Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sunrise In the Paris of the Prairies

Here I sit in my hotel room in Regina at 4:00am. I’ve showered and packed, ready to hit the road for my early flight back to Toronto. Yet I must admit, I’m more than a little wistful to leave this great city. The people and the weather have both been warm and delightful.

I’m pleased to say that some of that warmth is coming back with me, though. The great feeling of community which began for me with last Friday’s TASS meeting has carried on here in the prairies. We had great representation here from SAS Canada – I was representing the Toronto office, our keynote speaker (and good friend) Sylvain Tremblay from Montreal and Pre-Sales Specialist Jamie Peterson from the Calgary office. It’s a rare thing that so many offices are so strongly represented at a user group meeting – Regina, you’re certainly doing things right! The Executive Committee here in Regina also helps make that sense of community that much more real. Coming from a variety of backgrounds and industries, these volunteers give off the impression that they have known each other forever. Everyone works seamlessly together to ensure the highest quality speakers are available and that all the logistical details are taken care of without any hitches. It makes life that much easier when every question or request you could think of has already been answered or addressed.

One of the things I love most about this SAS community is how it has responded in great numbers to the establishment of the user group. Last May, we had two half-day meetings which each attracted around 30-40 people. This time, we had nearly 50 people show up… a sign that word of mouth is helping fire up the group! Two things stood out to me here. The first was that on the evaluation forms, several people indicated that they had NO SAS background at all – that they were in attendance to see what the meetings were all about and to support their teams. Now THAT is the spirit of community! The second thing which jumped out to me was that en route to lunch, Matt Spence of Farm Credit Canada – and the initial driver of the Executive Committee – mentioned to me that he had a goal of realizing a 100 attendee meeting. Outstanding. It’s great to see the group want to grow and excel, and goes that little bit further towards confirming why we elected to start this group up in the first place.

The meeting itself had an agenda designed to try and accommodate as wide a variety of SAS usage as possible – in terms of skill level as well as usage type. We began with some SAS programming basics: encryption and security settings courtesy of Sylvain. I’ve seen this talk a few times before, but I always come away with something new… this time, it was the ability to encrypt a SAS data set which really stood out for me. Great for ensuring that any FTP or email transfers wouldn’t be a vulnerability. Davendra Patel of eHealth Saskatchewan continued with the programming theme by scanning the log for notes and errors – a great habit for any SAS user to practice. The beauty of this talk was that Davendra actually modified code from a SUGI 31 paper and put it into production in his environment: once again, the SAS community shows its strength! Shaun Kauffmann of Farm Credit Canada closed off the programming elements of the meeting by taking the discussion to the advanced level with a thorough discussion of hash objects and hash tables. The strength here is certainly in optimization and time savings, and Shaun made that clear through his talk. Finally, I brought up the rear reprising an Enterprise Guide talk I have delivered over the years in a few cities around testing a hypothesis around the Titanic survival rates. You can check out all the talks here within the next few days.

I had the distinct pleasure of being ‘trapped’ in Regina for an extra 18 hours following the meeting – the flight schedule just worked out that way. The extra time allowed me to enjoy this city for what it is, a friendly, walkable oasis in the middle of the Canadian prairies. I’m hoping that I’ll be the one who returns for the Spring meeting. I have a feeling it will be even bigger – and better – than this one.

Although I’m flying home to Toronto today I won’t be there for long. Next week I’m headed to Quebec City for the Forum analytique d’affaires SAS with an all-star line-up of guest speakers. I’ll have more on that meeting once it’s done. But for now, it’s a big ‘thank you’ to Regina and ‘hello’ to my hometown.

Until then…

Monday, September 16, 2013

Community the Star on (lucky) Friday the 13th

I frequently and loudly preach the mantra of ‘community, community, community’ through the user group meetings and social media. To me, the real strength of SAS – and the reason for our success as an organization – is because of our dedication to the SAS user community and our longstanding, mutually beneficial partnership. In this the 10th year of SAS Canada sponsoring the user group program it seems more appropriate than ever to give a nod to this strength. It would come to bear as we launched the Fall/Winter 2013 user group season with the TASS user group meeting last Friday in Toronto.

TASS is the ‘grand old dame’ of the Canadian user groups. It precedes not only the formal user group program of SAS Canada, but also SAS Canada the organization. TASS is now in its 26th year of existence and it’s fair to say, doing just fine, thank you! The quarterly meeting has remained the largest and most consistent of the Canadian groups with attendance over the full day usually hovering around 250 people. The success of this group is in no small part thanks to the outstanding Executive Committee. It’s of this rare group of dedicated, selfless individuals I’d like to speak for most of this post.

To set the scene for my story, it’s important to understand that none other than Rick Wicklin – SAS statistician of no small repute and author of famous blog ‘The Do Loop’ – was to be our guest speaker at TASS. Rick was flying up to join 13 of the executive committee and myself for dinner on Thursday night, and then he would be keynoting the statistics-themed meetings. I can tell you that the entire user community in Toronto was buzzing about this, in particular, the statisticians. It’s a rare occasion when a true legend comes to visit, and we were as ready as could be.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature was in an ill-mood and contrived to ground Rick halfway to his destination in New York City. Having spoken to a very dejected Rick, it was clear that he had tried his best and that circumstance and nature were going to ultimately win the day. His closing words to me were spoken while waiting in a ‘3 city-block long line for cabs’. What a horrible experience! Outside of Rick’s safety and comfort we suddenly had another problem to worry about: two significant holes in the agenda.

Here’s where the strength, resiliency and resolve of the SAS community comes in to play. Quickly, two volunteers stepped forward at the dinner table and offered to reprise talks which had been given in the past and also to deliver brand new ones which had never been seen before. A suggestion was made to call up SAS guru Marje Fecht who was planning on attending. With an all-caps ‘EMERGENCY’ subject line, I fired her off a quick note explaining the situation. To my everlasting gratitude, Marje not only called back and indicated she was more than happy to help, but by the time we were having our main courses served, her talk was nearly complete. Unbelievable.

The meeting itself passed by in a blur for me. It was delicate dance of balancing existing content with new and trying to keep the timing correct as best as possible. I can tell you that Tim Gravelle of PriceMetrix and Art Tabachneck of myQNA Inc. both delivered excellent, compelling talks, including picking up some of the slack from the missing talk of Rick’s in the morning. I may also have been in a bit of a daze as my old professor Richard Boire of the Boire Filler Group did lead off the morning with a talk on building successful analytic processes: a real flashback to my post-graduate days.

The afternoon featured Marje’s outstanding talk on SAS Enterprise Guide 5.1 tips and tricks which built nicely on Chris Jiang’s talk on the Data Explorer of the same tool. We offered the Posed Problem Solutions and a strong, strong talk on model tuning in SAS Enterprise Miner by Lorne Rothman of SAS Canada and before I could take a breath (or so it seemed), it was all over. Again, unbelievable.

The strength of community is what made this meeting succeed. In no small way, it’s indicative of the trust, friendship and sense of collaboration which has been finely crafted over 10 years of the user group program. It’s why we all stay involved – whether as a volunteer on an executive committee or as a driver from the SAS Canada side. It’s what keeps this career of mine so much fun, and so rewarding. And it’s why I’ll keep doing it until someone tells me not to – or that I can’t.

I’d like to take a moment to issue a huge ‘thank you’ to the entire TASS executive committee. Their quick thinking, willingness to discuss and explore options and focus on the best rather than dwell on the worst is what made this meeting a huge success. In particular I’d like to thank Art Tabachneck, Tim Gravelle and Marje Fecht for their last minute contributions. Rather than being ‘filler’, their talks all added true value to the meeting.

I’m off to Regina for their user group next: here’s hoping we meet with even a sliver of the same success we had in Toronto! Given the huge turnout and tremendous wave of enthusiasm I experienced last time I was in Regina, I have no reason to think otherwise. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Until then…