Thursday, May 30, 2013

Even-Steven in Winnipeg

I’ve heard it said that Winnipeg is pretty close to the exact centre of Canada… this supposition has certainly helped inform the title of this particular blog post. I always feel that things end up exactly as they’re supposed to in Winnipeg. A lot of code, a lot of open-mindedness towards other SAS applications, and a really even-keeled group of SAS users.  The meeting of a few weeks ago sure did bear this supposition out in spades as balance was the key to a successful get-together.

I arrived with Tara Holland, our featured guest speaker, after 3 days of amazing camaraderie and great presentations in Saskatoon and Regina. At this point we were certainly seasoned pros in terms of the content we were delivering and the messages we wanted to share. Confident, cool and calm, we joined the meeting clear on what we wanted to share and how we wanted to share it.

Of course, we were not the only folks on the agenda; far from it! Winnipeg user group President Craig Kasper jumped into the breach when a presenter had to pull out at the last minute and delivered a really interesting talk on row-less SET statements. Why would would want to call a row-less table? I’ll let Craig’s talk explain. Suffice it to say, it’s worth a look.

We also has a Saskatoon transplant in Xue Yao who I got to know in Saskatchewan and reconnected with in San Francisco at SAS Global Forum. She had a tremendous introduction to logistic regression which seemed to appeal to many in the room. Given the academic slant of many attendees, it certainly wasn’t out of line.

Not to be outdone, Tara and I offered our talks. As I mentioned we had previously delivered these in Saskatchewan with varying degrees of success…. Darn technology, it lets us down sometimes. Once again Tara offered up her talk around building word clouds in SAS and I did a VisualAnalytics demo. Everything functioned appropriately and the talks were well-received. I was even able to squeeze in a bit of a bonus talk, some information around Enterprise Guide which I thought might be of use to the audience. You know you’re in the zone when you share talks without prompting!  I think the little tips I was able to share may have helped out a lot.

One of the greatest elements of the user groups is the sense of community and I’m very pleased that a transplant from Ottawa has made a strong appearance – and an offer to help – in Winnipeg. Gabriel Toichoa has accepted a role as the Dean of Assiniboine College, and I’m looking forward to future collaboration with him to help improve the group even more.

In the fall we’ll be moving back to our University of Manitoba location and I’m looking forward already to seeing some faces I didn’t get to see this time. Of course, I do hope you’ll join us… and as always you can pick up the talks here if you would like.

It had been a long, long week away from home and really there was only one thing for it: buying excessive amounts of fudge at the airport! Yes, it’s true, they make fantastic fudge in Winnipeg… and although my wallet, my wife and my waistline didn’t thank me, secretly I couldn’t have asked for a better way to close out a great road trip with a great travelling companion.

I had the luxury of a long weekend in Toronto to rest, recuperate and try and catch up on some office work. It had been almost three whole weeks since I had been there, and it wasn’t to be for too long! In fact, in just another four days I’d be flying out to Vancouver and Victoria for their user group meetings. I’m travelling with SAS legend Marje Fecht and I’m sure there will be great stories: there always are.

Until then…

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

New Friends & Old: SAS in Saskatchewan is Super Solid

Following a quick stop off in my hometown of Toronto, I was off once again on a jaunt out to Saskatchewan… but this was no ordinary trip. I was launching a brand-new user group in Regina and I’ll admit to being both excited and a little nervous. Registration was tremendous for both the existing group in Saskatoon and for the new initiative in Regina, true… but it’s always a little nerve-wracking all the same. It feels a bit like throwing a party and not really relaxing until people have started showing up. Thoughts race through your mind apace: will people find it valuable? Will they enjoy the meeting? Will they like me? I really hope they like me….

Of course, I had no such illusions around the quality of the guest speaker for both meetings. Tara Holland is a SAS powerhouse and a good friend. As a native daughter of Saskatchewan, it’s always fun to return with Tara to her roots… it’s easy to see where her easy demeanor and wonderful personality come from, it must be something they put in the water throughout her home province.

First stop was a reliable, strong group in Saskatoon. Now, I must admit that my mood was somewhat… coloured for the first 48 hours of my trip. Why? Well, I’m from Toronto and an ardent Maple Leafs supporter. Monday evening was the last playoff game against the Boston Bruins, winner moves on to the next round. I don’t want to describe what happened – it’s too painful, still – but let’s just say that I was getting text updates on my BlackBerry while at dinner with Tara and some executive members the evening before, and it was a very glum end to the meal.

Fortunately, the meeting the next day went a long way towards perking me up once again. In truth it’s hard not to be cheerful in Saskatoon! The populace is so kind, so warm, and have become such good friends over time that I found myself shaking off the disappointment of the previous evening’s hockey game rather quickly. I really had to, truth be told: it was going to be a long couple of days!

Heading back to the University of Saskatchewan is always a treat for me. Our meetings have taken place here consistently over the past 5 years and it was the scene of my very first user group on the road. I’m always reminded of where I came from and how things have changed since then… and for the better, might I add.

The meeting itself was a good mix of programming techniques and newer SAS technologies. Tara led off with a really cool talk around building word clouds using SAS. While great on its own, the talk was a nice set-up for my own Visual Analytics talk which was to come later… or so I thought.  Significant technical challenges prevented me from connecting to the demo environment in North Carolina. Now, I’m a pretty good song and dance artist: I can procrastinate and delay with the best of them. But this was beyond even my considerable skill set. Fortunately, Tara came to the rescue once again with a video walkthrough of Visual Analytics which she had saved and was able to play and walk through. Thank goodness for technology… and at the same time, woe be to we who rely on it too often!

The visualization theme continued in the afternoon with a pair of ODS-themed talks: one giving an introduction to the layout options and a second bringing it into practical focus by demonstrating how it worked. Liying and Jacqueline were a great team here… and it was particularly great to see Jacqueline give a talk once again; she’s a real expert in delivering value from the ground-level up and she’s certainly become a good friend. I’ve missed her as she hasn’t been able to attend the past few talks. Always a pleasure to see you, Jacqueline!

We also had a very technical talk from Masud Rana on ProcMCMC which involved Monte Carlo simulations. I’m not a statistician, so that’s about all I could get out of it. It was a great talk to see, however, as it really demonstrated just how wide the SAS world can be. Thanks Masud for opening some eyes.

Finally, I had a chance to redeem myself from the earlier Visual Analytics disaster with a talk on some handy tips and tricks forEnterprise Guide. Thankfully I was only connecting locally, so this talk ran smoothly! I hope the attendees who were EG users picked up at least a little something here.

It would be remiss of me not to point out that Gopinath Narasimhan delivered a great talk around SAS Global Forum and building apresentation based on the proceedings. It can sometimes be a challenge to find local speakers and I hope that this presentation went a long way towards showing just how easy and fun it can be.

Following the meeting, Tara and I jumped in a rental car for the 2.5 hour drive down to Regina. I have to say, this was one of my favourite parts of the trip. Tara grew up on a farm not too far from Regina and she certainly knew the route very well. She was a great tourguide and I learned a lot: from grain elevators to farming techniques… to an embarrassing admission of my ‘Toronto-ness’ by realizing out loud that black patches I saw on the ground were the shadows of clouds, the trip was full of laughs and fun. And hey: in my defense, we don’t get to see cloud shadows in the city, there’s too much other stuff in the way! On the flat and empty prairies, however, this isn’t a concern.

For my first visit to Regina, I must say I was very impressed with the city. It has a really neat feel to it: modern and bustling, yet most people know each other enough to at least wave or nod hello. We were there for two meetings over two days and I was really looking forward to seeing some familiar faces who had offered to help spearhead the meeting from on the ground.

First up, we had a ‘traditional’ SAS user group meeting. This meant SAS usage tips and tricks from a variety of presenters. One of the many things which impressed me about the group was how two local speakers volunteered to give talks. In my experience, this has NEVER happened! Usually we need to form an executive committee, get people used to the format and flow of the meeting, and then we can start to see volunteers pop up. Not so in Regina! Shaun Kaufmann and Andrew Dyck of Farm Credit Canada both stepped forward with some well-structured, very engaging talks. Shaun talked about the new SAS DS2 programming language which will be rolled out in SAS version 9.4 and Andrew discussed using SAS for simulating portfolio growth at FCC. Both talks were great, drawing rave reviews from no less a critic than Tara Holland herself. Tara has certainly seen a presentation or two in her time and for her to offer up such high praise is truly noteworthy.

Of course, I myself had a pair of talks on the agenda; the same two I delivered (or tried to deliver) the day before in Saskatoon. Fortunately, the internet connection at the Delta Regina was much stronger and I was able to successfully demonstrate and run a Visual Analytics talk. I’m very glad I did as it clearly caught the room off guard: there was lots of praise for the product and for the power it brought to bear.

I closed out the meeting with an appeal for volunteers from the forty-strong attendees. User groups are only as strong as the people who help to plan them out and I do rely heavily on local support to find guest speakers. I was thrilled that Matt Spence – who must be singled out for lifting the heavy load of the sole user group executive committee member for the first few months – was quickly joined by six other individuals from a variety of organizations. I’m looking forward to working with this team! If our lunch conversation was any indication, the Regina group could soon be a model for others in terms of cohesion and effectiveness.

Our final day of meetings in Regina was more in Tara’s wheelhouse than mine: a ‘World of SAS Analytics’ day. The idea here was to try and dive deeper into what it meant to be analytical – both as an individual and as an industry. Tara’s expertise and experience comes from building analytical competency centres so she was certainly the right person to deliver these business-level talks. A good number of attendees had returned from the previous day to take in the meetings and I feel like none were left disappointed: in fact, I was asked for copies of Tara’s talks immediately following the meeting, always a very good sign! You can also find them posted on the Regina website.

I remain incredibly impressed with the good folks of Saskatchewan. Saskatoon offered their usual high level of hospitality and set the bar for collaboration as far as I’m concerned… and Regina has certainly proven itself no slouch with a strong executive committee forming right away with plans already in place for future talks. I can’t wait to get back out to this great province in the fall. Of course, if you weren’t able to attend the meetings you can still pick up the talks at either the Saskatoon website or the Regina website. I do encourage you to come on out in September and October to connect with your fellow SAS users.

I do need to thank Tara in particular for her invaluable help and kindness on this trip. Not only was a great sounding board on a personal and business level, but she went one step further than she had to: we went to her sister’s house as, in her own words, ‘you need a home-cooked meal’. It was so nice to just sit and chat with family in a kitchen, not a restaurant and not room service… and it really summed up the graciousness and general kind nature of the good people of Saskatchewan.

Tara and I had one more trip to take: this time to Winnipeg for their user group meeting. I’ll have more on that in an upcoming post.

Until then….

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A New Venue, A New Attendance Record, A Brave New World for GHSUG

OK, I’m well overdue to write this blog. The GoldenHorseshoe SAS User Group (GHSUG) meeting was a little over two weeks ago, but in my defense, a lot has happened between then and now. I’ve criss-crossed the country with trips to Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg and I'm currently in British Columbia. In some ways I’ve felt like a hamster on a wheel: trying my best to keep the darn thing spinning but all too aware that my energy has been fading. It can be a real challenge to try and keep all of one’s balls in the air during these hectic trips. Having said that, I really can’t offer any excuses: only apologies.

On to the matter at hand, the user group in question. For the first time in recent memory –at least in my capacity as the user group manager – the GHSUG group was meeting in a new location. For over five years we’ve been gathering at the ArcelorMittal-Dofasco offices in Hamilton… I think I could manage the drive in my sleep (and given the early hour of my usual departure to the meeting from Toronto, I think I may have actually done this a time or two). Under the leadership of Ron Kaine, the group has taken some interesting new directions. Ron is a driven man who truly has the best interests of the greater SAS community at heart. Not to say the rest of the executive committee doesn’t, as they certainly do. However, it does need to be pointed out that Ron has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to refine email lists, brainstorm around reaching out to new members, investigate new presenter options and really led by example. One of his suggestions was to change the venue in order to try and attract a greater audience: and boy, did this ever help! Moving our meeting a little closer to the GTA in Burlington in a great space built for hosting meetings paid off in spades with registration climbing over 100 and actual attendance approaching 60. I think the organizing committee – and myself included – were all a little agog at this tremendous increase!

Of course, the agenda itself certainly had a role to play here. In my opinion, the meeting found a great balance between business-level talks and technical tips. The meeting led off with Kirby Sinclair of the Clearcell Group offering a data value management primer. Kirby can drawn on many years of experience and it was all on display during his presentation.  No matter what industry or role, data management is key to successful business best practice. Understanding your data and merging your knowledge with business objectives is a key driver to achieving great results, a maxim which Kirby knows all too well. His thorough and thought-provoking talk certainly had the heads of the attendees nodding in acknowledgement and understanding. It was interesting to note that both SAS users and business professionals peppered Kirby with questions after his talk was finished; it clearly resonated with the audience.

Next up was Divya Joshi of McMaster University. Divya was offering a book review on GLM and NGLM for correlated data. I must admit, I’m often a little skeptical of book reviews. I’ve seen some great ones and some not-so-great ones over the years, and it can very challenging to translate your own interpretation of a work into something which can be easily digested and appreciated by the whole audience. I’m very pleased to share that Divya absolutely knocked it out of the park. Her review was thorough and included what I believe is the magic formula for success with this type of talk. She consistently brought the topic around to her own work in medicine and how she was applying the knowledge she gained through the book in the day-to-day life. This level of detail really helped bring the subject into focus for the entire audience. The only thing better than her book review was the fact that also agreed to join the Executive Committee to help plan future meetings. We’re very glad to have you, Divya!

After a productive networking break we returned with a GHSUG standard: the ‘Proc du Jour’ feature. This is a great element to the meeting which has been mimicked at other user groups and is really a great way to get under the hood of a particular SAS procedure. It’s typically delivered by one of the Executive Committee which virtually guarantees a thorough exploration of the topic. In this case, Barry Hong of US Steel jumped into Proc Transpose. I love when Barry presents as he really knows how to build up a deck from very simple to much more complex knowledge. He’s a seasoned presenter as well, and his relaxed, comfortable demeanor always puts the group at ease. The great thing about  this talk was not only that he showed Proc Transpose from a traditional programming standpoint but also demonstrated how to make use of the same procedure in Enterprise Guide. Everyone in the room – from seasoned SAS coders to new Enterprise Guide users – took something out of the talk.

Finally, it was up to me to bring up the rear with a talk around SAS’ Visual Analytics. Having delivered four demonstrations of this in Calgary and Edmonton earlier in the week, I was certainly comfortable with the topic… if not with the time zone change! I was very pleased that the demonstration went smoothly enough and I certainly did receive quite a few questions following the talk – always a good sign! I will say this, VA is certainly causing a buzz amongst the SAS user community.

Of course, one of the greatest things about the user groups is the networking component. With such a huge turnout for the meeting we definitely had the occasion to meet some new people. I’m very pleased that I was able to connect with four new individuals who are certainly keen on SAS and who have some great questions; I’m hoping that others in the room were able to connect as well! I certainly found Lesley Harschnitz’s networking exercise a great way to connect, a little bit of mystery and guessing games always brings a group together. Here’s hoping we’ve set a great trend for future GHSUG get-togethers. If you weren’t able to attend, I do hope you’ll join us on October 25th, 2013 for our Fall edition of the meeting… and of course, you can always pick up all the talks on the GHSUG website.

I only had a few days of rest before heading back out on the road again to Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I wasn’t kidding when I said that May was a hectic, hectic month for me! However this particular trip was very special as I was helping to launch a brand new user group in Regina…. but more on that soon.

Until then…

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Of Tiny Dancers and Warm Weather: Alberta SAS User Groups Wrap-Up

I’m sailing through clear skies at 33,000 feet with a clear mind… and about time, too! I’ve been fighting a nasty bug for about a week and a half now since I spent time in San Francisco for SAS Global Forum. I must admit that winging my way to Alberta was a daunting prospect given the poor state of my health. Fortunately, all worked out for the best.

I’m in a bit of a reflective mood as I stare out of the window. Below me is a massive, still-frozen lake. Behind me lies a province bathed in sunshine and warmth. Ahead of me, my hometown of Toronto… where I understand it’s 17 degrees Celsius and rainy. I find this all to be an elaborate metaphor for the user group meetings I just attended. The warm, happiness and camaraderie I experienced in Alberta were certainly magnified by my travelling companion and guest speaker Peter Eberhardt. The lake below represents this brief pause to collect my thoughts in the midst of what is an undeniably hectic section of my user group schedule. And ahead of me… well, I don’t know what that represents to tell you the truth. Perhaps I’ve stretched this (already thin) metaphor a little too far.
I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in crime on the road than Peter. He and I have become good friends over the years and he’s always at the top of my list for ‘sought after’ guest speakers. His versatility, affability and willingness to go the extra mile for SAS users carries a lot of weight in my book, to say nothing of his deep knowledge of SAS. We also had the opportunity to reminisce about my very first user group road trip over 5 years ago now. Peter was the guest speaker on that particular trip to Saskatoon and Winnipeg, and we had a good chuckle about how much had changed since those early days. Back then, I had checked my luggage: overpacking for a 4 day trip. Peter was kind enough to instruct me on the art of packing light and I wouldn't be caught dead checking anything anymore! I also recall his eyes bugging out of his skull as I paid for everything with the exception of our hotel rooms in cash. My bankroll made me seem like a Vegas high-roller… or a gangster. Either way, not good. I learned a lot from Peter on that trip and our friendship was born. But on to the meetings at hand: the Calgary SAS User Group and the Edmonton SAS User Group. First stop, Calgary.
It’s always such a great pleasure to travel to Calgary. As I told TASS President Art Tabachneck, it’s the home of my favourite hamburger of all time. There’s something about that Alberta beef, straight from the source. More than that, it’s great to catch up with good friends and colleagues. I had a lot of fun eating dinner on a patio bathed in 28 degree sunshine on the famed ‘red mile’ watching the tiny dancers go by… and trying to figure out what they were doing in Calgary! What are tiny dancers? Well, just what you’d imagine. Picture little miniature dolled-up girls with hair in tight buns, lots of eye makeup and lipstick and a variety of decorations for their hair. The game we played over dinner was to figure out what they were doing in town. After a series of agonizing clues – a snatched glimpse of a program here, a barely overheard conversation there – Peter had enough info to determine (with the help of Google) that it was in fact a cheerleading/team dancing convention in town. That blew my theory of why we had seen such increased attendance for the CSUG meeting out of the water… but it was a lot of fun figuring it out. It’s this type of conversation and good fun which really helps define why the user groups are so special. Where else can you bring together customers, vendors and thought leaders in such a fun way?

The meeting itself was a success as well. The agenda had strong representation from a variety of perspectives. Peter covered off on two very popular topics. The first, hash tables, was the talk that most attendees had come to see and Peter certainly didn’t disappoint. He was able to skillfully walk through a mammoth amount of material in very little time, demonstrating the massive performance difference between hash tables and other SAS techniques. He also discussed how to use SAS to create pivot tables in Excel. It’s an undeniable fact that Microsoft products are still prevalent throughout the business world, so this talk really resonated with most. Peter’s casual style and assertion that the techniques he taught would help any SAS user with their positive perception at work won smiles and nods from the room.

On the high performance analytics front, we had a pair of talks which ended up complimenting each other nicely. Ed Swain of Teradata walked through a variety of hardware options and specifications suitable for high performance environments. This flowed perfectly into my own talk and demonstration around SAS Visual Analytics. It’s always a challenge to demonstrate a product ‘live’ A few hiccups notwithstanding, my machine didn't explode and heckling was kept to a minimum… so I would call it a success.

A quick flight to Edmonton later and Peter and I were at it once again, this time for an enormous group of SAS users. As eSUG President Doug Dover and I both commented to the group, this was by far the largest registration and close to the most sizeable attendance the group had ever seen. Kudos to the executive committee for helping pull together an agenda which had everyone in the room interested and willing to come on out!

Edmonton has adopted a full day model for their meetings. The morning features SAS programming talks while the afternoon focuses more closely on interface-style applications such as Enterprise Guide, JMP and Visual Analytics. The afternoon session was a lot of fun as Peter and I conducted back-to-back interactive sessions around EG and VA respectively. Fun, certainly: lively, definitely: vocally exhausting… well, let’s just say that for someone who is certainly fond of his own voice, even I was getting sick of hearing me talk by the end. Having said that I was glad for the chance to showcase VA from both a retail and health perspective and the feedback and questions were great.

Of course, we can’t forget about the morning session. Chris Cullingham of ATCO Power delivered a great talk around billing rates and received almost as much attention for the manner he presented it as the content itself. He used a great alternative to PowerPoint called Prezi; a dynamic, web-based service which allows for really neat customization of talks. In fact, there were several requests for more talks about Presi: that gives you an idea of the impact it made.

George Zhu offered a talk around hash tables and having just seen Peter’s exhaustive dive the day before, it was great to see his thoughts validated through George’s work. Of course, Peter presented once again but this time of the topic of Perl regular expressions and dates. I’ve seen a few Perl talks over the past user group meetings and I’m really intrigued by this programming language. The room clearly was just as fascinated as I was.

One of the challenges facing all user group meetings across the country is finding local presenters willing to stand up and talk. Jared Prins addressed some of the reasons why in his talk which dispelled some of the barriers and laid out a framework for participation. It would seem his talk worked as we had around 10 people offer to give a talk at an upcoming meeting. Thanks for putting some fears to rest and offering some encouragement as well, Jared! Clearly your time as a livestream-featured presenter at SAS Global Forum has given you even more confidence… and the group will certainly benefit from your experience.

All in all, my trip to Alberta was a rousing success. We had great attendance at both meetings and fantastic talks too. You'll be able to find all the talks shortly at the CSUG and eSUG websites. Most importantly, SAS users from a wide range of backgrounds had the opportunity to meet, network and catch up with old friends. As my manager Wally Thiessen recently suggested, the user groups are about so much more than just the presentations: they’re about making new connections, sharing insight with users from other industries, and having some fun too. I would say that we succeeded in every respect over the past few days.

I’ll get home to Toronto today and I’m quickly off again to Burlington for the GHSUG meeting. This, too, promises to be a notable meeting with record registration and a new location to boot! I’ll have more on my experiences and perceptions of that meeting within the next few days. For now, let me sign off by saying thank-you to Alberta for the great meetings. Look forward to catching up with you all in the fall.

Until then…