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...

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