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Exclusive Video Interview with Sean O’Brien, Sr. Vice President, Global Customer Success & Education, SAS

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Today’s market, which is moving towards being analytics-driven, is one where having a foundation in analytics understanding is becoming more and more crucial.

Sean O’Brien, Sr. Vice President Global Customer Success and Education, SAS, speaks with Express Computer about the effects of analytics on the education sector for a country like India. He also discusses how SAS Academia is fostering an ecosystem of users of their software who can benefit customers and advancing the entire workforce with skills that go beyond just their tool.

How do you see the role of SAS in Academics in the context of the skill shortage and high demand situation for analytics and data science talent?
SAS was founded as the first piece of software that did analytical work. So, as founded in the university, by a university professor, it’s been part of our culture right from the beginning to work with university students to build capability to use our software. The very first thing that we developed within SAS was an education division to teach people how to use SAS.

Today, we have over 300 university partnerships all around the world, and they range from small vocational programs designed to get someone directly into a job, to degree-granting program to give more advanced upskilling capability. For us at SAS, it’s both about creating an ecosystem of people that know how to use our software so that customers can benefit, as well as advancing the total workforce with general capabilities beyond even just our tool.

What is the value SAS Academia brings in terms of upskilling and course transformation that has triggered success to both organisations and students?
SAS is working with industry partners to make it easy and possible for students to get jobs. We develop our certification programs with our industry partners to make sure that our certifications contain the skills that our customers need. Students who demonstrate credentials by their skills through these certifications, are in a better position to find a job. So, that’s the first and most important thing we do.

We also recognise the need for more labour force to come into this space of analytics and AI, and that’s where we try to draw students from other fields like social sciences, physics, general math into industry applications. We do this often through hackathons, competitions or career connections where we bring our industry partners onto the university campuses giving both parties the arena to learn from one another.

What is the kind of work SAS is doing in Education India as well as worldwide? What are some of the best practices you would like to comment about?
We have got over 300 partnerships around the world. We recently spoke to four different universities and initiated five new programs in four different regions of the country in a week. Apart from this, we have many ongoing partnerships across India. With these programs, a general core is the need to build skill in that region to create a future economic growth in that region. So, in working with these universities, we’ve got a mission beyond just connecting people to customers, but to create capability in that region, so they can participate in the economy.

So, when there’s a partnership between the government, the university, the commercial industry and us – the technology provider, that’s the best practice. When the university themselves can build a COE where industry does about a third of the teaching, which is the model we saw at Rajiv Gandhi Centre of Advanced Technology (R-CAT) Rajasthan, where most of their teaching comes from industry partners and what they teach the students is more connected to the kind of work that they need to do.

How can students or those interested in learning analytics access SAS? Are there any portals, trainings or certifications that analytics enthusiasts should look out for?
Yeah. So, we make software available to students around the world. Our cloud-based software that supports the entire analytics lifecycle for universities/students is called SAS OnDemand for Academics and currently there’s about 280,000 people around the world that use this software here.

We have a second platform called Viya for Learners. It’s new, so we’ve got about 40,000 people around the world using this software. It’s easy to access – students can access it from SAS.com. But additionally, when we partner with universities, we often build a portal together with the university so students can access their curriculum content, as well as have access to our software and learning content – the e-learning courses that we make available.

And what we want is for the students to be highly motivated students, we want them to be able to go as far and fast as they can. So, the common thing we build on these portals is access to e-learning that they can take self-paced.

For students who are from universities whom you’ve not already partnered with, for those is there any opportunity or portal available?
The software that we make available does not require the student to be part of a partnership. So, anyone can come to SAS.com, click on Learn and they’d find access to software, and they can just register, login and use SAS. With that software does come certain free courses that we want the world to learn to use. For eg. We have a free data literacy course. Our first entry course SAS Programming 1 is free to the world. SAS Statistic 1 is free to the world. Anyone, whether any university program, whether taking an alternative pathway, whether they want to go straight from some other element of schooling straight to career, has access to this content from the SAS.com website.

People who don’t have a technical or a science background, they can also en-roll for these courses?
Our data literacy course, which is free to the world, assumes that you know nothing about data. And, it’s a story-driven course that uses an example of a woman that starts a small business and talks about what she might need to do to run her business with data. It is a course that assumes you know nothing. If you already have some background in this, you can enter the ladder at a higher rung. But, if you know nothing and you just know you want to participate in the global economy, you can start right there at our free data literacy course.

What are some of the new initiatives you are planning for SAS Academia in 2023 and beyond?
We’ve got to need to build capability everywhere in the world. So, we are trying to build coverage in as many geographies as we can. Within India, we are trying to expand our geographic coverage so all locations can have capable workforce. When we build these partnerships, we’d like to have centres of excellence that can have base material where people can learn fundamentals, get an entry-level job and advanced programs that are aspirational. And then the final thing we’d like to do, and this is one of our initiatives this year, is to get students connected to the global community. So, run a global… it’s a competition, but it’s not really a competition, it’s called the Curiosity Cup where students can either bring problem statements they would want to solve, participate in this, and we’ll judge it in a competition.

And just as an example, coming out of the Curiosity Cup last year, we had two startup companies, because the idea that they worked on and the problem they solved, it has been deemed by the industry partners as viable in the market now. So from the many, we get sparks, and that’s kind of the community we want to connect them to.

What impact does analytics have on the education sector for a nation like India?
I’ve been talking to the universities that, when I was in college, it was common for the universities to have a language requirement; that we all learn a foreign language. I now view analytics like the language requirement. Every student, regardless of the course of study, should get some base in analytics information because the economy is moving towards an analytics-driven economy. And one doesn’t need to aspire or plan to work as a data scientist to be able to benefit from the base knowledge, even the concepts that underlie it. So, no matter what field you’re in, studying history, English, communications, take some exposure to analytics. And then, if you know that you aspire to a career in data science or analytics or AI or machine learning, then whether it’s with SAS or generically, we’ve got advanced programs to help people participate in the highest levels in the most complex ways that work is done today.

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