Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Un Autre Triomphe à Montréal: MONSUG User Group Meeting Dazzles and Delights

The recent meeting in Montréal marked my second visit to this great city in less than a month… how lucky am I!  Sometimes I have to pinch myself as a reminder that this is all real, that my job does in fact entail travel, camaraderie and a certain joie de vivre which the good folks of Montréal understand all too well.  To be frank, that may not be exactly the case at this moment as student protests have recently frayed nerves, elevated tensions and deepened lines of division in this normally carefree city… but from what I saw in my brief time there, the vast majority of the population were as kind, hospitable and unflappable as ever.

I arrived with the setting sun smacking off the mountain.  What a sight.  I’ve never had occasion to truly appreciate how beautiful Montréal can be: I’m often flying in during a winter storm or cloud cover, I suppose… but landing during the ‘magic hour’ certain took my breath away.  I was met by Hercules, the most personable limousine driver on the north side of the St. Lawrence river, and with laughter ringing out from the car, my adventure began.

The meeting itself took place the following day. Thanks to all the powers that be for Chantal Lessard, the undisputable glue of the SAS Montréal office.  I don’t know when this woman sleeps: she does a top-shelf job of supporting everyone locally as well as provincially and in my case, beyond.  In beautiful sunshine, we arrived at the Centre Mt-Royale for the meeting, ready for the arrival of eager early-morning SAS users.

Although we had a smaller group than normal, they were no less vocal nor less passionate.  In fact, perhaps even more so than usual.  Each presentation was punctuated by pointed questions, which told me that the audience was engaged and appreciative of the topics and the presenters.  With four presentations on the slate, there was certainly more than enough to pique the interest of all.

Leading off the day was Eric Lacombe, one of the co-leaders of the MONSUG Executive Committee.  Without meaning to sound over-indulgent, I can say with conviction that his presentation on his ‘top tricks from SAS Global Forum’ was simply the best I have ever seen.  This is a talk which we ask all of our user group attendees to deliver at their meetings upon their return from SGF, and I’ve always had a particular vision of what that talk would look like.  It would offer a tip or a trick learned at the conference which the presenter would bring back to their workplace or explore as a new component of their work life, and it would be shared with their local user group.  Eric didn't deliver a single tip, he delivered ten.  He went through the entire catalogue of SAS Global Forum papers – some 400+ - and whittled his favourite talks down to a top ten.  He then summarized why each of these was of importance, why it should be investigated further, and provided code, examples and even links to the archived presentations.  Absolutely phenomenal.  I told Eric that I would be using his presentation as a model for a ‘best practice’ for all groups going forward. Thanks for an illuminating, inspiring talk, Eric… and for the many hours I know you put into its development.  It's no wonder the evaluation forms rated yours as the most appreciated talk at the meeting.

Next up, Alex Salvas of Banque Nationale de Canada reprised a talk he delivered in the Fall at the Toronto Data Mining Forum around data quality assurance and how BNC identified challenges and took action.  It was great to see Alex once again – he’s a dynamic speaker and a very friendly person – and his talk was even better in French than in English.  It was also very nice of him not to poke fun of my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs once again… still stinging from that jab in the Fall, Alex! Given the number of other financial institutions who were listening attentively and asking questions afterwards, I would say his talk was a clear hit.  The path towards great data quality which he illustrated made sense and his openness to discussing this topic resonated strongly with the entire audience. 

Our next speaker was Jacques Pagé.  Jacques has been a SAS user almost as long as there has been SAS, and as a consultant recently relocated back to Montréal, he was certainly eager to demonstrate his knowledge…. although his expertise was known and acknowledged by everyone in the room.  His talk on Windows-based API routines executed by SAS was a little out of my comfort zone, but was no less compelling a talk than any of the others.  I suppose that is a testament to the strength of the presenter and the breadth of his knowledge.  Again, the audience had many questions which they brought forward and I was thrilled to see that his talk was a popular one.  It just goes to show that SAS user groups offer compelling and interesting views of different SAS products, solutions and approaches which although unfamiliar can yet be of value.

Finally, Carolyn Cunnison of SAS Canada stepped into the breach for her fellow training specialist Sylvain Tremblay.  Sylvain is a good friend of this blog – and a great friend to SAS users everywhere – and his presence was certainly missed as he tended to some personal matters.  However, Carolyn was more than up for the challenge of filling his shoes, and she did so admirably.  I can say this with confidence as I’d seen the presentation she delivered given by Sylvain week earlier in Saskatoon.  The talk centered around encrypting SAS datasets and datasteps, and was a ‘must see’ for anyone who was highly sensitive to information being transmitted through code, such as embedded passwords. 

I left Montréal all too soon after a great lunch with good friends.  However, I didn’t leave without some important takeaways.  Firstly, it’s clear to me that I need to rekindle my confidence in speaking French.  While it can be intimidating to do so to a large room – I’m always afraid of offending – it was made clear to me that it was expected that I do so moving forward.  I’ll admit to being a little intimidated by this prospect, but I’m certainly up for the challenge.  I do consider myself a lapsed –billingualist (is that even a term?  It is now!) so it should be a straightforward matter of brushing up and shaking free the cobwebs from my mind... and finding a little courage.  I also left with a clear view of the strength of the SAS community in Montréal.  Mathieu and Eric have been a two-man show on the executive committee for a while now, but when I appealed to the group for some support for their efforts, I could see that others were more than willing to step up and assist.  In fact, there are at least four individuals who will likely be helping out moving forward.  Thanks to them and to the community for their willingness to continue to support these great meetings.

I have to play some catch-up with this blog: I haven’t done justice to the Saskatoon or Winnipeg meetings yet, and I cry pardon for this oversight.  It's been a crazy month of May for me, but no excuses!  I hope to be able to write about their meetings shortly and share my amazing experiences there with all of you.

Until then…