for the tech company.

“Everything we produce comes out of the heads of people that work there,” he said. “If you treat people like they make a difference, then they will make a difference. That is and has always been the philosophy of our company.”

During the hour-long session, Goodnight offered a number of light anecdotes about his company’s business success. He also later took several business-friendly questions from the attentive group at AEDC’s Rockefeller conference room.

The longtime SAS executive said part of his trip to Arkansas was to talk with Hutchinson and state revenue officials about preventing fraud in Medicaid and other state programs. He said SAS, which has 10 employees in Arkansas, works with nearly half of the 50 state revenue offices across the U.S.

“We can help you save millions of dollars on your Medicaid program here,” Goodnight said in his sales pitch. “We have software that covers every kind of fraud there is. This is a huge problem in the country.”

During a brief question and answer period, one of the queries to Goodnight was about the company’s global academic program, where the company works closely with dozen of colleges and universities across the globe to develop degree programs in mostly STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. The programs include courses that work toward certificates, undergraduate or graduate degrees. Goodnight boasted that his company has more than 500 employees with PhD’s and thousands with masters’ degrees. He said although most of those jobs pay well over $90,000 annually, he has learned that those valued employees need a great level of job flexibility and challenge.

“You pay somebody a lot of money and then give them a boring job, they won’t be there long. You have to give them a challenge,” he said.

But he also advised several educators at the meeting that Arkansas should focus on getting children and youth interested in STEM subjects from first-grade all the way to the university level.

“Two or three years of terrible teaching for one child can be devastating,” he said.

Goodnight also did not hold back on his criticism of the U.S. government, offering that in helping federal agencies to prevent fraud he has learned that hundreds of agencies only exist as entitlement programs or to hand out government assistance.

“The federal government keeps paying money for women to have babies. They need to pay more on education,” he said.

In his final remarks, Goodnight was asked by Preston what it would take for SAS to do business in the state of Arkansas. The SAS executive offered no details of any possible business deals from his trip to the Natural State, but said his company is eager to work with any state agency or private business in need of business intelligence or analysis.

But his last words came back to his focus on education. He told the roomful of attentive listeners that Arkansas educators have to learn to be more innovative in the classroom, and teachers also need more training for American children to remain competitive at a global level.

“Arkansas shouldn’t worry about competing with Louisiana, they need to worry about China, and other countries like India and Japan,” he said. “If we don’t compete and give our children more tools, we will continue to move toward a service-based economy.”

After the meeting, Preston said although the meeting with Goodnight did not result in any new jobs or a discussion of future business arrangements, the session with the SAS executive and other such top CEOs will ultimately bear fruit for Arkansas down the road.

“I hope this is the first of many future meetings that we can hold with top executives that we invite to come and visit and do business in Arkansas,” said the AEDC chief.