An Interview With Rick Wicklin, Senior Research Statistician Developer

By Maura Stokes

Rick Wicklin is a Senior Research Statistician Developer in the Advanced Analytics Division at SAS. He began working here in 1997. Before his move to North Carolina, Rick received a PhD in Applied Mathematics from Cornell University in 1993. He also did a post doctorate at the University of Minnesota, where he later worked as an assistant professor of Mathematics.

Rick is one of the principal developers of SAS/IML Studio, and he has also contributed to SAS software in the areas of numerical computations and graphics.

Rick reading newspaper

What got you interested in science and math as a kid?

I was always interested in the way things worked, so science was a natural for me.

I'm seeing science fairs in your past, right?

Yes! In fact, I won a state competition when I was in middle school in Florida.

What was your project?

I was interested in finding out how blind persons dream. Did they still dream with visual representations? Or did blind people only dream with sensory imagery? I did a survey of a number of blind persons and concluded that their dreams had a visual component if the people or events they dreamed about came from their seeing past.

Sounds like a statistician in the making!

Interesting, isnít it? As I look back on it, it certainly was an exercise in statistical thinking.

So, growing up in Florida, did you ever go to the space program launches in Cape Canaveral?

Actually, we could see the launches from the middle of my street. I remember watching some of the Apollo liftoffs as a very young child, and I watched several shuttle launches.

How do you go from graduate work in mathematics to programming as a career?

Well, I was an applied mathematician, and I worked in areas such as dynamical systems, geometric properties of differential equations, visualization of geometric structures, and numerical computations. All of these areas are computationally intensive, and you become adept at programming and writing software packages when you work on them. I realized that I loved programming itself, and I was good at it. I decided that I liked writing software more than I liked proving theorems.

How did you end up at SAS?

I worked in an environment at Minnesota that really pushed the use of the Internet, and so I decided that I didnít want to work at a company unless it was progressive enough to advertise their positions on the Internet. So I searched the Internet for positions in high tech companies in the Research Triangle area (this was before Google was developed), and SAS was one of them. It was funny, I wasnít aware of SAS before that, but when I got the interview, my wife told me that she had used SAS software for the analysis in her masterís thesis. She was only too familiar with procedures such as CORR and REG.

Anything about the interview stand out?

Yes. I remember talking with the SAS/IML developer and thinking that I would love to work on SAS/IML software one day. I was very familiar with matrix programming languages such as Matlab. I worked on graphics and computations for SAS/INSIGHT software for two years, but here I am now, working on SAS/IML Studio!

What makes you a good programmer?

It goes back to my continuing interest in how things work. Before I write any code, I try to thoroughly understand the problem. I am very thoughtful and careful, and I test my code thoroughly before I let a single tester get involved.

I think that all the different aspects of my background—applied mathematics, physics, and engineering—make it natural for me to consider multiple approaches to a problem. I can then compare the various approaches and pursue the one that I think is most efficient.

How does your training as a mathematician help you work in the statistics field?

A lot of the ideas in statistics are related to the more abstract ideas in mathematics. For example, a lot of statistical methods, such as regression, have to do with projection onto linear subspaces, an abstract mathematical concept. I actually find that a lot of statistical papers in the journals are easier to read than the mathematical papers. They are better written and contain examples that demonstrate the methodology being described and why itís important.

Whatís an example of the type of contribution you make to SAS software?

I wrote dozens of analyses that are available in SAS/IML Studio. These analyses are all written in IMLPlus, which is the programming language in SAS/IML Studio. In writing the analyses, I suggested many improvements to the IMLPlus language and graphics. For example, I suggested that it would be useful to be able to pass the contents of SAS/IML matrices into SAS procedures. As it turns out, customers really like that feature.

Iím always pushing students to find internships in their fields of interest. Did you participate in summer internships that were useful to you?

Definitely. I worked at Lockheed Martin, where, along with other projects, I wrote Fortran programs for matrix factorization. The programs were used by engineers working on missile guidance systems. Another project was concerned with the technology for night vision goggles. I also worked at General Electric, where I analyzed and modeled data collected by engineers working on medical imaging systems.

You are a great teacher. The students in the SIBS program at NC State that come to SAS for a field day love your lectures. Do you miss the teaching aspect of an academic career?

Not at all. And thatís because I have so many opportunities for teaching and mentoring here at SAS. Iíve led workshops on programming SAS/IML Studio at SAS Global Forum and other conferences, and I worked with the SAS Education group on their SAS/IML Studio course. Iíve given SAS Global forum papers, and Iíve given presentations to customers as well as talk with customers all the time. I have also supervised seven graduate students here, and that has an aspect of mentoring, too.

How does that work?

There are two types of projects on which I work with students. One is the case where I know how to solve a problem and I could bang it out, but working with a student means that they can write the code and thus free me up for other work. This would typically be a SAS macro written in SAS/IML code. Another type of project is when I am interested in a new method that looks good at first glance. I can ask a student to research more and to try it out with some real data to see if it scales well in the real world. I might also ask them to compare the new method with an existing method to determine if it really has advantages.

Simon Smith, the other principal SAS/IML Studio developer, calls you the Ďfront maní for Studio. What does he mean?

Part of my job is to promote SAS/IML Studio via papers, demos, presentations, and documentation. I work with customers to demonstrate how they can use SAS/IML software in their organization. Iím also writing a SAS Press book on the SAS/IML product and SAS/IML Studio.

Right now, Iím working with Rob Agnelli, the SAS/IML tech support contact, to get more examples of SAS/IML Studio use on Iím also using SAS/IML Studio in my poster at the Data Expo in 2009 sponsored by the ASA Statistical Graphics section at the Joint Statistical Meetings.

Thatís right. I was pleased to see your entry in the Data Expo when I chaired the poster sections in 2007. Can you tell us more about it?

Sure. Every few years, the Statistical Graphics section of ASA holds a poster session competition. Each poster uses graphics to explain the results of the analysis of a particular data set. This year, the data are 120 million records of domestic airline flights from the last twenty years that include information such as origin, departure, arrival, schedule flight time, and so on. Itís a great opportunity to highlight SAS tools and I had a lot of fun putting together our poster. Robert Allison, another SAS employee, made contributions from the SAS/GRAPH side.

Editor's Note: Rick is back to the winning ways of his science fairs, as his entry won the 2009 Data Expo competition!

Rick, I know you play soccer here because your team always beats my team. You also perform with the SAS show choir. Can you talk about that?

Sure. I was interested in singing and acting as a kid, and I performed in community theater and dinner theaters since I was nine, getting parts in musicals such as Mame and Carousel. I continued to perform in college plays at Guilford College, where I received my undergraduate degree, and I worked a few summers in repertory theater. I made enough money acting to pay for college room and board.

Currently, the SAS show choir, called VocalMotion, is my only outlet for these interests, but itís great fun and we perform each year to raise money for charity. We just held our 17th annual show. We also perform weekly for senior citizens at area retirement centers.

What do you like most about working at SAS?

I like that Iím respected as a professional. Of course, we are pursuing projects that are in line with company goals, but we are given a great deal of latitude on implementation. SAS trusts its employees to do good work, and thatís important to me.

I also feel privileged to be on the same floor with a group of brilliant statisticians. There is no statistical question that canít be answered by walking down the hall and asking the right person.