From musician to SAS executive – how Bryan Harris is shaping the future of data – iTWire


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Bryan Harris is the chief technology officer for data analytics software provider SAS. His vision focuses on three things which, due to SAS’ prominence, will undoubtedly shape how we do data analytics and data science. However, his journey to this point was unconventional and all started from an interest in music.

Harris was previously the senior vice president of engineering for SAS before taking the CTO role in January this year. Harris was preparing for the role over the months prior in discussions with Oliver Schabenberger about how to split his dual COO and CTO roles allowing him to focus on operations while Harris took on the CTO mantle. Schabenberger moved on from SAS earlier this year, but Harris’ placement means the organisation has maintained stability in the CTO function while considering its options around the COO position.

Harris has a clear vision driving his work as CTO, with three specific areas of focus. Given the size and position of SAS, as well as its rich 40-plus year history, it’s undeniable what Harris does next will influence the next iteration of data science approaches and tooling.

However, how Harris got to this point is a journey all of its own. Born in the 1970s and discovering he had musical talent, he became enamoured by all varieties of instruments. Yet, Harris also had a keen enquiring scientific mind and was fascinated by the relationship between analogue and digital when it came to making musical replicas. This led him to study a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering at Drexel University during the 1990s. That was the era of grunge so “I had to learn guitar to survive,” Harris quipped. Significantly, his studies taught him signals analysis and building systems to control signals.

It was this expertise in signals that saw Harris take up roles within the intelligence community and work on what would today be called big data, but was “just a lot of data” back then. The systems Harris worked on were ingesting two billion rows of data per day into a traditional relational database management system. Specifically, Harris’ work revolved around using natural language processing to understand how to parse statements and facts and other textual items from intelligence reports and marry them up with structured data from other sources.

At the time, Harris had no idea how useful that would be over his career. The tools he built evolved into streaming analytics during the early 2000s. “We couldn’t shove data into the database fast enough,” Harris said, “so we wanted to put smarts and analytics and tags into the data in the stream so we could put it into a prioritised store. This cut out so much delay, otherwise, we were waiting hours for the data to index.”

This work identified threats made against Government from textual, unstructured, sources. With the advent of social media, the commercial and defence world began to blend. Customer sentiment became a hot issue for businesses of all size wanting to understand the cause and effect of public opinion on products and services. Harris was already prepared to work on these analogous problems from his background in the “speed and feed” problems in the intelligence space.

The company Harris worked for was acquired by SAS in 2010, however, he moved to help another intelligence business before returning to SAS in 2013. His early work at SAS was in cyber analytics, before running the DevOps team, then moving to SVP of Engineering, and now CTO.

It's a remarkable journey where a love of music led to a fascination with analogue to digital which in turn took Harris on a journey across analysing semantics from vast troves of data to now set the path for SAS’ technology offerings.

That takes us today where, as CTO, Harris is focusing on three things:

  1. Unifying and simplifying the SAS platform, to rapidly push forward
  2. Unifying SAS solutions on that platform with a defined roadmap and allow SAS solution builders across all industries to run with precision on that platform
  3. Enabling unprecedented time-to-value to SAS customers. "If you’re paying money to use SAS we want to deliver value faster than anyone else including open source and commercial applications,” Harris said.

Harris presented at the annual SAS Global Forum last week where, among other announcements, SAS unveiled full operational support for Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform (GCP), and soon IBM RedHat OpenShift. This adds to the existing support for Microsoft Azure. “We wanted to give customers choice and control in how they deliver analytics, and their language and deployment,” he said. “We’re giving customers the ability to move their analytical workloads with a consistent operating model in the cloud, including running on-premises. You’re not pinned into a corner and can run world-class analytics wherever you want.”

— Shannon Heath (@ShannonHeathPR) May 19, 2021


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