How I learned to stop worrying and trust the SAS language

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This week we are fortunate to have Jacob Warwick as our guest blogger.  Jacob just finished his 4th summer internship at SAS, started his freshman year at George Washington University, and is a 2012 SAS Student Ambassador. Jacob shares his story of becoming a SAS programmer.

JWarwickIn the summer of my 9th grade year, my first summer as a tech student at SAS, I was assigned my first ever project involving the SAS language. Immediately, I found myself surrounded by confusing PROCs and senseless DATA steps full of seemingly random symbols.  I took one look at the code I was supposed to work with and decided that if I could help it, I’d never use SAS again.

Four years later (give or take a few months), I’m a published contributor to SAS Global Forum with a paper which featured my SAS code front and center. I’m preparing to take the Base SAS Certification Exam, which, if I pass, will certify me as a credentialed SAS user, someone who can not only understand the basics of the language but bend it to his own will to solve problems.

So what happened?

I could tell you that I came to value the power of the SAS language in a sudden flash of realization, but that would be a lie. The truth is, I learned SAS slowly, agonizingly, and because I had to – because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to complete my work assignments. Even so, there were a couple of moments that helped me along the way.

I still remember the first time it really ‘clicked’ – I was assigned to write some SAS code to move information from a database to a SharePoint list. I remember struggling with the concepts for days, trying to teach my brain how to ‘think’ in SAS. I gradually realized that for every concept I’d taught myself in the ‘real’ programming world, there was an equivalent in SAS. It wasn’t a transformative moment, but it gave me the confidence to continue struggling.

It was last summer when I truly appreciated the value of SAS’s data processing capabilities for the first time. I have a friend whose mother works in R&D at SAS, and we bumped into each other in the hall one day. I asked about her job, and for the first time I learned about predictive modeling, the idea that by using math and computer science you can predict real-life events. I remember standing in her office as she explained the graphs and metrics that defined her job as a Research Statistician Developer. Long story short, I went to a few training sessions and then to some meetings; I got to see the SAS wizards do their magic in front of my very eyes. Watching a pattern develop out of seeming nonsense isn’t always a beautiful thing, but it’s extremely satisfying. I was intrigued, and that was what got me truly sucked into SAS.

If the three years preceding my senior year of high school gave me a base level of knowledge about SAS, last year was when I realized that not only did I want to be a SAS certified programmer, but that I wanted to major in the field of Statistics. An amazing AP Statistics course, taught by a fantastic teacher - Simon King – showed me the power of descriptive statistics and of always asking questions. I remember he wrote in one of my report cards that he “saw me getting excited about datasets” and that made him “very, very happy.”

It was Mr. King who had the idea of submitting a paper to SAS Global Forum 2012, and drawing on my existing SAS knowledge and that of my classmate, Aaron Daniels, we analyzed the internet use of our peers - a massive dataset – using SAS.  A few months later, our very first published paper was finished. And the rest, as they say, is history.

If you’re anything like me, you might read the last few paragraphs and think to yourself “how in the world could anyone read this as an encouragement to learn the SAS language?” The truth is, as arduous as my journey to SAS skill was, it has proven to be one of the most useful skills I’ve ever learned. Sure, there are languages like Python and Java that I use on a much more regular basis, but they work for different things. They are tools for building; SAS is a tool for analyzing. Just this week, I helped a friend and fellow intern analyze SAS’s own twitter use, as it compares to that of other companies. In ten minutes, using two or three lines of SAS code, we were able to discern that there was no association between a company’s count of tweets per day and its number of followers.

And learning SAS is much easier for high school students these days.  SAS partners with high school teachers every summer through their summer workshops so teachers can learn how to teach SAS in their classrooms. Several high schools, including Cary Academy - where I graduated from – have developed courses on Programming in SAS.

Looking into the future, I know that as I pursue a double major in Statistics and Political Science at the George Washington University (go Colonials!), my knowledge of the SAS language will put me far ahead of the competition for jobs and internships. And if nothing else I’ve written here has convinced you, let me say this: learning SAS is unlike learning any other language. Learning to use SAS doesn’t just give you a skill, it gives you a power - the power to look deeper into data, the power to get the answer that much faster and that much more accurately – and yes, even “the power to know.”

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Julie Petlick

SAS Student Programs Manager

Julie Petlick works in the SAS Education Division as part of the Global Academic Program team. Julie is responsible for the SAS Student Program and is dedicated to supporting teaching and learning.

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