Cultivating SAS® analysts
SymphonyIRI Group's training plan integrates SAS® analysts into organizations efficiently and successfully
Finding and successfully on-boarding SAS® analysts can be challenging. Each new hire brings varying levels of experience with work and with SAS. As such, an on-boarding process needs to be flexible, while still covering all the information necessary to successfully incorporate new hires into the company.
To address this need, SymphonyIRI Group spent two years developing a training plan – applicable to five different experience levels – for new analysts. The broader objective was to advance competencies as efficiently and effectively as possible, while the more immediate goal was to have these new hires completing live project work within three weeks of their start dates.
"Live project experience," says Aaron Augustine, SymphonyIRI Group's Director of Analytics Research and Development, "is the best teacher in this environment."
SymphonyIRI provides IT and consulting services and expertise to companies in the consumer packaged goods (CPG), retail and health care industries. Its innovations empower change across sales, marketing, merchandising, category and brand management, and shopper marketing that result in accelerated performance and growth.
"To build a team, recruiting, interviewing and extending a job offer is just half the battle," Augustine says. "A hiring manager also needs to successfully on-board that new hire. It takes planning and follow-through from Day One, and it must continue throughout the first year."
The following training plan from SymphonyIRI demonstrates how to succeed when bringing new SAS analysts up to speed.
Filling the position
In the R&D group for which this training plan was designed, SAS analysts support existing products and new system development. These analysts are expected to:
• Conduct research and data investigations to create new algorithms and methodologies.
• Build mainframe and UNIX SAS prototypes to test and validate statistical methodologies.
• Write technical requirements; support implementation and testing of new and improved methodologies and products.
• Investigate and resolve client production data issues.
• Provide accurate data analysis and methodology support to internal and external teams.
• Work with other internal groups and offshore resources to execute project tasks.
The candidate that fits this position typically includes someone with no more than three years' experience, and perhaps none at all; a bachelor's and possibly a master's degree in statistics, mathematics or social science research; and a beginner to intermediate level of SAS skills.
Within this background, the hiring manager is also looking for a candidate with strong communication skills; statistical and problem-solving skills; programming skills; and adaptability.
Communicating clearly, both when speaking and in writing, as well as summarizing and presenting complex information to nontechnical audiences are critical attributes.
The candidate must have a solid background in analytics and statistics, with experience applying those skills to real-world situations. Ideally, a new hire will have taken courses in computer programming and logic.
"Most college graduates have taken one or two SAS courses and have applied those skills in an academic consulting environment," Augustine says. "That's a good foundation, but there needs to be something more.
"I want to know if they have the ability to take a requirement, expand it into detailed programming steps and code it in SAS."
Addressing domain knowledge is a big challenge. "This is true in many industries," Augustine says. "It takes most new hires six months to get a solid base to stand on and perhaps a year to be fully integrated."
Another primary challenge is the ability to adapt on the fly.
"In supporting both existing products and new system development, candidates must adapt to priorities that may change without notice," Augustine says. "Can they handle that stress?"
A week before new hires report, the hiring manager should contact them to review what's expected on the first day and throughout the first week. The manager should answer any questions the new hires have concerning the location, start time, dress code and so forth.
The manager should also walk through what the training plan will include.
Each new hire should be assigned a buddy. The purpose here is to provide new hires with an avenue for questions that their direct manager may not be able to answer.
The buddy should be in the same department but not the same group so that new hires will get to know people beyond their immediate colleagues.
The buddy should take the new hire to lunch and check in periodically. Assigning a buddy who was hired fairly recently but has a least a year's experience tends to work best, since it is easier for the buddy to relate to what the new person is experiencing.
"With any new job, learning who's who is obviously important," Augustine says. "Each new hire should be introduced to key individuals they'll be working with."
In this environment, that includes introductions to personnel in data loading, operations, technology and client services.
New hires should also be given organizational charts so they can easily understand where they fit into the larger puzzle.
"As the hires move into their second week, make a point to ensure that they're being included in important meetings and emails," Augustine says. "This helps the new hire get a sense of the history of the group. It also helps the new person feel like a part of the team." They are also able to focus on learning about the organization before they get flooded with additional information.
By the third week, it's important to expose new hires to other cultures within their team's organization. Company-provided training on cultural awareness and behavior will help new hires understand how different team members and groups operate. This training is especially important for team members who are overseas, with whom most communications will be by phone, email or instant messaging.
Most companies have a training plan that includes a company overview and a review of benefits. New hires should be encouraged to go through this training after 90 days on the job.
"This overview gives them some additional perspective on how they fit into the broader context and an opportunity to meet more people from throughout the company," Augustine says.
Once new hires have had time to settle in, after 90 days or so, it's important to help them focus on refining their communication techniques. Particular areas to focus on are their communication style in emails and IMs, technical writing style, and how they perceive a variety of particular situations.
"What's important here," Augustine stresses, "is to be sure they understand how information flows within the organization. They may well be skilled in these areas and just need a little tweaking to meet internal standards."
Statistical and problem-solving skills
Within the first week, each new hire should receive an overview of the methodology and corresponding files that their group most often works with. In an R&D group, this documentation is most likely ever-changing, so solid, relevant resources are required, such as:
• An introduction to the industry: New hires fresh out of college may have limited knowledge of the industry they’re entering. Resources that will help them gain a better understand include corporate overview training, trade publications and the SAS Global Forum.
• Corporate training programs: These events are often geared more toward client service representatives and delivery teams, but research analysts should also complete them to gain an external perspective on the products they support.
• External and internal presentations: These would include archived presentations the group has given to other departments or at internal meetings.
• Technical specification documents: As mentioned above, a research analyst is responsible for writing technical specifications. Having a new hire review older documents provides a solid understanding of what has been implemented before being introduced to new material. Updating outdated documents is a good way to become familiar with relevant details.
• A glossary of terms: Some organizations have a companywide glossary of terms. However, a glossary specific to the given department is also helpful. If a glossary doesn’t exist, all new hires should keep a list of terms and concepts as they learn them in training so they will have a quick reference tool for questions.
• Typical problems: Organizations track inquiries from clients in different ways. In a development group, reviewing prior inquiries and feedback from clients and seeing how those issues were handled will give new hires insight into the products with which they work. They can also use that information as a means of moving forward most productively, rather than repeating what’s already been done.
During the first week, new hires should also be given an understanding of the infrastructure the company uses – mainframe and UNIX – as well as the resources to learn more.
Most new hires will have UNIX experience but probably not mainframe. For most of them, SAS was probably most often used in a Windows environment. New hires should be taught how to modify programs and files directly on the mainframe, but there are also several text editors, such as Ultra Edit, that can make the transition to a new platform easier.
By the third week of training, new analysts should have an understanding of the statistical content and infrastructure. The next step is to reinforce their new knowledge by having them walking through the input files that support the methodologies and executing calculations by hand.
Programming and SAS®
Each new hire will have a basic knowledge of SAS, but their skills must be augmented so they can move quickly to intermediate and advanced levels.
In the first six months, SAS training is provided in a largely directive fashion that explains how SAS is used within the company on the mainframe and UNIX.
Specific training topics should include:
• Managing files on the mainframe and UNIX.
• Understanding how filename and libname references change between mainframe and UNIX compared with Windows SAS.
• Explaining the differences between binary on mainframe and UNIX.
• Submitting programs through batch processing versus interactive mode.
• Providing a summary of resources for completing common data manipulations (e.g., sorting, merging) and analyses using SAS.
Multiple resources can be used to support this process, including Applied Statistics and the SAS® Programming Language (5th edition), SAS® Certification Prep Guide: Base Programming for SAS®9 (3rd edition), zOS JCL (5th edition), and Tuning SAS® Applications in the OS/390 and z/OS Environments.
After analysts are able to successfully submit programs and manage files within a mainframe and UNIX environment – most often between six to 12 months after being hired – focus should turn to coaching them on their programming techniques, specifically on efficiency.
To do so, managers should review new analysts' programs and provide guidance on alternative coding techniques; walk them through examples of complex programs used within the company, outlining how the code processes; and provide SAS reference materials that focus on more complex data manipulations (arrays, looping, macros) and analyses.
Resources that will support this process include SAS® Certification Prep Guide: Advanced Programming for SAS®9 (3rd edition) and SAS® Code Validation: L.E.T.O. Method (SAS Global Forum 2010).
Analysts will transition through these levels at different rates. Once they're comfortable working with SAS in a mainframe and UNIX platform and can perform complex and advanced data manipulation and analysis, they can be considered advanced.
"At this point," Augustine says, "training should be of a more consultative nature, focusing on broader discussions of systems of programs and different ways of approaching a problem – rather than providing specific feedback and direction.
"You might have them give you a briefing on the problems they're presently working to resolve and how they're programming their solutions. In turn, you can provide them with suggestions on alternative approaches and resources to pursue."
New hires are expected to absorb a lot of information in a short period of time. With the development of new products and updates to existing ones, this information is ever-evolving.
To help analysts cope with the stress of learning new things and absorbing changing priorities, consider the following:
• Make certain new hires understand the relevant background of each task.
• Verify that they understand what the priority is at any given time and are aware when priorities shift.
• Coach them on ways to multitask. For example, if they’re waiting for data to process, they should shift to other tasks. Encourage them to use evening and weekend times for more efficient data processing due to lighter system loads.
• Monitor how new hires react to stress. If they become overly stressed and are uncertain where to turn, coach them on how to handle the situation. Often taking a step back and talking through the problem will allow novices to find solutions on their own.
These steps may seem obvious to an experienced team member, but they may not come naturally to a new hire, so they should be addressed in the performance management process.
While all new hires will meet a specific recruiting profile with a comparable set of skills, each will be stronger in one area than another. Their managers should adjust their interactions and performance feedback accordingly.
For the first three weeks, managers should schedule a 30-minute meeting each morning and then a brief meeting at the end of the day or earlier, if necessary.
"It's a good idea to sit down with a new person and outline expectations and objectives," Augustine says. "Taking the time will pay off. It gives new hires the opportunity to better understand how they fit in before trying to evaluate their own performances."
From the end of the first month until the end of the first year, the manager should meet with analysts for an hour each week, plus spend some additional time to focus on further training, allowing the newcomer to pick the training topics.
"This ensures that your analysts get all the training they feel they need," Augustine emphasizes. "Then, after that first year, meeting with them for an hour once every two weeks or so, with periodic check-ins, is important. It's also important to provide ongoing coaching around their career development."
The results illustrated in this article are specific to the particular situations, business models, data input, and computing environments described herein. Each SAS customer’s experience is unique based on business and technical variables and all statements must be considered non-typical. Actual savings, results, and performance characteristics will vary depending on individual customer configurations and conditions. SAS does not guarantee or represent that every customer will achieve similar results. The only warranties for SAS products and services are those that are set forth in the express warranty statements in the written agreement for such products and services. Nothing herein should be construed as constituting an additional warranty. Customers have shared their successes with SAS as part of an agreed-upon contractual exchange or project success summarization following a successful implementation of SAS software. Brand and product names are trademarks of their respective companies.
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Develop, implement an efficient process for on-boarding newly hired SAS analysts
New hires gain the insights they need about their employer, their team, and their role to advance competencies and productivity
“Live project experience is the best teacher in this environment.”
Director, Analytics Research and Development