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Ask Slashdot: Switching From SAS To Python Or R For Data Analysis and Modeling? 143

An anonymous reader writes "I work for a huge company. We use SAS all the time for everything, which is great if you have a bunch of non-programmer employees and you want them to do data analysis and build models... but it ends up stifling any real innovation, and I worry we will get left behind. Python and R both seem to be emerging stars in the data science game, so I would like to steer us towards one of them. What compelling arguments can you give that would help an old company change its standard if that company is pretty set in its ways?"
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Ask Slashdot: Switching From SAS To Python Or R For Data Analysis and Modeling?

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  • by Abroun ( 795507 ) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @10:37AM (#47376153)
    It's unlikely that SAS is the root cause of a lack of innovation, so it's unlikely that introducing a new tools by itself will make a difference. The fact that you work for a 'huge company' is more likely the problem. Does senior management agree that innovation is a priority? Are they willing to make the changes to encourage it (which usually means breaking down fiefdoms, giving up power, and lots of things that senior managers hate doing)? The choice of language is kinda irrelevant absent the right environment.
  • by mwvdlee ( 775178 ) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @10:38AM (#47376175) Homepage

    Is it your feeling that SAS is "stifling any real innovation" or do you have examples of projects that are impossible with SAS but possible with Python or R?
    Do those example projects actually help the bottom line of the company or are they just "cooler"?

    If you can think of examples that have clear financial benefits to the company, you have a solid business case already.
    If there are no such examples or other factors negate the benefits, then the company has nothing to gain by switching and should not switch.

    Short answer; if you're asking on Slashdot for reasons to switch from product X to product Y, you probably have no real reason to switch.

  • by Rob Riggs ( 6418 ) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @10:48AM (#47376277) Homepage Journal
    Emerging? They were emerging a decade ago. They have emerged. Look, if the company is, as you say, "set in its ways", that is a cultural problem. Unless you are an executive that gets to set goals and compensation, you have very little influence over it. If that is not you, either stay and live with what you have, or leave for greener pastures. The basic question you have to ask yourself is "how will staying here using these outdated tools affect my lifetime earnings potential?" Put another way: "are they paying me enough to put up with this shit?" That is my prime criteria for deciding whether to stay at any job. Your job is to make recommendations. I assume you have already done that and been shot down. Decision time: should I stay or should I go.
  • by Shoten ( 260439 ) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @10:54AM (#47376323)

    SAS is not a language; it's a full multi-tiered solution for the aggregation, normalization, and analysis of data. There's a language as well, but that's just one part of the whole solution. Python and R, while absolutely fantastic languages, are not a full solution.

    So, first step...if you're going to offer an alternative, actually have an alternative. I don't know your SAS buildout nor do I know the data sources it consumes, so I can't really point to what else you need to add or how you need to construct it to produce a more flexible replacement to your existing and current SAS infrastructure.

    Second step...a roadmap for migration. It's one thing to sign a lease for a new apartment or to buy a new house, and another to shift your life from the old place to the new. If you don't have a plan, at least in broad strokes, then you're going to be doomed when you look for executive sponsorship. You need to make sure that you get all the stakeholders' input as well, lest you leave something out in your roadmap...and then end up with someone who sees you as a problem. That person will most likely be in a position to scuttle the whole thing, as well.

    Third step...figure out how to define the benefits in terms of the stakeholders' needs. You're going to replace a system they use; why should they want you to do so? And you have to define it from their perspective, with regard to things they care about. Beware of getting geeky on's very likely that at least one of the people whose support you will need will not be a geek and will be concerned with the output more than the technical means used to produce it. Don't hard-sell, either...pushing too hard will get the door slammed in your face, and even potentially polarize people against you. (See above, under "in a position to scuttle the whole thing.")

    There will be steps after that, but those will be largely determined by how the first three steps go. It may involve bringing in outside vendors, doing requirements analysis...a lot of it depends on details of your company as well and how they normally do things. But above all else, remember this: don't buck the system too hard, and don't knock the company you work for. Trying to get a lot of people to support and cooperate with you while telling them that their way of doing things sucks is suicide.

  • by DaBombDotCom ( 1587833 ) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @11:07AM (#47376445)
    In my experience, R is better for non-programmers precisely because it doesn't often behave like a typical programming language. It is *designed* for statistical analysis and so for someone just starting out it can be very intuitive.
  • by goombah99 ( 560566 ) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @11:37AM (#47376787)

    R has more single function high level commands devoted to stats, these are done right internally and are self consistent with other functions for further processing. But its not as general a programming language as python. if you want something different than the canned functions in R then you will need to write them yourself at which point you might as well be using python. however if you like SAS then chances are R will seem more like what you are hoping for.

  • by ichabod801 ( 3423899 ) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @01:34PM (#47377985)
    I used to be you, almost exactly. Almost everything we do at work is in SAS, and I was pushing hard for R and Python and getting nowhere. I hated SAS because it was so clunky and out of date. So many SAS programs are bad because they're being done by statisticians with no programming background. Then I went to NESUG a few years ago and saw presentations by the likes of Whitlock, Dorfman, and others, and realized serious programming *was* being done in SAS. I resolved to just become the best SAS programmer I could. The first thing you need to do is stop programming Python in SAS. SAS is like Lisp in that it is a different paradigm, and not programming in that paradigm only makes things harder. Learn that paradigm. Learn the data step inside and out. Every time you have a %do loop, ask yourself if you can do it in a data step. Every time you wish you had OOP, ask yourself if you could represent the objects in a data set. Or learn the new ds2 data step that has OOP. Learn proc sql and know when it's better to use than a data step. That's what I did, and it took my SAS programming to a whole new level, and allowed me to innovate legacy code and transform the applications we were using. Because back when I was you, SAS wasn't the obstacle to innovation, I was.

Someday your prints will come. -- Kodak