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Interview en anglais avec Rick Aster – auteur du livre Professional SAS Programming Secrets

octobre 20, 2010

1. Rick Aster in one sentence

Véronique Bourcier : Hi Rick, could you present yourself to the sasreference.com blog readers in one sentence?

Rick Aster : When people say “SAS programming” today, it’s largely because I glued those two words together a generation ago in the book Professional SAS Programming Secrets. It was the first book on SAS to be widely distributed in bookstores around the world.

2. Motivation for writing books about SAS

Véronique : Your first publication was in 1991. Since then you have published six books. What made you decide to write down your knowledge in the first place? What motivates you in selling these products?

Rick : I love SAS. You can do amazing things with it, in terms of working with data, and you don’t need such a high level of skill to do them. At the same time, I really want SAS people to gain the advantages that come with the computer programming perspective. If you take the attitude that you’re in charge of the computer and you can make SAS do whatever you want with the data you’re working on, that’s a more powerful position than if you are just hoping you can type the right words and symbols so that SAS will do its thing for you. Make that shift in perspective, and a whole world of possibilities opens up, and then you start finding answers to questions you didn’t know existed. The more people I can persuade to make that shift, the more things are going to happen in the world — “more people finding more answers,” as I like to say. So that’s really the purpose behind everything I write about SAS, to get people to take on the programming perspective.

Rick : At the same time, also, I want to make sure this knowledge is there for everyone. A big company can afford to hire me to work on their data, but really, anyone could do what I do, so I write the books to help the people who are trying to do the same thing I’m doing.

3. Programmer skills

Véronique : What do you think the essential qualities are to become a good programmer?

Rick : The important thing to understand is that it doesn’t require a level of skill, knowledge, or experience. Everything that goes into a program can be looked up, or it can be tested, and every mistake you make along the way can be fixed. So you can do good programming from the very beginning, even if you start out not knowing anything about SAS.

Rick : It’s really just a matter of taking responsibility for what your program does. If you can say, “It’s up to me to know what actions result from the words I’m writing in this SAS program,” then you’ll take the time to find out, and that’s really all it takes. And SAS makes this easy by providing a log that’s ready for you to use even before you get started.

Rick : But then, after you get started on SAS programming, you’ll want to write more advanced programs, and write them faster. When I was getting ready to rewrite Professional SAS Programming Secrets for the new third edition I spent a long time — years, really — researching the question of what people really need to know about SAS. What distinctions make the biggest difference in people becoming proficient in SAS, so that they can write SAS programs quickly, and with very few mistakes to correct? I ended up completely redoing the outline of the book so that I could build the book around these key distinctions.

Rick : So, for example, before you do anything in SAS, you need to know that SAS is going to wait for you to tell it to do something, then it’s going to do what it you tell it, and then the way you know what SAS did is by reading the log. So these are some of the key ideas at the beginning of chapter 1 — not as an aside that you come to somewhere along the way, but right there in the middle of the discussion.

Rick : The most important thing I like to emphasize whenever I get the chance to teach SAS programmers is the importance of knowing the automatic actions SAS is taking when it runs a SAS program, especially in the data step. There are a lot of automatic actions in SAS, but there aren’t so many that you can’t learn all of them — and when you do, it makes such a difference, because all of a sudden, you can see everything that’s happening. It’s like the difference between playing chess blindfolded, and playing chess when you can see the pieces on the board.

4. Programming for several decades

Véronique : How do you keep interested in SAS programming after such a long time using it?

Rick : [Rock singer] Jon Anderson said about ten years ago, “The more you know, the more there is to know.” And of course, that wasn’t a new idea then, philosophers have been telling us that kind of thing for ages. When I was younger, I thought it meant that the more experience you have with the world, the more lost you are, because you realize how uncertain everything is. Now I realize it’s actually the opposite. Yes, in a way, everything is uncertain, but the other side of that is, there is so much potential for us to answer all the questions we have, at least the most immediate questions.

Rick : And of course, SAS is right in the middle of this, with people writing SAS programs to answer questions that matter not just for themselves or the companies where they’re working but, eventually, for the whole world.

Rick : At the same time, I see computer programming as being on the frontiers of consciousness. From everything I know, humans have the kind of intelligence we have because of our need to make decisions in advance. As programmers, though, we’re not just making decisions in advance. Whenever we write IF-THEN statements, we’re writing abstract rules to make decisions. These are decisions that the program makes, if you want to look at it that way, which means we’re one more level removed from the basic level of action, of seeing and reacting. And then, as SAS programmers, we’re working with data, which is abstract to begin with, so that’s yet another level removed. So when SAS programming seems difficult sometimes, it’s because, as humans, we’re still learning how to use our brains this way.

Rick : So when I’m writing a SAS program, I’m not just answering some questions that a bank had about its customer base, or whatever the program is about. And I’m not just thinking about what it means to write a SAS program simply and correctly. I’m still learning everything I can about the state of mind that goes into successful programming. What’s the right way to think in order to write a successful program, with all the levels of abstraction that go into the process? Anything I can learn about that, and pass along to others, is something that’s added to the human ability to understand the world. And the more I found out about that, the more there is to learn about it.

5. What has changed in this new edition?

Véronique : Could you tell us a bit more about this new edition? What is specific to it? Which part of the public would be primarily interested in reading it? Do you have already a plan for a future edition?

Rick : Most people don’t realize it, but the first edition of Professional SAS Programming Secrets was mostly written in 1988 and delivered to the publisher in 1989, and I actually had to update it before it was even released. And then, the publisher let me add a few new things in 1997, such as the REPORT procedure and international date formats, and that’s how the revised edition came about. Obviously, that was ages ago in computing terms, and almost everything in the book had to be revised.

Rick : SAS itself has changed — there are ten times as many features as there were in 1991 — but more importantly, the world in which SAS programmers work has changed. When the first edition came out, most of the readers were people who had never used a computer before they started with SAS. Some of the things we had to explain are things that people learn when they’re five years old now! Today, almost everyone has used a computer, or has seen people work on computers, so we’re no longer introducing people to an alien world when we teach them SAS. But there are still a lot of people who haven’t really done any computer programming, so the new edition still has to explain the most basic ideas of computer programming. And that, of course, is a little tricky, because SAS is so different from C and the other programming languages people might be using in a university course on computer programming.

Rick : One of the biggest changes is the move from paper to electronic documents. In 2010, even if you are going to print a document on paper, you probably need it in electronic form first. And that means people really need to know how to open and close an ODS destination in SAS. The way things are right now, an HTML document, or a PDF, is a much more reliable document than a print file — you can e-mail it to someone and it won’t get garbled along the way. It’s also a lot easier and faster to design a report for HTML than it is to design it for a print file. So those two chapters in the previous edition on designing printed reports — they’re really not needed now. Instead, people need to know the four statements that let you create an HTML file in SAS. And I tried to explain that as simply as possible in the new edition. This also changes everything about the way you approach the REPORT procedure, so that part is all different.

Rick : Really, the whole book has been re-written to keep up with everything that’s changed. So for example, the fixed-field data files, the “flat” files from Cobol programs, they’re really not very common anymore, so the emphasis instead is on delimited text files as a source of data, with a little bit about SQL pass-through for connecting to databases and the XML engine for importing and exporting XML data. I still explain how to read fixed-field data files, but I know most readers won’t be using that part.

Rick : Efficiency was a very big topic in SAS programming in the 1990s, and it’s a much smaller topic in the new edition — still essential if you’re working with 10 million observations at a time, but most of us aren’t, most of the time. When I went through the second edition to prepare for the third edition, I was surprised at how much is in there that doesn’t really matter anymore, really, two thirds of the book. It’s a measure of how much SAS has progressed — there are statements and functions in SAS 8 and 9 that let you do in just a few words the kind of processing we used to write 10 or 20 lines of code to do in SAS 6. The great thing about this is that you no longer have to be an expert to do high-level work in SAS. And in terms of the reader’s experience in reading the book, it means I can cover a lot more things and explain them in more detail without making the book twice as long.

Rick : With all the changes, this is still a book for anyone who’s using SAS, but it’s especially for people who are new to SAS, and for people who have been using SAS and want to get the programming perspective on SAS. Every day, I imagine, there’s a statistician or analyst who is already pretty good with the analytical side of SAS, who decides they want to become proficient at the programming side of it too, and I hope they get a chance to read Professional SAS Programming Secrets.

Rick : I’m hoping to make a movie of this new edition — I wrote it with the movie format in mind, and I’m hoping it’s not just a fantasy that I can put the essential ideas of the book into a movie that’s not much longer than 8 or 10 hours. I think there will be tremendous advantages in showing people some of the aspects of SAS programming, some of the things that it takes more than a paragraph or two to explain in words. I’ve been focusing this year on making the book as good as I can make it, but by next year I’m hoping I can get the production pieces together and start making the movie.

Rick : As soon as I can manage it, I’m hoping next year, I want to do a new edition of another of my books, Professional SAS Programming Shortcuts. That won’t be anything big, I don’t think, but there are some web technologies that definitely ought to be added to that book. I do the best I can to keep my books current, but a lot of the time, it’s not up to me. I have 10 pages of changes ready to put into Professional SAS Programmer’s Pocket Reference, but the book people say, “That’s not enough changes to make the readers buy a new edition.” I’m pretty sure with the next SAS release, I’ll be able to do a new edition of that book.

6. What is specific to SAS Programming Secret book compared to the other books of Rick Aster?

Véronique : What is the difference between Professional SAS Programming Secrets and your other books? Why would someone want to read this book if they have already read one of your other books, or other books on SAS?

Rick : Professional SAS Programming Secrets is really the “how SAS works” book, the book that takes you behind the scenes so that you can really understand SAS from the inside. And in the third edition, I’ve explained this in a lot of detail, with examples and metaphors, in a way that no one ever has before. This was three chapters before, and now it’s five chapters, because it’s really that important. Once you understand how SAS works, anything is possible.

Rick : There are a lot of books, including my other book Professional SAS Programming Shortcuts, that focus on specific techniques that you can use in SAS, and those are also very important. If you want to do all the things that you hear about people doing in SAS, that’s a very big subject, much bigger than you can get in one, or two, or three books.

7. Meet Rick Aster

Véronique : Are there any other ways you’re using to share with other people interested in SAS? Are you involved in forums, attending conferences? Where can your readers meet you during the coming year?

Rick : I get out to conferences as much as I can, which hasn’t been so often, lately. I’m pleased, though, that so many people visit my web site, globalstatements.com. It’s about a thousand people a day, which I think makes it the biggest independent web site on SAS, and I just hope the visitors are finding the information they’re searching for. The biggest thing on the site is the dictionary, where you can look up SAS-related words. Another thing I’m working on is the SAS hypic, or web guide, which is supposed to help get people to the answers they’re looking for in just a few clicks. There’s always more that I need to add to it, though. And I get e-mail from about one or two readers a week, and I try my best to answer all the e-mail. If I can manage to get out to a few conferences or events in the next year, they’ll be on my calendar on the web site as soon as they’re confirmed.

8. Message from Rick Aster to the blog readers

Véronique : Is there one thing you would especially like to share with the readers of the blog www.sasreference.com?

Rick : Just remember that whenever you’re using SAS to work with data, you’re working on the leading edge of human capabilities. You’re doing something that couldn’t even be explained one lifetime ago. It’s a pretty awesome place to be when you look at it that way.

9. End of interview

Véronique : Thank you for sharing your experience with SAS with us and presenting this new book which should help SAS users…

Rick : Thank you, Véronique, for all that you do to put useful information in front of SAS users.

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