“If I reflect on the attributes that are most important in my current job as a corporate executive, top of the list are:
curiosity, humility, empathy, authenticity, passion, & accountability.”
As COO and CTO of SAS, Oliver Schabenberger sets the technology direction and executes the company’s strategic direction and business priorities. He oversees multiple divisions within SAS, including R&D, Sales, Marketing, Information Technology and Customer Support, as well as divisions focused on solutions for IoT, financial risk management and cloud. Schabenberger joined the SAS R&D Division in 2002 and was named CTO in 2016.
Prior to SAS, he served as Associate Professor of Statistics at Virginia Tech, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1995. He frequently writes on emerging technology for publications such as Forbes.com and holds several patents on software design and algorithms.
Why Virginia Tech?
I was finishing my Forest Science degree at the Albert Ludwigs University in Freiburg, Germany, and was starting to plan for a doctorate. I had developed an interest in Forest Biometry and attended a conference of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO). I listened to presentations from researchers from around the globe and was inspired to sharpen my biometry skills and realized that I needed to study mathematical statistics and probability.
The presenter who stood out to me at the conference was Prof. Timothy G. Gregoire of Virginia Tech. He presented a paper on sampling theory, there were five-fold summation signs on his transparencies, and he took us through a complex derivation of a certain sampling estimator. I did not fully understand or follow what he talked about, but I knew that this is what I want to study and this is the person I want to study with.
Off to Blacksburg, VA I went to study with Tim. The curriculum he designed for me had a heavy course load in the Dept. of Statistics. This allowed me to acquire a M.S. in Statistics (1994) along with the doctoral degree in Forestry and Forest Products (1995). It had become clear to me at that time, that I want to be a statistician in academia at a major American research university.
After working as a Biostatistician in Washington, D.C. for a year, I joined the faculty of the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Michigan State University in 1996. Three years later I re-joined Virginia Tech as an Assistant Professor of Statistics in the Statistics Department. Tim had in the meantime moved to his alma mater as J.P. Weyerhaeuser Jr. Professor of Forest Management at Yale University.
In 2002, a year after receiving tenure at Virginia Tech, I left academia and joined SAS as a software developer. Over the years I rose through the ranks of the Research and Development division at SAS, this culminated in my appointment as Executive Vice President, Chief Technology Officer, and Head of R&D in 2016.
As of January 1, 2018, I took on the role of Chief Operating Officer in addition to the role as CTO.
Which faculty most influenced you?
There are so many faculty in the Statistics department who influenced me. Jeff Birch taught me regression and he was a very influential role model as a teacher, both during my time as a student and during my time on the faculty. Jesse Arnold instilled a love of mathematical statistics in me, Klaus Hinkelmann made me appreciate experimental design. Eric Smith nurtured my knowledge of environmental statistics, which led to a text book on spatial statistics.
To this day, I keep my course notes from Applied Regression and Mathematical Statistics nearby, although in my role as an executive of a multinational company, I do not do much statistical work anymore. These notes have always been a comfort to me.
Overall, Tim Gregoire, my doctoral advisor, had the greatest influence on me. He taught me how to be a good researcher, his work ethics, dedication, and love of language is something I carry with me every day. It shaped how I approach work and life. When many questioned my move from academia to the software industry, Tim guided and encouraged me. He helped me grow.
How did your training at Virginia Tech prepare you for your career?
The solid applied statistics education prepared me well for a career in statistics, although I felt that I was lacking the deep theoretical foundation.
At Virginia Tech, and then during my first years at SAS, I realized the importance of secondary, ancillary skills. These are the skills you develop “on the job”, without realizing it. These are the skills that open doors. For example, I developed skills in biometry during my time at the University of Freiburg. That opened the door to a Graduate Assistantship at Virginia Tech. Once I got here I realized that I was a pretty good biometricians compared to my former peers, but I definitely was not a good biometrician/statistician compared to my new peers in the Statistics department. It was now time to build and grow that secondary skill into a primary skill.
Similarly, when I joined SAS, I was a good programmer compared to my previous peers in the Statistics Department at Virginia Tech, but I was not at all a good programmer compared to my new peers at SAS. It was now time to build and grow that secondary skill into a primary skill.
I often get asked how working as a software developer in SAS R&D compares to a research position in academia? It turns out that the work in SAS R&D allowed me to focus on the things that I loved about working for a research university. I studied the field, conducted research, wrote papers, attended conferences, and gave workshops. I did not work on a day-to-day basis with students, but I worked every day with people who needed to and wanted to understand the analytic software I was responsible for—I was still teaching, but from a different pulpit. Gone was the pressure to support your own research through external funding, gone was the pressure to write papers in scientific journals, gone were the committee meetings and the university bureaucracy, and gone were the interruptions and the struggle to find extended periods of time to work on a problem. I felt that I had amplified the parts of being a researching statistician that I really liked.
My wife would ask: “Honey, how was your day?”
I would reply: “It was great, I did four hours of math straight!”
The work I did at SAS continued to open up new opportunities for me. I went on to run a small team in R&D, to eventually running the entire R&D division of SAS as the Chief Technology Officer, and in January of this year, I added the role of Chief Operating Officer to my responsibilities.
What are the keys to success in today’s work environment?
Most important in my opinion is to have a growth mindset, a learning mindset. You need to spend energy on your job, but rather than spending energy to retain it, I recommend to spend energy to grow out of it.
Along the way, you will change not jobs but careers on average four times. Each position I have held as led me to the next one on my career path, thanks to the ancillary skills I developed along the way. I would never have predicted that I would be the COO of a software company, responsible for a workforce of 12,000 people, but here I am.
If I reflect on the attributes that are most important in my current job as a corporate executive, top of the list are curiosity, humility, empathy, authenticity, passion, and accountability. Communication skills are among the most important skills. We communicate every day, and not just through emails we sent or speeches we give. We communicate in the way we listen, in the way we empower, through body language, through our presence.
Leadership is not about a managerial title. Leadership is learned and earned.
As a corporate leader, what words of advice would you give to today’s students?
We are living in a fast-paced world where change is constant and inevitable. In the field of technology, change and disruption continue to accelerate. You see and feel some of this in your line of work, a shift away from mathematical statistics and statistical modeling to data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.
Increasingly, task and decisions humans can make become the domain of algorithms and automated systems. This is an unstoppable movement and we have to find our place in a world that is increasingly driven by automation of cognitive skills. I am not afraid of the implications of automation and artificial intelligence, I see opportunities for better lives.
If we embrace lifelong learning, then we will grow with and benefit from disruption. I spent 25 of my first 30 years in classrooms. What I had learned then became largely irrelevant in the next decade.
I have no formal school or university training in computer design, software engineering, artificial intelligence, cognitive computing, management, business development and administration, organizational design, and so on. Yet those are the areas I have worked in since I finished schooling.
Don’t plan too far ahead. Understand your short-term and longer-term goals, but also understand that uncertainty increases quickly with a longer horizon. I joined SAS as a software developer, which was exactly what I wanted to do—at the time. I had no specific plan to become a people manager, let alone a company executive. I could not have planned my career, but I would not trade it for any other.