Wednesday, November 30, 2011

HUG-ging It Out

Yes, this blog post is well overdue… a week and a half to be exact. And there are so many things I want to share! To be honest, I’ve been quite busy over the last fortnight with one of my other passions; helping out my alma mater, George Brown College.

I’m a firm believer in the maxim ‘each one, teach one’. Since I graduated four years ago from my post-graduate program I’ve made a point of coming back to help whenever I’ve been asked. Sometimes, that’s meant participating in a question/answer session for students’ sitting in seats I so recently occupied myself…. Sometimes, it’s a more structured session. I recently gave a talk to a very keen, highly-motivated class of marketers-to-be around the importance of online reputation management and development. I hope some of them are peeking in on this blog: guys, you’ll go far! Recently I was accepted as one of the participants in a mentorship program at the school. Alumni who have been out in the wild work world for a while have been paired with students who are excelling in their program and looking for some further guidance, inspiration and direction. I’m really looking forward to getting involved in giving back; I encourage each and every one of you reading this blog to consider doing the same… it feels great, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun. It really is like a big warm hug!

Hug… that reminds me of something. Oh yes, the HUG user group meeting! It’s truly easy to get distracted by something you’re passionate about. The Toronto Health User Group is another one of those passions of mine.

I’ve previously mentioned how near and dear this group is to my heart. As the first executive committee I worked with on a planning level, I’ll always remember the excitement – and nervousness as well, to be sure! – that accompanied my first ‘solo’ user group endeavour. Would I let down the team? My company? SAS users? As I approach my fourth anniversary with SAS, I smile to think back on those early, tentative days. It’s safe to say that with the help of Ruth Croxford and the rest of the executive committee, my nerves have never been in better shape and all my fears emphatically allayed.

Through evaluation forms, previous meetings had revealed that there was a keen desire to have more of a statistical focus as part of an upcoming meeting, and I think we managed to deliver in spades! The November 18th meeting boasted a bit of a dream-team for statisticians… at least as far as this non-statistician could tell. Good friends and former SAS colleagues Lorne Rothman and John Amrhein provided a potent one-two punch as they led out the meeting. As a SAS Training Specialist and Ph.D (in zoology, not statistics as I was reminded), Lorne is familiar to many SAS users. In fact, more than a few had attended a Bayesian analysis-themed course earlier in the week. Lorne is an incredibly knowledgeable, affable and comfortable speaker – no surprise, considering his profession. His talk centered around the latest and greatest features of SAS/STAT, a component of SAS familiar to many in the room. Not only was he able to speak at length about features that had the crowd ‘ooh’ing and ‘aah’ing, he was able to demonstrate how they ran, and why he saw them as a benefit. John followed with a tremendous talk of his own, dovetailing nicely off of Lorne’s to focus on Bayesian analysis… it’s almost as if they discussed this beforehand! Oh wait, they did. Nevermind.

John’s presentation was especially interesting for an amateur archaeologist such as I. I may have mentioned previously that I worked at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum for 6 years before I started my career at SAS. Those were some of the happiest, most blissful years of my life. It’s a wonderful thing to be surrounded by one’s passion, and I had the good fortune to live my dream every day. I hinted earlier that statistics and I were not good friends. We have a healthy respect for each other, but know to stay out of each other’s way, for the most part. The same can be said for chemistry… hence my inability to pursue my dream career of archaeology. At any rate, John’s talk happily married my past and my present by presenting a case study around dental decay which hoped to prove – or disprove – whether the particular feature in question could be used as a reliable dating technique. I was absolutely hooked. Thanks for helping me relive (and to a degree, rekindle) the passion, John.

Next to last, we come to Chris Battiston, the ‘wunderkind’ of the SAS world this past year and my personal SAS hero. Chris has been working with SAS for less than a year, but has established himself as a true force in the SAS Canada Community – you may know him better as the Darth Vader-visaged, blogger extreme in that space – and as of the past meeting, a fledgling member of the Health user group executive committee. Did I mention he’s also a Section Chair for NESUG, the large regional SAS user group? Chris’ energy, enthusiasm and boundless excitement is infectious and inspiring. He was in fine form in delivering what was to be his first SAS Canada user group presentation, ‘Wake Up Your Data with SAS Graph’n Go’. I loved this talk. Simple, accessible and interesting… and delivered with the charm and polish of a veteran public speaker. Methinks we haven’t seen the last of Chris as a presenter (at least, I hope so!).

The final presentation was delivered by Paul Cascagnette of ICES. I’ve been aware of Paul for a while: formerly based in Saskatoon, I’d hoped to have him speak at a meeting there before his relocation to Toronto. Circumstance ensured that we missed each other a few times… I was beginning to think he was the real-life version of Polkaroo from Polka Dot Door. Wow, just dated myself. Suffice it to say, his talk was worth the wait! He offered a great discussion of how to appropriately use simulations in SAS. I joked at the meeting that I was a little nervous as he had close to 50 slides and only 20 minutes to present! He was able to get through just fine, though, and I think we all learned a lot about trial, error and complexity which we hadn’t considered previously. Great to finally meet you Paul!

Lunch afterwards was a relaxed and engaging affair as always. It was a bit of a blast from the past and a foreshadowing of the future as we were joined by Tim Trussell of SAS who helped found the group in his previous role as the User Group Program Manager as well as Issa Guindo also of SAS who will be certainly be contributing more in the near future. A great time was had by all!

My final observation: creativity is a funny thing. I’ve wanted to write this blog post for a while, but hadn’t found the time or the right words. Here I sit in an airplane 25,000 feet above northeastern Ontario en route to Quebec for the last time this year and I couldn’t be happier with how it’s come out. It must be something in the air (other than me). I’ll have more on the two meetings I’m attending – one in Quebec, one in Montreal – over the next few days (fingers crossed).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In the Club: SAS meets in la ville de Québec

I've said it before and I'll say it again: God, I love Québec. Whether it's having the chance to wander the streets of vieux Québec while feeling transported a continent - and a few centuries - away, enjoying the chance to practice my French once again or wondering just how many attendees would grace us with their presence at the Club d'utilisateurs SAS de Québec this time.... c'est toujours une experience exceptionnelle.

Today proved to be no exception to the rule. Almost 100 SAS users from a wide variety of industries, organizations and backgrounds came together for an afternoon of learning and networking on the campus of the Université de Laval. Once again, SAS Canada showed up in numbers as well! Montréal, Toronto, Ottawa and of course the ville de Québec were all well represented. It was great to see so many of my colleagues take an interest in the growth of the user groups and rekindle relationships with the attendees.

The meeting itself was the result of a lot of hard work and perseverance. As I did last year around this time, I'd like to take a moment to single out M. Jean Hardy for his contribution. Jean has experienced personal challenges around the last two fall meetings; both times, he was heavily involved as a presenter or as a facilitator. As he has done previously, Jean ensured that his contribution went ahead as planned. My respect and admiration for him has growth appreciably given the difficult circumstances of his participation. Jean led an 'éspace participatif': an open discussion forum to share Enteprise Guide-related tips and tricks for editing and creating SAS tables within this environment. Contributions were solicited in advance... and I must say, I was overwhelmed by the response. It's a hallmark of the strength of the community that not only did over 10 individuals volunteer their own tricks - and explained them at the meeting - but the discussion was so robust, this section of the meeting had to end early! It's always gratifying and refreshing for me to see this level of support amongst SAS users in a community, it's what these user group meetings and online efforts like the SAS Canada Community are all about. Merci pour tes efforts, Jean: ils étaient bien reçus.

The agenda also featured Carolyn Cunnison of SAS Canada. I am perpetually in awe of Carolyn's ability to command la langue de Molière easily and with great poise. I'm even more in awe of how accessible she makes very complex topics... and this meeting was no different. Carolyn discussed the rationale behind creating OLAP cubes and demonstrated how to do so... with a hint as to the power and utility of them as well. Truly inspiring stuff: the power of cubes is remarkable for looking at data in multiple dimensions and deriving meaningful, valuable insight. I found myself wanting to know more and more... hey, I think there are some courses around this and other BI-related topics, perhaps my next training path addition when (if) I find some time!

Finally, the amazingly named Jean-François Ducré-Robitaille offered us a talk around 'l'utilisation de SAS dans un environnement intranet multiplateforme'... which for the non-French speakers reading this blog sums up as 'amazingly cool Flash-based live graphical representations of data using SAS'. What a finish to an outstanding day's worth of talks! JF is a fantastically gifted speaker; you can actually view a video interview I conducted with him in the SAS Canada Community to get a sense of how natural and well-spoken he can be. As an aside, you'll also find an interview I conducted with Jean Hardy and club président Louis-René Rheault in the same space... well worth a view! At any rate, JF has joined the ranks of the 'bravest of the brave' by attempting - successfully! - a live demo in the midst of a presentation. Given the 'oohs' and 'aahs' emenating from the crowd, I'm pretty sure everyone had the same reaction as I. In a word, WOW. Thanks JF for a very enlightening talk!

Although I've enjoyed myself here in Québec, I must confess to being a little annoyed. I haven't been able to satisfy my craving from what is the Worlds. Best. Poutine (no, I'm not telling you where, stop asking!). My delightful dinner this evening was lovely but not the proper time or place... and a 9:00am flight precludes me grabbing some on this trip, I'm afraid. Fortunately I'll be back here in Québec in just a few weeks for the Forum analytique SAS de Québec. I'm looking forward to seeing many friends once again... as I said at the beginning of this post, I just can't get enough of this city!

As I wing my way homewards I have one final meeting to prepare for this week; the Health User Group in Toronto. I'll have more on this meeting late on Friday. Merci, Québec pour votre hospitalité!

À la prochaine...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

SAS Leads the Charge in Montréal

I'm sitting at Trudeau Airport, sorry to be leaving the beautiful city of Montréal... yet heartened because I'll be returning here in just a few short weeks' time for the Montréal Business Analytics Forum meeting. I'll be blogging shortly about my expectations around that meeting - as a teaser, a phenomenal agenda is driving HUGE registration - in an upcoming blog post on the SAS Canada Community... but for now, how about I stick on topic and discuss the wonderful experience which was today's MONSUG meeting.

In terms of leadership, Montréal is fortunate to have two very strong individuals working well together to ensure that each MONSUG meeting meets the diverse expectations of the knowledgeable membership. Primarily a group focused on programming topics, Eric Lacombe & Mathieu Gaouette elected to look outside the group's comfort zone for this most recent meeting. No, they didn't wear their Maple Leafs jerseys (come on guys, let the world know your dark secret: it's liberating to love the Leafs! ;)). Rather, they chose to feature an 'all-SAS staff' agenda at the meeting... and not only that, to showcase several topics which had not been as favourably received as programming-heavy topics in meetings past.

First-time MONSUG presenter (and new SAS employee) Seng Tang was the catalyst for this risk... and perhaps didn't realize it at the time, which may have been best for all. With a relaxed, approachable demeanour and wonderful self-deprecating sense of humour, Seng walked the audience through an unfamiliar element of SAS which they embraced with the fervour they tend to reserve for programming-based talks. His presentation focused on data mining: more specifically, decision trees, the rationale behind their use and their strengths and weaknesses. This was done from within the context of the Enterprise Miner environment which was certainly unfamiliar to many attendees. I think it's fair to say that Seng knocked it out of the park. Questions flew fast and furious as he concluded, and the room seemed to really gravitate towards the subject matter. Their questions were relevant and belied a curiosity about the power of data mining which was certainly most pleasant to hear! My colleague Sylvain Tremblay, a data mining expert and SAS instructor, was able to lend his expertise to the conversation which helped ensure that all inquiries were addressed appropriately.

Not to be outdone, SAS' own André Lafreniere stepped up to offer another forward-looking topic: that of the 'strategie mobile BI de SAS'. I've seen André give a version of this talk a few times previously and while I knew the quality of his talk, I was curious to see how - or if - the audience would appreciate a presentation which featured very little in the way of code. André painted a picture of the wave of the future: remote access of SAS business analytics processes, analysis and reports. I'm always amazed to see how dramatically far business has come in terms of this mobile presence. There's an expression which I picked up off of Twitter which I think captures how far mobile technology has come in recent years. In the 1960's, we launched mankind to the moon with less power than can be found in today's mobile phones. Somewhat tongue in cheek, the poster also commented that today, using more computing power, we launch birds at pigs a la Angry Birds. That being as it may, André did a great job of demonstrating how the complexities of an analytical environment can now be found on a tablet or smartphone... and gave us all a small peek as to what's to come. As an unrepentant social media junkie, I was enthralled... especially by the prospect of accessing the power of SAS' social media analytics software over mobile. Drool.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention our third of four presenters; leading by example, Mathieu Gaouette of the MONSUG executive 'dynamic duo' offered a succinct - yet revealing - book review. His walkthrough gave just enough information to intrigue the audience about the book. As Mathieu noted, Amazon had actually sold out of the Pocket SAS Reference Guide at the time of his talk, so I suppose the MONSUG audience weren't the only ones! Magnanimously, Mathieu donated a copy for the prize draw at the end of the meeting: truly a hallmark of leadership if I ever saw one. Mathieu, you're a gentleman and a scholar; may your shadow never grow dim.

Finally, we come to the star of the show: Mr. Laki Kourakis, SAS Canada's Education Manager. The MONSUG executive committee and I have been trying for what feels like years to bring Laki to Montréal from Ottawa to present at MONSUG. Scheduling issues, SAS emergencies and life itself have all conspired to get in the way... until now. It was great to see Laki re-connecting with many SAS users who he himself had taught in the Montréal community (including executive members Eric and Mathieu). His talk was truly the glue which bound the meeting together. The hour-long presentation offered a deep dive into efficiencies in SAS particular with respect to macros and stored processes. Using actual resources from SAS courses, Laki was comfortable and relaxed in his talk. He gave off the air of someone who was a true master of the subject. The talk itself was layered in levels of complexity; from the traditional macro to the flexibility offered by the more contemporary stored processes, I believe everyone in the room picked up a trick or two: I know I did! I know have a much better idea of how and when to use 'when' statements, for one thing. I do believe I speak for everyone when I say 'thank-you, Laki'! Though it was years in the making, the material in the talk certainly made it well worth the wait.

Of course, MONSUG isn't MONSUG until I've had a chance to share some good conversation, some great laughs and some serious introspection (OK, maybe not this last one so much) over le fameux MONSUG-burger with the executive committee and guest speakers. It's always a bittersweet moment for me as I generally won't see my colleagues in Montréal for a while... however, as I mentioned, I'm fortunate enough to be returning in a few weeks time!

For those of you wishing to view the presentations to either see what you missed or refresh your memories from earlier today, the talks will all be posted shortly at the MONSUG website. In the meantime, I have positive things to look forward to: Eric and Mathieu broached the subject of taping a video interview such as those found on the SAS Canada Community (which I dearly love producing). Looks like I'll have yet another chance to practice my French, which is great news! I truly do feel as if the Montréal SAS community has embraced (or at least, tolerated) me... and it's great to see such strong support amongst the MONSUG group and beyond.

I'm off to le ville de Québec now for their user group meeting. With over 100 registered, it promises to be a great one as well. I hope to have more on it tomorrow evening...

Until then...