Monday, October 28, 2013

The First Snow of the Season in Saskatoon

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of hosting the Saskatoon SAS user group (SUCCESS) with the assistance of a vibrant, strong and engaged Executive Committee. My colleague Carolyn Cunnison remarked that I seemed to be smiling constantly while I was there, and I'd have to agree. Saskatoon remains one of my favourite cities to visit and I always have a fantastic time with the SAS community while I'm there. Now, I think my smile may have actually been slightly frozen to my face by the chilly, chilly weather if I'm to be perfectly honest. I had arrived after 4 days spent in the humidity of Florida and while the cold wasn't yet bone-chilling it certainly was a huge difference from what I'd been accustomed to. And yes, it's true: the first snow sighting of the year did take place: an ominous, slushy and very, very frigid-looking puddle at the University of Saskatoon. Winter is coming...

I was glad that the meeting itself went a long way towards keeping me warm and happy. The meeting featured presentations from a whole host of great local speakers. Lily Wu of the Health Quality Council gave a very interesting talk on building tables with SAS: it was perfect as it nicely dovetailed and set-up my own Enterprise Guide talk later in the day. Lily was joined by her colleague Nianping Hu who offered a talk around propensity scoring models using SAS. The HQC was certainly well-represented at the meeting!

I suppose some of the staff and students of the University of Saskatchewan must have felt that they needed to reclaim the home field advantage, and by offering two presentations they certainly helped to level the playing field. Peter Beug offered a great talk around Proc Transpose - I'm always a fan of presentations which really get under the hood of a particular proc, process or prompt. Masud Rana also discussed a SAS macro he had built for univariate logistic regression. Masud has presented previously on some pretty deep statistical processes, and I think the biggest good-natured laugh of the day came after Eric Wang - the MC of the meeting - opined that he really enjoyed this talk because he actually understood it this time!

Finally, the special SAS guest truly was someone outstanding. Carolyn Cunnison has been working with SAS for many years and has instructed hundreds of users. Her ability to present complex topics in a simple, clear and patient manner takes all the confusion and anxiety out of learning SAS. We were fortunate that Carolyn was able to join us as she had recently returned from vacation. Her talks gave proof to her wide level of knowledge. She presented on hash objects first, a topic which can be complex... but which she made remarkably clear. She also gave a great talk on tips for programmers using Enterprise Guide which clearly charged up the room.

As always, I had to leave the city much too soon. It was great to spend time with friends old and new. Saskatoon is certainly fortunate that they are championed by so many strong SAS users. But I couldn't rest, I had to move on to Winnipeg with Carolyn... more on that meeting shortly.

Until then...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Triangle of a Different Sort: SAS Goes to Halifax

When many people think of SAS' headquarters in North Carolina, they often think of the variety of food, entertainment and technology available in the Raleigh-Durham triangle. The area is certainly a hub for free-thinking and innovation. There are a number of universities in striking distance of each other and many software, social media and consulting groups have set up shop in the region. My associations with 'SAS' and 'triangle' are a little different: OK, a LOT different. I associate SAS with The Olde Triangle, a phenomenal Celtic music bar which I visit each and every time I'm in Halifax. One of the wonderful benefits of my role at SAS is that I get to sample a bit of the local colour of most cities I'm in. For those of you who have been to Halifax, you will agree with me that it is certainly chock full of colour!

Pleasant diversions aside, my purpose for travelling to Halifax was to support their users at the local user group meeting. This small but potent group of SAS users never fails to impress and entertain. My companion for this particular trip was M. Sylvain Tremblay - the most Celtic Quebecois I know. I would swear that he's more Irish than some of the people who proudly belt out sea shanties at The Olde Triangle! As an aside, my single greatest moment of pride was knowing lyrics to a song that he didn't. I nearly shed a tear.

But back to the meeting.

As many of the attendees are health-focused, there was a distinct health slant to most presentations. John Fahey led off with what seems to be a persistent topic at SHRUG meetings: survival analysis. John is a pleasure as a presenter. He is about as relaxed as one could be, yet his knowledge is so deep and so vast, he can address virtually any question or comment. He was followed by the newest SHRUG executive Kara Thompson who offered a SAS Global Forum recap. I can honestly say that this was one of the better recaps I've seen. Kara focused mainly on a great tip which she learned at Global Forum and described how she applied it in her work. Nice job, Kara! There were two other talks offered as well. Devbani Raha discussed SAS dates - a very popular topic everywhere, it seems - and Sylvain Tremblay looked at the MIANALYZE and MI procedures for imputing missing data. Great talks all around, to be sure! You'll be able to find them all posted shortly on the SHRUG website. However, one of the most interesting elements of the meeting for me was an open discussion session.

The SHRUG group had included a SAS challenge on their invitation which was meant to spur discussion by soliciting a variety of responses. While we didn't have many submissions, this did allow the group to discuss ways to improve their meetings for the benefit of all. Were interactive exercises like this something that made sense? Or, would more presentations be in order? What did the attendees want to see moving forward? The discussion was interesting and spirited... and we even managed to delve into the SAS challenge as well!

To me, this type of open and frank discussion is really what the SAS community is all about. Coming together in collaboration to help each other and share their knowledge. This type of engagement is something I'd like each and every user group across Canada to embrace... and most do, in their own way!

I left Halifax much, much too soon. 24 hours is not enough time to spend in this great city. I know I'll be back sooner rather than later, however... and I look forward to it already. My next adventure: Saskatoon and Winnipeg this week. The agendas for both meetings look great and I'll be glad to share my thoughts on these heartland communities upon my return.

Until then...

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Shouting From the Podium: Data Mining Takes Centre Stage

This past Wednesday, SAS Canada's offices was once again pleasantly overrun by data mining practitioners. I often find myself wondering what the collective, cumulative experience of the attendees must be. Hundreds of years? It must be, at a minimum. On top of it, these are some of the best and brightest from a wide range of industries. Whether business analysts in financial services, actuarial professionals from insurance companies, health analysts from hospitals and the government, these folks certainly bring an impressive array of skills to bear. It's a bit intimidating to be in the same room, I tell you! The only thing to do is deliver a compelling agenda which engages and entertains. I'd like to think we were able to do so at the most recent meeting.

I was privileged to spend time with our keynote speaker in a social context before and after the meeting. Krzysztof Dzieciolowski of Rogers Communications certainly turned out to be something of a star draw. There were former and current colleagues of his scattered throughout the room, and my own experiences with him made it clear why this would be the case. Not only was he a brilliant man - in his spare time, he had previously chaired the Stastistical Society of Canada in Quebec and he currently taught data mining at Concordia University - but he was an entirely pleasant and cheerful person to talk with around a wide range of topics. Over dinner, we discussed our shared Polish heritage, tales of football glory and heroes of the past, the challenges of teaching and implementing data mining solutions... and much more. The time just flew by!

As a speaker, Krzysztof offered a tremendous overview of a complex and interesting topic. Entitled 'Scoring Models, Propensity Transformations and Model Scoring Using SAS', the talk was balanced with a lot of theory combined with practical examples. Given the interest of the audience in asking him questions - I nearly had to pull him out of a well-wishing mob of admirers at the break - I'd say his talk was an unqualified success.

Carrie Dang of Loyalty One was our second presenter, and I can honestly say that I've rarely felt worse for a presenter than I did for poor Carrie. Her topic was riveting, her talk well put together... and her voice was soft and soothing. Developing a scoring model for email campaigns is something that all marketers can relate to and I found myself nodding along with her talk. Ordinarily this is a recipe for great success, but Carrie had the misfortune of dealing with a problem which has become all too common at my meetings: technological failure. Our audio system dropped entirely, and I'm afraid anyone beyond the first 20 rows may not have heard a thing. I apologized profusely to both Carrie and the audience and I appreciate that the quality of the experience must have been significantly negatively affected. For what it's worth I've escalated this technological issue internally and been assured that it will be addressed for future meetings. I've extended an offer to Carrie to take her out for lunch by way of saying 'thank you' and 'I'm sorry'. I hope that it's a start, at least!

Our last presenter of the day was SAS Canada's own Lorne Rothman who has been gracing our stage quite a bit lately. Lorne is such a great, natural presenter that if I could somehow wrangle him into giving a talk at every meeting, I certainly would! He instantly had the crowd relaxed by opining that 'unlike the first two talks, mine isn't interesting'. Great stuff. Lorne's talk was focused around getting the most out of SAS Enterprise Miner as a SAS programmer, and he really showed the flexibility of the code node for all it was worth. I was especially grateful to Lorne as he filled an agenda hole which suddenly and unexpectedly developed. I confess to breathing a sigh of relieve when his topic was so well-received.

As time as gone on in my SAS career I have noticed that data mining has taken centre stage in media publications and public thought. As analytics have become less of a black box and more of an indispensable business requirement, the practitioners who are able to blend the art and science of mathematics, psychology, sociology and business savvy are becoming more and more critical to successful business processes. It's a real privilege to be so deeply involved with this group of individuals.
The presentations will be posted very shortly at the Toronto Data Mining Forum website and you'll be able to access them there shortly. For me, however, there were very little time to pause and reflect. I was about to fly out to Halifax for their user group meeting, one which would drive home the importance and strength of SAS community in a much different way. I'll have more about that meeting in an upcoming post.

Until then...