Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part interview. Executive Q&A is a regular feature on Tuesdays.

Related Story: Gordon’s ‘Top 10’: www.localtechwire.com/article.cfm?u=3237&k=07&l=25 When people think of SAS, owner Jim Goodnight, business intelligence software and corporate loyalty to employees are three subjects that spring to mind.

But Goodnight didn’t build the software giant by himself. And he is quick to recognize employees who really are partners in making SAS the success story it has become.

Others recognize that as well — including Computerworld magazine. In its Top 100 list of leading IT executives for 2003, the magazine included Suzanne Gordon, a long-time SAS executive who is vice president of information technology services for the billion dollar company.

Local Tech Wire asked Gordon, who manages more than 300 employees, about a wide variety of subjects — from the biggest issues facing IT executives (see sidebar) to how employee loyalty has helped SAS as a company. She should know. Gordon, a graduate of NC State with BS degrees in math and computer science and an Masters in statistics, has worked for SAS for more than 20 years and has risen through management ranks to become one of Goodnight’s most important lieutenants.

Please describe your job responsibilities at SAS.

As vice president of information technology, I direct the systems development, hardware implementations, strategic support and budget activities of the SAS Information Systems organization. As such, I am responsible for establishing strategic and tactical plans for all information systems departments, working with other company divisions and aligning our strategy with the goals of the company.

Given that you manage more than 300 employees, how do you find time to stay on the leading edge of IT issues – from new products to new challenges? Do you set aside specific time for your own education so you don’t spend all your time on “people” issues?

I try to read to stay up to date, but I must rely on the folks in each area who are really interested in their specific technology. Since SAS is a software company, there are plenty of “technical experts” in R&D who keep me up-to-date on the latest technology. There are two, in particular, whom I try to have lunch with at least once a month so I can pick their brains. Finally, I attend IT conferences whenever possible. I attended a Gartner event in December, and I will be attending a Computerworld conference in February.

What are the two or three major challenges you see facing IT managers today? Please elaborate.

The biggest issue, of course, is dealing with the continued economic downturn and keeping things moving forward without overspending. Successfully addressing that challenge will be the key factor in determining which companies will be at the forefront of the next upturn. In addition, balancing security with costs and potential inconvenience to developers is a constant challenge that is always top-of-mind.

What are the major opportunities you see for IT managers? Please elaborate.

The biggest opportunity is becoming more of an integral part of their companies’ business. IT managers are responsible for aligning IT strategies with business strategies and for developing a better understanding of how and when they can contribute to the bottom line or ROI.

According to the Computerworld survey, only 33 percent of IT managers report that their budgets are growing. Is the IT budget at SAS growing? Please explain.

The budget may grow slightly, but we work constantly to control costs.

What are the consequences for companies that don’t increase IT spending? Do they risk falling behind the technology curve? If budgets are to be decreased or stay the same, how should IT managers balance their spending in order to prevent falling behind?

To a certain degree, that depends on the type of business and the industry it’s in or it serves. Since SAS is a software company, we keep up with the latest technology — both hardware and software. If SAS were not a technology company, for instance, I could see how we might be able to postpone such spending until the economy turns around. With that said, to save money we look at ways to standardize so support costs are less. We’ve done this with desktop images, with regional office setups, and with the companies we purchase. Also, everyone in IT is careful with money. We always ask “why?” before we make purchasing decisions.

Wednesday: Gordon talks about the scarcity of women in IT, the balance between longevity and change, and her personal side — from family to hobbies plus secrets for success.