Thursday, April 16, 2015

SAS Newbie Warren Woermke Guest Posts: Taking the Pulse of the SAS Health User Group

My name is Warren Woermke, and I’m a coop student working in customer loyalty at SAS Canada. I’m on my second work term, and have been here for about 8 months now. Last week I ‘ran’ the Health User Group (my first ever) here at the SAS Toronto office, and gave my first presentation. To say I was nervous would be an understatement…though with almost 40 customers, and my manager in attendance, I would argue with good reason!

However, the good people of the Health User Group soon showed me there was no reason to be. I could not have asked for a friendlier, more receptive and welcoming group of people with which to conduct my first user group. Despite my lack of experience and, if I’m honest, technical knowledge, I did not feel at all unwelcome or alienated from the group. Some people were even kind enough to laugh at my not-so-funny jokes! (I promise to have some better lines prepared for next time). I need to say a special thanks to the HUG President, Christopher Battiston. The meeting ran extremely smoothly – in large part thanks to Chris. Not only did he make me feel welcome, he made my life easy by handling registration, introducing me to presenters, and answering one or two questions that were a little beyond me J.

The quality of the people at this meeting was only rivaled by the quality of the content. We were treated by three excellent guest presenters – Petros Pechlivanoglou from Toronto Health Economics & Technology Assessment (THETA) Collaborative, Ruth Croxford from Institute of Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES), and SAS’ own Lorne Rothman. Petros provided us with an insightful look into the world of health economics – a
presentation which I felt had an excellent balance of technical insight, and less technical aspects for folks like me. Though it may have been old news to some, I was introduced to the concept of units of QALY (Quality-Adjusted Life Year), which measure a treatment not only on its ability to prolong life, but also on the quality of that life. Very cool. Ruth gave an interesting talk on inverse probability of treatment weighting using propensity scoring. Lorne gave us a look at predictive modeling in healthcare and put forth a challenging question to the group, ‘Why does healthcare rarely use it?’ During amateur hour this kid named Warren also did a quick update from SAS – but it was pretty poorly done, so there’s no need to go further into that.

All in all, this was an excellent experience – and one I’d love to repeat.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Whirlwind in Winnipeg

I never feel that I have enough time in this city. Typically I'm flying in fairly late at night from Saskatchewan and snatching a late dinner before bed... then a fast morning meeting, an efficient lunch and a sprint to the airport. One of these days I want to be able to take a breath and see the sights. My childhood memories of camping with my family from Toronto to Winnipeg are fading over time... I really need to make some new ones.

Fortunately, my adult memories are of the wonderful SAS community members I get to see each and every time I come into town. Craig Kasper and Kevin Morgan who co-chair the user group never fail to make me smile - whether sharing deep SAS knowledge with a technical newbie or commiserating over the woes of the Toronto Maple Leafs (hey, misery loves company), I always feel welcome and at home. The other Executive Committee members are fantastic as well. I love the energy of Xue Yao and the friendly smiles of Stella Leung and Humaira Khair. I'm especially grateful that the entire team quickly and without debate rolls up their sleeves to help out. Whether that's delivering a presentation in a pinch, assisting at the registration desk, MCing the meeting or speaking with attendees one on one, they truly make my life easy.

Of course, there are other locals who offer just as much support. Charles Burchill is a frequent speaker (and delivered a great talk on SAS Dates at this meeting) and his enthusiasm and energy is really remarkable. His passion is infectious, to be honest - I always find I leave my conversations with him more charged up than ever around SAS and SAS usage... and I work for the company! There are many individuals who ask interesting, challenging questions at the meeting itself which is a very welcome feature of our get-togethers. Questions and answers fly around the room and we all learn something new. This, after all, is the overarching goal of the user group program.

I referenced a whirlwind in my title. While I meant to apply that to my quick stop in the city, it could just as easily be applied to the presentation stylings of Nate Derby. Once again Nate proved he could captivate a room and hold their interest. He delivered a talk on graphing which was fascinating - how to effectively communicate information visually and some options for the most effective ways of surfacing this information. As we slip deeper and deeper into the era of visual data discovery, these outputs are becoming more and more prevalent. I felt privileged to see some options first hand and I certainly learned a lot. You can find all of the talks posted on the Winnipeg SAS User Group website - do take a look, they are certainly worth your while.

The post-meeting lunch with the Executive Committee was as entertaining as always. It's always amazing to me to see how time inexorably marches onwards. Since I was last in Winnipeg a huge building had been constructed with a great restaurant in the base - but I never saw any construction at all! It wasn't there, and there it was. There's a very deep philosophical manifesto buried in there somewhere, but I'm not going to try and surface it now on the cusp of a long weekend. 

Speaking of which I hope everyone enjoys a relaxing and enjoyable 72 hour break. If you celebrate Easter, then I hope it's a good one. If not, well, enjoy your downtime. I'll be back following the Health User Group meeting next week with a guest blogger, SAS rookie Warren Woermke.

Until then...

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Opening the 2015 Season in Saskatchewan

Where does the time go... well, that's a bit of a silly question I suppose. It marches on and on and on. But I must admit to being more than a little shocked when I realized I had not offered a new post here in almost a calendar year's time. I suppose it's appropriate that I'm doing so on April Fool's Day... but the only fool around here is me. Believe me, it's not that there wasn't anything going on in 2014 - the exact opposite to tell you the truth!

It was such a busy year that I found it a real challenge to carve out a few hours to sit back and reflect on the wonderful experiences I had at SAS user groups across the country. I do have many strong memories from last year... I suppose I'll have to let those trickle out bit by bit over time. At any rate, no sense looking backwards - I'd rather look ahead to a great 2015 SAS user group season, beginning in Saskatchewan.

Canada is such a wonderfully diverse country, one I'm fortunate to cross from coast to coast several times a year. It should then come as no surprise that SAS users in our country are just as diverse as the land itself. From programmers to Visual Analytics whizzes, from Enterprise Guide users to data mining practitioners... the spectrum of SAS usage is as broad as Canada is wide. Saskatchewan has distinguished itself (at least, in my eyes) as the province which is developing their SAS skills most quickly. They have a hunger for knowledge that borders on ravenous... and they are willing to share their skills and support each other more so than almost anywhere else. It's great to see!

Our first stop was in the beautiful city of Regina, where I was able to catch up with an old friend and a true SAS legend. Nate Derby of Stakana Analytics was to be our keynote speaker here in Saskatchewan and in Winnipeg as well. In addition to being a prolific presenter (check out his publication list here) he is a staunch supporter of the Vancouver SAS User Group and an honourary Canadian. His business interests in Seattle and an uncooperative holiday schedule had confounded us from catching up for almost a year and a half... and it was great to have some time to bring each other up to speed on our lives in the SAS world.

The user group meeting itself was really 'The Nate Derby Show'. Due to some unavoidable work conflicts we lost one of our local speakers for the morning. Fortunately, our other speaker - Rajib Sahaji of SGI Canada - was more than up to the task of representing his city. His talk on Analyses of Casualty Collisions During Statutory Holidays in Saskatchewan was a very interesting look at how insurance companies set rates and conduct due diligence to do so. For all of us who may wonder how and why our monthly payments are set as they are, it was an eye opener. I feel like a very small piece of the puzzle was revealed! As a new car owner, this talk was especially relevant (although I'm not doing much driving in Saskatchewan ever, let alone on holidays).

Nate then became the star of the show - delivering not one, not two, but THREE presentations! I'm amazed he still had a voice at the end of the morning. His talks are all posted on the Regina SAS User Group website as well as Rajibs, of course. Nate's talks pretty much ran the gamut - whether discussing optimizing statistical models, maintaining SAS formats in Excel, or getting the most out of PROC REG, he was able to bring an approachable perspective to some fairly complex topics. I think everyone in the room gained something from his knowledge.

Several hours later, Nate and I joined my colleague Matt Joyce (or, Matt West to my Matt East) for the drive up to Saskatoon. There was a recent thread on Reddit featured on CBC which was a tongue-in-cheek dissection of this exact trip. Personally, I LOVE the drive. Coming from the east I don't get that 'big sky' feeling that I do in the Prairies. Taking it all in while flying through the flat landscape like a bat out of hell is certainly a great way to spend an early spring afternoon... and great conversation along the way to boot.

Saskatoon is my spiritual home, I've decided. Certainly in terms of my work with the user groups - the first ever group I visited and ran some 7+ years ago now and many of the same, wonderful faces who still grace the meetings. I'm always made to feel so comfortable and welcome. I have my favourite hotels, my preferred restaurants, I get a smile and a nod from folks in places I frequent often. It's always nice to come 'home'.

The meeting in Saskatoon was well-attended and featured the second installment of the Nate Derby show, reprising many of the talks he delivered so well in Regina. You'll find a full list of all the presentations here. We were also very fortunate to have the very talented Meric Osman of the Health Quality Council of Saskatchewan offering a preview of his SAS Global Forum 2015 talk on SAS Solutions to Create Episodes of Hospitalization for Health Research. He's a great speaker with an engaging topic - I'm going to enjoy seeing in again in Dallas in a few weeks' time! The Saskatoon group also came together to form a brand-new Executive Committee. Special thanks to former President Mark Horseman for his leadership and congratulations to Meric for assuming the Presidency of the group! Nianping Hu also joins our team as Vice-President and Kavitha Ramachandran as the Program Chair. It's great to see the local SAS users step up to support their community.

I flew off to Winnipeg ready to close out a long week of travel happy to have spent so much time in Saskatchewan. I consider myself quite fortunate that this is part of my job - if travelling the country, connecting with colleagues and enjoying great conversation can be considered work!  Thanks as always for the hospitality, Saskatchewan... and I do look forward to the next time.

Coming up next: some stories about my trip to Manitoba.

Until then...