Thursday, March 13, 2014

Spring has Sprung in Saskatchewan

As I sit here in the Regina airport, I'm looking out the window with longing like a puppy at the pet store. The weather here is just beautiful: + temperatures and clear skies and the sound of the running water resulting from the melt-off of the snow is filling the air. I know that this is a bit of an early blessing here in Regina. In fact, I was assured that just last week, temperatures were reaching -64 degrees Celcius with the windchill... so I guess I just got lucky. To be honest, though, my desire to stay around for a few more days in Regina has little to do with the lovely weather here or the nasty weather awaiting me in Toronto. It has everything to do with the wonderful people and phenomenal hospitality which I consistently experience here in Regina. The goodwill began immediately upon our arrival last night.

Charu Shankar and I were both ravenous after a long - but pleasant - drive from Saskatoon. We checked in, got a few minutes of decompression and then agreed to meet for dinner at a nearby restaurant, Taste of Tuscany. This would prove to be one of the greatest SAS road trip dining experiences I've had in my 7+ years of travel. First, a word about the ownership. What happens when a traditional Italian woman meets and falls in love with a Punjabi Sikh? Well, 24 years later - after living in Italy until that time - they move with their children to Regina and open up what can only be described as the most authentic Indian/Italian restaurant ever. Charu and I spent an hour and a half in what felt like our own private dining room. We chatted with the owners as they made our food: it's a pretty amazing feeling to smell fresh, delicious cooking in a restaurant and knowing without a shadow of a doubt that it was YOUR food which smelled so great! Stuffed beyond belief, we were sent wobbling out into the cooling Regina air with a loaf of fresh homemade bread to struggle getting down over the course of the evening. If anyone reading this lives or visits Regina, I can't recommend this restaurant enough. 24 hours later, I STILL feel full.

Of course, while the food was amazing, Charu and I were there with a job to do. The Regina SAS User Group awaited! In terms of sense of community this group has rapidly jumped near the top of my list. Everyone seems to know each other very well and is more than willing to reach out to help each other. SGI, Farm Credit Canada, and other organizations chatted, laughed and generally hobnobbed with each other and with us as if we had seen each other just the day before.

The sheer volume of SAS knowledge on display in Regina is impressive as well (to say the least). I learned that Shaun Kauffman of Farm Credit Canada had achieved some level of internet fame by having the second highest ranked content on Google on the topic of DS2 (a talk I extoll all over the country, consistently). In fact, the only presentation searched for more than his? The actual documentation through SAS help! That's quite the achievement, Shaun, you should be very proud.

We had 2 fantastic local presentations which truly resonated well with the audience... and terrified me. Why? Well, the 2 talks were distinctly statistical in nature and my talk was antithesis of this: trying to look at statistical practice in Enterprise Guide, from a non-statisticians view.  Taryn McKee of SGI gave a fascinating talk around the motorcycle graduated licensing program and whether or not it was effective in reducing accidents. As a motorcycle rider herself I'm sure the topic was certainly near and dear to her heart. Taryn has a natural gift to present fairly complex concepts - in this case, the GENMOD procedure - with ease and grace. Even I understood what she was talking about and that's really saying something ;) Fantastic job, Taryn.

Not to be outdone, Joan Kwan of FCC offered a talk around correlation and multicollinearity. Again, we were treated to a presentation of some fairly complex statistical processes in an affable, easy-to-grasp manner. Joan offered to give this talk with a small bit of prodding (read: begging) from me and I'm so glad she did. I'm quite sure that every person in the room walked away with  better understanding of these statistical concepts.

Of course, my colleague Charu Shankar was able to leverage her fantastic speaking skills and depth of knowledge to offer two great talks which she had given several times already over the past few days. Her talk on what was new and noteworthy in SAS 9.4 was great as it featured DS2 and allowed for some dialogue with Shaun Kauffman and her secondary talk on her top 10 coding efficiencies is ALWAYS received warmly. Hard to argue with a talk which helps your programming become easier, faster and more productive. Great job as always, Charu! It was an absolute pleasure to travel with you and share some great stories, laughs and meals. You're welcome on the road with me anytime :)

One of my greatest thrills was seeing my colleague Tara Holland show up out of the blue and surprise me at the meeting. A native daughter of Saskatchewan, it always feels a little... off when I'm not here with her. Her presence at the meeting made all right with the world again.

So here I sit at the Regina airport rueing that I have to leave. I really do love this city: the people, the food, the 'feeling'. I can't wait to come back once again in the Fall, it really feels like too long before I get back here. In the interim though, I have about 25 other user groups and of course SAS Global Forum coming up rapidly. I'll have more on my adventures in the coming weeks.

Until then...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Blue Skies and Long Drives in Saskatoon

As a native Torontonian, I'm used to getting some friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) ribbing when I travel around the country. The 'Centre of the Universe' is often referred to in less-than-glowing terms by others. Over the years, I've tried to puzzle through why this might be: I think we're alright people in general (albeit with some very obvious shortcomings). As I sit here in Regina, I think I may have received my answer courtesy of the Toronto transplant newscasters on Global Regina. I happened to tune in to their broadcast as the news anchor turned the floor over to the weather. The anchor led in with a comment around the 15 centimetres of snow the city referred to today and the weather anchor responded with an amusing aside, relating that one of her friends in Toronto had told her today that she 'stayed home from work because of the weather'. The joke was that no one in Saskatchewan would EVER stay home because of the weather! Oh, Toronto. At least the military wasn't called in this time... Let me tell you, if more prairie winter/early spring days looked and felt like today, I would wholeheartedly agree with the newscasters sentiment.

The temperature was well above freezing and the endless prairie sky stretched blue and big from east to west as Charu Shankar and I headed out to the Saskatoon SAS user group meeting. We had enjoyed a lovely dinner the evening before with executive committee members and guest speakers who confirmed my long-held feeling that the good people of Saskatoon are the nicest, friendliest and warmest in the entire country. Meeting at our traditional location of the University of Saskatchewan, I anticipated a smaller meeting than normal. High temperatures and an early user group were both descending on Saskatoon much earlier than usual. With school still in full swing, we were certainly going to see declining attendance from our strong supporters from the University... and many other organizations we normally see attend had already written to indicate that the timing just didn't work. That's a shame, as the talks today were particularly inspiring.

However, a real highlight of the meeting was that we had three great volunteers step forward to assist with the Executive Committee - a real key to achieving great things with any user group. Mark Horseman, Rob Merritt, Lily Wu: welcome, we're very glad to have you!

Former SUCCESS President Gopinath Narasimhan led off the meeting with his introductory talk to arrays and do loops. Charu and I were both exceptionally impressed with his poise and grasp of the subject material. He was able to handle questions easily and skillfully and had found fantastic examples to share with the group. His talk set a fantastic tone for the rest of the meeting.

Charu reprised her two talks from Winnipeg the day before - new features of SAS 9.4 and her top 10 coding efficiencies. Once again, her talks were outstanding. Every time I hear them I pick up something new... which is a testament to the strength of her content and her ability to present it.

I myself had two talks to offer: statistics in Enterprise Guide and a talk which is rapidly becoming my favourite to build and deliver, the '10 for 10'. This talk dives back into the history of a particular group and looks at the top presenters, topics, meetings, presentations and more over the years. It really helps me reflect back on how the group has grown and gives me a bit of a blueprint to try and replicate past successes (no pun intended for the SUCCESS meeting). I reminded the group that it was seven years ago from this particular meeting that I first travelled out on the road for a user group meeting... I remember being given a tour of campus - including seeing former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's tomb - and how nervous I was to present to such strong SAS professionals. Little did I know then how warm, welcoming and accomodating this group would prove to be! I'm grateful for each and every trip I have out here to Saskatoon, even if I am just a poor sap from Toronto ;)

Speaking of which, as the meeting concluded and Charu and I jumped in the car for a two and a half hour drive south to Regina, I told her the story of my ultimate 'Toronto-ness'. Having previously undertaken this drive with SAS Canada's Tara Holland, I had noticed what appeared to be dark soil sporadically interspersed with the grass around us. When I asked Tara - a Saskatchewan native - about this unusual soil condition, she laughed, looked at me a little sadly and said 'oh, you are from Toronto. Matt, those are the shadows of clouds'. Hoo-boy. I guess what they say about Toronto might be right after all... ;) In my defense, the vast forests of Ontario and concrete jungle of Toronto don't exactly lend themselves to appreciating cloud shadows on a grand scale!

The drive down was very pleasant and made moreso by the beautiful weather and the pleasant conversation with Charu. I suppose that to me, Saskatchewan's SAS user community is very much in line with the gorgeous day we just experienced. Wide open, transparent, bright and uncompromising. I fall in love with it a little more every time I'm here (although I think I could do without the -54 Celcius weather).

We've both settled into our respective rooms here in Regina quite nicely and we're resting up for the user group taking place tomorrow. We'll have a few hours to tour around the city and then the long, late flight home to bitter, bitter, snowy Toronto. Can't I just stay here a little longer? If only I could...

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

An Early Spring in Winnipeg

Today’s meeting of the Winnipeg SAS User Group really got me thinking. Part of the reason for this was certainly that one of my presentations demanded as much. This year, for all of the user groups across the country, I will be offering a ’10 for 10’ presentation. This talk will focus on the 10 years which that particular group has been in existence and offer some highlights, comments and observations from this period. For example, I’ll highlight popular guest speakers, topics and presentations of the past… my own personal thoughts/memories and much more.

As I dove back through the records to build my talk last night, it was a real thrill to see the patterns developing. Names from the past and friends new and old swam up through the data and really tied a fine thread through the history of the Winnipeg user group. It got me thinking about how far we’ve come and where we would still like to go.

Thankfully, today’s meeting was a very strong blend of past, present and future. We had a fantastic talk offered by Yao Nie of the University of Manitoba. Yao’s talk focused around using SAS/IML to talk with the Rprogramming language. R is so prevalent these days in so many academic circles and it’s great to see that SAS is taking steps to ‘play nice’ with the freeware. Yao was a very polished speaker and I really learned a lot about the R language which I hadn’t known before. A point was raised about how it would be nice to be able to call R routines from the data step: SAS developers, if you’re reading this, any plans to do so?

Our second local speaker was Charles Burchill, also of the U of M. With his talk, Charles moved up into sole possession of second place on the ‘all time presentations’ list given by local speakers in Winnipeg with 4. User group President Craig Kasper is the only one sitting ahead of him with 5. Competitive instincts put aside, you can’t really go wrong with either of these gentlemen offering talks. They consistently deliver value and knowledge, regardless of topic. Today, Charles shared his learnings moving to a server environment, specifically, the SPD server. I’m always interested in the technical/IT administrative side of the SAS world as it doesn’t get enough exposure at our meetings. Charles has a great way of communicating concepts and techniques which are unfamiliar in a way that makes sense to all. I really enjoyed his talk a lot.

The other 3 presentations were delivered by SAS Canada. First up, SAS Education’s Charu Shankar. Charu is a prolific author (see her blog ‘The SASTraining Post’ on SAS Blogs and her own personal food blog), a yoga instructor, a world traveler… in short, a very interesting person. Like Charles, Charu has a great ability to convey complex concepts with relative ease. This is a part of the reason she’s such a great instructor! Although I think of her as an Enterprise Guide guru (I often ask her questions about usage), she’s also a very strong programmer. She shared some of her tips and tricks for programming optimization in a great talk which really served as an one-stop shop for optimization. As she put herself, ‘some of you may know this, but you may have forgotten – or ignored – these details as well’. I’ll take a refresher in SAS from one of our best instructors any day!

Charu also delivered a great talk around new features of SAS 9.4. This talk was one I was looking forward to hearing more so than any other on the day, chiefly because we’re starting to see more and more 9.4 installations across the country and I’m often in a position where I’d like to speak with some competence to our customers about upgrading. The talk was well-suited for this, offering a 3-pronged approach to the new features. Charu touched on the Data Step 2 (DS2) language, Enterprise Guide 6.1 and some of the high-performance features which were now available. In short, all the good stuff (at least in my humble view). She also presented her top 10 coding efficiencies which certainly resonated with everyone in the room.

Finally, I brought up the rear with a talk around statistics in EnterpriseGuide (for the Non-Statistician). I don’t mind sharing that I was very nervous. Not because I had to deliver a talk – I’ve given many Enterprise Guide talks over the years and I’m very comfortable with the product. Rather, I was going to be talking statistics. With statisticians. Which I am not. GULP. I think I managed to get through the presentation just fine… and I hope that people were able to take away how easy it is to perform some exploratory statistics – and some more complex ones as well – within the Enterprise Guide environment. I did receive some good feedback about some improvements I could make and I certainly appreciated it!

I mentioned at the beginning of the blog that I became a little wistful when building my ’10 for 10’ talk. There are a couple of traditions I have in Winnipeg which were left unfulfilled this time. I traditionally get my first sunburn of the year sitting on a patio and enjoying a post-user group meal. Well, it was a balmy -19 with the windchill today, so that didn’t happen. I also always break into a smile when I see what is my absolute favourite store on the user group circuit: the infamous 'Chicken Car Wash'. I'll upload a picture when I can connect over reliable internet.
This time, I didn’t get to see the Chicken Car Wash with my own eyes. Having said that, this trip was far, FAR from a disappointment. I’m reminded of my early days at SAS every time I’m in Winnipeg and all that has transpired since that first user group trip 8 years ago. I noted the strength and consistency of the SAS community: the willingness to share, to support each other and to network beyond the confines of the twice-yearly meeting – yet inspired by it. And of course, I was able to share some laughs, some stories and a great dinner with customers who have become friends over the years. And I suppose that that is the greatest reward of all.
Tomorrow I’ll be presenting with Charu at the Saskatoon user group and I’m very much looking forward to another trip down memory lane as I build the ’10 for 10’ talk and enjoy a great dinner tonight. At the end of the day, it’s the SAS community which brings me out on these grand trips and it’s the community that motivates, inspires and moves me. I couldn’t be more grateful.

You’ll be able to find all the Winnipeg talks – both today’s and from the past – on their website. Next stop, Saskatchewan, where I’ll be renting a car and driving around. Let’s hope the snow isn’t too bad… ;)

Until then…

Monday, March 10, 2014

TASS Starts the 2014 User Group Season in Style

Last Friday I had the pleasure of kicking off this year's user group season with the TASS group in Toronto. I'm always in awe when this particular meeting kicks into planning mode. The large executive committee is extremely engaged and always willing to step forward to present, volunteer colleagues and help out in any way possible. The strength of the meeting is entirely a testament to the work ethic and 'hands-on' nature of this team.

I must confess that I have a guilty (not-so-guilty) pleasure when it comes to this meeting. Periodically, we manage to finangle an A-list guest speaker out of the United States... often, this person works for SAS but just as often, the individual is a legend within the SAS user community. Classic TASS President Art Tabachneck is usually responsible for this as his vast network of contacts includes some of the best and brightest. I suppose we should expect no less from a SAS-L Hall of Famer! The pleasure I derive from this meeting is twofold: I get to hear from phenomenal guest speakers periodically and I also get to know them personally over dinner the night before the meeting.

This meeting, our feature presenter was Jan Squillace. Jan was a long-time manager in the Data Step/Macro divison of Tech Support - yes, THAT data step!!!  Picture discussing SAS coding practices with someone who had heard virtually every single issue, complaint, problem and roadblock which a customer could encounter... and you get a pretty good idea of our dinnertime conversation. It was great to get to know someone with such amazing depth of knowledge a little bit better.

The meeting itself was destined to be fantastic given the strength of the presenters. Jan delivered two great talks: one around SAS version 9.4 and some of the new features of the upgrade and a really interesting talk which clearly hearkened back to her tech support days and featured discussions on the types of notes and warnings you might see in your error log when writing data step or macro code. I think that absolutely EVERYONE in the room got something out of both of these talks: in fact, attendees were asking for a copy before the presentations were even concluded. Always a great sign of a job well done. Kudos, Jan!

We also had another 'first' for TASS. Tom Kari of Ottawa - infamous in the OASUS/OPUS user group circle and of course, the 2011 Customer Feedback Award winner - was slated to present on scraping the web with SAS in Toronto. His sudden recall back to Ottawa meant we had to scramble a bit to find a solution to his absence. With some great teamwork and rigorous testing, we were able to set up a WebEx presentation from the SAS office in Ottawa which more than adequately conveyed his talk. The only pity was that we didn't get to see Tom in person. His energy and passion is infectious... and I enjoy spending time with him. Ah well, I will certainly see him in Washington DC for SAS Global Forum and we will certainly make it up then.

Art was not off the hook either for this particular meeting. He reprised an earlier talk on Proc Export which he will now be delivering at SAS Global Forum and which was mind-blowing (to put it kindly)... although to be honest, I've come to expect nothing but the most dazzling, innovative and interesting talks from Art. He certainly didn't disappoint!

The afternoon session featured a talk from Carl Wang of Indigo which really got underneath the hood of the power of scripting. This dovetailed nicely with the SAS tips and tricks presentation which featured custom tasks in Enterprise Guide and more. All in all, a very successful day of meetings and talks.

I'm always proud when I get great feedback from my colleagues in the United States on the style and substance of our user group program here in Canada. It's gratifying to think that some of the best and brightest in the SAS world think so highly of how our groups come together. It really comes down once again to that magic word, 'community'. We all pull together for a common goal here in Canada: there is no ulterior motive or questionable mandate, simply a desire to support SAS users as well as possible. Our partnership - really, our friendship - with our user community allows this to happen easily and naturally.

As I write this I'm keeping an eye on the clock as I'll be flying off to Winnipeg and then the province of Saskatchewan later this week. It's going to be a fun trip, but a nerve-wracking one at the same time. I'll be giving a talk on statistics in Enterprise Guide... and I am certainly no statistician. Gulp. Wish me luck! I'll be sure to let you know how it goes over the coming week. In the meantime, you'll be able to pick up the TASS presentations on the TASS website.

Until then...