Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Joie de vivre en Montréal: MONSUG User Group Meeting

Last week I had the pleasure of travelling to Montréal for their user group meeting. As a native Toronto-ite and unabashed hockey fanatic, I’ll admit to consistently having a bit of a nervous edge to me when I first arrive in the city… especially as the route to my hotel typically takes me right past the Bell Centre, the hallowed, sacred ground of the National Hockey League’s Canadiens and the long-time rivals to my own beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. I typically feel like I’ve just splashed my face with cold water as well, given that the majority of the city communicates in French. While I myself am no stranger to la belle langue du Molière, I’m always a little nervous and a little shocked when I try and wrap my tongue around syllables, expressions and phrases little practiced in the Anglophone city I live in. It’s refreshing, invigorating… yet slightly horrible at first.

One thing I can have no complaint about at all is the people I work with in the SAS office and as part of the SAS community in Montréal. From instructors through to support staff, from user group executives through to guest speakers, I’m always floored by the professionalism, warmth and hospitality I’m shown throughout my frequent visits.

Of course, one of my benchmarks for community strength is the ability of a group to pull together a strong agenda utilizing strictly local resources. Once again, MONSUG stood out in this respect. The agenda was populated with local favourites and frequent guest speakers, and the nearly-full room was a testament to the strength of the meeting. Leading off, Mathieu Gaouette shared with us some of his
‘Trésors cachés du SAS Global Forum 2013’. Mathieu and I had both enjoyed a very pleasant SAS Global Forum experience and his take on some of the most helpful tips and tricks which he learned there was certainly welcome.

We also had two other presenters who had frequently delivered talks in Québec: M. Jean Hardy and M. Abdedsselam Bouhia.  Having seen both of them present as recently as the past year in Québec City, I was confident that we were in good hands.

M. Bouhia reprised a talk he had previously given around ‘La segmentation avec SAS’ which proved to be an in-depth dive into the details of why engage in segmentation activities. Finally, M. Hardy delivered a great talk called ‘La puissance peu connue des tables hash’. Hash tables have been popping up for me all across the country this past month: they seem to be in great demand by programmers looking to optimize and speed up their programs. I wonder if this is a side effect of the move towards high performance analytics? At any rate, it was easy to see why Jean has been an instructor of some note for so long. He clearly knows his material, and how to deliver it.

Of course, no trip to Montréal is complete without at least one delicious meal… and I left following a great chat about politics (which city had a more challenged municipal government structure: Toronto or Montréal?), hockey (of course) and the potential for future meetings. It will be the 10th MONSUG meeting in the fall and I think it’s fair to say we have some special things planned! I can’t reveal them now, that would be telling.

As always, you can find the talks from the meeting posted on the MONSUG website shortly, and I can unequivocally say that I’m looking forward to my return trip to la belle province in the Fall. In my immediate future, however, I had to head back to Toronto for the TASS user group meeting taking place at week’s end. I’ll have more on that in shortly.

Until then…

Monday, June 10, 2013

Orcas, Visual Analytics & SAS Dates: An Eye-Opening Trip to British Columbia

Two weeks ago I was soaring towards British Columbia for a bit of work… and a bit of play as well. To be fair, even the work seems like play for me sometimes. It’s truly a blessing to be able to travel all over Canada and connect with friends and acquaintances from the SAS world. Laughs are shared, tales are told and strong bonds of friendship are forged. This trip was to bring together the best of both of these worlds as my travelling companion was Marje Fecht. Marje will be a familiar name to many in the SAS world; not only is she a former SAS instructor and long-time SAS user, she’s also a frequent presenter at user groups across the country. She’s also be known to present more than a time or two at SAS Global Forum and in 2014, she’ll be one-upping herself by acting as the Chair of SAS Global Forum in Washington, DC.  Over the years Marje and I have had many great adventures together and have become strong friends as well as professional supporters. It was a real thrill for me to get out on the road with her again after several years… it had been too long!

Our first stop was the beautiful city of Victoria on Vancouver Island. Marje and I had been here four years earlier and we were looking forward to re-connecting with the city and our colleagues. Sure enough, we had a fantastic dinner with the Executive Committee of the SUAVe user group. The talk swung back and forth between politics, user groups, the SAS world, and a whole host of other topics. Marje and I both commented in the meeting the next day how it truly does feel like a load lifts off of the shoulders in Victoria. The casual, relaxed environment and warm, genuine hospitality really go a long way towards minimizing stresses and promoting relaxation. Given that my last five weeks had been spent on the road, this was sorely needed!

The meeting itself took place in the afternoon the following day and featured some great speakers and even better MCing. Peter Ott of the Ministry of Forests, Lands & NRO is not only a great SAS mind, but a really talented host. He connects with the whole room in a way that puts everyone at ease and really promotes dialogue and discussion. Of course, it’s the talks themselves which really stir the proverbial conversation pot… and with Marje offering up her significant experience in her favourite SAS tricks talk, an energized group was never in doubt. Marje also delivered a second talk all around SAS DATES: with so many options out there and so many exceptions to the rule, her talk certainly helped clear up some of the ambiguity and frustration around working with a variety of date forms and lengths. It reminded me of someone trying to learn English as a second language; almost more exceptions than firm rules! Thankfully we had a phenomenal teacher in Marje.

I myself offered a talk around SAS’ Visual Analytics solution… for what felt like the millionth time in the past month! It’s been amazing to see such positive reactions to this new SAS product across the country. It certainly has some fans, that’s for sure. I was more than a little nervous for a few reasons. Firstly, we had received some high priority notes from our IT department that there were some global connectivity issues – a horrible thing to hear when demo’ing from a virtual environment set up in North Carolina. Secondly, the strength and speed of connection makes a huge difference when demo’ing this particular application. Fortunately, everything went off without a hitch.

One of the strengths of user groups is always the local presenters. Victoria always outdoes itself here with a variety of presenters offering a range of techniques for the solution to the open problem. Mike Atkinson also delivered what can only be described as a hilarious talk about his SAS Global Forum experience (which included a karaoke performance in front of several thousand people) and Catherine Bealle Statland garnered high, high praise from Marje as a natural and gifted speaker as she discussed her experience taking an onlinecourse around PROC GLIMMIX.

After bidding some hasty goodbyes, Marje and I were off to the Helijet to take a small helicopter ride across the ocean to the mainland. It was her first time in a helicopter and she was certainly excited! It was great to see and a very enjoyable ride for me as well.

In Vancouver, once again, we met up with Executive Committee members for a spirited dinner session. One spilled glass of wine or someone’s white pants notwithstanding, this was another great example of SAS and customers working together for the benefit of all. Vancouver certainly has a knack for asking for the most support possible with an eye to better supporting their users… and in the spirit of community, I usually deliver. This executive committee of VanSUG is certainly innovative and dedicated; they produce their own newsletter, run a full-day session without a hitch, and really call upon the community of SAS users to support each other.

Once again, Marje was the star of the show in the morning session, delivering her DATES talk and her favourite SAS tricks once again. We also had a ‘surprise’ presentation from Charlotte King of Edmonton who happened to be in town and offered to deliver a talk around a macro solution to dates: a nice bookend to Marje’s in-depth talk and a great example of how SAS users across the country can support each other. We also had a student volunteer to present some work around Facebook data, which as a social media junkie, was interesting to see.

The afternoon session really featured three talks: VisualAnalytics was once again trotted out by yours truly – with some vigorous debate, no less! - and Paulus Mau of BC Hydro offered a really great talk on using Enterprise Guide as an SQL Querying interface. There was also another EG-themed talk which really seemed to resonate with the audience.

I’ll admit to being absolutely exhausted by the time the meeting had concluded. It had been a very long five weeks. I’d been to San Francisco, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Victoria and now Vancouver… and I was ready for a rest. First, however, I was able to celebrate another successful meeting with great friends.

I then high-tailed it out of town for a few days of rest and relaxation on Quadra Island with Marje and her husband Rob, the perfect end to a hectic trip. We ate some amazing seafood, had a very close encounter with a pod of playful orcas, marveled at the size, noise and very strong smell of sea lions, and just enjoyed scenery I don’t ever get to see here in Toronto. I was on pins and needles the entire time as I waiting for news from home from my brother and sister-in-law who were due to deliver my niece into the world at any moment… and what a courteous young lady, she waited until I returned before arriving! I couldn’t have asked for a better end to the trip.

I was thrilled to be able to spend so much time with such great SAS users in British Columbia and I can’t wait to get back in the Fall, albeit in chillier weather, but with the warmth of my friends to help cut through the cold.

Before that, though, I still had a few meetings left to attend beginning with the Montreal SAS User Group (MONSUG). But more on that later.

Until then….