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…

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