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….

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