Monday, March 4, 2013

A Great Start to the 2013 User Group Season

The last two weeks have ushered in the 2013 user group season through the two oldest groups in Canada. Last week, the SAS Halifax Region User Group (SHRUG) held their kick-off meeting on the east coast. I myself wasn't there, so I can't write too much about it... other than to say how jealous I was of my colleague Mark Morreale who did get to attend. From him comments the meeting was as wonderfully typical as it gets for Halifax: a small but strong group which was punctuated by great conversation, strong local presentations and wonderful camaraderie. This past Friday, the Toronto Area SAS Society (TASS) had it's first meeting of the year, and I was most definitely in attendance. It was a great way to kick off the season here in Toronto; TASS has certainly thrown down the gauntlet to the Toronto Data Mining Forum and the Health User Group! I'm quietly confident that they'll give a very good run at matching the energy, enthusiasm and content of TASS.

Of course, it helps that TASS had some serious star power to help solidify a strong start to the season. No less of a SAS luminary than Susan Slaughter made the trip to Canada to serve as our keynote speaker. I must admit, I gushed like an Apple fanboy at the release of a new Apple-branded... well, anything. When I was completing my post-graduate work at George Brown College it was the last version of 'The Little SAS Book for Enterprise Guide 4.1' which included a working demo disk that became my temporary SAS bible. In fact, I actually had to get a second copy because of the extreme wear and tear throughout the years. I can directly credit Susan and her co-author Lora Delwiche for helping me develop my early SAS skills... or perhaps blame is a better word? At any rate Susan was wonderful and approachable in real life; she clearly loves SAS and was an inspiration to the many new and seasoned users who attended the TASS meeting.

Susan offered three separate talks. The first was one which had some appeal to everyone, an introduction to macro programming. Macros are phenomenal for efficiencies: as Susan said in her talk, 'think about it like writing a program that writes a program'. It really didn't matter if you were a new programmer or a savvy SAS veteran: the methodical nature of the talk ensured that everyone was introduced or reminded of the best practices to keep in mind when leveraging this powerful option. A side benefit: I learned that Susan is a passionate bicyclist! As a loud proponent of giving a personal as well as professional view of one's image, it was nice to be able to relate to Susan outside of the SAS framework.

After offering up a break-out session around how to become a SAS author - a session that had the break-out room overflowing - Susan would energize the afternoon session with her talk around summary tables in Enterprise Guide. I've given a talk or two which featured this particular task previously, but Susan's step-by-step approach was much better suited for the newer Enterprise Guide users in the audience... and to be honest, I learned a few things myself. For example, if you impose a condition on a variable through the wizard, that condition will remain on the variable even if it's removed. That could explain a lot of the strange results I've received from some of my pet projects. I'll be re-running them while bearing this in mind, to be sure!

Of course, Susan wasn't the only star of the agenda. In fact, the rest of the meeting was jam packed with SAS goodness.  In the morning session, Wayne Levin of JMP software fame navigated a few pitfalls (or pickle-falls, more appropriately) to successfully demonstrate some of the capabilities of JMP. The demo gods were not smiling on Wayne initially but his quick thinking and knowledge of his data allowed his to swiftly switch his presentation nearly seamlessly. TASS President Arthur Tabachneck also delivered his usual high-quality work, showcasing a talk which he will be delivering at the Midwest SAS User Group and potentially at SAS Global Forum as well. Art always blows me away with his talks: he seems to effortlessly find ways to make SAS work better, faster and more innovatively... and almost always through his collaborative work with his fellow SAS gurus from all over the world. His talk on transposing SAS data sets certainly continued this trend. In the afternoon, Chris Battiston really got under the hood of ODS and also bravely popped open a spontaneous live demo while really showcasing how a little curiosity and knowledge can go a very long way. Finally, the solution to the posed problem was a real hit. Not only did it fortuitously build on Susan's summary table talk, but we also had four separate contributors. Jim Burkhardt did a great job of MCing the solutions and each presenter gave a simple - but elegant - walkthrough of each. You can see all the solutions here: great job, guys!

Finally, I myself got into the spirit of the live demo by showcasing the new SAS Visual Analytics suite. It was a lot of fun to see a favourable reaction from the audience. I can understand why, as it's tremendously powerful and versatile, and the data I was working with was relative to all. Using over 169 million records with 60 variables, I was able to quickly run forecasting routines and drill into global variables to demonstrate how powerful visual analytics can be. I hope it was well-received, because it sure was fun to deliver. At the very least, I hope that the opportunity to demo the solution yourself - a SAS first! - was enough of a takeaway to make the session valuable. I encourage all readers to do so as well, whether by industry or job role. You can find out more on the official Visual Analytics site.

We're already building towards the June meeting, believe it or not... and we've also secured a very special guest speaker for September... but much more on that later down the road. In the interim you can check out the presentations from the last meeting here, and stay tuned for information about upcoming TASS sessions as well. You may also want to join us in the SAS Canada Community where discussion is ongoing, all the time. We hope to see you there!

Next for me: the eye of the hurricane, the calm before the storm... or perhaps the darkest night before the morning? I'm in a quiet state until mid-April with next to no travel or activites until then. But rest assured, when things get going they just won't stop! May and June will be hotbeds of activity. So stay tuned for more thoughts from the road.

Until then...