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….

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