How working on the Apollo project shaped the way Jim Goodnight built SAS

It was the late 1960s and Jim Goodnight, the co-founder and CEO of SAS Institute, was burned out.

He had gone straight into graduate school after finishing his undergraduate years at N.C. State University, and he was wondering whether he should take a break.

“I had gotten really tired of working and studying all the time,” Goodnight would later recall to the Southern Oral History Program in 1999. “And (I) decided that maybe this was a good time to take a break from graduate school and go ahead out and get a job and work for a while.”

So, Goodnight left North Carolina and moved to Florida to take a position with General Electric. But it wasn’t just any engineering job that he took. Instead, he was working on a project for NASA’s Apollo program, the country’s ambitious effort to send humans to the moon.

Jim Goodnight, co-founder and CEO of SAS Institute, working on the Apollo program in Florida in 1966. Courtesy of SAS Institute

The job would make him one cog in the giant machine that was backing America’s space race against the U.S.S.R., and that ultimately put a man on the moon 50 years ago this week.

“We remember names like Neil Armstrong, but did you know that it took 400,000 data scientists, technicians, mathematicians and engineers to turn that idea into reality?” Goodnight asked the crowd at the SAS Global Forum earlier this year. “They were the ones creating new materials, technology and mathematical models to land man on the moon and return him back to Earth.”

His time with Apollo would also have a large influence on how he would form his own company, SAS, about a decade later. The analytics software company grew into a firm that had revenue of $3.27 billion in 2018 and more than 83,000 customers, according to Bloomberg.

In an email exchange with The News & Observer, Goodnight called the year he worked with NASA before going back to graduate school in Raleigh an exciting and inspiring time.

“As a software developer in the Apollo program, I was a part of a generation that learned how math, science and technology can transform the world,” he said. “It was incredibly inspiring and showed me the potential of a career in technology and math.”

Goodnight said he applied for the position with GE because he was drawn to the prospect of a man being sent to the moon. The programming skills he learned in college got him hired to work on the Apollo program.

His first assignment was to develop programs for the electronic circuits used to support NASA’s ground stations around the world. Later, he would develop a data analysis system for HR to analyze why turnover was so high at the company.

SAS Institute CEO Jim Goodnight talks onstage at the SAS Global Forum in Dallas in 2019. Courtesy of SAS Institute

The turnover really stood out to Goodnight and is part of the reason SAS — often named one of the best places to work in the U.S. — now famously has many generous benefits for its employees. The company’s sprawling 900-acre campus in Cary is filled with amenities, such as multiple cafeterias, a large gym, a hair salon and running trails, among other things.

“Well, we were in cubicles, which made it hard to concentrate,” Goodnight said of the Apollo working conditions. “There were guards at every door and if you came in late you had to sign in and your manager was notified. Stale coffee cost a dime from a dispensing machine. Because of this environment, employee turnover at that company was 50% a year.”

“When we started SAS, it was important to me that we build a company in which the demands of work and family were carefully balanced in a stimulating and enjoyable work environment,” he added. “This approach has served us well, as we have exceptionally low employee turnover compared to our competitors.”

Goodnight noted that, in contrast, “Even on day one, SAS had a break station with free coffee, soft drinks and snacks. And flexible working hours.”

Part of the SAS Campus in Cary

The flexible hours were especially important to Goodnight. Writing in The New York Times in 2002, Goodnight said that because everyone was required to have top-secret clearance to work on Apollo, you could be questioned for being five minutes late to the office in the morning.

“I resented that, since I often came back at night to work,” he wrote. “They didn’t treat programming like a creative activity.”

Goodnight returned to North Carolina before the moon landing in 1969 because his wife Ann’s father had cancer. He said he watched the landing from their apartment in Raleigh.

But what he remembers most vividly about the Apollo program was the deaths of the astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The three were killed in a fire inside Apollo 1, which was still on the launch pad when an electrical fire ignited in the space ship’s capsule. Goodnight said he can still remember hearing about their deaths over the radio, as he drove back to North Carolina in 1967.

“That was an emotional moment for the whole country,” he said. “And also a reminder of the importance of every calculation and decision that goes into the process leading to a major achievement for science and humanity such as the moon landing.”

When asked whether the U.S. could use another ambitious program like the space race, Goodnight said he thinks “the US needs a trillion dollar infrastructure bill more than another moon shot.”

“But the space race drove much innovation that made its way back into engineering, business and everyday life,” he noted. “The current space race, which seems to be more commercially driven today, has the potential to continue sparking new innovation and inspiring young people to pursue an education in the STEM fields.”

Today, Goodnight — and SAS — still works on the cutting edge of computer engineering, especially in regard to the use of artificial intelligence. The company is investing $1 billion over the next three years in AI.

“Our smartphones contain more computing power than Apollo 11,” he said. “We are witnessing a renewed focus on data and analytics driven by the combination of increased computing power, a more connected world and powerful artificial intelligence technologies like computer vision, natural language processing and machine learning.... We are excited about the possibilities ahead of us. The opportunities are immense.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more.

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.